It was a hot and dusty day in January 2019. Sam had been driving me around Nairobi since my first visit, ten years earlier. I often float ideas past him as we endure interminable traffic. “Sam, how many tribes are there in Kenya?” I knew there was no definitive answer but I wanted to know his thoughts. “Well, now we are . . . is it . . . 46? Or 47? We used to be 42 but some new ones were recently added. Makondes. Asians. Who else was it? Nubians . . .” “And where is the list?” I probed. “Oh that one . . . is it gazetted somewhere? I don’t know.” Later that day, while he refined my left hook, I asked my boxing trainer. Embarrassed, he laughed and said “You know . . . I’ve not brushed up on my tribes lately . . .” “Just roughly . . . how many?” He replied after some thought, “I think . . . well . . . I know that we used to be . . . is it 41? Or 42? 42. We used to be 42. But now, I don’t know.”
In multiple interviews with various government officials I was repeatedly told there were 42+ tribes, but nobody could tell me the nature or location of the list. “Do you know?” one official asked me. Ten years earlier, I had asked members of the minority Nubian community too: “Forty-two tribes. And we will be the 43rd.” They even had a letter from a Minister declaring they would, indeed, be counted as such in the 2009 census. But I struggled to find the list. Who is on it? Does it even exist? And if so, who controls it, and how? Why does nobody know? And does it matter?
In my research, this idea of “the 42” kept coming up over and over again. I have been conducting academic research in Kenya since 2009, mostly with the minority Nubian community which has long sought recognition as Kenyan, and has had considerable success in recent years in getting it. It was my first interviews with Nubian elders in 2009 that made me start wondering about this idea of “the 42”, where it comes from, why it matters.
So why does it matter?
Being recognised as a “tribe of Kenya” is important to people. It’s important symbolically as it makes people feel like legitimate citizens. And it is important materially, or at least there is an anticipation that it is. There is a belief that if you are one of the tribes of Kenya, then you can access the state’s resources. The exact mechanisms through which this is expected to happen include, for example, revenue sharing to the counties, drawing of administrative and electoral boundaries, and accessing special provisions like the Equalisation Fund. There is a popular belief that these are somehow connected to ethnicity, even though many Kenyans will point out they mostly shouldn’t be.
Counties, wards and so on are often treated as if they “belong” to a particular group. So, the idea is you have to be a recognised group to get your hands on government resources. Whether this is true or not, the perception that it is matters a lot for how people feel they belong, and how they might feel they are in competition with each other for resources. Plenty has been written on inter-ethnic competition and tribalism in Kenya. That’s not my focus here.
There is a belief that if you are one of the tribes of Kenya, then you can access the state’s resources.
At another level, the idea of “the 42(+)”, or the idea that there is or could be a list somewhere, matters for debates – prominent here in The Elephant among other places – about what it might mean to decolonise identity. On one hand, I’ve heard some Kenyans suggest that Africans should abandon ethnicity altogether, as it is a colonial construct used by the British and other imperial powers to conquer; to divide and rule. On the other hand, there is an argument that ethnicity is an important facet of African identities, and that these days “the West” has turned around and wants to eradicate it, especially around elections; therefore, the anti-imperial thing to do would be to affirm ethnicity. Both arguments have merit. My proposition here is not to take a strong position on either side, but to look at this idea of “the 42(+)” and its bureaucratic origins as a way of thinking through this debate. Decolonising identity is not only a personal thing – it is also a bureaucratic thing.
The title of this essay, and the academic research article on which it is based, is, then, deliberately provocative. I never thought – and my research confirmed this – that there would be a clear answer to these questions. I have never even been sure that “who are the tribes of Kenya?” is quite the right question to be asking. It carries some very politically loaded assumptions: that “tribe” is an appropriate term (more on this below); that there is a clear-cut way to determine who is and isn’t Kenyan based on their ethnic identity; that there are only 42 (or 43, 44 or 45) ethnic groups which can call Kenya home. My suggestion here is that asking why we ask this question is more important than the question itself.
The census is the only official list of “all” ethnic groups, and the only official tool to count the population by ethnicity. And 1969 is the only year that 42 ethnic groups were counted. Voter rolls prepared by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission do not record ethnic identity.
Electoral boundaries do not involve listing ethnic groups. Boundaries are connected to the census – insofar as they draw on population data – but before the 2010 constitution they bore no official relation to ethnic data. The 2010 constitution allows for a possible use of ethnic data. Under chapter 7, one explicit consideration for boundary redrawing is “community of interest, historical, economic and cultural ties”, which could potentially be interpreted to mean ethnic communities. However, the exact role this clause – or ethnicity more generally – now plays in boundary drawing is not clear.
The civil service doesn’t list ethnic groups. Civil service employment records routinely record and make public how many people are employed in the civil service from each ethnic group, but that only captures, of course, civil servants. To establish the “fairness” of each ethnic group’s share of civil service jobs, that data is compared to census data, but only at the national level or by problematically inferring ethnicity by location – for example, by assuming that if you live in Ukambani you must be Kamba.
Identification cards do not record ethnicity.
Nor, contrary to popular understanding, does the Kenya Gazette (the government’s official announcement record) list ethnic groups, although it was used as if it does when Asians were gazetted as the 44th Tribe of Kenya in 2017, despite no identification of the preceding 43.
So that leaves us with only the census.
In my research, I compared all ethnic classifications in all Kenyan censuses from 1948 to 2019. I looked at every census report, but also, where available, all the questionnaires used by enumerators when visiting households, instructions to enumerators about how to record “tribe”, explanations made by the Bureau of Statistics and its predecessors for what “tribe” means and why they chose the lists they did, and archival material (for 1948 and 1962) where colonial administrators debated in letters and meetings how they would conduct the census.
The list of “tribes” has changed in every single census, and since the first census in 1948, 150 different groups have been named. Of those, there are only 14 ethnic groups which have been named and counted exactly the same way in every census. The others have all changed, sometimes multiple times, for example by adding or deleting “sub-tribes”, by moving from a “sub-tribe” to a “main tribe” or vice versa, or by appearing or disappearing altogether. There are also some instances where a “tribe” was listed on the questionnaire but didn’t make it to the final census report, or where – curiously – they were not listed on the questionnaire but did make it to the final report.
