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Geothermal Development in Kenya: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

13 min read.

Geothermal development in Kenya is widely welcomed as green, clean and good for the country. But behind the glowing publicity is a hidden story of forced relocation, human rights abuses, land loss, shattered lives, joblessness, deepening poverty, and serious negative impacts on the health of local people and their livestock.

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Geothermal Development in Kenya: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
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Geothermal development in Kenya’s Rift Valley is expected to reap enormous energy benefits for the nation as a whole. Geothermal energy is widely seen as green and clean, a superior alternative to other forms of renewable energy that is sustainable and environmentally friendly with low carbon emissions.

However, new research by an international collaborative team that includes Kenyans shows that the impacts of this industry upon local communities (in this case, in the Ol Karia area of Nakuru County) are often negative. The research also provides evidence that geothermal expansion, which took off here in the 1970s, has led to many divisions and ongoing conflicts, including conflicts over equitable resource use. Other issues of concern include environmental degradation, the negative health impact on humans and animals, forced resettlement, increasing poverty, lack of access to benefits, including jobs, houses and profit-sharing, violation of human and land rights, and the absence of community representation in the geothermal companies (largely KenGen, the Kenya Electricity Generating Company).

The negative impacts of the geothermal industry on local communities are rarely, if ever, listed among its disadvantages. Issues of greatest concern to companies and funders have more to do things like high up-front costs, technical challenges, and high risks faced in the early stages of development. Too often, the negative impacts on humans, livestock and the environment seem to be regarded as collateral damage.

Many questions have been raised about the role of the state and international financial institutions in this scenario, which this story will go on to discuss. From my observations as an academic researcher who has studied imperial history, there is more than a whiff of colonial arrogance in the behaviour of major lenders, such as the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the World Bank, which have both invested heavily in the geothermal industry at Ol Karia, the latter since the early 1980s. As I pointed out in person to EIB and EIB-Complaints Mechanism (EIB-CM) staff at an NGO workshop in Brussels earlier this year, decisions made in European and other foreign capitals can have life-long and devastating impacts on what funders call “project-affected persons” (PAPs), long after investors and other international players have left the scene. What the banks regard as “completed” is never over for PAPs on the receiving end. (These staffers did not look me in the eye, or respond.)

At the grassroots level in Ol Karia, accusations of nepotism, corruption and discrimination also abound. Some indigenous residents (such as the Turkana and the Samburu) accuse the majority Maasai of doubly marginalising them in the scramble for rights and benefits. Though Maasai representatives have made repeated formal complaints to the banks concerned, and some contentious issues have been addressed, people face serious ongoing challenges that leave them impoverished, frustrated and despairing. Our research showed that youth, women, non-literates, the poorest and elders (apart from those on village and other liaison committees, who tend to be relatively well-off and well-connected) have been hardest hit.

From my observations as an academic researcher who has studied imperial history, there is more than a whiff of colonial arrogance in the behaviour of major lenders, such as the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the World Bank, which have both invested heavily in the geothermal industry at Ol Karia.

In East Africa as a whole, electricity demand is expected to quadruple by 2033, with geothermal, wind and hydropower seen as important means of meeting that demand. For Kenya, geothermal (which literally means “earth’s heat”) is now officially favoured over hydropower because of the climatic changes that hydropower is susceptible to.

By April 2020, Kenya had risen to seventh place in the list of top geothermal power producers, the only African country on the list. Kenya is Africa’s largest producer of geothermal energy. Geothermal power is flagged in Vision 2030, the Government of Kenya’s vision for the future, as a central plank in the development of the country.  Kenya aims to produce 50 per cent of its energy from geothermal sources by 2025, and 100 per cent by 2050. Geothermal now accounts for 30 per cent of Kenya’s total installed power capacity of 2,700MW, with the remainder taken up by hydropower, wind, solar and thermal power. The benefits are not only for the national grid; other uses of geothermal energy include powering some Naivasha flower farms. A group of Nakuru farmers has also signed a deal with the parastatal GDC (Geothermal Development Company) that allows them to use geothermal energy in agriculture.

Threats to marginalised people and lands

The extractive industry, together with large-scale infrastructure projects of various kinds, have become increasingly invasive of the lands and other natural resources of indigenous and marginalised communities across Africa and other parts of the world. Lands once considered worthless have become sites of intense interest to states, investors and other players because of the rich resources they contain. Unsurprisingly, this has triggered acute contestation over natural and cultural resource rights.

Historical marginality often places indigenous and marginalised people at a distinct disadvantage when they try to articulate their concerns and fight their corner. Forced resettlement to make way for extractive industries has involved human rights abuses. Governments, industries and funders often fail to abide by the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), or to consult sufficiently with affected communities before geothermal projects start, or even to follow their own policies on indigenous peoples, which the World Bank has admitted failing to do at Ol Karia. The other foreign banks involved in funding this project agreed to follow World Bank policies rather than their own.

