Blood on the Tea Leaves: Kenyan Workers Demand Reparations From Unilever10 min read.
In 2007, tea pluckers on a Unilever plantation were brutally attacked in the midst of ethnical violence triggered by a contested presidential election. As the company failed to protect them despite clear warning signs of impending violence, the victims are now taking it to court to demand reparations
At least four men armed with machetes and clubs broke into Anne Johnson’s home. They forced her husband and 11-year-old son into the bedroom and kept Anne and her teenage daughters in a separate room. To this day, she doesn’t know for certain if the men who raped her, her husband, and her daughters were her coworkers. “They spoke the local language,” Anne testified, but “they blindfolded us so we could not see who they were.”
By 2007, when the attack took place, Anne and her husband, Makori (their names are pseudonyms to protect the family from retaliation), had lived and worked for more than a decade on a Kenyan tea plantation owned by Unilever, the London-based household-goods giant known for such brands as Lipton Tea, Dove, Axe, Knorr, and Magnum ice cream. In December of that year, hundreds of men from the neighboring town of Kericho would beat, maim, rape, and butcher the plantation’s residents during a week of terror.
The attackers killed at least 11 plantation residents, including Makori, whom they raped and fatally wounded in front of his son, and one of the Johnsons’ daughters. They looted and burned thousands of homes and injured and sexually assaulted an unknown number of people, who were targeted because of their ethnic identity and presumed political affiliation.
A contested presidential election triggered the violence. The candidate favored by Kericho’s local population—and openly backed by many Unilever managers—lost to the politician perceived to have support from minority tribes. The massacre was not confined to the plantation or to Kericho. More than 1,300 people died in post election violence across Kenya.
Unilever said the attacks on its plantation were unexpected and that it therefore should not be held liable. But witnesses and former Unilever managers say the company’s own staff incited and participated in the attacks. They made these allegations in 2016 in written testimony, after the case was submitted to a court in London. Anne and 217 other survivors wanted Unilever Kenya and its corporate parent in the United Kingdom to pay reparations. Among the claimants were 56 women who were raped and the family members of seven people who were killed.
In hundreds of pages of witness testimony and other court records and in interviews I conducted, the survivors describe how, in the run-up to the election, their colleagues threatened to attack them if the « wrong » candidate won. When they reported these comments, their managers dismissed their concerns, issued veiled threats, or made derogatory remarks of their own.
Former managers from Unilever Kenya admitted to the court that the company’s top management, including then-managing director Richard Fairburn, discussed the possibility of election violence in several meetings but only ramped up the security for its senior personnel, factories, and equipment.
Unilever Kenya insists it is not responsible and blames the police for acting too slowly. Meanwhile, its corporate parent in London maintains that it owes the workers nothing and that the victims should sue the company in Kenya, not in the United Kingdom. But the workers say that a lawsuit in Kenya could spark more violence, including from their earlier assailants, some of whom still work at the plantation.
In 2018, a judge in the United Kingdom ruled that Unilever’s London headquarters could not be held liable for the failures of its Kenyan subsidiary. Now, Anne and her former coworkers are looking to the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, which is expected to decide, over the next few months, whether Unilever has failed to meet the United Nations’ guidelines for responsible business behavior. As Anne explained to me, “The company promised they would take care of us, but they didn’t, so now they should pay us so we can finally rebuild our lives.”
Unilever’s hilly tea plantation in Kenya’s southern Rift Valley covered about 13,000 hectares in 2007. With a population then of roughly 100,000 people, including about 20,000 residential workers and their families, and boasting on-site schools, health clinics, and social facilities, the estates are essentially a company town, and a cosmopolitan one: The workers belong to several ethnicities from across the country.
The Johnsons hailed from Kisii, a county two hours away from the Unilever estates, and identify ethnically as Kisii. On the plantation, the Kisiis made up nearly half the residents, but in nearby Kericho—the homeland of an ethnic group called the Kalenjins—they were a much smaller minority. And many people in Kericho looked down on the Kisiis and other “foreigners.” The plantation reflected this divide: The Kalenjins were mostly managers, and the Kisiis and other minorities worked primarily as tea pluckers.
The couple spent the last Sunday of December 2007 as they did any other day—in the field with a basket on their backs—though they expected the evening to be tense, since the election results would be announced in the late afternoon. Earlier in the week, millions of Kenyans had gone to the polls to elect either Raila Odinga, who led the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), or Mwai Kibaki, of the Party of National Unity (PNU), as their new president.
Anne hadn’t voted herself. Weeks earlier, she had applied for leave to travel to Kisii, where she was registered to vote, but her manager declined the request, she said. This experience was common among the members of minority tribes, said Daniel Leader, a lawyer and partner at the London law firm Leigh Day, who represented the survivors in court and whose team interviewed all 218 claimants.
The impending elections had exacerbated tensions between Unilever’s Kalenjin workers and their more junior Kisii colleagues. “They assumed we Kisiis backed Mwai,” Anne explained, whereas the local Kalenjin population were overwhelmingly pro-Odinga.
