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Conservation Vs “Development”? The Political Ecology of the Stiegler’s Gorge Dam and the Selous Game Reserve

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The up and downstream impact of the proposed Stiegler’s Gorge Dam depends on its completion, which is by no means guaranteed, but the Selous Game Reserve is already counting the costs.

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Conservation Vs “Development”? The Political Ecology of the Stiegler’s Gorge Dam and the Selous Game Reserve
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Wildlife tourism is one of Tanzania’s main foreign exchange earners and an important source of formal employment, but the sector’s survival is threatened by poaching, mineral exploration, and pressure from farmers and cattle-keepers to access farmland, fuel, pasture and protein in protected areas. For the Selous Game Reserve (SGR), the decision to build Africa’s largest dam across the Rufiji River adds a new and potentially devastating dimension to these existing threats.

Between a quarter and thirty per cent of Tanzania consists of national parks, conservation areas, game reserves, and controlled and protected areas. Until last year, the Selous was the world’s largest game reserve, covering an area of 50,000 sq. kms (larger than Denmark). In 1896, the area was designated a protected area by the Governor of Tanganyika Hermann von Wissmann, and it was made a hunting reserve in 1905. Last year’s gazetting of the 31,000 sq. kms Nyerere National Park reduced the SGR by sixty per cent, to about 20,000 sq. kms. President Magufuli justified this radical move as a means of reducing hunting tourism. “Tourists come here and kill our lions, but we don’t benefit a lot from these wildlife hunting activities”, Magufuli said. Slicing up the SGR will also complicate future negotiations over its status as a World Heritage Site, discussed below.

Exploration and mining concessions to Western and Russian oil, gas and uranium companies covering an estimated six per cent of Selous constitute a further challenge to the reserve’s integrity, and have been widely criticised by environmentalists. By 2017 there were said to be 48 prospective oil, gas and uranium concessions in the SGR (See Map 1), but for the moment, the government has put their development on hold. If and when the price of uranium reaches a certain threshold, we may expect mining to take off, with the attendant negative environmental consequences.

From the Selous’ killing fields…

The Selous once boasted Africa’s largest concentration of elephants and other megafauna. Waves of sustained ivory poaching reduced the elephant population from about 100,000 to only 13,000 in 2013. In 1982, SGR was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for protective purposes, and in 2014, it was added to UNESCO’s List of World Heritage Sites in Danger, by which time poaching, driven by the Asian ivory trade, was threatening to wipe out Tanzania’s entire elephant population, leading UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre (WHC) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to declare that: “there appears to be no coherent governmental response which could halt or even reverse the documented poaching trends”. Successive Tanzanian governments, politicians and officials, were widely considered complicit at best or, at worst, actively involved in facilitating the trade.

… to the Stiegler’s Gorge Dam…

In 2016, Stiegler’s Gorge Dam (SGD) was included in the Tanzania Power System Master Plan, and the project was finally underway. In the same year, the WHC expressed its “utmost concern about the ongoing project despite a high likelihood of serious and irreversible damage to the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the property”, that is, the Selous. In 2017, UNESCO stated bluntly: “The foreseeable impact of Stiegler’s Gorge Hydropower project is irreversibly damaging to the Outstanding Universal Value of the property and clearly not in line with the Committee’s position on the incompatibility of dams with large reservoirs inside a World Heritage property”. UNESCO consequently recommended that the Tanzanian government should “permanently abandon” the project.

… enraging the conservationists…

In addition to UNESCO and other UN agencies, conservationists and the wildlife tourism industry were dismayed by the proposed dam, as were bilateral agencies and NGOs supporting Tanzania’s conservation efforts. They complained that no robust social or economic impact analysis, environmental assessment or public consultations informed the decision to proceed with the dam. The brief Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) produced by the University of Dar es Salaam’s Consultancy Bureau in 2018 contained “hardly any quantitative predictions of positive or negative impacts” of the proposed dam. Conservationists further argue that, by disturbing annual water flow patterns, the dam will have a potentially devastating impact on farmers and fishers downstream from the dam, and on the vast mangrove forest in the Rufiji Mafia-Kilwa Marine Ramsar Site, another internationally protected area. The dam would trap sediment and organic matter normally transported to the coast and enriching downstream agriculture, fisheries and hatcheries. Interrupted water flows would lead to increased salination upstream from the delta.