Although it didn’t matter for the purposes of this project, the EIB also decided that the Ol Karia Maasai did not meet its criteria for indigenous peoples and chose to classify them as “vulnerable” instead. This does not provide anything like the same level of protection, and has proved disastrous for this community.

Forced resettlement to make way for extractive industries has involved human rights abuses. Governments, industries and funders often fail to abide by the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), or to consult sufficiently with affected communities before geothermal projects start…

The EIB has explained (in responses to me and Bankwatch) that it decided not to classify these Maasai as indigenous in 2009 (when it was making plans to fund the power plant Olkaria IV) because it believed that “tribal sentiments were still on the rise” after the post-election violence of 2008. It believed that such a classification might lead to more ethnic strife. This nonsensical interpretation demonstrates how little the EIB understands Kenyan politics, and the socio-political climate in which it operates. From observation and written evidence, its so-called “experts” on the ground are anything but. One, an official mediator between the Maasai and KenGen, even expressed shockingly derogatory remarks to me about the alleged “backwardness” of the Maasai, views which hardly make him suitable as a mediator. Maasai informants said they regarded the mediators as “KenGen’s spies”.

It is important to note that although the community is predominantly Maasai and Maa-speakers (people who speak the Maa language but who are not necessarily Maasai) who have lived here for centuries, it also includes members of other ethnic groups who have intermarried and inter-settled with the Maasai over many years. The community is, therefore, a microcosm of multicultural Kenya. Some Maasai rights activists tend to ignore this fact for obvious reasons: it does not fit their mono-ethnic narrative.

Recent history, some impacts

Geothermal exploration first began in this area of Naivasha Sub-County in 1956 with exploratory drilling. But it was not until the 1970s that geothermal development began to intensify. Olkaria I was the first power plant in Africa, commissioned in three phases starting in 1981. There are now five geothermal plants in the Greater OlKaria (sic) Geothermal Complex, with others planned or in development. (Other plants, either built or planned outside this Complex, follow the line of the Rift Valley.) Akiira One is not built yet, partly because the company behind it, Akiira Geothermal Ltd. (AGL), is mired in issues around alleged human rights abuse against squatters it forced off its land with the aid of police and county officials. European funders of AGL, including the EIB, are investigating. (I say more about these events below.)

Three of KenGen’s five plants have been built in Hell’s Gate National Park. These plants have devastated this once beautiful heritage site. Large areas of the park now look more like an industrial estate than a protected area: plants and wells constantly gush steam, the well-heads make deafening 24-hour noise, huge pipelines snake across the landscape, roads are choked with company and subcontractors’ lorries and machinery, water sources are polluted, and the air around the plants stinks of rotten eggs (hydrogen sulphide). After just a couple of weeks’ fieldwork, I fell ill with respiratory problems.

However, what I endured is nothing compared to what the people who have to live here permanently have to go through. A 44-year-old Samburu blacksmith told me: “I have done an experiment – I sent my children to Samburu, and when they came back they were very healthy. After a few weeks of staying here, their faces have changed, and skin rashes have started appearing on their bodies. They’re suffering a lot of coughing and common cold almost every day.” Locals blame geothermal for the rise in respiratory illness and miscarriages, among other things.

Complaints

A number of formal complaints have been made to KenGen and the external funders’ complaints mechanisms: the World Bank Inspection Panel (WB-IP) and the EIB Complaints Mechanism (EIB-CM). Many of the complaints relate to the forced resettlement in 2014 of four Maasai villages to a new settlement called RAPland (RAP stands for Resettlement Action Plan), a remote area next to the Akiira One/AGL concession. This was done to make way for Olkaria IV. Some 1,000 people were moved to new two-bedroom houses in RAPland, each on a 0.41-hectare plot. But this move involved swapping an area of 4,200 acres for just 1,700 acres. Many people complain about the houses, which are not built in a traditional culturally-acceptable style, which cannot accommodate extended families, and which are more expensive to furnish and run.

Moreover, the new land is much less productive than the one they were forced to leave. It is full of steep gullies into which cattle regularly fall and injure themselves, or even die. The pasture is poor and soil erosion is rife. Worst of all, the area is fenced in, which is antithetical to free-roaming pastoralism. “They have put us in a fence like animals in a zoo,” said one informant. People are also very unhappy about the communal leasehold land title that KenGen has given them, and claim it is not what was promised. The document does not refer to RAPland but to a totally different geographical area.

Three of KenGen’s five plants have been built in Hell’s Gate National Park. These plants have devastated this once beautiful heritage site. Large areas of the park now look more like an industrial estate than a protected area…

Other complaints include those relating to the loss of cultural sites and livelihoods, the remoteness of RAPland, which is far from shopping centres and other urban services (KenGen has refused to allow a commercial centre to be built), lack of public transport, (which forces people to use very expensive private transport), KenGen’s failure to employ many Maasai, other than in insecure, low-paid, low-skilled jobs, corruption, nepotism and discrimination (which have fouled the process of awarding compensation to PAPs), and failure to fully implement a May 2016 Mediation Agreement between the community and KenGen. (Though Maasai representatives signed this, they are deeply unhappy about how it has unravelled. Some call the mediation process “a hidden wolf”.)

