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What Code is Your [TRIBE]?

12 min read.

Kenyan demographers seem blind to the politics of identity and belonging. Yet the codification and recognition of tribe or ethnicity in Kenya has evolved into an exercise that gives – or denies – people political and social visibility.

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What Code is Your ?
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Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, after their families, by the house of their fathers, with the number of their names, every male by their polls.” Numbers 1:2

The broken promise

The Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) shared pictures of Shona women dressed in immaculately white dresses, deliberately invoking a religious sensibility. This was necessary since the Shona had arrived in Kenya as African missionaries in the 1950s. These pictures were taken at a podium draped in the Kenyan national flag on the occasion of what KHRC referred to on Twitter as the #ShonaCitezenshipPrayer. At the back of the dais was a canvas poster with the words “Prayer for the government of Kenya to grant the Shona citizenship.”

When they moved labourers from one part of their empire to another, the British didn’t think of the kind of long-term damage they left behind among translocated communities like the Warundi (sisal farmers in Kwale), the Makonde (rescued slaves resettled in Kilifi),  the Shona (African missionaries), the Nubians (King’s African Rifles who helped the British expand their empire) and the Pemba from Zanzibar. Or the Indians who were brought to work on the Uganda Railway. The post-colonial governments in Kenya, while instrumentalising ethnicity, had not evolved any mechanism to incorporate this translocated population who have over the past 57 years hovered in the margins of the Kenyan state.

Whether affected by the British Empire or rejected by the post- independence regimes, Kenya has been notorious for locking entire communities from accessing services and crucial papers through elaborate exclusionary mechanisms like censuses and ethnic coding.

Illusions and smoke screens

On 18th December, 2018, at an event in Marsabit, the then social services minister and former Marsabit governor, Amb. Ukur Yatani, presided over the issuance of legal status to “Wayyu”, the newly acknowledged name of the Waata community. The event, dubbed “rebirth of Wayyu”, was an official rejection of their old name, Waata, which had been considered pejorative and connotive of a low caste hunter gatherer group. With the name change also came their recognition as Kenya’s 46th tribe.

This recognition was a culmination of many factors. The idea was mooted by a Waata researcher in a 1993 paper where he suggested that “The Waata be registered as a distinct sub-group of the Boran-speaking peoples as are the Boran, Gabbra, Sakuye, etc;” as a means of preserving the Waata culture and identity. Over the years this quest took on different forms:  advocacy through petitions and threats, until at the end the quest for state recognition had become for Ali Bala Bashuna and for the Waata an existential question.

In a 2000 paper titled “When will we be people as well? Social identity and the politics of cultural performance, Aneesa Kassam gives a broader context for Ali’s quest, noting that:

“With no political support, his (Ali Bala’s) campaign has had little success. The state is, in fact, generally inimical to such manifestations of ethnicity. It considers them counter to its programmes of nation-building and will only support such movements when they are to its own political advantage.”

Wayyu was the third group to be given official ethnic codes and with it a form of a legal status.   The government made it look like this granting of legal status through ethnic code was a necessary and desired development.

Before Wayyu, and through a presidential proclamation, Kenyan Asians were recognised as Kenya’s 44th tribe on 22 July, 2017. In a TV interview, Farah Manzoor, a fifth-generation Kenyan human rights activist and the main architect behind the recognition of Kenyan Asians, led a choir thanking the president for recongising the Asian community.

Arabaini na nne
Twashukuru raisi
Arabaine na nne
Sisi ni wakenya
Wahindi wakenya
Kabila la kenya 

When the Minister for Interior, Fred Matiangi, announced the presidential proclamation, he told Kenyan Asians, “Now, you are part and parcel of us formally. You are part and parcel of Kenya’s great family.”

A few months earlier, the Makonde community received their own ethnic code on 1st February 2017 when the president himself conferred citizenship status to this erstwhile stateless community. They had been asked by the Minister for Interior, Joseph Nakaissery, “to feel liberated”.

Other groups came forward asking that they too be recognised. This is where the #ShonaCitizenshipPrayer finds a meaning.

When the Minister for Interior, Fred Matiangi, announced the presidential proclamation, he told Kenyan Asians, “Now, you are part and parcel of us formally. You are part and parcel of Kenya’s great family.”

A section of the Kirinyaga community came forward, asking that they be recognised as the 45th tribe of Kenya away from the Gikuyu tribe. One of the speakers said, “We are not here to promote tribalism…we don’t want our children to suffer from inferiority complex when they are talking. Another one added, “We claim social benefits, recognition…”

Just before the 2019 census, the Lembus community came forward with a legal suit for what they claimed to be an erroneous classification that had been “done without their consent thereby denying them crucial rights”.

Intentions and meaning  

The issuance of tribal codes and their recognition in all the three cases of Makonde, Wayyu and Asians meant something different. For the Makonde, their recognition as Kenya’s tribe 043 changed their statelessness and made them Kenyan citizens. For the Kenyan Asians, to be Kenya’s tribe 044 meant someone was playing a political game with the community’s name. For the Wayyu, there was a social political validation; they were now a distinct, independent and legit “tribe” who would never live under the shadow of other tribes.

Kenyans watched the “admission” of these “tribes” into an imaginary Kenyan National Register of tribal groups. No one noticed that from Makonde 043, Kenyan Asian 044 the government had skipped Tribe 045 and named Wayyu as Tribe 046. But that didn’t matter; this was vintage Kenyan ethos at play.