In addition, critics argue, the dam’s reservoir will take years to fill and will be subject to increasing rates of evaporation as temperatures rise under global warming. Up-stream irrigated rice cultivation on the Kilombero River and sugar on the Great Ruaha have reduced the volume of water flowing into the Rufiji, and future unpredictable weather patterns could lead to crippling drought. Effectively, only the waters of the Rufiji will be filling the dam’s vast reservoir. A more optimistic scenario could see an increase in precipitation from the unpredictable effects of climate change on micro-climates.

New roads and power transmission lines and the arrival of contractors and workers on the dam site and attendant commercial activities will have a massive and uncontrolled impact on the local environment and encourage further poaching, say the project’s critics. The millions of tons of cement required to build the dam will stimulate the local cement industry, but at the cost of a massive carbon footprint (cement accounts for about eight per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions). Loggers have already cleared the dam site of vegetation, and the site of the projected 1,200 sq. kms. reservoir, containing nearly three million trees, awaits the same fate, with unknown effects on wildlife habitats and biodiversity. When the loggers entered the park in late 2018, one luxury lodge announced its imminent closure.

… and leading economists to wave a red flag

Not only conservationists have found fault with President Magufuli’s mega-project. Though the necessary data for a robust analysis are lacking, economists argue that the dam makes neither financial nor economic sense and that there are cheaper, smaller, less risky and more practical alternatives for increasing access to electricity. Joerg Hartmann, an independent consultant who undertook an economic feasibility assessment of the project, argues that: “Stiegler’s Gorge has become unnecessary, and would be a significant economic burden for Tanzania”. The dam is likely to cost a multiple of the present contract price, and take much longer to build than currently proposed. One recent estimate puts the total cost of the dam at nearly $10 billion, while the Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht estimated that it would take 9-10 years to complete, and not the three years claimed. At over 11 US cents per unit (kWh), SGD power would cost almost twice the current tariff, and a multiple of the cost of power from gas.

Currently, Tanzania has surplus power generation capacity of 280MW, and it is most unlikely that so much additional power would find a market. The project’s supporters claim that surplus power from the SGD will be exported. A 2018 World Bank technical appraisal for a power interconnectivity project between Tanzania and Zambia argued that internal demand for electricity was inadequate to justify the SGD, so that it could only be justified if exports were built into the project.

A final risk facing the planned dam is the apparent inexperience of the Egyptian contractors. According to Barnaby Dye, Arab Contractors, a state-owned company, worked on the giant Russian-built Aswan Dam in the 1960s, but only as one of many sub-contractors, while the second company, El Sweeny, builds transmission lines, not complex electro-mechanical systems.

President Magufuli defends his project

Defending the dam that he claims will power his ambitious industrialisation programme, President Magufuli claims that it will affect “just three percent” of the SGR, and will help combat deforestation across the country by providing citizens with a cheap alternative to charcoal and wood fuel. Ironic, therefore, that over 90,000 ha of miombo woodlands and forest risk losing an estimated 2.6m trees in the dam’s reservoir. For the moment, only the dam site has been cleared. President Magufuli says more power will be required for industrial growth, rural electrification and to run the Standard Gauge Railway, justifying one mega-white-elephant project in terms of the needs of another. Arguably, diesel power would be more economical than electricity given the probable low traffic density on the new railway, though this needs to be examined empirically.

Critics argue that the notion that rural Tanzanians will soon enjoy cheap hydropower via the national grid thanks to the SGD is highly unrealistic. The huge investments in transmission and distribution infrastructure required to make this work have not been costed, and the limited demand for electric power would make the required investment to reach Tanzania’s vast rural hinterland hugely expensive. Solar mini-grids have become widely popular and can be supplied at little cost to the state by commercial and social investors. Gas, not electricity, is the best (or least bad) alternative to unsustainable charcoal use for cooking in Dar es Salaam and other urban centres.

The President’s claim that “just three percent” of the SGR will be affected by the dam is also challenged by environmentalists, pointing to the downstream impacts and the likely negative effects of the dam’s construction on the Selous discussed above.