You might recognise your ethnic group(s) in this list, possibly in multiple forms as some groups have changed names over time (e.g. Sudanese to Nubi), or even – unfortunately – in a derogatory form (such as Dorobo, which was only removed in 2019 because it refers to having no cattle, suggesting some form of inferiority). Some groups included on the list for “the tribe question” aren’t even really tribes: for example “Stateless” in 2019, or “Kenyan” in 2009.
So, how are these lists determined? There is no transparency on how these lists are decided, or what it means to be “coded”.
The first census in Kenya was carried out in 1948 and was part of an East African census that included other British territories in the region. More interested in the European population than the Indigenous one, the “non-native” census was extremely thorough, and the “native” one much more basic. Whereas all kinds of details that are useful for development purposes were gathered for the white population, the only three statistics gathered for the African population in every household were age, sex and – you guessed it – “tribe”. For Census Superintendent C. J. Martin, it was so obvious that you would count “tribe” that, in his extremely detailed report on the census, he didn’t even bother to explain why. Other factors that are much more useful in making sense of a population’s development needs, like fertility, education and occupation, were only counted for 10% of the African population in a sample census, and then generalised.
The list of “tribes” has changed in every single census, and since the first census in 1948, 150 different groups have been named.
The actual list of “tribes” that enumerators were given in 1948 was also, for Martin and the other census organisers, self-evident. The British authorities acted as if it was obvious which ethnic groups should be counted, but it clearly wasn’t, because there were differences between the list provided on the questionnaire, and that which appeared in the final report. We can only assume that any range of factors may have shaped the final 1948 list, including self-identification by householders, initiatives on the part of the enumerators or District Commissioners who compiled the returns, or maybe even political lobbying. In other words, determining the tribes of Kenya was not as self-evident as Martin imagined. Decisions about which ethnic groups, what names they use, how they are spelled, what and whether “sub-tribes” are counted and so on, always have to be made by someone.
But the thing about a census, as with so many official tools, is that it gives off an air of authority. When a list like that of “Kenya’s tribes” is made in this way, it comes to feel as if it is definitive, even when it never can be. Even though every census after 1948 has changed the list, it always builds on that first list made by British administrators, some of whom had very little understanding of the communities they were counting and classifying.
In 1962, the list was very similar to the one of 1948, but it dropped most of the ethnic groups which mostly live in other parts of East Africa (Tanzania, Uganda) and added some from the North and East of Kenya. By this time, the British authorities had established much more administrative control in those regions and had learnt of new groups not included in that earlier census, showing again major gaps in their knowledge of the people they had colonised. Morgan, another colonial administrator, this time involved in the 1962 census, later admitted that the concept of “tribe” was a bit arbitrary, but stuck to it anyway, stating:
[Tribe is] a unit which evades satisfactory definition but which was widely recognised. It may be said to be a group to which the individual feels a strong sense of belonging and which is usually distinguished by a common language and culture and, since marriages are mostly within it, may have inherited traits. […] For this study we have to accept the classification used in the census, for which no justification was published. The ascriptions were those routinely used by the administration and which appear to have presented few problems to those recording or those being recorded. They were the socio-political groups encountered by the colonial power upon its entry and with which it had to deal. Administrative boundaries were normally constructed to contain them and this probably increased the sense of tribal identity at that level.
Though he admits some arbitrariness, Morgan goes on, in this passage, to suggest again that it was obvious, uncontroversial and accepted by everyone – African and colonial administrator alike – who the “tribes” of Kenya were. If this was really the case, why then would it have changed?
The 1969 census, the first one conducted by the first post-colonial government, used the same list as was used 1962, but added two more Somali groups, without really explaining why. The 1979 census used the same list again, but collapsed a number of groups into “Kalenjin”. It is likely no coincidence that this happened the year after Moi became President, and Gabrielle Lynch has done some great research about the creation of the Kalenjin identity around this time. In 1989 there were only a few small changes. In short, with the exception of the introduction of Kalenjin as an ethnic group rather than just a linguistic group, the list remained pretty similar to the colonial-created one for the first three decades of Kenya’s independence, but not similar enough to agree with colonial officials Martin and Morgan that it was ever truly “obvious” which ethnic groups should be counted.
By 1999, with the politics of democratic reform in full swing, and the effects of Moi’s majimboist politics being felt across the country, no results were published on ethnicity from that year’s census. It was too sensitive.
Then, come 2009, only eighteen months after the post-election violence of 2007-08, the list of ethnic groups in the census underwent its first radical change since independence, with the number of groups skyrocketing to well over a hundred. This included long lists of “sub-tribes” for groups such as Swahili, Kalenjin, Mijikenda and Luhya, as well a considerable number of newly recognised ethnic groups, including Nubians (last counted in 1948 as “Sudanese”). The political mood was an inclusive one, seeking peace and inter-ethnic harmony. It felt right at the time to generously offer recognition. And it didn’t hurt that chopping up the population into lots of small groups might help cool the temperature on inter-ethnic competition between the larger groups. The 2019 census added yet more sub-tribes and new tribes, moved some around from one category to another, and renamed a few.
The only thing the history of the census classifications shows conclusively, then, is that there cannot be any conclusions. The census, though it has an air of officialdom, is really just a result of layer upon layer of bureaucracy, politics and coloniality. Politicians and civil servants might want to bed this down and make it feel certain, but they can’t. It changes every decade. They also can’t, practically, start from scratch either. The lists they have built are based on everything that came before – both colonial and postcolonial. They bear the markings of all the political moments in which censuses were conducted, and the particular concerns of politicians and statisticians at those times. And this is true of every census, everywhere in the world. They are not foolproof. They are not certain. They are not conclusive or definitive. The idea of the 42(+) is just that – an idea – however widespread and deeply believed.
The only thing the history of the census classifications shows conclusively is that there cannot be any conclusions.
The reality is that there is no definitive list of Kenya’s ethnic groups. That is, there is no list that does (or could) state with certainty and finality who the ethnic groups of the nation are. But there are official lists – those in the census – that are often perceived as certain, and those have to be reckoned with.
How colonial is ethnicity?
From one perspective, the story of ethnic classifications in the census is interesting as a puzzle. Working out who got added, who got removed, when, how and why is fascinating. There is a lot to be learnt about Kenyan history and ethnicity by looking at the details.
