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Why Black Lives Don’t Matter in Kenya’s Colonial ‘Conservancies’

13 min read.

The colonial powers that reside within the conservation sector often tout “alternative livelihoods” as key to the economic empowerment of pastoralist communities. But this flimsy window dressing barely hides the fraud within. Conservation interests have built a cauldron into which the extremely wealthy are pouring startling amounts of money to subvert systems, grab lands, and plunder resources.

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Why Black Lives Don’t Matter in Kenya’s Colonial ‘Conservancies’
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Mimi nimesema shamba ya Maasai ni ya Maasai.” I am saying that Maasailand is for the Maasai people.

As expected, this statement raised an uproar because of its tone and content. The volume of support for the speaker’s sentiments was only matched by the howls of protests at his perceived “tribalism” or “prejudice” – shop-worn fallbacks for an intellectually floundering society that is terrified of looking at itself in the mirror.

The entire sequence of events leading up to this strident declaration is symptomatic of an escapist society that continuously suffers trauma but remains unwilling to confront the source of the trauma. The reason for this is that Kenya’s formal education structures aren’t equipped (or intended) to have these discourses, so the issues remain unsaid. In this case, the issue is at hand is simply “whiteness”.

Whiteness is a mindset which decrees that land occupied by indigenous people is terra nullius (no one’s land) and is, therefore, available for occupation, acquisition or development. This term came from British settlement in Australia, which for nearly 200 years didn’t acknowledge the rights of the First Nations that preceded them.

There are obvious parallels with the acquisition of Kedong’ ranch for infrastructure development, with no regard to the needs of the many thousands of Maasai people and livestock that use it as a grazing area. This truly frightening challenge of loss of land and access to it is currently faced by the Maasai, pastoralists, and indigenous peoples in other parts of Africa, and has often resulted in violent resource conflict, leading to loss of lives and property, most notably livestock.

In Kenya, the typical responses to such crises is state violence at the flashpoint and vilification of the affected communities as “bandits” or “raiders”, accompanied by legal sanction of their leaders or representatives for their “belligerence” or “ethnic prejudice”. This simplistic approach to the issue speaks loudly of a state where the application of intellectual rigour to natural resource conservation and management is still widely regarded as anathema.

So, what is the true nature of this monster that so consistently defies our (remarkably primitive) attempts to manage its negative impacts? Firstly, the only reason why this challenge seems so intractable is the failure of our society to understand or define it. We are faced squarely with this deep malaise called settler colonialism, and the minutiae that vex us so deeply are merely the symptoms thereof.

Colonialism is a structure, not an event

What is settler colonialism?

In her 2015 paper, “Settler Colonialism”, Tate Lefevre elegantly defines settler colonialism as “a form of colonialism which seeks to replace the original population of the colonised territory with a new society of settlers. As with all forms of colonialism, it is based on exogenous domination, typically organised or supported by an imperial authority”.

The fundamental difference between settler colonialism and standard colonialism is that the latter merely seeks conquest and control, whereas the former seeks to supplant whatever preceded it, notable examples being the United States, Canada and Australia. Settler colonialism is enacted by a variety of means, ranging from violent genocide and disenfranchisement or depopulation of the previous inhabitants, to more subtle legal means, such as cultural assimilation or recognition of indigenous identity within a colonial structure, particularly as concerns land tenure.

In Kenya, the typical responses to such crises is state violence at the flashpoint and vilification of the affected communities as “bandits” or “raiders”, accompanied by legal sanction of their leaders or representatives for their “belligerence” or “ethnic prejudice”. This simplistic approach to the issue speaks loudly of a state where the application of intellectual rigour to natural resource conservation and management is still widely regarded as anathema.

The perceptive reader will notice that the enactment of settler colonialism as described herein bears an uncanny resemblance to the elaborate hoax commonly referred to in Kenya as “community conservancies”. The “recognition of indigenous identity”, for example, accurately describes the celebration of Maasai beadwork, dances and traditional garb within a colonial structure, namely, the “conservancy” within which they are not allowed to practise livestock production, unless under the structures imposed by a conservancy or a conservation NGO – the “colonial powers” in this arrangement.

The colonial powers that reside within the conservation sector often tout “alternative livelihoods”, such as tourism and beadwork, as key to the economic empowerment of pastoralist communities. But this flimsy window dressing barely hides the fraud within. The casual use of the term “alternative livelihoods” is actually a blatant admission of the intention to change what has been developed over many generations.