Past plans to dam the Rufiji came to nothing

Both colonial and post-independence governments explored the viability of damning the Rufiji River at Stiegler’s Gorge to produce power and develop irrigation agriculture. In the 1970s, Swedish aid financed dams at Kidatu and Mtera on the Ruaha River, a tributary of the Rufiji, upstream from Stiegler’s Gorge. At different times, detailed technical studies and construction designs by Japanese, American and Norwegian aid agencies and consultants led nowhere, while the World Bank concluded that, on the basis of demand projections and environmental concerns, a large dam was not feasible. Donors subsequently funded two more small- to medium-size dams, at Kidatu and Pangani.

Increasing power shortages and rationing under Presidents Mkapa (1995-2005) and Kikwete (2005-15) led the government to seek private investors through power purchasing agreements. South African, Canadian and Chinese companies came forward with hydropower proposals, but the main interest came from Brazil’s giant Odebrecht corporation, which in 2012 signed an MOU with the Rufiji Basin Development Authority (RUBADA).The MOU specified a seven-year timeline to finish the first phase and a further three years to complete the project. But the project preliminaries had not been finalised before the corruption scandal known as Operation Carwash” made Odebrecht a household name for serial bribery in Brazil and internationally, and led to the imprisonment of three former Brazilian presidents. President Magufuli disbanded RUBADA in 2017 and the SGD’s client is now Tanzania’s power utility TANESCO under the supervision of the Ministry of Energy.

Not even China, Africa’s premier source of concessional finance for big infrastructure projects, including dams, has shown any interest in financing this one. As of 2015, Chinese contractors were involved in dam building projects in over twenty African countries, from Angola to Zimbabwe. Though estimates vary, Deborah Brautigam and her team identified Chinese-financed dam projects in 17 African countries in 2013, financed by concessional loans from China’s Exim Bank worth nearly US$7 billion.

Finally, no private investors could be found to finance a dam on a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) basis. Globally, private developers are increasingly reluctant to invest in large dams for power production or irrigation. Human rights activists condemn forced population displacements while the economics of large dams are increasingly questionable. No forced population movements are involved in the SGD project, however.

What has changed to make this project viable?

After so many years of aborted plans to build a dam, what has changed to make Stiegler’s a viable project? The answer is: nothing. If anything, the project is even less viable now than it was a decade ago, before Tanzania’s huge gas deposits off its southern coast began to be exploited. The risks attached to continued upstream-irrigated agriculture and siltation increase with time, bringing the additional risk that the dam’s reservoir could fail to provide the volume of water required to run the facility at a capacity level that would justify the huge investment involved.

For sixty years, no bilateral development agency nor the World Bank has been willing to finance a dam at Stiegler’s Gorge, though these agencies have funded numerous medium-size dams over the years on tributaries of the Rufiji River, which regularly dry up during the dry season and are increasingly vulnerable to unpredictable rains. A study titled Structural adjustment and sustainable development in Tanzania reported that siltation was a common feature of small dams in Arusha, Kilimanjaro, Dodoma, Tanga and Rukwa regions. Falling water levels due to the degradation of water catchment areas rendered the potential of hydropower “doubtful”.

Beware of the mega-dam syndrome

If completed, the 700m long by 130m high SGD would be one of Africa’s largest dams by installed capacity, equal to Egypt’s Aswan High Dam (2,100MW) and Mozambique’s Cahora Bassa (2,075MW). A rapid review suggests that SGD will generate few of the benefits but suffer most of the costs normally associated with large dams. A study titled Megaprojects and risk: An anatomy of ambition lists four typical flaws of mega-projects, including dams: “underestimated costs, overestimated revenues, undervalued environmental impacts and overvalued economic development effects”. All four appear to apply in the case of the SGD. The study argues that: “Megaprojects are systematically subject to “survival of the unfittest”, the worst projects get built instead of the best”. Big dams are inherently high-risk. In a 2014 study, researchers from Oxford University concluded that: “In the vast majority of cases . . . megadams are not economically viable”.

Map 1: Selous Game Reserve

Map 1: Selous Game Reserve. Source DW

Note: The map shows the SGR before the creation of the Nyerere National Park in 2019.

Dams per se are not the issue, but mega-dams. Though it is by no means true that dams are carbon-neutral, hydro is still by far the most common source of renewable power worldwide, accounting for around 90 per cent of renewable energy generation. The main problems with mega-hydro highlighted in the literature are population displacement, often accompanied by inadequate compensation, and the up- and down-stream impacts on local eco-systems discussed in this report. Despite mega-dams’ bad reputation, a number of countries are investing heavily in mega-hydro, including Ethiopia, Brazil, Pakistan and China. The SGD does not involve population displacements.