On the positive side, KenGen has provided the new houses, and built facilities including a school, dispensary, community hall, roads, bridges and water points. They have, to some extent, acted upon the complaints. The Maasai did agree to the move, but our research shows that many people did not fully understand the long-term implications. Failure to communicate in the Maa language led to many people being excluded from the consultations (the World Bank has admitted this). Some folk have complained that they failed to get new houses despite being eligible. As a result, several poor widows, and indigenous people who are not Maasai, have been forced to squat with relatives in RAPland after being made homeless. One Samburu widow, 46, whose family has broken up as a result of the resettlement, said: “We are scattered like the faeces of a high-flying bird.”

Responses

In 2015, the EIB-CM and the WB-IP carried out a joint investigation into the complaints, Two reports, in 2015 and 2016, admitted that serious mistakes had been made, and some of the complainants’ allegations were founded. I counted eight incidences of admitted “non-compliance” with World Bank protocols in the 2015 report; there may be more.

Notably, the World Bank admitted failing to apply its policy on indigenous peoples (Operational Policy 4.10). This led to “significant shortcomings regarding consultation, the cultural compatibility of the resettlement, benefit sharing…The Panel believes applying the Policy might have avoided or mitigated some of the harms caused by the Project”.

Most importantly, by not classifying the Maasai as indigenous, the banks failed to draw up an Indigenous Peoples Plan, as they normally would, and to secure Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) from the community – a prerequisite in funding projects of this kind. In a series of email exchanges with the EIB over many months, it could not tell me why it classified the Maasai in this way, nor explain the reasoning behind its definition of indigenous peoples, which (as I pointed out to them) contains criteria not used by the World Bank or any other international organisation. I got the impression it has no idea what indigeneity means, and relies on ill-informed staff who know nothing about indigenous peoples and their rights in international law. On telling them this, all the EIB could do was crossly accuse me of unethical academic practice, and of maligning one particular staffer. Not true. I was simply asking legitimate questions of a bank that purports to be transparent and accountable.

The EIB-CM and the WB-IP initiated a mediation process, starting in August 2015, with the aim of reaching agreement between KenGen and the complainants on remedial actions. KenGen pledged, among other things, to improve roads and water supplies, take action on soil erosion and gullies, transfer communal land titles for RAPland and another area called Cultural Centre (the site of a village that was razed to make way for Olkaria IV), build more houses, assist people in marketing their cultural wares, and re-examine the cases of people who claimed to have been unfairly treated in censuses that took place before the resettlement. KenGen is still carrying out some remedial work, such as road repairs and bridge building.

The project also involved other external funders. Our research (and that of other scholars such as Jeanette Schade) shows there is a risk in having multiple funders since lines of responsibility can become blurred. For example, the EIB told me that the French development agency AfD (Agence Française de Développement) was the lead agency responsible for due diligence and safeguarding at Ol Karia, therefore it was not responsible. Efforts to find out from the AfD how they had monitored due diligence, and to access their post-project assessment reports (if they even exist), came to nothing.

What else people told us

Most informants said the funders and companies had exploited existing divisions in the community, for example by siding with one group against another, and favouring individuals with special privileges. They complained that engagement mechanisms, such as liaison committees, created as part of the resettlement process to help PAPs engage with the companies, are deeply flawed (something the World Bank has recognised), and characterised by nepotism and bribery. Few people trust their elected community representatives, who tend to be male village elders who often shout women down. Neither do they trust the welfare society at RAPland, made up of selected “community trustees” to whom the land title was given.

Non-Maasai communities, including members of other indigenous groups, blame the Maasai for discriminating against them. One example is 54-year-old Fatuma Hitler, who claims she is discriminated against because she is a divorced Muslim Samburu; she believes this is why she wasn’t given a new house despite being a PAP. “But if I go to complain [to KenGen] I will be like a barking dog, because of this corruption.” In other words, she thinks she won’t get a hearing, and believes corruption – both within the geothermal companies and the local community – works against powerless women like her.

Eviction of the Lorropil villagers

Lorropil village, a tiny settlement commonly referred to by locals as Kambi Turkana because some of its residents were Turkana, used to lie just outside the RAPland perimeter fence on land owned by the geothermal company AGL that was excised from Kedong Ranch. After repeated threats of eviction, police swooped suddenly in the early hours of 3 November 2019, working in collusion with AGL to not only evict the villagers, but also burn the village down.

A day later, police went after the evictees and teargassed them, burning their remaining belongings. I have seen photographic evidence of all this.