Livestock production, apart from being a livelihood providing an income far beyond what tourism offers, is an identity. This is what is under assault from settler colonialism – that identity that infuses pastoralists with pride, and makes it impossible to sway them with petty handouts that are de rigueur in the malarkey that styles itself as “community-based conservation”. Modern-day colonialism requires more cunning than violence, and its agents learned from their precursors that livestock is the “glue” that ties pastoralists to their homelands, the source of pride and identity that underpinned their resistance to invaders of all kinds. Maasai man with no livestock has no business in Maasailand and will probably end up working as a watchman in Nairobi, a dancer in Mombasa, or a curio seller on the streets of Cape Town.

These latter-day colonialists are also very well-read in history because they seem to understand how effectively the Native American nations were subdued two centuries ago by European invaders through the systematic elimination of their “livestock” (the bison). Once that task was completed, the impoverished and hungry Native Americans became pliable and were easily moved into small pockets of their former territories. These were called “Indian reservations” and bear an uncanny resemblance to what we in Kenya refer to as “community conservancies”, islands of contrived “self-determination” in the middle of entire landscapes annexed by outsiders.

The basis for negotiating and mitigating the plight of victims of this kind of disenfranchisement lies in understanding arguably the most profound statement on the subject: “Settler colonialism is a structure, not an event.” This hypothesis was proposed by the late Patrick Wolfe, an Australian historian who was an acknowledged authority on the subject.

Unlike other forms of colonialism, the imperial power in settler colonialism does not always represent the same nationality as the settlers. However, the colonising authority generally views the settlers as racially superior to the previous inhabitants, which may give settlers’ social movements and political demands greater legitimacy than those of colonised peoples in the eyes of the home colonies, whereas natural and human resources are the main motivation behind other forms of colonialism.

Many Kenyans and other people who were once colonised vehemently deny the profound negative impact of colonialism because they are either unwilling to accept or are intellectually incapable of understanding Patrick Wolfe’s basic hypothesis of colonialism as a structure. We can only address the vagaries of colonialism if we accept that it is a structure, rather than an event or an epoch.

The other difficulty facing Kenyans is their view of settlers as “racially superior”. In Africa, the advent of colonialism brought with it a clear colour bar, which in some countrie, actually got formally legislated and led to our initial basic understanding of “whiteness” and “blackness” as centered around our physical characteristics and peculiarities.

“Whiteness” as a policy position

However, it is now high time that natives of the Global South emerged from the Eurocentric silos of our respective reported histories to examine our condition. We urgently need to expand our temporal and geographical horizons in order to understand what ails us. We need to understand that in today’s Global South, “whiteness” is the senseless neoliberalism that only values our lands, our heritage (and even us!) through the prism of how much money a white man will pay to exploit it (or us).

The use of quotes in the word “whiteness” here is the deliberate elevation of whiteness into a policy and cultural position that transcends the race itself. “Whiteness” is not necessarily associated with skin colour, but with a worldview or a mindset. A logical question to ask at this point would therefore be: How does this hypothesis fit into the recent brouhaha pitting the Honourable Senator Ledama Ole Kina against so-called “outsiders” (mostly Kikuyu smallholder farmers) who are supposedly “taking over” Maasailand in Narok?

Put into perspective, Kenya, as a nation, is currently undergoing rapid changes driven by economic growth, misplaced economic pipe dreams, and several other factors. Any casual observer will notice that an inordinate proportion of the planned infrastructure in Kenya is targeted at the rangelands inhabited by Maa-speaking peoples and other pastoralists. The obvious and immediate impact of this is fragmentation and loss of grazing lands and stock routes. Opposition to these developments is always fronted by conservation interests who will speak ad nauseam about the loss of wildlife habitats, but won’t say a word about the negative impact on the livestock production chain or pastoralist livelihoods.

Many Kenyans and other people who were once colonised vehemently deny the profound negative impact of colonialism because they are either unwilling to accept or are intellectually incapable of understanding Patrick Wolfe’s basic hypothesis of colonialism as a structure. We can only address the vagaries of colonialism if we accept that it is a structure, rather than an event or an epoch.

The pastoralists are, therefore, caught between the hammer of infrastructure development and the anvil of avaricious conservation interests who want their land for conservation and tourism purposes. It isn’t difficult to see how this is a socially and economically perilous place to be. Both of these forces are extremely powerful, neoliberal and overwhelmingly white. To anyone who has been subject to this pressure and not yet taken the time to examine the issue critically, the reflex is to hit out at the nearest and smallest target. Sadly, these tend to be smallholder farmers from non-Maa communities who have bought land from willing sellers and are trying to produce crops for themselves and the markets, an overwhelmingly “black” activity.

Ecofascism

There is no doubt that pastoralists communities in Kenya are under relentless pressure from development and conservation interests, both of which are intent on taking control of their lands. However, the problem is a complex one, requiring a far more sophisticated approach than what we have witnessed thus far. More importantly, we need to understand that the vice squeezing indigenous peoples and their livelihoods is a global phenomenon driven by ecofascism, a global school of thought whose intellectual and financial underpinnings are often underestimated, to the detriment of indigenous populations.