Megaprojects are systematically subject to “survival of the unfittest”, the worst projects get built instead of the best

But the dam’s power generation capacity is also questionable. The figure of peak generation capacity of 2,100MW was based on a 25-year old feasibility study, since when the Rufiji River’s average volume is said to have fallen by as much as a quarter. Upstream agriculture and (possibly) climate change are responsible. Experts see the effects of climate change (more droughts, storms, floods) as a threat to the viability of hydropower globally. According to Clemente Prieto of the Spanish Committee on Large Dams: “Climate change is having a remarkable impact on hydropower generation and it increases the challenge of managing hydro plants”. Though the effects of climate change are difficult to predict, the increasing intensity of extreme and unusual climatic events is well documented. 

A dysfunctional aid relationship

UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, prominent wildlife and nature conservation bodies, including the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), numerous donors and a substantial number of private philanthropies dealing with specific animals and issues (hunting, poaching, wildlife trafficking, forestry, water), have commented negatively on the SGD initiative, so far to no avail. Germany, one of the most vocal critics of the project, has been at the forefront of wildlife conservation efforts in Tanzania since colonial times. Over many years, Germany has financed the Tanzanian government, technical experts, the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) and others to promote conservation efforts in the Selous. After a heated debate in the German Bundestag in early 2019, a proposal that future Germany aid should be made conditional on Tanzania abandoning the dam was rejected, while it was agreed that Germany should assist Tanzania in finding an alternative source of power. This offer was not pursued.

Climate change is having a remarkable impact on hydropower generation and it increases the challenge of managing hydro plants

Critics wonder why, given the Tanzanian government’s refusal to enter into a substantive dialogue with its main long-term advisor/financier on conservation issues, while constantly ignoring its own international conservation commitments and policies, Germany continues to fund conservation efforts in Tanzania. In late 2018, a group of German experts was refused permission to enter the Selous to check on progress in anti-poaching. A German source commented: “International nature conservation organizations are increasingly wondering about the German policy of ‘paying and keeping their mouth shut’’. An expert from KfW (Germany’s state development bank) resigned after two years, during which the GOT restricted his visits to Selous (his work site). Underlying the protracted stand-off is the widespread belief that the rapid decimation of Tanzania’s elephant population—a two-thirds decline from about 109,000 in 2009 to about 43,000 in 2014—was facilitated by the active participation of elements within the Tanzanian state. The slow release of a 2018 aerial survey of wildlife in the Selous fuels suspicions that poaching is still an issue. It took two years to release the report, which the German government had financed. According to Henry Mwangonde, the number of elephants had stabilised at just over 15,000, more or less the number counted in 2014, suggesting little or no recovery.

Comment is free … and punishable

Once the government launches a major project, its implementation is declared “inevitable” and beyond discussion, and any internal criticism is deemed “unpatriotic” and “treasonable”, while development prospects. Magufuli accused “some” CSOs and NGOs “of being used by ‘foreigners’” to push the latter’s agenda. In May 2018, both ruling party and opposition MPs challenged the decision to proceed with the SGD project in advance of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), and the premature issuing of licences to clear-fell the site of the dam’s future reservoir.

International nature conservation organizations are increasingly wondering about the German policy of ‘paying and keeping their mouth shut’

These mild criticisms were met with an impassioned threat from environment minister Kangi Lugola, who told parliament: “. . . the government will go ahead with implementation of the project whether you like it or not. Those who are resisting the project will be jailed”. Since then, apart from praise-singing, local commentary has been muted, while external critics have focused more on the conservation aspects of the project than on its economic and financial implications, though the two are related. No academic economist, Think Tank or newspaper editorialist has commented negatively on the project, while social media sources have featured both critical and pro-Magufuli commentary, albeit with little insight into the underlying issues. It is striking that no advocacy group or alliance in or outside Tanzania has challenged the SGD through public interest litigation, as happened in the case of the proposed road across the Serengeti.

Conservation versus “development”: a zero-sum game?