Activists, lawyers and human rights defenders were alerted, and complaints made to AGL and its funders, which include the EIB. Though AGL claims it “consulted” the villagers beforehand, the villagers refute this. There was no attempt by AGL to treat them as PAPs, or to follow due process over the eviction and resettlement of squatters; several of AGL’s funders, including the EIB, have clear policies on this, which AGL did not abide by. The company accused its critics, which included me, of being “malicious liars”. It attempted to counter the allegations and buy good publicity by using local reporters to write stories favourable to AGL, which contained factual errors and painted the evictees as fraudsters and “fake squatters”. I complained to the national newspaper editors concerned about shoddy journalism; they did not respond.

The evictees (who included a number of children) ended up squatting in RAPland, where they were forced to live out in the open until a local pastor opened his church to them. Adding insult to injury, the Kenya Red Cross, alerted by villagers and their supporters, made an initial assessment a few days after the eviction, but then disappeared, failing to deliver humanitarian aid or follow up in any way. I mailed their directors, accusing them of failing to abide by the Red Cross mandate. This had an immediate effect: they swung into action. The repercussions of this eviction are ongoing; European funders of AGL are still investigating what happened.

Bankwatch report on the EIB

In a new report, “Can the EIB become the ‘EU Development Bank’? A Critical View on EIB Operations Outside Europe”, the NGOs Bankwatch and Counter Balance jointly examine EIB-funded projects in Kenya (and elsewhere) that include Olkaria IV and the Nairobi-Mombasa Road. It asks whether the EIB, which plans to “step up its development role”, is up to the task. The answer, by and large, is no. Some of the report’s key points that are relevant to this case study include:

  • The EIB “ultimately exacerbates inequalities rather than alleviates them”;
  • It makes “empty promises on human rights” and must introduce a “proper human rights due diligence system”;
  • Human rights abuses are “largely unknown” and often addressed only after they occur;
  • There is a large gap between EIB policies and implementation on the ground;
  • Its existing social standards on human rights, environmental and social principles must be replaced; they fail to prevent such things as forced eviction, or protect the most vulnerable stakeholders;
  • It has a long way to go on transparency, and lags behind the transparency and disclosure practices of other multilateral financial institutions.

The report calls the RAPland resettlement case a “scandal”. It supports my claim that the EIB uses incorrect criteria in its definition of indigenous peoples, and calls on the Bank to review this. Its case study on Ol Karia supports our research conclusions, and states: “The non-recognition of Maasai as indigenous peoples as well as several other breaches resulted in serious negative impacts on the resettled communities, which have not been fully addressed.”

In its response to Bankwatch, the EIB claims that the report contains inaccuracies, and that the Bank is “constantly improving and further developing its approach to essential issues such as human rights, environmental and social impacts…”.

And so it goes on…

As I finish writing this story, RAPland elders have sent more complaints to the funders that reiterate much of what they raised before. They are particularly upset about the failure to fully address the issue of livelihoods lost as a result of resettlement (which funders had pledged to do), and the dodgy RAPland land title.

The elders were responding to the World Bank’s “final” report of June 2020 on the progress of mediation. It maintains that “all the agreed livelihood activities have been completed”. It blames a “clerical error” on the fact that the title refers to the wrong piece of land; the Bank says it supports the PAPs’ request to convert it to freehold.

RAPland elders have sent more complaints to the funders that reiterate much of what they raised before. They are particularly upset about the failure to fully address the issue of livelihoods lost as a result of resettlement (which funders had pledged to do), and the dodgy RAPland land title.

It is clear from the report that the IEB, which insists that the Management Action Plan (MAP) for RAPland is “completed”, sees this as the end of its obligations to the PAPs; now it’s up to KenGen to resolve outstanding issues that are broader than the Bank’s MAP. But for the community (and the former Lorropil villagers, who have submitted a separate complaint to the EIB-CM), this isn’t over by a long way. To sum up community sentiments: “We feel that the banks value their business more than our lives and wellbeing,” said the RAPland resident and human rights activist Daniel Ntanana Ole Shaa.

Furthermore, plans are now underway for a new 140MW KenGen plant, Olkaria VI, on the site of the village of Olomayiana Kubwa, which lies near the four villages whose residents were moved to RAPland. This public-private partnership project will involve another forced resettlement. From reports received, there is no evidence that the company, funders and other groups involved are following due process, abiding by protocols and fully consulting the PAPs.

Have no lessons been learned? A distinct sense of déjà vu hangs over the steaming, stinking plants of Hell’s Gate.

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Dr Lotte Hughes is an historian and former journalist who has written extensively on Kenya. Her books include Moving the Maasai: A Colonial Misadventure (2006) and, with Annie E. Coombes and Karega-Munene, Managing Heritage, Making Peace: History, Identity and Memory in Contemporary Kenya (2014).

Politics

Kenya Chooses Its Next Chief Justice

The search for Kenya’s next Chief Justice that commenced Monday will seek to replace Justice David Maraga, who retired early this year, has captured the attention of the nation.