Census code

A few days prior to the 2019 Kenyan census, a video of an elderly man in a Kanzu and seated next to a wall with the words “Gurreh 509” scribbled on the wall went viral in Mandera. The man kept asking people to “wake up” and to “pass word around” that the people of Mandera were Gurreh–code 509 and not Garre–code 532. This, on his part, was short notice civic education to remedy the confusion of multiple codes provided as options for the Garre in the 2019 census. The man told the people to choose Gurreh 509 and to be vigilant enough to ensure that they were not recorded as Garre 532.

The 2019 census revived an old discussion on census and tribal codes.

Old game

In his book Define and Rule, Mahmood Mamdani says that the census was an imperial tool that propped up indirect colonial rule. Censuses, he says, “…endeavoured to shape the present, past and future of the colonised by casting each in a nativist mould, the present through a set of identities in the census, the past through the driving force of a new historiography, and the future through an extensive legal and administrative apparatus.”

A few days prior to the 2019 Kenyan census, a video of an elderly man in a Kanzu and seated next to a wall with the words “Gurreh 509” scribbled on the wall went viral in Mandera. The man kept asking people to “wake up” and to “pass word around” that the people of Mandera were Gurreh-code 509 and not Garre-code 532.

An example of the quest of such a classification was visible during the colonial times in the curious case of the Isaaq and Harti Somalis who in 1937 petitioned the British colonial government demanding that they be charged a higher tax under the “non natives” category. Keren Witzenberg, writing about this, says that “fearful of losing their privileged status within the colonial racial order, Isaaq elites claimed that they were not Africans, nor Somalis, but rather “Asiatics”.

This classification for the Isaaq/Harti Somalis came with benefits, including “pass exemptions, special rations in prison and the military, higher salaries, and access to separate wards in hospitals…and access to many of the civil rights denied to other African subjects”.

Census code as mother of ethnic code 

The magical Kenyan number of 42 ethnic tribes was, according to Gabrielle Lynch, born out of the options provided during the 1962 census. Census reports, however, have not over those years been consistent in reporting on the number of ethnic groups in the country, as illustrated in the table below.

Kenyan tribes, as reported in the Kenyan census over the years

Source: Kenya National Bureau of Statistics

Source: Kenya National Bureau of Statistics

In the 2009 enumerators’ manual, at least 114 different tribes were coded, including subgroups under the big tribes like the Luhya, the Kalenjin, the Swahili and the Mijikenda. If this is compared with the census results and the ethnic data found on the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) website, it becomes easily apparent that even where one’s community had been coded and options provided, it did not automatically translate to their ethnic data being included in the final census report. The reverse is also true for some communities whose names were not coded or provided as options but their numbers and final figures were included in the final ethnic data report. By 2019 the number of coded ethnic/nationality options were 135.

It was obvious that the census was not serious about what and who they included in their ethnic lists. Numerous examples abound.

The 2009 census codes were different from the 2019 codes. Nubians who had been included in the 2009 census for the first time under code 220 were now coded 021 in the 2019 census. Even the Makonde with ethnic code 043 were listed under census code 320.

Other inconsistencies in the census include repetitions, double entries, misspelt community names, for example, Garre,Gurreh or Waat,Watta,Aweer/Watta, Wayyu.

While many minorities fought for inclusion, a community like the Orma are fighting to have the name Galla removed from the census since it is a pejorative reference invented in the colonial period. (Mgalla muue na haki mpe? )

The 2009 census codes were different from the 2019 codes. Nubians who had been included in the 2009 census for the first time under code 220 were now coded 021 in the 2019 census. Even the Makonde with ethnic code 043 were listed under census code 320.

Kenyan demographers seem blind to the politics of identity and belonging. It was obvious that KNBS hasn’t given serious thought to the socio-political implications of what the census means. In the enumerators manual we see a cautionary attitude from KNBS. To the question “What is <NAME>’s ethnicity or Nationality?” enumerators were asked to:

Accept the answer as given to you without question. Do not get involved in any argument on this issue. The census is not concerned with the legal position. Accept what the person tells you and record the ethnicity or nationality to which the person considers he/she belongs.

When did census coding become political?

While the census transitioned from its narrow orientation in 1962 where only 16 ethnic groups were tallied to 2019 where 135 options were provided, including minorities like Waat and Nubians, an examination of the census reports over the decades shows unexplained inclusion or exclusion of ethnic groups. This has created the perception that ethnic exclusion from the census tallying process means exclusion from opportunities and resources.  The inclusion of any ethnic groups in the census one year and its removal in the next census has led to the general idea that one’s existence and identity is being questioned. Here a protest begins.

At least 17 tribes/Nationalities/options included in the 1989 census report had been left out of the 2009 results. But there was the addition of 18 new ethnicity/tribes/nationalities/options provided in the 2009 census.

Addition of new tribes in the Kenyan census over the decades

Addition of new tribes in the Kenyan census over the decades

Source: KNBS

But even as new tribes were added, over the decades some were suddenly dropped from the reports.

Tribes left out of census reports over the years

Tribes left out of census reports over the years

Source: KNBS

Source: KNBS

In the 2009 census, there were 114 options provided, including the subgroups for larger groups like Luhya (18), Mijikenda (12) Swahili (20) The census report only gave the figures for 55 different tribes.

In 2019, the options provided were 143, including subgroups for larger groups. The 2019 census reports has also shown the figures for all the subgroups, a departure from the past where the subgroups were amalgamated and their figures reported as one.