But from another perspective there is a bigger question to be considered here, and that is about whether, how, to what extent or in what ways ethnicity is colonial. The Elephant and other discussions in various forums are increasingly – and rightly – working through what it might mean to decolonise African identities. From renaming streets to pulling down monuments to pushing back against arbitrary determination of one’s identity by another, Kenyans and other Africans are questioning why ethnicity is such a strong form of identity; in what ways it was imposed by the colonial experience; and in what ways it has changed or should change form, or maybe even be abandoned.
Terence Ranger, a keen scholar of Kenya but also a former colonial official, coined the term “invention of tradition” to explain how the British came, saw, and invented ethnicity or – more specifically – “tribe”. Seeing Africans as being defined first and foremost by tribe allowed the British to divide and rule, and to imagine they were not just extracting and exploiting, but also civilising. The roots of ethnicity, in this sense, are problematic. The concept itself as well as the specific ethnic groups the British identified and made names and Native Reserves for, were fundamental tools of colonial control. Ethnicity kept Africans divided from each other and in a supposedly inferior place on the hierarchy of civilisation that justified British colonial authority. To the British, at least.
It is this history that makes the word “tribe” a problematic one for many people. Ngugi has written compellingly about how the word – the whole concept – should be abandoned because of its role in colonisation. Nonetheless, it remains the word used by KNBS to ask the ethnicity question in the census, which is why I have used it in this piece. It is something to think about.
Ethnicity kept Africans divided from each other and in a supposedly inferior place on the hierarchy of civilisation that justified British colonial authority.
This history of ethnicity gives cause to ask some critical questions about what to do with ethnicity in any project aimed at decolonising identity. It is indisputable that ethnicity has been – at least partly – invented by colonialism. We must, therefore, be attentive to ways in which some of the projects of colonialism – divide and rule, hierarchies of civilisation, extraction – are perpetuated by ethnic identification today. But I think it would be a mistake to reduce ethnicity to this.
How postcolonial is ethnicity?
Ranger, and others after him, including myself, have also shown that Africans also participated – and continue to participate – in the construction of ethnic identities. And this is not necessarily a terrible thing.
During the colonial period, some ethnic groups had special favour with the British and so it suited them to identify ethnically. Intermediaries like African teachers, missionaries, soldiers and so on, benefitted from colonial patronage. If a man (never a woman, of course) could position himself as a leader of his tribe, he could gain from that. So, he needed the tribe to exist. On the concerning side of the ledger, this kind of patronage politics and the inter-ethnic competition it led to are not such great outcomes.
On the more positive side of the ledger, though, many Kenyans have also come to identify with their ethnic group in more positive ways, as many did before the arrival of the British as well. Most obviously, the cultural practices and community connections that make people feel safe, secure, valued and which give many people’s lives meaning and structure, are not bad.
Then there are dimensions of ethnic identity that are more ambiguous. Many, including Rasna Warah, believe – for better or worse – that to belong to Kenya, you have to belong to a Kenyan ethnic group. This is why the announcement that Asians are the 44th tribe was so significant, even though most people wouldn’t have used the word “tribe” to describe this community in the past. Warah laments, “What makes me uneasy about the designation of Kenyan Asians as one of Kenya’s 44 tribes is that it reinforces the idea that one must belong to a tribe to be recognised as a bona fide Kenyan citizen.”
Seeing Africans as being defined first and foremost by tribe allowed the British to divide and rule, and to imagine they were not just extracting and exploiting, but also civilising.
In my book on the marginalisation of Kenya’s Nubians, I made a similar argument – that ethnic identity, and specifically recognition as being an ethnic group of Kenya, was necessary to feel one belonged to the nation. I showed how it was a source of pride and security for Nubians to identify ethnically. It has been the only way they can imagine securing a place for themselves in Kenya. When the Nubians were recognised in the 2009 census, it felt really very good for them. It has for many different groups. That can’t be disregarded, even though it might be questioned.
The postcolonial history of ethnicity, therefore, raises some additional questions for those interested in decolonising identity, questions about whether or not there might be “good” aspects of ethnic identity that are worth retaining, even if they contain shadows of the colonial past. Perhaps it is transformation, rather than abandonment, that is needed in a decolonial project?
Decolonising identity in the census?
The census is a key tool in the maintenance of ethnic identities. Any discussion about what it might mean to decolonise identity really must think through the role of the census in sustaining ethnic codes first invented by the British, but also actively continued and transformed by the postcolonial government and its citizens. Indeed, bringing the abstract conversation about decolonising identity down to the level of this very concrete list is both a challenge and an opportunity to explore and test ideas and emotions related to ethnicity.
Asking whether or not the census should continue to count ethnic groups is one way into the difficult conversation about how to reckon with the legacies of colonial weaponisation of ethnicity, as well as what it means to people today. Such a conversation needs to consider the varied effects of counting, both good (recognition for minority groups) and bad (competition and posturing based on group size). I wonder if there is a way that ethnicity can be recognised without reproducing the negative effects that first arose under colonial authorities. It is a genuine question – I don’t know the answer. Any such system of recognition, though, would have to be carefully thought through with respect to who gets to determine which groups are recognised, through what processes, with what official outcomes, and with attention to how the inevitable changes in how people identify ethnically will be accommodated. Reflecting on how you, as the reader, feel about how your ethnic group has been counted, or not, in the census, can be a useful entry point to clarifying where you sit on this question of what it might mean to decolonise identity.
Editors note: This essay is based on the author’s article ‘Who are Kenya’s 42(+) tribes? The census and the political utility of magical uncertainty’ published in The Journal of Eastern African Studies. To see the full table of all codes, click on the link, then on ‘Supplemental’. The first 50 readers can access the full article for free here. If these are all used up, Africa-based readers can access the full article for free by signing up to the STAR program.
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Moving to the Metropole: Migration as Revolution
In an act that should be seen as revolutionary, Africans are moving to the centre to benefit from the resources that continue to be extracted from their continent.
When African students and other black persons escaping Ukraine at the start of the Ukraine-Russia conflict were being ejected from exiting transport (trains and busses) and denied entry into neighbouring Poland, many Africans were enraged with the shameless display of racism. One of these Africans was a middle-aged man from Congo—must have been a graduate student—only recently settled in Germany. Seated inside a café at the Berlin central train station with five of his German and British friends, he exploded: “One wonders how they built all these things? From where did you get all this money? Look where we are, this Hauptbahnof [main train station] must have consumed a fortune. The vehicles you make? No way!” His monologue lasted a while as his friends listened either in agreement or disbelief: “This is our money,” he went on. “This is why you never stop these civil wars on the continent only to treat us like sub-humans. But we will not stop coming, whatever the cost!” he declared. His voice sounded austere, choked with emotion. None of his friends volunteered an immediate response. Then one said, this Ukraine situation is embarrassing.