The insatiable need that extractive industries have for natural resources isn’t anything new across the world, and communities in many resource-rich parts of the world have fought these industries for decades with varying levels of success. It is instructive to note here that even though these fights are sometimes violent and cost lives, they are honest fights, where the postures and needs of all the protagonists are clearly understood by all.

Apart from these conflicts, the greed of these extractive industries also led to the growth of the global environmental conservation movement and the advent of large conservation NGOs. These organisations have thrived for decades riding on a huge pool of goodwill drawn from the apparent nobility of their romanticised missions and visions. Only in the last decade or so have the white supremacist underpinnings of their images been acknowledged or confronted. For generations, art, fiction, media and even science normalised the absurd notion that wildlife in Africa is under constant peril from black Africans and that the intervention of white people is required in order to “save” this biodiversity.

This paradigm has grown and has now taken a distinct shape that can easily be recognised as ecofascism – defined by Michael Zimmerman (2008) as a theoretical political model in which an authoritarian government would require individuals to sacrifice their own interests for the “organic whole of nature”. Loosely described, this is the notion that any action in violation of human rights can be justified by the demonstration of its benefit to biodiversity or the natural environment in situ.

The pastoralists are, therefore, caught between the hammer of infrastructure development and the anvil of avaricious conservation interests who want their land for conservation and tourism purposes. It isn’t difficult to see how this is a socially and economically perilous place to be.

The majority of our society live on the periphery of these issues and would understandably be sceptical at the thought of such a flawed principle gaining any credibility or traction, but the reality is very different. Several decades of relentless promotion through the media, the arts, academia, and scientific publications has normalised an idea that is an absurdity at best and an injustice at worst.

The vilification of pastoralist communities is still the “default setting” for acquisition of their land from both sides of what is a two-pronged onslaught. “Development” and state and commercial interests maintain that pastoralism is “uncivilised” and that pastoralists’ lands need to be “developed”, while environmental and conservation interests maintain that pastoralists are “overpopulating”, “over-grazing” and “degrading” their land. This creates the absurd logic that conservationists have to somehow “take over” and “manage” these resources on their behalf (read: annex and exploit the said resources). The earlier stated position taken by capital is well known and widely acknowledged, but the position of the “eco-pirates” is often couched in feigned concern for the indigenous population, complete with local foot soldiers for window dressing purposes.

A recent incident in eastern Kenya is a prime example of how this typically plays out. On the 10th of March this year, two four-month old giraffe skeletons were found in Ishaqbin area in Garissa. The conservancy management (under the direction of the Northern Rangelands Trust) immediately issued a press release saying that the giraffes (a leucistic mother and calf) had been “killed by armed poachers” without giving any evidence whatsoever to corroborate this claim. The press release was carefully worded to imply that the two dead giraffes were two out of only three existing animals belonging to an extremely rare species. The key fact that they were simply reticulated giraffes suffering from a genetic disorder was studiously avoided. The BBC immediately started regurgitating the story through their international platforms and made a pointed reference to the fact that the giraffes “lived in an unfenced conservancy”, illustrating clearly that one of their main objectives was to justify the use of fencing here as a conservation tool.

Following the publication of the article, the expected global crescendo of condemnation for the “savage” poachers took hold. In India, for example, the BBC report was covered by the online publication Bhaskar.com and readers’ comments ranged from cursing the “poachers” to demands that they also be killed for their transgressions.

Biased reporting

Extrajudicial killings are a common human rights violation in the Global South, but this extreme reaction clearly indicates the power of biased reporting on African conservation issues. It is important to note that up to this point, the Kenya Wildlife Service has still not referred to this as a poaching incident, and its investigations thus far have not unearthed any evidence of crime. This report on “poaching” is, therefore, a fabrication by conservation practitioners on the ground that is amplified and distributed with the assistance of the BBC.

The power of this romanticised wildlife conservation narrative and its proponents cannot be over-estimated. The BBC is an outlet that is widely respected for its carefully cultivated and demonstrated penchant for objectivity, but this is instantly abandoned whenever it reports on wildlife issues in Africa. Examples of the BBC’s “whitewashing” of African wildlife reports abound, including Dr. Hans Bauer’s “discovery” of a lion population in Ethiopia (2016) and the false report by Dr. Mike Chase of an elephant “massacre” in Botswana (2018). The BBC also participated in the elaborate hoax surrounding the “extinction” of the northern white rhino with the death of “Sudan” (2018).