Efforts towards state recognition 

The “rebirth of the Wayyu Nation ” began with the population census dating back to the 1990s. This bore fruit in 2009 because finally and for the very first time the Waata were counted as Waata and not as “others”.

Then their second quest begun in Ethiopia on 8th January 2013 at an event in which eight supreme traditional leaders (Aba Gadas) unanimously agreed to Waata changing their name to “Wayyu” because, as an activist put it, “Kabila haliwezi kujiita na Matusi“.

After this, the Wayyu set out on the quest for state recognition in Kenya. They began with the county commissioner’s office. “We got letters from the Marsabit, Isiolo, Tana River and Mandera county commissioners respectively confirming that our community lived in each of these counties.” County commissioners were instrumental in this quest since part of the ministry’s mission is “maintain a credible national population register, enhance nationhood”.

The Waata activists’ efforts included “taking the letters to the Gender and Equality Commission, who referred them to KNBS who referred them to Kenya National Census who referred them to the Attorney General’s office to whom they made a presentation justifying why we need to change our name from Watta to Wayyu and why we need an ethnic code”.

The Attorney General, Githu Muigai, then wrote a letter to the Office of the President through the Secretary to the Cabinet. They waited for the electioneering period to end, went back to the Secretary to the Cabinet, and also “asked for Ukur Yatani’s intervention, we even took the state recognition of Wayyu in Ethiopia, letters from the UN confirming the minority status of Wayyu”. Then a letter was written “to the registrar of persons….from the president himself”. These events eventually led to the community being recognised as Kenya’s tribe 046.

To be recognised as Kenya’s 43rd tribe, the Makonde embarked on a long journey. “We started the journey for recognition as Kenyan citizens early in 1995 “with the last major effort being “a walk for the stateless” where the Makonde community walked from Kwale County to State ouse in Nairobi, a distance of almost 500 kilometres.

Census as an eating opportunity?

But why, if the Makonde’s wanted recognition as Kenyan citizens through ethnic coding,  did the Wayyu and Asians also agitate for a code when they were already recognised as citizens, as they were already included in the census?

In post-devolution Kenya, a background is created. Employment and other resources were given along ethnic considerations. Thus, to add a “constitutional status” or a presidential pat to one’s ethnic existence redefines the framework in which local ethnic alliances are discussed and navigated, granting groups a new confidence and renewing their efforts to organise.

A Wayyu community activist captures the prevailing sentiment that an ethnic code might affect substantive changes in the community’s present and future access to resources and related opportunities. This speculative streak was putting a political question on the census/coding exercise. I ask how an ethnic code was different from a census code.  “Census is a research, they keep on changing the number ascribed to a community for purposes of analysis…census codes are not permanent. But an ethnic code is permanent, and that was our desire…If you cannot elect Wayyu by voting them as a minority then they can be given nomination seats, something like the old ‘bunge Maalum’ or even as an MCA in the county assembly.” 

For the Nubians, inclusion in the census was thought to lead to an express access to land. Samantha Balaton-Chrimes, writing about the Nubians’ reaction to being included in the 2009 census, observes that, “land was thought by many participants to be one of the reasons why the code in the census was so long in coming, and was of the primary benefits they hoped to gain from the 2009 code”

Samantha adds that “recognition in the form of a census code gave an institutional context for the multiple and complex modes of belonging that carry actual salience in their real lives”.

A year after the Makonde had been coded, the Daily Nation visited the community to see what had changed for them and were told: “Two youths joined the Kenya Police Service and four joined National Prisons Service. About 200 youth have also been participating in community work under the National Youth Service.”

In addition 1,875 members of the community had been issued with IDs and were registered as voters in Kwale County.

Post-independence anxiety

For many communities, an anxiety emerged at independence. In Kenya the post-independence governments inherited and wholly adopted the same simplified notion of ethnicity, which in most areas worked against the economic, social and political context of some groups, especially those that had been brought to Kenya in the service of the colony, such as the Indians, the Nubians or even the Burji. Kenya did not adopt an active denationalisation policy and did not undertake a mass expulsion of “non-nationals”, as was seen in Uganda where Asians under Amin and Banyarwanda under Obote were expelled en masse. In Kenya this was instrumentalised at a certain level as a manipulation tool. Murmurs of “rudi kwenu” or being called “wageni” never ceased.

Inclusion in the census, for some, has over the past decades brought back these anxieties because censuses in Kenya have evolved into exercises that give people political and social visibility.

It looks like the problem of exclusion from censuses is experienced elsewhere too. Even in the United States, the exclusion of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) identity category brought some controversy when it was ignored in the 2020 census. This erasure was challenged by congresswoman Rashida Tlaib who said, “By ignoring us you are erasing us…we will be invisible for another decade in our country” The MENA community, like others, relies on accurate census representation for health research, language assistance, civil rights laws, and reporting educational outcomes.

A convergence of confused expectations

It is obvious that another purpose can also be added to the census code. These communities between them capture a microcosm of the anxieties that emerge in the face of statehood, problems of citizenship, belonging and access to opportunities.

This is the wellspring of the overly optimistic notion that with an ethnic/census code minorities will also gain an expressway to all the things that they had been denied or had lacked; respect, political representation and full inclusion into national decision making. But this ambition had been adopted without proper assessment.