While the angry tirade was sparked by the treatment of Africans trying to escape a war zone, clearly, this man had thought about all this stuff for some time. He must have been educated or observant enough to make the connections between the extraction back home in the DRC, the endless violent wars, the resources in Europe (as coming from his home), and the racist treatment of his kindred who otherwise deserve some respect for sustaining the beautiful lifestyles and infrastructures of the western world. Had he listened to Mallence Bart-Williams’ viral TEDx Talk? The story of this Congolese man, whom I will call Tshibumba Matulu (after the painter Tshibumba Matulu that Dutch anthropologist, Johannes Fabian writes about in Remembering the Present) is the story of “the metropole and the periphery” that dependency theorists Samir Amin, Immanuel Wallerstein and Andre Gunder Frank developed in the 1970s and 1980s. The last line of his vitriol is interesting enough in the sense that now, Africans are seeking to see the world as one whole and thus determined to move to the centre—follow up on and seek to enjoy their resources—at whatever cost. Indeed, despite the innumerable roadblocks (immigration laws, expensive and convoluted visa processes, slave traders in the Maghreb, drowning in the Mediterranean, rank racism, and Islamophobia in the western world), Africans are moving to the centre, to the metropole, en masse. They are determined to follow up on their resources.
This is the story of both the open and disguised violence of neoliberalism, where Africa is heavily mined on the cheap, exploited through unequal exchange, climate/conservation colonialism, with the proceeds coming from African human and natural resources being stolen through inexplicable claims of value addition. This point of view has been recently, succinctly and loudly expressed by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in her fight with French President Emmanuel Macron over immigration policies in Europe. Known for her anti-immigrant policies, Meloni’s (selfish) position is that if the French stopped stealing resources from 14 African countries through the clearly colonial and extortionist CFA, Africans would not be forced to make the dangerous journeys to Europe (where, by implication, they come to follow up on their resources, which are violently extracted leaving behind absolute poverty and suffering). In that viral clip doing the rounds across the globe, Meloni concludes that the solution to stop Africans from moving from their country to Europe is to leave them alone and have them receive the full benefit of their God-given resources:
So, the solution is not to take Africans and bring them to Europe, the solution is to free Africa from certain Europeans [especially France] who exploit it and allow these people to live off what they have.
While this message seemed directed at the French, the spread of (both violent and structural) capitalism across the African continent is real and threatening. With the collapse of the African economies about 30 years ago (via structural adjustment programmes), where foreign-owned companies returned under the neoliberal order and took over Africa’s major resources or the pillars upon which these economies stood—mineral resources (gold, oil, coffee, diamonds), banking, telecommunications, selling of agricultural products which used to be a function of cooperatives and direct government help—the continent has been left in a clear condition of morbidity. The bold choice, which I argue should be seen as revolutionary, is to move to the centre and demand the benefits of the resources that have been endlessly stolen from the continent, violently and through disguised extractivist structures.
Being a Congolese from Goma, Tshibumba Matulu must have witnessed the scramble for Congolese resources by the rich and mighty of the western world very up-close and personal—Dan Gertler International (DGI), Glencore Plc. and Alain Goetz, all of whom have a strong foothold in the country’s mining sector. These multinational companies own almost all the mining sites in the DRC, and have been implicated in the unending violence in the country, which is connected to the ways in which resources are mined. Take South Sudan as the other example where Glencore has a strong foothold in South Sudanese oil. In early November 2022, Glencore Plc. executives were found guilty of bribing the South Sudanese leadership—starting just four weeks after the country’s independence—as “they sought to profit from political turmoil . . . they inserted themselves into government-to-government deals that had been negotiated at preferential rates”. The Africa Progress Panel estimated that in a period of two years (2010-2012), DRC lost US$1.3 billion in asset sales to DGI. A 2021 study showed that DRC risked losing US$3.71 billion to controversial Israeli businessman Dan Gertler. This is a lot of money—which ends up in Israel where Gertler is one of the richest men and has been controversially implicated in a thousand scandals in Congo. To understand the fact that modern extraction follows a colonial model, one has to appreciate the fact that colonialism’s extraction was and is always outsourced to corporations. King Leopold operated in his individual capacity as a businessman, using his loot to build estates, infrastructures and palaces in Belgium (and not on the African continent). That an independent businessman, Dan Gertler, would promise guns to a government and actually deliver on his promise exposes the ways in which governments in the west outsource businessmen to colonise Africa on their behalf.
These multinational companies own almost all the mining sites in the DRC, and have been implicated in the unending violence in the country.
Dependency theory so succinctly exposed the roots and execution of underdevelopment in Black Africa, which is, in brief, resources being extracted on the cheap from the periphery (Africa), to be moved and generate more value in the metropole. If these resources ever come back to the continent (Latin America or Africa), they return more expensively. In this periphery-metropole dichotomy, endless capitalist exploitation (which mostly thrives on violence) not only depletes resources and opportunities at the periphery, but also makes life unliveable and unbearable. It then enacts tougher controls to keep the peoples of the periphery at the periphery so that they do not move to the metropole and overwhelm its amenities. This is why African journeys to the metropole are not only dangerous, but are also defined by more drama that tends to generate an incredible amount of grim news broadcasts. Dependency theory does not explicitly follow up on the revolutionary journeys where the exploited—like Tshibumba Matulu—painstakingly seek the benefits of their resources in the metropole. This is perhaps because it pursued another route out of this colonial conundrum, which was to de-link the metropole from the periphery.
Capitalism’s violence, revolutionary journeys
Transiting through airports in Dubai or Doha, one will encounter East African languages, especially Kiswahili and Luganda. Manning a counter in twos or threes, staff tend to speak to each other in their languages. While duty stations may not be allocated depending on the mutual native linguistic intelligibility between workers, since all speak English, somehow, workers from the same Great Lakes linguistic community find themselves together. That the numbers of labour migrants moving to the Middle East have soared over the past years is not just testament to the availability of job opportunities in the Middle East, but also to the dire conditions in which they live in their countries—conditions made difficult by the capitalist neoliberal reforms of the 1980s, and in some cases by conflict (especially in Northern Uganda, Karamoja, Turkana areas, South Sudan and Somalia). Middle Eastern salaries are not the greatest attraction as they range between US$600 and US$900 depending on seniority (far much less for domestic work). But that the same amounts cannot be earned back home speaks more to the dire conditions at home.