Interestingly, the same BBC is covering a much-touted project to find some remnant specimens of the species they reported as being extinct with such alacrity two years earlier. This unusual show of institutional weakness is actually just a submission to the needs of global capital. Ordinarily (or in a sensible world), sentiments like ecofascism are relegated to the peripheries of rational thought where other outlandish theories, like the belief in a flat earth, exist.

So, what could have driven the sudden incursion of these ideas into realms of rational thought? Increasing demand for money in the conservation world led to the professionalisation of fundraising and the engagement of marketing professionals in a field where there really isn’t any product to sell. These brilliant professionals came up with a valuable product to tap into the pockets (and guilt) of global capital for funds: a dose of guilt and an offer of self-actualisation (for a considerable financial consideration) as an antidote to the same. Suddenly, any self-respecting billionaire who could have anything had to have an environmental conservation project attached to his name. The only thing missing now was intellectual leadership with enough gravitas to take our minds off the unpleasant whiff of racism that pervaded this movement.

Enter Sir David Attenborough, with his famous breathless voice, brilliant documentaries, and Malthusian views on human population (except white people) and their impact on biodiversity.

The next challenge was capturing academia and those who saw themselves as beyond capture by images. Enter Edward Wilson, the famous Harvard sociobiologist who needed to retain some relevance in the twilight of his career by proposing the “Half Earth Theory” – the ludicrous idea that half the earth should be protected in its primordial state to save biodiversity. It is racism clothed in academic mumbo jumbo because it is obvious to any observer that the target of this “protection” is the tropics, which are home to black and brown people. There won’t be any biodiversity gains by turning London, New York (or Boston) into a protected area.

The vilification of pastoralist communities is still the “default setting” for acquisition of their land from both sides of what is a two-pronged onslaught. “Development” and state and commercial interests maintain that pastoralism is “uncivilised” and that pastoralists’ lands need to be “developed”, while environmental and conservation interests maintain that pastoralists are “overpopulating”, “over-grazing” and “degrading” their land.

With these ingredients, conservation interests built a cauldron into which the extremely wealthy are pouring startling amounts of money to subvert systems, grab lands, and plunder resources in the Global South. This money also captures the media and the arts, who cleanse all the injustices with glowing reports on conservation success or apocalypse, depending on whether white or black people are in charge.

All over Africa, the big international conservation NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy have captured state conservation organs using financial might conferred upon them by their corporate backers, and Kenya is no exception. Our rangelands, and the people who call them home are caught between the hammer of “white” destruction and the anvil of “white” conservation, neither of which have any time for “black” livelihoods. This can even be observed in the way the state (through Kenya Wildlife Service) is pursuing its conservation mandate. It allows “white” geothermal development and “white” music festivals in Hells Gate National Park, but “black” grazing of Maasai livestock or gathering of firewood in the same place can get one arrested or shot.

In 2017, violent clashes were witnessed when pastoralists from Samburu moved south into Laikipia with their livestock seeking pasture and routes through to grazing lands further south. The media (BBC included) talked at length about the lawlessness and violence, with numerous references to the pastoralists as “raiders” and “bandits”. What they did not mention was the fact that all of the Samburu pastoralists were coming from areas that were “community conservancies” – areas where all their dry season grazing reservoirs had been converted into conservation areas or tourism facilities.

Conservation interests must necessarily be treated with caution because they are the new face of imperialism and disenfranchisement. Awareness of this global challenge is growing through the work of organisations like Survival International. Indeed, international instruments, such as the “New Deal for Nature” merit close examination, as illustrated by Stephen Corry (2020) in the Medium journal.

Senator Ledama Ole Kina stood out back in 2017 because he was the only one who spoke out against this injustice at a time when pastoralism was a reviled and vilified livelihood in Kenya and around the world. This year he has spoken out again, and it is my fervent hope that his voice this time will initiate a conversation, because conversation is a quintessentially “black” method of conflict resolution.

This is my contribution to the much-needed conversation: Senator, we cannot afford to lose pastoralism for the sake of our identity culture or economy, but the two “white” prongs will destroy it if we let them. The capitalist development prong is harmful, but honest. You can negotiate with it because its objectives do not expressly require your subjugation. The conservation prong is lethal, because it comes smiling and it recruits your brothers to help rob you, and it will tell you that your brothers from other ethnic groups are your enemies. It is laughing as you attack smallholder Kikuyu farmers and Luo conservationists while it takes your birthright. To my pastoralist brothers, don’t be silent! Our ancestors will bless you for speaking out, and our children will thank you for it. For now, I only hope that my light has illuminated the face of your real enemy.

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Mordecai Ogada is a carnivore ecologist from Kenya and co-author of The Big Conservation Lie.

Politics

Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning

Rwandans are welcoming, but the government’s priority must be to solve the internal political problems which produce refugees.