A year after the Makonde had been coded, the Daily Nation visited the community to see what had changed for them and were told: “Two youths joined the Kenya Police Service and four joined National Prisons Service. About 200 youth have also been participating in community work under the National Youth Service.”

Only four members of the Wayyu community have contested  an electoral office. On all but one of these occasions, the performance were dismal. These candidates suffered not only electoral loss but social ridicule and references to a “lower caste”, which meant that they lost their social standing and reputation. This ridicule and mocking jeers seemed intended to discourage further electoral contestation. The issue of forming political alliances, or their quest for ethnic codes was thus a matter of political necessity and of nationalistic expediency.

BBI games

The Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), like the census, reflects a quest for ethnic codes. Kenyan ethnic groups submitted memoranda on what they desired for their communities. Regional tribal alliances were formed to show allegiance to the president. Public political declarations were issued in support of BBI but also factions emerged as tribal elites sought to be the true spokespersons in submitting their ethnic group’s grievances and needs.

Mahmood Mamdani says “tribalism is a reified ethnicity”. And in Kenya a narrow utilitarian value has been ascribed to ethnicity and tribalism as the parameters of resource distribution and political mobilisation. Many Kenyan politicians often decry that tribalism is the cause of many of the country’s woes. The paths of these problems pass through the narrow bridges of ethnicf and census codes.

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The author is a writer based in Marsabit, Kenya.

Politics

Moving or Changing? Reframing the Migration Debate

The purpose of the mass and civilizational migrations of Western Europe was the same as now: not simply to move from one point to another, but also from one type of social status to another, to change one’s social standing in relation to the country of origin.

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Moving, or Changing?
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Do we move to change, or do we move to stay the same?

That seems to depend on who we were, to begin with. In most cases, it seems we move in an attempt to become even more of whatever we think we are.

A good Kenyan friend of mine once (deliberately) caused great offense in a Nairobi nightspot encounter with a group of Ugandans he came across seated at a table. There were six or seven of them, all clearly not just from the same country, but from the same part of the country.

“It always amazes me,” he said looking over their Western Uganda features, “how people will travel separately for thousands of miles only to meet up so as to recreate their villages.

He moved along quickly.

“Most African Migration Remains Intraregional” is a headline on the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies website:

Most African migration remains on the continent, continuing a long-established pattern. Around 21 million documented Africans live in another African country, a figure that is likely an undercount given that many African countries do not track migration. Urban areas in Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt are the main destinations for this inter-African migration, reflecting the relative economic dynamism of these locales.

Among African migrants who have moved off the continent, some 11 million live in Europe, almost 5 million in the Middle East, and more than 3 million in America.

More Africans may be on the move now than at any time since the end of enslavement, or perhaps the two large European wars. Even within the African continent itself. They navigate hostilities in the cause of movement—war, poverty and environmental collapse.

The last 500 years have seen the greatest expression of the idea of migration for the purpose of staying the same (or shall we say, becoming even more of what one is). The world has been transformed by the movement of European peoples, who have left a very visible cultural-linguistic stamp on virtually all corners of the earth. It is rarely properly understood as a form of migration.

It took place in three forms. The first was a search for riches by late feudal Western European states, in a bid to solve their huge public debts, and also enrich the nobility. This was the era of state-sponsored piracy and wars of aggression for plunder against indigenous peoples. The second form was the migration of indentured Europeans to newly conquered colonial spaces. The third was the arrival of refugees fleeing persecution borne of feudal and industrial poverty, which often took religious overtones.

Certainly, new spaces often create new opportunities, but only if the migrants concerned are allowed to explore the fullness of their humanity and creativity. The historical record shows that some humans have done this at the expense of other humans.

A key story of the world today seems to be the story of how those that gained from the mass and civilizational migrations of Western Europe outwards remain determined to keep the world organised in a way that enables them to hold on to those gains at the expense of the places to which they have migrated.

We can understand the invention and development of the modern passport—or at least its modern application—as an earlier expression of that. Originally, passports were akin to visas, issued by authorities at a traveler’s intended destination as permission to move through the territory. However, as described by Giulia Pines in National Geographic, established in 1920 by the League of Nations, “a Western-centric organization trying to get a handle on a post-war world”, the current passport regime “was almost destined to be an object of freedom for the advantaged, and a burden for others”. Today the dominant immigration models (certainly from Europe) seem based around the idea of a fortress designed to keep people out, while allowing those keeping the people out to go into other places at will, and with privilege, to take out what they want.

Certainly, new spaces often create new opportunities, but only if the migrants concerned are allowed to explore the fullness of their humanity and creativity.

For me, the greatest contemporary expression of “migration as continuity” has to be the Five Eyes partnership. This was an information-sharing project based on a series of satellites owned by the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Its original name was “Echelon”, and it has grown to function as a space-based listening system, spying on telecommunications on a global scale – basically, space-based phone tapping.

All the countries concerned are the direct products of the global migration and settlement of specifically ethnic English Europeans throughout the so-called New World, plus their country of origin. The method of their settlement are now well known: genocide and all that this implies. The Five Eyes project represents their banding together to protect the gains of their global ethnic settlement project.

In the United States, many families that have become prominent in public life have a history rooted, at least in part, in the stories of immigrants. The Kennedys, who produced first an Ambassador to the United Kingdom, and then through his sons and grandsons, a president, an attorney general, and a few senators, made their fortune as part of a gang of Irish immigrants to America involved in the smuggling of illicit alcohol in the period when the alcohol trade was illegal in the United States.