Data from the Uganda Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development published in the Daily Monitor, indicates that for the last six years (2016-2022), an average of 24,086 Ugandans left the country annually in search of employment, especially in the Middle East. What makes conditions so hostile in the Great Lakes Region? Besides Somalia and Central African Republic—where there is outright violence—why is the scale of movement of young people in particular so high in the Great Lakes region? It is the ravages of both internal capitalism (by the petty bourgeoisies) and foreign capital moving from South Africa northwards, but also coming from Europe and North America—and China exploiting the neoliberal environment. This is evident in cases of land grabbing, forced evictions, refugee crises caused by resource wars, especially in DRC and South Sudan, and the terrible business environment in the region.
Dependency theory does not explicitly follow up on the revolutionary journeys where the exploited painstakingly seek the benefits of their resources in the metropole.
Theoretically and practically, without the violence of the state and other related state actors, it is difficult for capitalism to reproduce itself. States do not only set the conditions under which extraction occurs (such as banking regimes, neoliberal regimes), but they are also ready to commit violence on the exploited. In Uganda, cases of land grabbing by local capitalists have made land ownership and agriculture difficult. In other cases, collusion between the state and foreign capitalists to evict peasants off their lands is causing first, rural urban-migration, and then journeys abroad. Among the most memorable cases is that of the 2001 evictions in Mubende where the German coffee company Neumann Gruppe used outright violence (with the help of the state), including shooting, burning houses and animals, and maiming people to create way for a coffee plantation. Over 2,000 families remain destitute and are yet to find justice. Faced with mass unemployment, extortionist banking regimes with high interest rates that have stymied creativity and made business difficult across East Africa, many young people struggle to start thriving businesses.
Violent evictions have also taken place in Kenya and Tanzania to create way for capitalist expansion or capitalist ostentation (Franz Fanon warned that political elites would turn the continent into an entertainment centre for foreign capitalists). This is the story in Samburu where evictions have taken place to create way for American charities. It is the story of the green colonialism that led to the Ogiek and Maasai evictions from the Mau Forest in the name of conservation. Guillaume Blanc’s recently published book, The Invention of Green Colonialism, demonstrates how the rhetoric of conservation (by colonially founded organisations including UNESCO, WWF, IUCN) perpetuates a colonial model of conservation that privileges animals and plants over humans. While capitalists in Europe and North America—consuming endlessly—have destroyed nature, they have maintained a mythical, fictionalised Eden in Africa, insisting that peasants, who have developed ways of coexisting with nature, who eat very little meat, have neither cars, nor computers nor smartphones, are a danger to the environment. They are evicted from huge swathes of land that are then reserved for white people to hunt and gaze at wild animals.
Away from the forests and the plains, the poor are also being “cleansed” from the capital cities. The 2021 Mukuru Kwa Njega eviction in Nairobi that left 40,000 people homeless is etched in the memories of Kenyans. In what Mwaura Mwangi aptly termed “Demolition Colonialism”, thousands of poor Nairobians have had their houses demolished so that the rich can enjoy easy transit. This is not anti-development position, but rather a reading that seeks to recognise the rights of the poor, and make visible the history of slums in major cities across Africa.
Theoretically and practically, without the violence of the state and other related state actors, it is difficult for capitalism to reproduce itself.
Then come the wars in the DRC, Somalia, CAR, and South Sudan—a product of business dealings by multinationals including Glencore and CNOOC, among others— that have led to an increase in refugees numbers, now reaching 2.3 million people according to UNHCR. In his book Saviours and Survivors, Mahmood Mamdani implicates CNOOC and ExxonMobil in protecting oil wells using different rebel groups in the Sudan-South Sudan conflict. The end product of these clandestine oil dealings are the over 1.5 million refugees hosted in Uganda, making it the country with the largest number of refugees in the world. The influx of people escaping resource-related conflicts has overwhelmed resources in the Great Lakes region. And while many of the refugees will stay in the region, many others are making the journey to the Middle East, to Europe and to North America.
With all this aggressive capitalist expansion manifesting in different forms, the African in the Great Lakes (and other places on the continent) is left with no choice but to make the journey to Europe and to North America. I want to read these journeys not just as migration, but as revolution. They might seem puny, unorganised and migrating out of desperate need, but Africans are moving to the centre to benefit from the resources that continue to be extracted from their continent. This is how the extractors perceive these journeys—not as migration, but as revolution—which explains why there are so many roadblocks along the way.
The Campaign that Remembered Nothing and Forgot Nothing
Once a master of coalition building, Raila Odinga killed his own party and brand, handed over his backyard to William Ruto, threw in his lot with Uhuru Kenyatta, ended up being branded a “state project”, and lost.
The Original sin
A seasoned Nairobi politician, Timothy Wanyonyi had cut a niche for himself in the Nairobi governor’s race that was filled with a dozen candidates who had up to that point not quite captured the imagination of Nairobians. Some candidates were facing questions over their academic qualifications while others were without a well-defined public profile. In that field Wanyonyi, an experienced Nairobi politician, stood out. On 19th April, the Westlands MP’s campaign team was canvasing for him in Kawangware. They had sent pictures and videos to news teams seeking coverage. But that evening their candidate would receive a phone call to attend a meeting at State House Nairobi that would put an end to his campaign. Before Tim made his way to State House, insiders around President Uhuru Kenyatta told reporters that Wanyonyi was out of the Nairobi governor’s race.
Wanyonyi’s rallying call “Si Mimi, ni Sisi”—a spin on US Senator Bernie Sanders’ “Not me. Us” 2020 presidential campaign slogan—distinguished him as a candidate who understood the anxieties of Nairobians. “They were looking for someone who would see the city as a home first, before seeing it as a business centre,” one of his political consultants told me. But the Azimio coalition to which Wanyonyi’s ODM party belonged was very broad, with several centres of power that didn’t take into account—or maybe didn’t care about— Nairobi’s political landscape. Wanyonyi’s candidacy was hastily sacrificed at the altar of the coalition’s politics. Former President Uhuru Kenyatta, the coalition’s chairman, had prevailed on Raila Odinga, its presidential candidate, to essentially leave Nairobi to Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party in exchange for ODM picking the presidential candidate.