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Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning
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The governments of the United Kingdom and Rwanda have signed an agreement to move asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda for processing. This partnership has been heavily criticized and has been referred to as unethical and inhumane. It has also been opposed by the United Nations Refugee Agency on the grounds that it is contrary to the spirit of the Refugee Convention.

Here in Rwanda, we heard the news of the partnership on the day it was signed. The subject has never been debated in the Rwandan parliament and neither had it been canvassed in the local media prior to the announcement.

According to the government’s official press release, the partnership reflects Rwanda’s commitment to protect vulnerable people around the world. It is argued that by relocating migrants to Rwanda, their dignity and rights will be respected and they will be provided with a range of opportunities, including for personal development and employment, in a country that has consistently been ranked among the safest in the world.

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives. Therefore, most Rwandans are sensitive to the plight of those forced to leave their home countries and would be more than willing to make them feel welcome. However, the decision to relocate the migrants to Rwanda raises a number of questions.

The government argues that relocating migrants to Rwanda will address the inequalities in opportunity that push economic migrants to leave their homes. It is not clear how this will work considering that Rwanda is already the most unequal country in the East African region. And while it is indeed seen as among the safest countries in the world, it was however ranked among the bottom five globally in the recently released 2022 World Happiness Index. How would migrants, who may have suffered psychological trauma fare in such an environment, and in a country that is still rebuilding itself?

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives.

What opportunities can Rwanda provide to the migrants? Between 2018—the year the index was first published—and 2020, Rwanda’s ranking on the Human Capital Index (HCI) has been consistently low. Published by the World Bank, HCI measures which countries are best at mobilising the economic and professional potential of their citizens. Rwanda’s score is lower than the average for sub-Saharan Africa and it is partly due to this that the government had found it difficult to attract private investment that would create significant levels of employment prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment, particularly among the youth, has since worsened.

Despite the accolades Rwanda has received internationally for its development record, Rwanda’s economy has never been driven by a dynamic private or trade sector; it has been driven by aid. The country’s debt reached 73 per cent of GDP in 2021 while its economy has not developed the key areas needed to achieve and secure genuine social and economic transformation for its entire population. In addition to human capital development, these include social capital development, especially mutual trust among citizens considering the country’s unfortunate historical past, establishing good relations with neighbouring states, respect for human rights, and guaranteeing the accountability of public officials.

Rwanda aspires to become an upper middle-income country by 2035 and a high-income country by 2050. In 2000, the country launched a development plan that aimed to transform it into a middle-income country by 2020 on the back on a knowledge economy. That development plan, which has received financial support from various development partners including the UK which contributed over £1 billion, did not deliver the anticipated outcomes. Today the country remains stuck in the category of low-income states. Its structural constraints as a small land-locked country with few natural resources are often cited as an obstacle to development. However, this is exacerbated by current governance in Rwanda, which limits the political space, lacks separation of powers, impedes freedom of expression and represses government critics, making it even harder for Rwanda to reach the desired developmental goals.

Rwanda’s structural constraints as a small land-locked country with no natural resources are often viewed as an obstacle to achieving the anticipated development.

As a result of the foregoing, Rwanda has been producing its own share of refugees, who have sought political and economic asylum in other countries. The UK alone took in 250 Rwandese last year. There are others around the world, the majority of whom have found refuge in different countries in Africa, including countries neighbouring Rwanda. The presence of these refugees has been a source of tension in the region with Kigali accusing neighbouring states of supporting those who want to overthrow the government by force. Some Rwandans have indeed taken up armed struggle, a situation that, if not resolved, threatens long-term security in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region. In fact, the UK government’s advice on travel to Rwanda has consistently warned of the unstable security situation near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi.

While Rwanda’s intention to help address the global imbalance of opportunity that fuels illegal immigration is laudable, I would recommend that charity start at home. As host of the 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled for June 2022, and Commonwealth Chair-in-Office for the next two years, the government should seize the opportunity to implement the core values and principles of the Commonwealth, particularly the promotion of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression, political and civil rights, and a vibrant civil society. This would enable Rwanda to address its internal social, economic and political challenges, creating a conducive environment for long-term economic development, and durable peace that will not only stop Rwanda from producing refugees but will also render the country ready and capable of economically and socially integrating refugees from less fortunate countries in the future.

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Politics

Beyond Borders: Why We Need a Truly Internationalist Climate Justice Movement

The elite’s ‘solution’ to the climate crisis is to turn the displaced into exploitable migrant labour. We need a truly internationalist alternative.

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Beyond Borders: Why We Need a Truly Internationalist Climate Justice Movement
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“We are not drowning, we are fighting” has become the rallying call for the Pacific Climate Warriors. From UN climate meetings to blockades of Australian coal ports, these young Indigenous defenders from twenty Pacific Island states are raising the alarm of global warming for low-lying atoll nations. Rejecting the narrative of victimisation – “you don’t need my pain or tears to know that we’re in a crisis,” as Samoan Brianna Fruean puts it – they are challenging the fossil fuel industry and colonial giants such as Australia, responsible for the world’s highest per-capita carbon emissions.