Rapid population growth is fueling increasing conflicts between farmers and cattle-herders over land. Both groups face off against conservationists, big-game hunters and the safari tourism industry in what is increasingly becoming a zero-sum game. Attempts for more than two decades to “empower” villagers to protect rather than harvest wildlife and forest reserves have largely failed. Last year, President Magufuli ordered the deregistration of a number of “idle” forest and game reserves totaling over 700,000ha for “redistribution to wananchi for residential and farming uses”. Subsequently, the government announced the creation of three new national parks, including one near President Magufuli’s home district of Biharamulu. In addition, the government has recently legalised the hunting and sale of game meat, a move that conservationists see as opening the door to the widespread slaughter of wildlife. The wildlife survey mentioned above reported a 72 per cent decline in the number of wildebeest in the Selous between 2013 and 2018. According to Mwangonde, the numbers for buffalo and antelope have not been released, but there are thought to have been significant decreases. Lastly, though the President justified the creation of Nyerere National Park in terms of stopping hunting tourism, the ban on commercial hunting that was imposed in 2015 has been partially lifted.

For your information, the government will go ahead with implementation of the project. . . Those who are resisting the project will be jailed

With or without a functioning dam, the SGR has taken an additional hit. While ivory poaching may have been curbed for the moment, and uranium mining and oil and gas exploration are on hold, the disruptions caused by the SGD contractors and the impending clear-felling of the dam’s imagined reservoir only add to these and other threats to the (now much smaller) SGR’s long-term survival. A gloomy but realistic prognosis is that further population growth and the impact of climate change will eventually put an end to conservation and wildlife tourism in the Selous and throughout the continent. According to Kenyan conservationist Richard Leakey, as a result of climate change: “. . . the problems we all face now are far beyond the power of individual conservationists to cope with”.

Alhough many conservationists would challenge this view, it is difficult to see how fences and armed wardens can ward off climate change even if they can prevent “trespassing”, illegal hunting and grazing, or how farmers and pastoralists can be “empowered” to conserve rather than degrade forests and grasslands in the absence of an effective state that can legislate, coordinate and regulate the management of natural resources effectively and efficiently in the public interest. Even without the gathering storm clouds of climate change, and the obscenities of ivory poaching and wildlife trafficking, population growth and competition over finite resources are likely to lead us inexorably towards a comprehensive tragedy of the commons.

Resource misallocation and delays

Beyond conservation issues, however, is the question of resource misallocation, which economists now treat as a major explanation of why some economies and firms perform better than others. Though universal, the issue of systemic resource misallocation is particularly devastating in poor countries, where investible savings are by definition limited, and where prestige projects, white elephants and poor policy analysis and implementation commit huge amounts of capital to non-performing ventures, at enormous opportunity costs. Africa is littered with examples of leaders’ vainglory, extravagance and incompetence.

President Magufuli is pinning his legacy on what he terms “strategic” infrastructure projects, perhaps reflecting, in Flyvbjerg’s words, “The rapture politicians get from building monuments to themselves and their causes, and from the visibility this generates with the public and media”. But the success of the strategy depends on the success of the projects. If they succeed, the leader’s legacy is assured. If they fail, so does the legacy.

Wildlife trafficking, population growth and competition over resources are likely to lead us inexorably towards a comprehensive tragedy of the commons

President Magufuli’s penchant for multi-billion-dollar infrastructure projects is stretching Tanzania’s finances to the limit, consuming an ever-larger part of the national budget and growing the national debt. Since coming to power in 2015, he has: initiated a 2,500km, $14.2 billion standard gauge railway (SGR) to replace the narrow gauge line and extend it to neighbouring countries; revived the country’s airline Air Tanzania Company Ltd (ATC) with new aircraft, including four Airbus A220-300s and two Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners; signed off on a three-kilometre, $260m bridge across the Mwanza Gulf on Lake Victoria, and launched a number of other costly projects.

It is most unlikely that the SGD will be commissioned before the end of President Magufuli’s second term in 2025, given the typical delays and cost overruns in mega-dam construction, leaving the unfinished project as a potentially costly embarrassment for the next government to deal with. Hopefully, ongoing investments in gas-fueled power plants, bottled gas for urban consumers and off-grid solar for rural areas will assure adequate power and help control deforestation in the likely event of an aborted Stiegler’s Gorge Dam.

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Mr Sarokin is an independent researcher based in Arusha, Tanzania.

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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