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Kenya Chooses Its Next Chief Justice
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Since Monday, the 12th of April 2021, interviews to replace retired Chief Justice David Maraga for the post of the most important jurist in Kenya and the president of the Supreme Court have been underway.

The Judiciary is one of the three State organs established under Chapter 10, Article 159 of the Constitution of Kenya. It establishes the Judiciary as an independent custodian of justice in Kenya. Its primary role is to exercise judicial authority given to it, by the people of Kenya.

The institution is mandated to deliver justice in line with the Constitution and other laws. It is expected to resolve disputes in a just manner with a view to protecting the rights and liberties of all, thereby facilitating the attainment of the ideal rule of law.

The man or woman who will take up this mantle will lead the Judiciary at a time when its independence and leadership will be paramount for the nation. He/she will be selected by the Judicial Service Commission in a competitive process.

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Politics

IMF and SAPs 2.0: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Riding into Town

Stabilisation, liberalisation, deregulation, and privatisation: what do these four pillars of structural adjustment augur for Kenya’s beleaguered public health sector?

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IMF and SAPs 2.0: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Riding into Town
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The International Monetary Fund’s announcement on the 2nd of April 2020 that it had approved a US$ 2.3 billion loan for Kenya prompted David Ndii to spell it out to young #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) that “the loan Kenya has taken is called a structural adjustment loan (SAPs). It comes with austerity (tax raises, spending cuts, downsizing) to keep Kenya creditworthy so that we can continue borrowing and servicing debt”, adding that the “IMF is not here for fun. Ask older people.” With this last quip, Ndii was referring to the economic hardship visited on Kenyans under the structural adjustment programmes of the 80s and 90s.

Well, I’m old enough to remember; except that I was not in the country. I had left home, left the country, leaving behind parents who were still working, still putting my siblings through school. Parents with permanent and pensionable jobs, who were still paying the mortgage on their modest “maisonette” in a middle class Nairobi neighbourhood.

In those pre-Internet, pre-WhatsApp days, much use was made of the post office and I have kept the piles of aerogramme letters that used to bring me news of home. In those letters my parents said nothing of the deteriorating economic situation, unwilling to burden me with worries about which I could do nothing, keeping body and soul together being just about all I could manage in that foreign land where I had gone to further my education.

My brother Tony’s letters should have warned me that all was not well back home but he wrote so hilariously about the status conferred on those men who could afford second-hand underwear from America, complete with stars and stripes, that the sub-text went right over my head. I came back home for the first time after five years — having left college and found a first job — to find parents that had visibly aged beyond their years and a home that was palpably less well-off financially than when I had left. I’m a Kicomi girl and something in me rebelled against second-hand clothes, second-hand things. It seemed that in my absence Kenya had regressed to the time before independence, the years of hope and optimism wiped away by the neoliberal designs of the Bretton Woods twins. I remember wanting to flee; I wanted to go back to not knowing, to finding my family exactly as I had left it — seemingly thriving, happy, hopeful.

Now, after eight years of irresponsible government borrowing, it appears that I am to experience the effects of a Structural Adjustment Programme first-hand, and I wonder how things could possibly be worse than they already are.

When speaking to Nancy* a couple of weeks back about the COVID-19 situation at the Nyahururu County Referral Hospital in Laikipia County, she brought up the issue of pregnant women having to share beds in the maternity ward yet — quite apart from the fact that this arrangement is unacceptable whichever way you look at it — patients admitted to the ward are not routinely tested for COVID-19.

Nancy told me that candidates for emergency caesarean sections or surgery for ectopic and intra-abdominal pregnancies must wait their turn at the door to the operating theatre. Construction of a new maternity wing, complete with its own operating theatre, has ground to a halt because, rumour has it, the contractor has not been paid. The 120-bed facility should have been completed in mid-2020 to ease congestion at the Nyahururu hospital whose catchment area for referrals includes large swathes of both Nyandarua and Laikipia counties because of its geographical location.

According to Nancy, vital medicine used to prevent excessive bleeding in newly delivered mothers has not been available at her hospital since January; patients have to buy the medication themselves. This issue was also raised on Twitter by Dr Mercy Korir who, referring to the Nanyuki Teaching and Referral Hospital — the only other major hospital in Laikipia County — said that lack of emergency medication in the maternity ward was putting the lives of mothers at risk. Judging by the responses to that tweet, this dire situation is not peculiar to the Nanyuki hospital; how much worse is it going to get under the imminent SAP?

Kenya was among the first countries to sign on for a SAP in 1980 when commodity prices went through the floor and the 1973 oil crisis hit, bringing to a painful halt a post-independence decade of sustained growth and prosperity. The country was to remain under one form of structural adjustment or another from then on until 1996.

Damaris Parsitau, who has written about the impact of Structural Adjustment Programmes on women’s health in Kenya, already reported in her 2008 study that, “at Nakuru District Hospital in Kenya, for example, expectant mothers are required to buy gloves, surgical blades, disinfectants and syringes in preparation for childbirth”. It would appear that not much has changed since then.