Around the world, climate disasters displace around 25.3 million people annually – one person every one to two seconds. In 2016, new displacements caused by climate disasters outnumbered new displacements as a result of persecution by a ratio of three to one. By 2050, an estimated 143 million people will be displaced in just three regions: Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Some projections for global climate displacement are as high as one billion people.

Mapping who is most vulnerable to displacement reveals the fault lines between rich and poor, between the global North and South, and between whiteness and its Black, Indigenous and racialised others.

Globalised asymmetries of power create migration but constrict mobility. Displaced people – the least responsible for global warming – face militarised borders. While climate change is itself ignored by the political elite, climate migration is presented as a border security issue and the latest excuse for wealthy states to fortify their borders. In 2019, the Australian Defence Forces announced military patrols around Australia’s waters to intercept climate refugees.

The burgeoning terrain of “climate security” prioritises militarised borders, dovetailing perfectly into eco-apartheid. “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally; it is through them that we will save the planet,” declares the party of French far-Right politician Marine Le Pen. A US Pentagon-commissioned report on the security implications of climate change encapsulates the hostility to climate refugees: “Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico, and South America.” The US has now launched Operation Vigilant Sentry off the Florida coast and created Homeland Security Task Force Southeast to enforce marine interdiction and deportation in the aftermath of disasters in the Caribbean.

Labour migration as climate mitigation

you broke the ocean in
half to be here.
only to meet nothing that wants you
– Nayyirah Waheed

Parallel to increasing border controls, temporary labour migration is increasingly touted as a climate adaptation strategy. As part of the ‘Nansen Initiative’, a multilateral, state-led project to address climate-induced displacement, the Australian government has put forward its temporary seasonal worker program as a key solution to building climate resilience in the Pacific region. The Australian statement to the Nansen Initiative Intergovernmental Global Consultation was, in fact, delivered not by the environment minister but by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

Beginning in April 2022, the new Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme will make it easier for Australian businesses to temporarily insource low-wage workers (what the scheme calls “low-skilled” and “unskilled” workers) from small Pacific island countries including Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu. Not coincidentally, many of these countries’ ecologies and economies have already been ravaged by Australian colonialism for over one hundred years.

It is not an anomaly that Australia is turning displaced climate refugees into a funnel of temporary labour migration. With growing ungovernable and irregular migration, including climate migration, temporary labour migration programs have become the worldwide template for “well-managed migration.” Elites present labour migration as a double win because high-income countries fill their labour shortage needs without providing job security or citizenship, while low-income countries alleviate structural impoverishment through migrants’ remittances.

Dangerous, low-wage jobs like farm, domestic, and service work that cannot be outsourced are now almost entirely insourced in this way. Insourcing and outsourcing represent two sides of the same neoliberal coin: deliberately deflated labour and political power. Not to be confused with free mobility, temporary labour migration represents an extreme neoliberal approach to the quartet of foreign, climate, immigration, and labour policy, all structured to expand networks of capital accumulation through the creation and disciplining of surplus populations.

The International Labour Organization recognises that temporary migrant workers face forced labour, low wages, poor working conditions, virtual absence of social protection, denial of freedom association and union rights, discrimination and xenophobia, as well as social exclusion. Under these state-sanctioned programs of indentureship, workers are legally tied to an employer and deportable. Temporary migrant workers are kept compliant through the threats of both termination and deportation, revealing the crucial connection between immigration status and precarious labour.

Through temporary labour migration programs, workers’ labour power is first captured by the border and this pliable labour is then exploited by the employer. Denying migrant workers permanent immigration status ensures a steady supply of cheapened labour. Borders are not intended to exclude all people, but to create conditions of ‘deportability’, which increases social and labour precarity. These workers are labelled as ‘foreign’ workers, furthering racist xenophobia against them, including by other workers. While migrant workers are temporary, temporary migration is becoming the permanent neoliberal, state-led model of migration.

Reparations include No Borders

“It’s immoral for the rich to talk about their future children and grandchildren when the children of the Global South are dying now.” – Asad Rehman

Discussions about building fairer and more sustainable political-economic systems have coalesced around a Green New Deal. Most public policy proposals for a Green New Deal in the US, Canada, UK and the EU articulate the need to simultaneously tackle economic inequality, social injustice, and the climate crisis by transforming our extractive and exploitative system towards a low-carbon, feminist, worker and community-controlled care-based society. While a Green New Deal necessarily understands the climate crisis and the crisis of capitalism as interconnected — and not a dichotomy of ‘the environment versus the economy’ — one of its main shortcomings is its bordered scope. As Harpreet Kaur Paul and Dalia Gebrial write: “the Green New Deal has largely been trapped in national imaginations.”