That was the only consideration on the table.
However, it was a miscalculation by the coalition. Azimio failed to appreciate the complex matrix that is a presidential election in Kenya. While the top ticket affects the races downstream, it can be argued that the reverse is also true. It is ironic that Raila Odinga, a power broker and a master of coalition building who was running for presidency for the fifth time, was choosing to ignore these principles. His own ascension in politics had been based on building a machine—ODM—that he used carefully during every election cycle. Yet in this election he was killing his own party and brand. The Azimio La Umoja coalition party was built as a party of parties that would be the vehicle Raila would use to contest the presidency. However, the constituent parties were free to sponsor parliamentary candidates. It sounded like a good idea on paper but it created friction as the parties found themselves in competition everywhere. To keep Azimio from fracturing both itself and its votes, the idea of “zoning”—having weaker candidates step down for stronger ones, essentially carving out exclusive zones for parties—gained traction, and would itself lead to major fall-outs, even after it was adopted as official Azimio policy in June.
However, beyond the zoning controversy, Wanyonyi’s candidacy served as a marker for a key block of Odinga voters—the Luhya—assuring them of their place within the Azimio coalition. Luhya voters have been Odinga’s insurance policy during his last three presidential runs. With Nyanza and the four western Kenya counties of Kakamega, Bungoma, Vihiga and Busia in his back pocket, he would be free to pick up other regions. Odinga claimed 71 per cent of the Luhya bloc in 2017 but this time, western voters were feeling jittery about the new political arrangements.
There is also another consideration. The Luhya voting bloc in Nairobi is also significant, and Odinga had carried the capital in his previous three presidential runs. The Nairobi electoral map is largely organized around five big groups: the Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya, Kamba, and Kisii. For the ODM party, having a combination of a Luo-Luhya voting bloc in Nairobi has enabled Odinga to take the city and to be a force to reckon with.
However, it appeared that all these factors were of no importance in 2022. So, Tim Wanyonyi was forced out of the race. He protested. Or attempted to. Western Kenya voters were furious, but who cared?
The morning after the State House meeting, a group calling themselves Luhya professionals had strong words for both Odinga and Azimio.
“We refuse to be used as a ladder for other political expediencies whenever there is an election,” Philip Kisia, who was the chairman of this loose “professional group” said during a press conference that paraded the faces of political players from the Luhya community. The community had “irreducible minimum” and would not allow itself to “to be used again this time.” Other speakers at that press conference—including ODM Secretary General Edwin Sifuna—laid claim to what they called the place of the Luhya community in Nairobi. The political relationship between Luhyas and Luos has not been without tensions; in the aftermath of the opposition’s unravelling in the 90s, Michael Kijana Wamalwa and Raila Odinga fought for supremacy within the Ford Kenya party. Wamalwa believed the throne left by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga was his for the taking. However, Odinga’s son, Raila, mounted a challenge for the control of the party, eventually leaving Ford Kenya to build his own party, the National Development Party (NDP). The Luhya-Luo relationship was broken. Luhya sentiment was that, having been faithful to Odinga’s father, it was time for Wamalwa to lead the opposition.
These old political wounds have flared up during every election cycle, and Raila Odinga has worked for decades to reassure the voting bloc and bury the hatchet. This time, however, he was different. He didn’t seem to care about those fragile egos. After the press conference, a strategist in Odinga’s camp wondered aloud, “Who will they [Luhyas] vote for?”
The next 21 days were to be pivotal for Kenya’s presidential election. Azimio moved on and introduced Polycarp Igathe as their candidate for Nairobi. A former deputy governor in Nairobi who had quit just months after taking office, Igathe is well known for his C-suite jobs and intimate links to the Kenyan political elite. His selection, though, played perfectly into the rival Kenya Kwanza coalition’s “hustlers vs dynasties” narrative which sought to frame the 2022 elections as a contest between the political families that have dominated Kenya’s politics and economy since independence. The sons of a former vice president and president respectively, Odinga and Uhuru were branded as dynasties while the then deputy president claimed for himself the title of “hustler”.
These old political wounds have flared up during every election cycle, and Raila Odinga has worked for decades to reassure the voting bloc and bury the hatchet.
But, William Ruto’s side also saw something else in that moment—an opportunity to get a chunk of the important Luhya vote. Ruto first entered into a coalition with Musalia Mudavadi, selling their alliance as a “partnership of equals”, and then followed that up with the offer of a Luhya gubernatorial candidate to Nairobians in the name of Senator Johnson Koskei Sakaja.
Meanwhile, Wanyonyi’s half-brother, the current Speaker of the National Assembly, Moses Wetangula, was a principle in Ruto’s camp. Up to this point, Wetangula had struggled to find a coherent message to sell Ruto’s candidacy to the Luhya nation. But, with his brother being shafted by Azimio, Wetangula saw a political opening; he quickly called a press conference and complained bitterly about the “unfair Odinga” whom he said the Luhya community would not support for “denying their son a ticket to run for the seat of the governor of Nairobi”. His press conference went almost unnoticed and it is not even clear if Azimio took notice of the political significance of Wetangula’s protestations.
Azimio had offered their opponents an inroad into western Kenya politics and Ruto wasted little time trying turn a key Odinga voting bloc. With Sakaja confirmed as the Kenya Kwanza candidate for the Nairobi governor’s race, Wetangula and Kenya Kwanza made Western Kenya a centrepiece of their path to presidency. Tim Wanyonyi was presented as a martyr. The Ford Kenya leader took to all the radio stations, taking calls or sending emissaries, to declare Odinga’s betrayal. In the days and weeks that followed, William Ruto would make a dozen more visits to Luhyaland than his rival, assuring the voters that there would be a central place reserved for them in his administration. In contrast, on a visit to western Kenya, Raila Odinga expressed anger that an opinion poll had shown him trailing Ruto in Bungoma. “He is at nearly 60 per cent and I am at 40 per cent. Shame on you people! Shame on you people! Shame on you!” he told the crowd. He would eventually lose Bungoma and Trans Nzoia to William Ruto.