Recent United States president Donald Trump is descended from a German grandfather who, having arrived in 1880s America as a teenage barber, went on to make money as a land forger, casino operator and brothel keeper. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States was the paternal grandson of a trader named Warren, a descendant of Dutch settlers who made his fortune smuggling opium into China in the 1890s.

While it is true that the entire story of how Europeans came to be settled in all the Americas is technically a story of criminality, whether referred to as such or not, the essential point here is that many of the ancestors of these now prominent Americans would not have passed the very same visa application requirements that they impose on present-day applicants.

The purpose of migrations then was the same as it is now: not simply to move from one point to another, but also from one type of social status to another. It was about finding wealth, and through that, buying a respectability that had not been accessible in the country of origin. So, the point of migration was in a sense, not to migrate, but to change one’s social standing.

And once that new situation has been established, then all that is left is to build a defensive ring around that new status. So, previously criminal American families use the proceeds of their crime to build large mansions, and fill the rooms with antiques and heirlooms, and seek the respectability (not to mention business opportunities) of public office.

Many of the ancestors of these now prominent Americans would not have passed the very same visa application requirements that they put to present-day applicants.

European countries that became rich through the plunder of what they now call the “developing world”, build immigration measures designed to keep brown people out while allowing the money keep coming in. They build large cities, monuments and museums, and also rewrote their histories just as the formerly criminal families have done.

Thus the powers that created a world built on migration cannot be taken seriously when they complain about present-day migration.

Migration is as much about the “here” you started from, as it about the “there” you are headed to. It is not about assimilating difference; it is about trying to keep the “here” unchanged, and then to re-allocate ourselves a new place in that old sameness. This is why we go “there”.

This may explain the “old-new” names so common to the mass European migration experience. They carry the names of their origins, and impose them on the new places. Sometimes, they add the word “New” before the old name, and use migrant-settler phrases like “the old country”, “back east”. They then seek to choose a new place to occupy in the old world they seek to recreate, that they could not occupy in the old world itself. But as long as the native still exists, then the settler remains a migrant. And the settler state remains a migrant project.

To recreate the old world, while creating a new place for themselves in it, , such migrants also strive to make the spaces adapt to this new understanding of their presence that they now seek to make real.

I once witness a most ridiculous fight between three Ugandan immigrants in the UK. It took place on the landing of the social housing apartment of two of them, man and wife, against the third, until that moment, their intended house guest. As his contribution to their household, the guest had offered to bring a small refrigerator he owned. However, when the two men went to collect the fridge in a small hired van, the driver explained that traffic laws did not permit both to ride up front with him – one would have to ride in the back with the fridge. The fridge owner, knowing the route better, was nominated to sit up front, to which his friend took great and immediate exception; he certainly had not migrated to London to be consigned to the back of a van like a piece of cargo. After making his way home via public means, and discussing his humiliation with his good wife, the arrangement was called off – occasioning a bitter confrontation with the bewildered would-be guest.

There must have been so many understandings of the meaning of their migration to Britain, but like the Europeans of the New World, the Ugandans had settled on replicating the worst of what they were running from in an attempt to become what they were never going to be allowed to be back home.

A good case in point is the ethnic Irish communities in Boston and New York, whose new-found whiteness—having escaped desperate poverty, oppression and famine under British colonial rule on what were often referred to as “coffin ships” —saw them create some of the most racist and brutal police forces on the East Coast. They did not just migrate physically; they did so socially and economically as well.

It starts even with naming.

The word “migrant” seems to belong more to certain races than to others, although that also changes. When non-white, normally poor people are on the move, they can get labeled all sorts of things: refugees, economic migrants, immigrants, illegals, encroachments, wetbacks and the like.

With white-skinned people, the language was often different. Top of the linguistic league is the word “expatriate”, to refer to any number of European-origin people moving to, or through, or settling in, especially Africa.

According to news reports, some seven million Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion were absorbed by their neighboring European countries, most of which are members of the European Union. Another 8 million remain displaced within the war-torn country.

This is an outcome of which the Europeans are proud. They have even emphasized how the racial and cultural similarities between themselves and the Ukrainian refugees have made the process easier, if not a little obligatory.

This sparked off a storm of commentary in which comparisons were made with the troubles earlier sets of refugees (especially from the Middle East and Afghanistan) faced as the fled their own wars and tried to enter Western Europe.

And the greatest irony is that the worst treatment they received en-route was often in the countries of Eastern Europe.

Many European media houses were most explicit in expressing their shock that a war was taking place in Europe (they thought they were now beyond such things), and in supporting the position that the “white Christian” refugees from Ukraine should be welcomed with open arms, unlike the Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians before them.

Human migration was not always like this.

Pythagoras (570-495 BC), the scholar from Ancient Greece, is far less well remembered as a migrant and yet his development as a thinker is attributable to the 22 or so years he spent as a student and researcher in Ancient Egypt. The same applies to Plato, who spent13 years in Egypt.

There is not that much evidence to suggest that Pythagoras failed to explain where he got all his learning from. If anything, he seems to have been quite open in his own writing about his experiences, first as an apprentice and later a fellow scholar in the Egyptian knowledge systems. The racial make-up of Ancient Egypt, and its implications, was far from becoming the political battleground it is today.

Top of the linguistic league is the word “expatriate” to refer to any number of European-origin people moving to, or through, or settling in, especially Africa.