Any Green New Deal that is not internationalist runs the risk of perpetuating climate apartheid and imperialist domination in our warming world. Rich countries must redress the global and asymmetrical dimensions of climate debtunfair trade and financial agreements, military subjugation, vaccine apartheidlabour exploitation, and border securitisation.

It is impossible to think about borders outside the modern nation-state and its entanglements with empire, capitalism, race, caste, gender, sexuality, and ability. Borders are not even fixed lines demarcating territory. Bordering regimes are increasingly layered with drone surveillance, interception of migrant boats, and security controls far beyond states’ territorial limits. From Australia offshoring migrant detention around Oceania to Fortress Europe outsourcing surveillance and interdiction to the Sahel and Middle East, shifting cartographies demarcate our colonial present.

Perhaps most offensively, when colonial countries panic about ‘border crises’ they position themselves as victims. But the genocide, displacement, and movement of millions of people were unequally structured by colonialism for three centuries, with European settlers in the Americas and Oceania, the transatlantic slave trade from Africa, and imported indentured labourers from Asia. Empire, enslavement, and indentureship are the bedrock of global apartheid today, determining who can live where and under what conditions. Borders are structured to uphold this apartheid.

The freedom to stay and the freedom to move, which is to say no borders, is decolonial reparations and redistribution long due.

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The Murang’a Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Elections

The Murang’a people are really yet to decide who they are going to vote for as a president. If they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves. Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Can Jimi Wanjigi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction?

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The Murang’a Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Elections
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In the last quarter of 2021, I visited Murang’a County twice: In September, we were in Kandiri in Kigumo constituency. We had gone for a church fundraiser and were hosted by the Anglican Church of Kenya’s (ACK), Kahariro parish, Murang’a South diocese. A month later, I was back, this time to Ihi-gaini deep in Kangema constituency for a burial.

The church function attracted politicians: it had to; they know how to sniff such occasions and if not officially invited, they gate-crash them. Church functions, just like funerals, are perfect platforms for politicians to exhibit their presumed piousness, generosity and their closeness to the respective clergy and the bereaved family.

Well, the other reason they were there, is because they had been invited by the Church leadership. During the electioneering period, the Church is not shy to exploit the politicians’ ambitions: they “blackmail” them for money, because they can mobilise ready audiences for the competing politicians. The politicians on the other hand, are very ready to part with cash. This quid pro quo arrangement is usually an unstated agreement between the Church leadership and the politicians.

The church, which was being fund raised for, being in Kigumo constituency, the area MP Ruth Wangari Mwaniki, promptly showed up. Likewise, the area Member of the County Assembly (MCA) and of course several aspirants for the MP and MCA seats, also showed up.

Church and secular politics often sit cheek by jowl and so, on this day, local politics was the order of the day. I couldn’t have speculated on which side of the political divide Murang’a people were, until the young man Zack Kinuthia Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) for Sports, Culture and Heritage, took to the rostrum to speak.

A local boy and an Uhuru Kenyatta loyalist, he completely avoided mentioning his name and his “development track record” in central Kenya. Kinuthia has a habit of over-extolling President Uhuru’s virtues whenever and wherever he mounts any platform. By the time he was done speaking, I quickly deduced he was angling to unseat Wangari. I wasn’t wrong; five months later in February 2022, Kinuthia resigned his CAS position to vie for Kigumo on a Party of the National Unity (PNU) ticket.

He spoke briefly, feigned some meeting that was awaiting him elsewhere and left hurriedly, but not before giving his KSh50,000 donation. Apparently, I later learnt that he had been forewarned, ahead of time, that the people were not in a mood to listen to his panegyrics on President Uhuru, Jubilee Party, or anything associated to the two. Kinuthia couldn’t dare run on President Uhuru’s Jubilee Party. His patron-boss’s party is not wanted in Murang’a.

I spent the whole day in Kandiri, talking to people, young and old, men and women and by the time I was leaving, I was certain about one thing; The Murang’a folks didn’t want anything to do with President Uhuru. What I wasn’t sure of is, where their political sympathies lay.

I returned to Murang’a the following month, in the expansive Kangema – it is still huge – even after Mathioya was hived off from the larger Kangema constituency. Funerals provide a good barometer that captures peoples’ political sentiments and even though this burial was not attended by politicians – a few senior government officials were present though; political talk was very much on the peoples’ lips.

What I gathered from the crowd was that President Uhuru had destroyed their livelihood, remember many of the Nairobi city trading, hawking, big downtown real estate and restaurants are run and owned largely by Murang’a people. The famous Nyamakima trading area of downtown Nairobi has been run by Murang’a Kikuyus.