To be sure, Odinga won western Kenya with 55 per cent of the vote, but William Ruto had 45 per cent, enough to light his path to the presidency. He would repeat the same feat in Nairobi and coast regions, traditionally Odinga strongholds where he would have expected to bag upwards of 60 per cent of the vote. Azimio modelling had put these regions in Raila’s column but Kenya Kwanza took advantage of the mistake-prone Odinga. And wherever Odinga blundered, Ruto mopped up. As Speaker, Wetangula is today the third most powerful man in in the country. Yet just four years ago, he was an Odinga ally who had been stripped off his duties as a minority leader in the Senate by Odinga’s ODM party. At the time he warned that the divorce “would be messy, it would be noisy, it would be unhelpful, it would not be easy, it would have casualties”. It was the first of many political blunders that Odinga would make.
Looking back, Odinga’s 2022 run for the presidency had all the hallmarks of a campaign that didn’t know what it didn’t know; it was filled with assumptions, and sometimes made the wrong judgment calls. By handing over his backyard to Ruto and choosing to ally with President Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila ended up being branded a “state project”.
In 2005, Odinga had used the momentum generated by his successful campaign in a referendum against Mwai Kibaki’s attempt to foist on the country a bastardized version of the constitution negotiated in Bomas to launch early campaigns for his 2007 presidential run. However, this time, as the courts hamstrung his attempt to launch the BBI referendum, Ruto was already off to the races, having begun his presidential campaign three years early.
“He is at nearly 60 per cent and I am at 40 per cent. Shame on you people! Shame on you people! Shame on you!”
With the rejection of constitutional changes, which were found to be deeply unpopular among many Kenyans, Odinga was finally in a strange place, a politician now out of touch, defending an unpopular government, a stranger to his own political base. The failure of BBI as a political tool was really the consequence of Odinga’s and Kenyatta’s inability to understand the ever-changing Kenyan political landscape. Numerous times they just seemed to not know how to deal with the dynamism of William Ruto. He would shape-shift, change the national conversation, and nothing they threw at him seemed to stick, including, corruption allegations. For a politician who created the branding of opponents as his tool, Odinga had finally been branded and it stuck.
In the final day of the campaigns, both camps chose Nairobi to make their final submissions. Azimio chose Kasarani stadium. It was, as expected, full of colour, with a Tanzanian celebrity musician, Diamond Platnumz, brought in to boot. Supporters were treated to rushed speeches by politicians who had somewhere else to be. Azimio concluded its final submission early and the speeches by Odinga and his running mate, Martha Karua, weren’t exactly a rallying call. It was as if they were happy to be put out of their pain as they quickly stepped off the stage and left the stadium. In contrast, Ruto’s final submission was filled with speeches of fury by politicians angered by “state capture” and the “failing economy”. Speaker after speaker roused the audience with their defiant messages. They ended the meeting an hour before the end of IEBC campaign deadline. A video soon appeared online of William Ruto sprinting across the Wilson airport runway to catch a chopper and make it to one final rally in central Kenya before the IEBC’s 6 p.m. campaign deadline.
Pictures of the deputy president on top of a car at dusk in markets in Kiambu were the last images of his campaign to be shared on social media. Ruto won because he wanted the presidency more than Odinga and was willing to work twice as hard as both Odinga and Kenyatta.
Lagos From Its Margins: Everyday Experiences in a Migrant Haven
From its beginnings as a fishing village, Lagos has grown into a large metropolis that attracts migrants seeking opportunity or Internally Displaced Persons fleeing violence.
Lagos, City of Migrants
From its origins as a fishing village in the 1600s, Lagos has urbanised stealthily into a vast metropolis, wielding extensive economic, political and cultural influence on Nigeria and beyond. Migration in search of opportunities has been the major factor responsible for the demographic and spatial growth of the city as Lagos has grown from 60,221 in 1872 to over 23 million people today. The expansion of the city also comes with tensions around indigene-settler dynamics, especially in accessing land, political influence and urban resources. There are also categories of migrants whose status determines if they can lay hold of the “urban advantage” that relocating to a large city offers.
A major impetus to the evolution of modern Lagos is the migration of diverse groups of people from Nigeria’s hinterland and beyond. By the 1800s, waves of migrants (freed slaves) from Brazil and Freetown had made their way to Lagos, while many from Nigeria’s hinterland including the Ekiti, Nupes, Egbas and Ijebus began to settle in ethnic enclaves across the city. In the 1900s, migrant enclaves were based on socio-economic and/or ethnicity status. Hausas (including returnees from the Burma war) settled in Obalende and Agege, while the Ijaw and Itsekiri settled in waterfront communities around Ajegunle and Ijora. International migrant communities include the Togolese, Beninoise and Ghanaian, as well as large communities of Lebanese and Indian migrants. The names and socio-cultural mix in most Lagos communities derive from these historical migrant trajectories.
A study on coordinated migrations found that, as a destination city, Lagos grew 18.6 per cent between 2000 and 2012, with about 96 per cent of the migrants coming from within Nigeria. While migration to Lagos has traditionally been in search of economic opportunities, new classes of migrants have emerged over the last few decades. These are itinerant migrants and internally displaced persons.
Itinerant migrants are those from other areas of Nigeria and West Africa who travel to work in Lagos while keeping their families back home. Mobility cycles can be weekly, monthly or seasonal. Such migrants have no address in Lagos as they often sleep at their work premises or in mosques, saving all their earned income for remittance. They include construction artisans from Benin and Togo who come to Lagos only when they have jobs, farmers from Nigeria’s northern states who come to Lagos to work as casual labourers in between farming seasons (see box), as well as junior staff in government and corporate offices whose income is simply too small to cover the high cost of living in Lagos.
While people from Nigeria’s hinterland continue to arrive in the city in droves, the wave of West African in-migration has ebbed significantly. This is mostly because of the economic challenges Nigeria is currently facing that have crashed the Naira-to-CFA exchange rates. As a result, young men from Togo, Ghana and Benin are finding cities like Dakar and Banjul more attractive than Lagos.
Aliu* aka Mr Bushman, from Sokoto, Age 28
Aliu came to Lagos in 2009 on the back of a cattle truck. His first job was in the market carrying goods for market patrons. He slept in the neighbourhood mosque with other young boys. Over the years, he has done a number of odd jobs including construction work. In 2014, he started to work as a commercial motorcyclist (okada) and later got the opportunity to learn how to repair them. He calls himself an engineer and for the past four years has earned his income exclusively from riding and repairing okada. Even though he can afford to rent a room, he currently lives in a shared shack with seven other migrants.