The constitution of the World Health Organisation states that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition” and that “governments have a responsibility for the health of their peoples which can be fulfilled only by the provision of adequate health and social measures.”

The WHO should have added gender as a discrimination criteria. Parsitau notes that “compared to men, women in Kenya have less access to medical care, are more likely to be malnourished, poor, and illiterate, and even work longer and harder. The situation exacerbates women’s reproductive role, which increases their vulnerability to morbidity and mortality.”

With economic decline in the 80s, and the implementation of structural adjustment measures that resulted in cutbacks in funding and the introduction of cost sharing in a sector where from independence the government had borne the cost of providing free healthcare, the effects were inevitably felt most by the poor, the majority of who — in Kenya as in the rest of the world — are women.

A more recent review of studies carried out on the effect of SAPs on child and maternal health published in 2017 finds that “in their current form, structural adjustment programmes are incongruous with achieving SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] 3.1 and 3.2, which stipulate reductions in neonatal, under-5, and maternal mortality rates. It is telling that even the IMF’s Independent Evaluation Office, in assessing the performance of structural adjustment loans, noted that ‘outcomes such as maternal and infant mortality rates have generally not improved.’”

The review also says that “adjustment programmes commonly promote decentralisation of health systems [which] may produce a more fractious and unequal implementation of services — including those for child and maternal health — nationally. Furthermore, lack of co-ordination in decentralised systems can hinder efforts to combat major disease outbreaks”. Well, we are in the throes of a devastating global pandemic which has brought this observation into sharp relief. According to the Ministry of Health, as of the 6th of April, 325,592 people had been vaccinated against COVID-19. Of those, 33 per cent were in Nairobi County, which accounts for just 9.2 per cent of the country’s total population of 47,564,296 people.

The Constitution of Kenya 2010 provides the legal framework for a rights-based approach to health and is the basis for the rollout of Universal Health Coverage (UHC) that was announced by President Uhuru Kenyatta on 12 December 2018 — with the customary fanfare — as part of the “Big Four Agenda” to be fulfilled before his departure in 2022.

However, a KEMRI-Wellcome Trust policy brief states that UHC is still some distance to achieving 100 per cent population coverage and recommends that “the Kenyan government should increase public financing of the health sector. Specifically, the level of public funding for healthcare in Kenya should double, if the threshold (5% of GDP) … is to be reached” and that “Kenya should reorient its health financing strategy away from a focus on contributory, voluntary health insurance, and instead recognize that increased tax funding is critical.”

These recommendations, it would seem to me, run counter to the conditionalities habitually imposed by the IMF and it is therefore not clear how the government will deliver UHC nation-wide by next year if this latest SAP is accompanied by budgetary cutbacks in the healthcare sector.

With the coronavirus graft scandal and the disappearance of medical supplies donated by Jack Ma still fresh on their minds, Kenyans are not inclined to believe that the IMF billions will indeed go to “support[ing] the next phase of the authorities’ COVID-19 response and their plan to reduce debt vulnerabilities while safeguarding resources to protect vulnerable groups”, as the IMF has claimed.

#KOT have — with outrage, with humour, vociferously — rejected this latest loan, tweeting the IMF in their hundreds and inundating the organisation’s Facebook page with demands that the IMF rescind its decision. An online petition had garnered more than 200,000 signatures within days of the IMF’s announcement. Whether the IMF will review its decision is moot. The prevailing economic climate is such that we are damned if we do take the loan, and damned if we don’t.

Structural adjustment supposedly “encourages countries to become economically self-sufficient by creating an environment that is friendly to innovation, investment and growth”, but the recidivist nature of the programmes suggests that either the Kenyan government is a recalcitrant pupil or SAPs simply don’t work. I would say it is both.

But the Kenyan government has not just been a recalcitrant pupil; it has also been a consistently profligate one. While SAPs do indeed provide for “safeguarding resources to protect vulnerable groups”, political choices are made that sacrifice the welfare of the ordinary Kenyan at the altar of grandiose infrastructure projects, based on the fiction peddled by international financial institutions that infrastructure-led growth can generate enough income to service debt. And when resources are not being wasted on “legacy” projects, they are embezzled on a scale that literally boggles the mind. We can no longer speak of runaway corruption; a new lexicon is required to describe this phenomenon which pervades every facet of our lives and which has rendered the years of sacrifice our parents endured meaningless and put us in debt bondage for many more generations to come. David Ndii long warned us that this moment was coming. It is here.

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East Africa: A ‘Hotbed of Terror’

African states are involved in the War on Terror more than we think. They’re surrounded by an eco-system of the war industry.

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East Africa: A ‘Hotbed of Terror’
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In late January, reports circulated on social media about a suspected US drone strike in southern Somalia, in the Al-Shabaab controlled Ma’moodow town in Bakool province. Debate quickly ensued on Twitter about whether the newly installed Biden administration was responsible for this strike, which was reported to have occurred at 10 p.m. local time on January 29th, 2021.