Classic migration was about fitting in. Colonial migration demands that the new space adapt to accommodate the migrant. The idea of migrants and modern migration needs to be looked at again from its proper wider 500-year perspective. People of European descent, with their record of having scattered and forcibly imposed themselves all over the world, should be the last people to express anxieties about immigrants and migration.

With climate change, pandemic cycles, and the economic collapse of the west in full swing, we should also focus on the future of migration. As was with the case for Europeans some two to three hundred years ago, life in Europe is becoming rapidly unlivable for the ordinary European. The combination of the health crisis, the energy crisis, the overall financial crisis and now a stubborn war, suggests that we may be on the threshold of a new wave of migration of poor Europeans, as they seek cheaper places to live.

The advantages to them are many. Large areas of the south of the planet are dominated physically, financially and culturally, by some level of Western values, certainly at a structural level. Just think how many countries in the world use the Greco-Latin origin word “police” to describe law enforcement. These southern spaces have already been sufficiently Westernized to enable a Westerner to live in them without too much of a cultural adjustment on their part. The Westerners are coming back.

This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.

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Politics

The Iron Grip of the International Monetary System: CFA Franc, Hyper-Imperial Economies and the Democratization of Money

Cameroonian economist Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi died in 1984, either poisoned or by suicide. His ideas about the international monetary system and the CFA franc are worth revisiting.

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The Iron Grip of the International Monetary System: CFA Franc, Hyper-Imperial Economies and the Democratization of Money
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Despite being one of Africa’s greatest economists, Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi is little known outside Francophone intellectual circles. Writing in the 1970s, he offered a stinging rebuke of orthodox monetary theory and policy from an African perspective that remains relevant decades later. Especially powerful are his criticisms of the international monetary system and the CFA franc, the regional currency in West and Central Africa that has historically been pegged to the French currency—at first the franc, and now the euro.

Pouemi was born on November 13th, 1937, to a Bamiléké family in Bangoua, a village in western Cameroon. After obtaining his baccalaureate and working as a primary school teacher, Pouemi moved to France in 1960, where he studied law, mathematics, and economics at the University of Clermont-Ferrand. Pouemi then worked as a university professor and policy adviser in Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire. In 1977, he joined the IMF but quit soon after, vehemently disagreeing with its policies. He returned to Cameroon and published his magnum opus, Money, Servitude, and Freedom, in 1980. The recently elected president of Cameroon, Paul Biya, appointed Pouemi head of the University of Douala in August 1983—then fired him a year later. On December 27th, 1984, Pouemi was found dead of an apparent suicide in a hotel room. Some of his friends and students argue he was poisoned by the Biya regime (which still governs Cameroon), while others believe that harassment by Biya’s cronies drove Pouemi to suicide.

International Monetary System

Writing in the turbulent 1970s after the breakdown of the Bretton Woods regime of fixed exchange rates, Pouemi anticipated the three “fundamental flaws” with the international monetary “non-system”: one, using a national currency, the US dollar, as global currency; two, placing the burden of adjustment exclusively on deficit nations; and, three, the “inequity bias” of the foreign reserve system, which makes it a form of “reverse aid.” All three issues have been highlighted by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Long recognized as a problem, the challenges with using the US dollar as the world’s currency have once again become apparent. Low- and middle-income countries (which include essentially all African countries) have to deal with the vicissitudes of the global financial cycles emanating from the center of the global capitalist system. As the Federal Reserve raises interest rates to combat inflation by engineering a recession—because if borrowing costs rise, people have less money to spend and prices will decrease—they are increasing the debt burden of African governments that have variable-rate loans in US dollars. Already, the World Bank has warned of a looming debt crisis and the potential for another “lost decade” like the 1980s. Moreover, higher interest rates in the US lead to the depreciation of African currencies, making imports more expensive and leading to even higher food and oil prices across the continent.

Pouemi viewed the IMF’s attempt to create a global currency through the 1969 establishment of the special drawing rights (SDR) system as an inadequate response to the problems created by using the US dollar. The issuance of SDRs essentially drops money from the sky into the savings accounts of governments around the world. The IMF has only issued SDRs four times in its history, most recently in August 2021 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With African governments dealing with falling export earnings and the need to import greater amounts of personal protective equipment—and, eventually, vaccines—there was a clear need to bolster their savings, i.e., foreign reserves. The problem is that the current formula for allocating SDRs provides 60% of them to the richest countries—countries that do not need them, since they can and have borrowed in their own currencies. Of the new 456 billion SDR (approximately US$650 billion), the entire African continent received only 5% (about US$33 billion).

Decades ago, Pouemi had slammed SDRs as “arbitrary in three respects: the determination of their volume, their allocation and the calculation of their value.” Instead, Pouemi advocated for a truly global currency, one that could be issued by a global central bank in response to global recessions and that prioritized financing for the poorest countries. Such a reorientation of SDRs could provide a way of repaying African nations for colonialism and climate change.

Secondly, unable to get the financing they need, African governments with balance-of-payments deficits (when more money leaves a country than enters in a given year) have no choice but to shrink their economies. Pouemi strongly criticized the IMF, which he dubbed the “Instant Misery Fund” for applying the same “stereotypical, invariable remedies: reduce public expenditures, limit credit, do not subsidize nationalized enterprises” regardless of the source of a country’s deficits. Devaluing the currency is unlikely to work for small countries that are price takers in world markets and instead improves the trade balance by lowering domestic spending. The IMF has become “a veritable policeman to repress governments that attempt to offer their countries a minimum of welfare.” The current international monetary non-system then creates a global “deflationary bias,” since those countries with balance-of-payments deficits must reduce their spending, while those with large surpluses—like Germany, China, Japan, and the Netherlands—face little pressure to decrease their surpluses by spending more.