In 2018, their goods were confiscated and declared contrabrand by the government. Many of their businesses went under, this, despite the merchants not only, whole heartedly throwing their support to President Uhuru’s controversial re-election, but contributing handsomely to the presidential kitty. They couldn’t believe what was happening to them: “We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him.”

We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him

Last week, I attended a Murang’a County caucus group that was meeting somewhere in Gatundu, in Kiambu County. One of the clearest messages that I got from this group is that the GEMA vote in the August 9, 2022, presidential elections is certainly anti-Uhuru Kenyatta and not necessarily pro-William Ruto.

“The Murang’a people are really yet to decide, (if they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves) on who they are going to vote for as a president. And that’s why you see Uhuru is craftily courting us with all manner of promises, seductions and prophetic messages.” Two weeks ago, President Uhuru was in Murang’a attending an African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) church function in Kandara constituency.

At the church, the president yet again threatened to “tell you what’s in my heart and what I believe and why so.” These prophecy-laced threats by the President, to the GEMA nation, in which he has been threatening to show them the sign, have become the butt of crude jokes among Kikuyus.

Corollary, President Uhuru once again has plucked Polycarp Igathe away from his corporate perch as Equity Bank’s Chief Commercial Officer back to Nairobi’s tumultuous governor seat politics. The first time the bespectacled Igathe was thrown into the deep end of the Nairobi murky politics was in 2017, as Mike Sonko’s deputy governor. After six months, he threw in the towel, lamenting that Sonko couldn’t let him even breathe.

Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people

“Igathe is from Wanjerere in Kigumo, Murang’a, but grew up in Ol Kalou, Nyandarua County,” one of the Mzees told me. “He’s not interested in politics; much less know how it’s played. I’ve spent time with him and confided in me as much. Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people. President Uhuru wants to use Igathe to control Nairobi. The sad thing is that Igathe doesn’t have the guts to tell Uhuru the brutal fact: I’m really not interested in all these shenanigans, leave me alone. The president is hoping, once again, to hopefully placate the Murang’a people, by pretending to front Igathe. I foresee another terrible disaster ultimately befalling both Igathe and Uhuru.”

Be that as it may, what I got away with from this caucus, after an entire day’s deliberations, is that its keeping it presidential choice close to its chest. My attempts to goad some of the men and women present were fruitless.

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest. Kiambu has produced two presidents from the same family, Nyeri one, President Mwai Kibaki, who died on April 22. The closest Murang’a came to giving the country a president was during Ken Matiba’s time in the 1990s. “But Matiba had suffered a debilitating stroke that incapacitated him,” said one of the mzees. “It was tragic, but there was nothing we could do.”

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest

It is interesting to note that Jimi Wanjigi, the Safina party presidential flagbearer is from Murang’a County. His family hails from Wahundura, in Mathioya constituency. Him and Mwangi wa Iria, the Murang’a County governor are the other two Murang’a prominent persons who have tossed themselves into the presidential race. Wa Iria’s bid which was announced at the beginning of 2022, seems to have stagnated, while Jimi’s seems to be gathering storm.

Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Jimi’s campaign team has crafted a two-pronged strategy that it hopes will endear Kenyans to his presidency. One, a generational, paradigm shift, especially among the youth, targeting mostly post-secondary, tertiary college and university students.

“We believe this group of voters who are basically between the ages of 18–27 years and who comprise more than 65 per cent of total registered voters are the key to turning this election,” said one of his presidential campaign team members. “It matters most how you craft the political message to capture their attention.” So, branding his key message as itwika, it is meant to orchestrate a break from past electoral behaviour that is pegged on traditional ethnic voting patterns.

The other plunk of Jimi’s campaign theme is economic emancipation, quite pointedly as it talks directly to the GEMA nation, especially the Murang’a Kikuyus, who are reputed for their business acumen and entrepreneurial skills. “What Kikuyus cherish most,” said the team member “is someone who will create an enabling business environment and leave the Kikuyus to do their thing. You know, Kikuyus live off business, if you interfere with it, that’s the end of your friendship, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

Can Jimi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction? As all the presidential candidates gear-up this week on who they will eventually pick as their running mates, the GEMA community once more shifts the spotlight on itself, as the most sought-after vote basket.

Both Raila Odinga and William Ruto coalitions – Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya and Kenya Kwanza Alliance – must seek to impress and woe Mt Kenya region by appointing a running mate from one of its ranks. If not, the coalitions fear losing the vote-rich area either to each other, or perhaps to a third party. Murang’a County, may as well, become the conundrum, with which the August 9, presidential race may yet to be unravelled and decided.

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