Southern Somalia has been the target of an unprecedented escalation of US drone strikes in the last several years, with approximately 900 to 1,000 people killed between 2016 and 2019. According to the nonprofit group Airwars, which monitors and assesses civilian harm from airpower-dominated international military actions, “it was under the Obama administration that a significant US drone and airstrike campaign began,” coupled with the deployment of Special Operations forces inside the country.

Soon after Donald Trump took office in 2017, he signed a directive designating parts of Somalia “areas of active hostilities.” While the US never formally declared war in Somalia, Trump effectively instituted war-zone targeting rules by expanding the discretionary authority of the military to conduct airstrikes and raids. Thus the debate over the January 29 strike largely hinged on the question of whether President Joe Biden was upholding Trump’s “flexible” approach to drone warfare―one that sanctioned more airstrikes in Somalia in the first seven months of 2020 than were carried out during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, combined.

In the days following the January 29 strike, the US Military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) denied responsibility, claiming that the last US military action in Somalia occurred on January 19, the last full day of the Trump presidency. Responding to an inquiry from Airwars, AFRICOM’s public affairs team announced:

We are aware of the reporting. US Africa Command was not involved in the Jan. 29 action referenced below. US Africa Command last strike was conducted on Jan. 19. Our policy of acknowledging all airstrikes by either press release or response to query has not changed.

In early March, The New York Times reported that the Biden administration had in fact imposed temporary limits on the Trump-era directives, thereby constraining drone strikes outside of “conventional battlefield zones.” In practice, this means that the US military and the CIA now require White House permission to pursue terror suspects in places like Somalia and Yemen where the US is not “officially” at war. This does not necessarily reflect a permanent change in policy, but rather a stopgap measure while the Biden administration develops “its own policy and procedures for counterterrorism kill-or-capture operations outside war zones.”

If we take AFRICOM at its word about January 29th, this provokes the question of who was behind that particular strike. Following AFRICOM’s denial of responsibility, analysts at Airwars concluded that the strike was likely carried out by forces from the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somali (AMISOM) or by Ethiopian troops, as it occurred soon after Al-Shabaab fighters had ambushed a contingent of Ethiopian troops in the area. If indeed the military of an African state is responsible for the bombing, what does this mean for our analysis of the security assemblages that sustain the US’s war-making apparatus in Africa?

Thanks to the work of scholars, activists, and investigative journalists, we have a growing understanding of what AFRICOM operations look like in practice. Maps of logistics hubs, forward operating sites, cooperative security locations, and contingency locations―from Mali and Niger to Kenya and Djibouti―capture the infrastructures that facilitate militarism and war on a global scale. Yet what the events of January 29th suggest is that AFRICOM is situated within, and often reliant upon, less scrutinized war-making infrastructures that, like those of the United States, claim to operate in the name of security.

A careful examination of the geographies of the US’s so-called war on terror in East Africa points not to one unified structure in the form of AFRICOM, but to multiple, interconnected geopolitical projects. Inspired by the abolitionist thought of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who cautions activists against focusing exclusively on any one site of violent exception like the prison, I am interested in the relational geographies that sustain the imperial war-making infrastructure in Africa today. Just as the modern prison is “a central but by no means singularly defining institution of carceral geography,” AFRICOM is a fundamental but by no means singularly defining instrument of war-making in Africa today.

Since the US military’s embarrassing exit from Somalia in 1993, the US has shifted from a boots-on-the ground approach to imperial warfare, instead relying on African militaries, private contractors, clandestine ground operations, and drone strikes. To singularly focus on AFRICOM’s drone warfare is therefore to miss the wider matrix of militarized violence that is at work. As Madiha Tahir reminds us, attack drones are only the most visible element of what she refers to as “distributed empire”—differentially distributed opaque networks of technologies and actors that augment the reach of the war on terror to govern more bodies and spaces. This dispersal of power requires careful consideration of the racialized labor that sustains war-making in Somalia, and of the geographical implications of this labor. The vast array of actors involved in the war against Al-Shabaab has generated political and economic entanglements that extend well beyond the territory of Somalia itself.

Ethiopia was the first African military to intervene in Somalia in December 2006, sending thousands of troops across the border, but it did not do so alone. Ethiopia’s effort was backed by US aerial reconnaissance and satellite surveillance, signaling the entanglement of at least two geopolitical projects. While the US was focused on threats from actors with alleged ties to Al-Qaeda, Ethiopia had its own concerns about irredentism and the potential for its then-rival Eritrea to fund Somali militants that would infiltrate and destabilize Ethiopia. As Ethiopian troops drove Somali militant leaders into exile, more violent factions emerged in their place. In short, the 2006 invasion planted the seeds for the growth of what is now known as Al-Shabaab.