The third major issue with the current international monetary non-system is that developing countries have to accumulate foreign exchange reserves denominated in “hard” currencies like US dollars and euros, which means they are forced to transfer real resources to richer countries in return for financial assets—mere IOUs. Pouemi claimed that “if the international monetary system was not ‘rigged,’ reserves would be held as other goods like coffee or cocoa, gold for example. But the system is ‘rigged’; coffee reserves are quantified as dollars, pound sterling or non-convertible francs.” Instead, in the late 1970s, governments like that of Rwanda effectively lent coffee to the United States by using export earnings to purchase US treasury bills, whose real value was being quickly eroded by high inflation in the US. Hence, we live in a world where developing countries like China and Brazil lend money to rich governments like that of the US. As Pouemi explains: “The logic of the international monetary system wants the poor to lend to—what am I saying—give to the rich.”

CFA franc

Pouemi was also a harsh critic of the CFA franc, since maintaining the fixed exchange rate to the euro implies abandoning an autonomous monetary policy and the need to restrict commercial bank credit. Pouemi also argued that the potential benefits and costs of currency unions are different for rich and poor countries, and that therefore it is inappropriate to analyze African monetary unions through a European lens. His thoughts are especially relevant at a moment when the future of the CFA franc and West African monetary integration are up for debate.

In theory, by fixing the exchange rate to the euro, the two regional central banks that issue the CFA franc—the Banque centrale des états de l’Afrique de l’ouest (Central Bank of West African States) and the Banque centrale des états de l’Afrique centrale (Central Bank of Central African States)—have relinquished monetary policy autonomy. They have to mimic the European Central Bank’s policy rates instead of setting interest rates that reflect economic conditions in the CFA zone. The amount of CFA francs in circulation is also limited by the amount of foreign reserves each regional central bank holds in euros. Therefore, “the solidity of the CFA franc is based on restricting M [the money supply], a restriction not desired by the states, but one proceeding from the very architecture of the zone.” As a result, the economies of the CFA franc zone are starved of credit, especially farmers and small businesses, hindering growth and development. In Pouemi’s words, “There is no doubt, the CFA remains fundamentally a currency of the colonial type.”

When discussing the possibilities for a single currency for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Pouemi stressed that the potential benefits and costs of currency union are different for rich and poor countries. “There is not only a difference of perception of the mechanisms of cooperation” between Europe and Africa, “there’s a difference of the conception of common life. Economic cooperation as it is conceived in the industrialized West is the Kennedy Round, North-South dialogue, the EEC, etc.—in other words, essentially ‘customs disarmament’ or common defense; armament is the rule, disarmament the exception.” In Africa, however, economic cooperation is a positive-sum game. Conventional economic theory argues against monetary integration among African countries, since they trade little with each other. But to Pouemi, the goal of monetary integration is precisely to get these countries to trade more with one another. He also questions the view that monetary integration should come last, following the same sequence as the European Union from free trade zone to customs union to common market and, finally, to currency union. “This view is not only imaginary, it is practically non-verified; we have seen examples. Theoretically, it is indefensible: a 10% decrease in tariffs could be … offset by a devaluation of 10%.”

Pouemi also dismissed arguments that Nigeria would dominate the proposed ECOWAS single currency as another example of the classic colonialist tactic of “divide and conquer.” While he acknowledged that “monetary union between unequal partners poses problems,” these are “only problems, open to solutions.” They do not make monetary integration unviable. Such integration need not limit sovereignty. In a regional or continental African monetary union, no “currency would be the reserve of others. Each country would have its own central bank, free to conduct the policy that best suits the directives judged necessary by the government. The only loss of sovereignty following such a union would be the respect of the collective balance. It would not be appropriated by anyone; it would be at the service of all. It would be, for that matter, less a loss of sovereignty than the collective discipline necessary to all communal life.”

Pouemi advocated for an African monetary union with fixed exchange rates between members, the pooling of foreign reserves, and a common unit of account—like the European Currency Unit that preceded the euro. He thought that the debate over whether the CFA franc is overvalued is misguided, since there is no a priori reason for its members to have the same exchange rate. Fixed but adjustable exchange rates—as in the Bretton Woods system or European Monetary System—would allow each nation greater monetary and exchange rate policy autonomy. Settling payments using a common unit of account instead of foreign exchange reserves would help economize on the latter. Moving toward the free movement of capital, goods and labor—as envisioned by the African Continental Free Trade Area—would help diffuse shocks through the monetary union. Finally, such a union would need to have a common policy on capital controls or at least collective supervision of international capital flows.

As Pouemi so eloquently lamented: “History will hold on to the fact that all of [Africa’s] children that have tried to make her respected have perished, one after the other, by African hands, without having the time to serve her.” We do not know what Pouemi could have accomplished had he had the time to serve Africa for longer. All we can do is heed his call that “in Africa, money needs to stop being the domain of a small number of ‘specialists’ pretending to be magicians.”

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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The Post-colonial Kenyan State: The Thorn in Our Flesh

The lesson from political economist Rok Ajulu’s academic work and activism: it’s not enough to change the “tenants,” but fight to change both the “state” and all of its houses.