He makes between N5000 and N8000 weekly and sends most of it to his family through a local transport operator who goes to Sokoto weekly. His wife and three children are in the village, but he would rather send them money than bring them to Lagos. According to him, “The life in Lagos is too hard for women”.
Since he came to Lagos thirteen years ago, Aliu has never spent more than four months away from Sokoto at a time. He stays in Sokoto during the rainy season to farm rice, maize and guinea corn, and has travelled back home to vote every time since he came to Lagos.
The second category of migrants are those who have been displaced from their homesteads in Northern Nigeria by conflict, either Boko Haram insurgency or invasions by Fulani herdsmen. The crises have resulted in the violent destruction of many communities, with hundreds of thousands killed and many more forced to flee. With many who initially settled in camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) dissatisfied with camp conditions, the burden of protracted displacement is now spurring a new wave of IDP migration to urban areas. Even though empirical data on the exact number of displaced persons migrating out of camps to cities is difficult to ascertain, it is obvious that this category of migrants are negotiating their access to the city and its resources in circumstances quite different from those of other categories of migrants.
IDPs as the emerging migrant class in Lagos
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, two of every three internally displaced persons globally are now living in cities. Evidence from Nigeria suggests that many IDPs are migrating to urban areas in search of relative safety and resettlement opportunities, with Lagos estimated to host the highest number of independent IDP migrants in the country. In moving to Lagos, IDPs are shaping the city in a number of ways including appropriating public spaces and accelerating the formation of new settlements.
There are three government-supported IDP camps in the city, with anecdotal evidence pointing to about eighteen informal IDP shack communities across the city’s peri-urban axis. This correlates with studies from other cities that highlight how this category of habitations (as initial shelter solutions for self-settled IDPs) accelerate the formation of new urban informal settlements and spatial agglomerations of poverty and vulnerability.
While people from Nigeria’s hinterland continue to arrive in the city in droves, the wave of West African in-migration has ebbed significantly.
IDPs in Lagos move around a lot. Adamu, who currently lives in Owode Mango—a shack community near the Lagos Free Trade zone—and has been a victim of forced eviction four times said, “As they [government or land owners] get ready to demolish this place and render us homeless again, we will move to another area and live there until they catch up with us.”
In the last ten years, there has been an increase in the number of homeless people on the streets of Lagos—either living under bridges, in public parks or incomplete buildings. Many of them are IDPs who are new migrants, and unable to access the support necessary to ease their entry into the city’s established slums or government IDP camps. Marcus, who came from Adamawa State in 2017 and has been living under the Obalende Bridge for five years, said, “I am still managing, living under the bridge. I won’t do this forever, my life will not end like this under a bridge. I hope to one day return to my home and continue my life”.
Blending in or not: Urban integration strategies
Urban integration can be a real challenge for IDP migrants. Whereas voluntary migrants are often perceived to be legal entrants to the city and so can lay claim to urban resources, the same cannot be said about IDPs. Despite being citizens, and despite Nigeria being a federation, IDPs do not have the same rights as other citizens in many Nigerian cities and constantly face stigmatisation and harassment, which reinforces their penchant for enclaving.
The lack of appropriate documentation and skillsets also denies migrants full entry into the socio-economic system. For example, Rebekah said: “I had my WAEC [Senior Secondary school leaving certificate] results and when Boko Haram burnt our village, our family lost everything including my certificates. But how can I continue my education when I have not been able to get it? I have to do handwork [informal labour] now”. IDP children make up a significant proportion of out-of-school children in Lagos as many are unable to get registered in school simply because of a lack of address.
Most IDPs survive by deploying social capital—especially ethnic and religious ties. IDP ethnic groupings are quite organized; most belong to an ethnic-affiliated group and consider this as particularly beneficial to their resettlement and sense of identity in Lagos. Adamu from Chibok said, “When I come to Lagos in 2017, I come straight to Eleko. My brother [kinsman] help me with house, and he buy food for my family. As I no get work, he teach me okada work wey he dey do.”
The crises have resulted in the violent destruction of many communities, with hundreds of thousands killed and many more forced to flee.
Interestingly, migration to the city can also be good for women as many who were hitherto unemployed due to cultural barriers are now able to work. Mary who fled Benue with her family due to farmer-herder clashes explained, “When we were at home [in Benue], I was assisting my husband with farming, but here in Lagos, I have my own small shop where I sell food. Now I have my own money and my own work.”
Need for targeted interventions for vulnerable Lagosians
“Survival of the fittest” is an everyday maxim in the city of Lagos. For migrants, this is especially true as they are not entitled to any form of structured support from the government. Self-settlement is therefore daunting, especially in light of systemic limiting factors.
Migrants are attracted to big cities based on perceived economic opportunities, and with limited integration, their survival strategies are inevitably changing the spatial configurations of Lagos. While the city government is actively promoting urban renewal, IDP enclaving is creating new slums. Therefore, addressing the contextualised needs of urban migrant groups is a sine qua non for inclusive and sustainable urban development.
“I am still managing, living under the bridge. I won’t do this forever, my life will not end like this under a bridge. I hope to one day return to my home and continue my life”.
There is an established protocol for supporting international refugees. However, the same cannot be said for IDPs who are Nigerian citizens. They do not enjoy structured support outside of camps, and we have seen that camps are not an effective long-term solution to displacement. There is a high rate of IDP mobility to cities like Lagos, which establishes the fact that cities are an integral part of the future of humanitarian crisis. Their current survival strategies are not necessarily harnessing the urban advantage, especially due to lack of official recognition and documentation. It is therefore imperative that humanitarian frameworks take into account the role of cities and also the peculiarities of IDP migrations to them.
Lagos remains a choice destination city and there is therefore need to pay more attention to understanding the patterns, processes and implications of migration into the city. The paucity of migration-related empirical data no doubt inhibits effective planning for economic and social development. Availability of disaggregated migration data will assist the state to develop targeted interventions for the various categories of vulnerable Lagosians. Furthermore, targeted support for migrant groups must leverage existing social networks, especially the organised ethnic and religious groups that migrants lean on for entry into the city and for urban integration.
*All names used in this article are pseudonyms
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