The United Nations soon authorized an African Union peacekeeping operation (AMISOM) to “stabilize” Somalia. What began as a small deployment of 1,650 peacekeepers in 2007 gradually transformed into a number that exceeded 22,000 by 2014. The African Union has emerged as a key subcontractor of migrant military labor in Somalia: troops from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda deployed to fight Al-Shabaab are paid significantly higher salaries than they receive back home, and their governments obtain generous military aid packages from the US, UK, and increasingly the European Union in the name of “security.”

But because these are African troops rather than American ones, we hear little of lives lost, or of salaries not paid. The rhetoric of “peacekeeping” makes AMISOM seem something other than what it is in practice—a state-sanctioned, transnational apparatus of violent labor that exploits group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death. (This is also how Gilmore defines racism.)

Meanwhile, Somali analyst Abukar Arman uses the term “predatory capitalism” to describe the hidden economic deals that accompany the so-called stabilization effort, such as “capacity-building” programs for the Somali security apparatus that serve as a cover for oil and gas companies to obtain exploration and drilling rights. Kenya is an important example of a “partner” state that has now become imbricated in this economy of war. Following the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) invasion of Somalia in October 2011, the African Union’s readiness to incorporate Kenyan troops into AMISOM was a strategic victory for Kenya, as it provided a veneer of legitimacy for maintaining what has amounted to a decade-long military occupation of southern Somalia.

Through carefully constructed discourses of threat that build on colonial-era mappings of alterity in relation to Somalis, the Kenyan political elite have worked to divert attention away from internal troubles and from the economic interests that have shaped its involvement in Somalia. From collusion with Al-Shabaab in the illicit cross-border trade in sugar and charcoal, to pursuing a strategic foothold in offshore oil fields, Kenya is sufficiently ensnared in the business of war that, as Horace Campbell observes, “it is not in the interest of those involved in this business to have peace.”

What began as purportedly targeted interventions spawned increasingly broader projects that expanded across multiple geographies. In the early stages of AMISOM troop deployment, for example, one-third of Mogadishu’s population abandoned the city due to the violence caused by confrontations between the mission and Al-Shabaab forces, with many seeking refuge in Kenya. While the mission’s initial rules of engagement permitted the use of force only when necessary, it gradually assumed an offensive role, engaging in counterinsurgency and counterterror operations.

Rather than weaken Al-Shabaab, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia observed that offensive military operations exacerbated insecurity. According to the UN, the dislodgment of Al-Shabaab from major urban centers “has prompted its further spread into the broader Horn of Africa region” and resulted in repeated displacements of people from their homes. Meanwhile, targeted operations against individuals with suspected ties to Al-Shabaab are unfolding not only in Somalia itself, but equally in neighboring countries like Kenya, where US-trained Kenyan police employ military tactics of tracking and targeting potential suspects, contributing to what one Kenyan rights group referred to as an “epidemic” of extrajudicial killings and disappearances.

Finally, the fact that some of AMISOM’s troop-contributing states have conducted their own aerial assaults against Al-Shabaab in Somalia demands further attention. A December 2017 United Nations report, for example, alleged that unauthorized Kenyan airstrikes had contributed to at least 40 civilian deaths in a 22-month period between 2015 and 2017. In May 2020, senior military officials in the Somali National Army accused the Kenyan military of indiscriminately bombing pastoralists in the Gedo region, where the KDF reportedly conducted over 50 airstrikes in a two week period. And in January 2021, one week prior to the January 29 strike that Airwars ascribed to Ethiopia, Uganda employed its own fleet of helicopter gunships to launch a simultaneous ground and air assault in southern Somalia, contributing to the deaths—according to the Ugandan military—of 189 people, allegedly all Al-Shabaab fighters.

While each of the governments in question are formally allies of the US, their actions are not reducible to US directives. War making in Somalia relies on contingent and fluid alliances that evolve over time, as each set of actors evaluates and reevaluates their interests. The ability of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda to maintain their own war-making projects requires the active or tacit collaboration of various actors at the national level, including politicians who sanction the purchase of military hardware, political and business elite who glorify militarized masculinities and femininities, media houses that censor the brutalities of war, logistics companies that facilitate the movement of supplies, and the troops themselves, whose morale and faith in their mission must be sustained.

As the Biden administration seeks to restore the image of the United States abroad, it is possible that AFRICOM will gradually assume a backseat role in counterterror operations in Somalia. Officially, at least, US troops have been withdrawn and repositioned in Kenya and Djibouti, while African troops remain on the ground in Somalia. Relying more heavily on its partners in the region would enable the US to offset the public scrutiny and liability that comes with its own direct involvement.

But if our focus is exclusively on the US, then we succumb to its tactics of invisibility and invincibility, and we fail to reckon with the reality that the East African warscape is a terrain shaped by interconnected modes of power. The necessary struggle to abolish AFRICOM requires that we recognize its entanglement in and reliance upon other war-making assemblages, and that we distribute our activism accordingly. Recounting that resistance itself has long been framed as “terrorism,” we would do well to learn from those across the continent who, in various ways over the years, have pushed back, often at a heavy price.

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