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The Post Colonial Kenyan State: The Thorn in Our Flesh
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In early May 2022, with almost three months to the August election, Kenya had close to 50 presidential candidates, and 5,000 people running for the 1,500 Member of County Assembly (MCA) positions. Ultimately, not all of these aspirants will be cleared by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) (more like “blunder commission” judging from the 2017 elections and its lack of preparedness for the August 2022 poll), but the question remains—one that the political economist, Rok Ajulu, asked in his 2021 book Post-Colonial Kenya: The Rise of an Authoritarian and Predatory State: what is it about the post-colonial state in Africa that makes so many people want to control it?

In this impressive compendium, Ajulu chronologically and exhaustively mapped out the authoritarian turns of the Kenyan post-colonial state. In doing so, he documented the predatory nature of the colonial regime and how three successive African governments— headed respectively by Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel Arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki—have built on this legacy and, in addition, weaponized ethnicity at specific junctures to consolidate control and accumulation. And not just any accumulation: predatory and parasitic hoarding—in the sum of trillions of dollars and with many detrimental effects for the population—that is only possible when steered, despite declarations to the contrary from the top.

While he charts the oscillating, often moderate and neo-imperial allegiances of actors such as Jomo Kenyatta (the late father of outgoing president, Uhuru), Tom Mboya and Moi—none of whom were great fans of the Mau Mau—Ajulu’s focus is on how the state “becomes brazenly the instrument of the dominant political elite. This type of regime gravitates towards authoritarian dispensation of power precisely because economic mobility and expansion of the new elite is largely tied to their continued control of state-power.”

This thesis, while not unique to Ajulu and recognized in everyday discourse, is anchored here in a prolific and comprehensive archive, which also makes evident, as does the author, that the predatory pursuits of politicians are not unencumbered, even against the heavy-handed authoritarian implements (read political assassinations, state sanctioned ethnic clashes) they use to entrench them. Although Ajulu does not dwell on protests or resistances  to this authoritarian rule over four decades(please read this powerful book by Maina wa Kinyatti for that), and focuses primarily on party politics and the trajectories of (in)famous politicians to narrate the incremental creation of an authoritarian state in Kenya, the constant tug and pull of class tensions and the heterogeneous actions of supposedly homogeneous ethnic populations are always on the horizon.

Who is this man Rok Ajulu? In the short film about him called Breakfast in Kisumu, his daughter, the filmmaker Rebecca Achieng Ajulu-Bushell, documents his academic and political labors dating to his exile from Kenya in the early 1970s. Oriented around interviews she had with him—and it is his narrations that piece together the diverse landscapes that are the visuals for this film (we actually, interestingly, barely see Ajulu)—his voice takes us through his life as a student, political activist  and academic, in a journey that spans Bulgaria, Lesotho, the UK and South Africa. The evocative images of these countries where Rok Ajulu lived, while recent, anchor this narrative that accounts for a life of political praxes in academia and beyond. Though his sojourns mainly pivot around academic pursuits, we also hear about his labors as an agricultural worker in Bulgaria, a pirate taxi driver in Fulham, London and, importantly, as an organizer with the Committee for Action and Solidarity for Southern African Students (CASSAS) while at the National University of Lesotho in the late 1970s and early 1980s (for this work he was imprisoned for three weeks).

It is, perhaps, this period as an anti-apartheid organizer in Lesotho that created the path to a life in South Africa from 1994. Here he taught at Rhodes University and married Lindiwe Sisulu, the current Minister of Tourism (and one of the aspirants vying to succeed Cyril Ramaphosa as South Africa’s next president), and daughter of renowned anti-apartheid activists Walter and Albertina Sisulu. Consequently, it is in South Africa, rather than Kenya, where his influence was more extensive, even as Kenya appears to have been the primary focus of his academic scholarship.

Ajulu-Bushell’s poetic film demonstrates that her father’s life was not ordinary. But it is perhaps the internationalist and pan-African paths he chose that led her to recognize him, as she does in this film, as a “father” but not a “parent.” Her bid to understand her father’s life as an adult and, simultaneously, to document his political praxes, appear to be what has prompted this documentary. While the style of the film may not be for everyone—there are a few seemingly gratuitous appearances of the filmmaker—Breakfast in Kisumu is an important tribute to a father, and one who is representative of a generation who endured many unanticipated and painful exiles for nations and lands which did not always claim them, but for which they gave their lives.

As the final book Ajulu wrote before he died of cancer in 2016, Post-Colonial Kenya: The Rise of an Authoritarian and Predatory State is informed by questions that, likely, the author grappled with throughout his life.

Against the impending 2022 Kenya general elections that are not cause for much inspiration —with the male dominated alliances, handshakes, intrigues and elite contestations that characterize it—Ajulu’s thesis still rings true: that the state is the primary vehicle for accumulation and thus engenders a predatory authoritarianism by those who want to control it.

After years in an exile(s) documented by Ajulu-Bushell’s film, I’m not sure how optimistic Ajulu was for our Kenyan future, for he wrote in his final book: “Besides the change of tenants at the state house, not much really changed. The mandarins who used to lord it over the hapless rank and file remained in their same old places.”

At the very least, this generation can turn to the histories Rok Ajulu has documented in his book, as well as those he lived, to reflect on how, for this election and the next, we are not just going to change the “tenants,” but will fight to change both the “state” and all of its houses.

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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