In the weeks leading up to the election, survivors say ODM-supporting staff turned the tea estates into a fiercely pro-Odinga space, organizing political rallies and strategy meetings on the property. Anne told me that the perception of the Kisiis as Kibaki supporters led some Kalenjins to treat them with hostility. She said that team leaders, for example, began to allocate her job duties to non-Kisii workers. Other coworkers stopped talking to her altogether. To Anne’s distress, she found leaflets with hateful slogans like “Foreigners go home” in the residential areas, making her worry that “something bad may happen after the election.”
Anne was frightened but kept quiet. “The company is so big. I assumed they would protect us, “she told me. Those who felt less assured and who asked their team leaders and managers for protection were met with indifference, according to survivors. In court testimony, many recalled how various managers ignored their pleas for more security or dismissed them by saying, “It’s just politics.” Other managers instructed the concerned workers to lobby and vote for Odinga, saying they would be « forced to leave » if they didn’t.
In the weeks leading up to the election, survivors say ODM-supporting staff turned the tea estates into a fiercely pro-Odinga space, organizing political rallies and strategy meetings on the property.
An estate manager admitted to the London court that Unilever Kenya’s senior management—including Fairburn, the managing director—had been aware that « there would be unrest and that the Plantation could be invaded. » They had discussed the need for extra security in at least three meetings in December, he said. But management took measures only to « secure company property, factories, machinery, stores, power stations and management housing, » while « no thought was given to increasing the security of the residential camps in order to protect the workers. » Another former Unilever manager corroborated this claim.
Fairburn, who was allegedly present at them, refused to comment on the meetings when I called him. To this day, Unilever claims that it could not have predicted the attacks, even though the media in Kenya and internationally, including the BBC, Al Jazeera, The New York Times, and Reuters, had reported on the impending ethnic violence.
“Anyone who knew anything about the Kenyan election in 2007 knew it had the potential to end in significant and widespread violence, and that this violence would largely break down along lines of identity and affiliation, » said Tara Van Ho, who teaches law and human rights at the University of Essex. Both Unilever Kenya and its corporate parent in London should have known that the workers and their families were at risk, she continued. To protect them, she argued, Unilever could have hired extra security guards, trained its security personnel and managers, and solidified their buildings or evacuated residents for the period immediately surrounding the election.
Instead, said Leader, the workers’ London attorney, Unilever « created a situation where [these employees] were sitting ducks—at risk because of their ethnicity. “
Meanwhile, Unilever Kenya’s managing director and other executives went on holiday before the crisis, according to the former managers, and the company evacuated the remaining managers and expats on private jets once the violence broke out.
When the news of Kibaki’s victory came on Sunday evening, Anne was preparing supper with her family. Moments later, she heard people screaming outside and knew they were in danger. « We quickly locked our doors, » she said.
That night, hundreds of men armed with machetes, clubs, kerosene jars, and other weapons invaded the plantation. They looted and burned thousands of Kisii homes—which they marked with an X—and attacked their inhabitants.
Court records paint a harrowing picture of what unfolded on the plantation over the next week. People were gang-raped and viciously beaten and saw their coworkers set on fire. When they fled for safety to the tea bushes, the attackers pursued them with dogs.
“We do not know the total number of people who were raped, killed, and permanently disabled, » Leader told me. He thinks the 218 claimants he represented are not the only surviving victims. « Many people are too scared of retribution or renewed attacks from colleagues who they continue to work alongside of,” he said.
Concern about violent reprisals was one reason the survivors wanted to sue Unilever in the United Kingdom. Another was that Leigh Day represented them for free, whereas in Kenya the survivors would not be able to afford legal counsel.
Leigh Day argued that their Kenyan clients had a right to sue Unilever in London, since UK law allows workers from international subsidiaries to sue the UK-based parent companies if, among other things, they can show that the corporate parent plays an active and controlling role in the subsidiary’s day-to-day management. Unilever, Leigh Day argued, clearly did.
Unilever’s lawyers nonetheless insisted that the victims should file their case in Kenya and suggested the tea pluckers “band together” and “raise funds from friends and family.”
Multiple victims said they recognized their attackers as Unilever colleagues. One woman told the court she was “started beating me with a metal rod on my back and on my legs and were going to rape me,” she stated in witness testimony, until “a Kalenjin neighbor who was a male nurse intervened to stop the attack.”
In court, Unilever denied that its own staff participated in the attacks. But when I asked Unilever representatives how the company knew this, they declined to comment further on the issue.
After the attackers left, the Johnsons fled and hid for three nights in the tea bushes before making their way to the police station in nearby Koiwa, covered in mud and blood. From there, police officers escorted them to safety, and the family was able to escape to Kisii where they kept a small plot of land. Without savings, they could not afford the hospital costs for either their eldest daughter, who suffered severe injuries and got weaker by the day, or for Makori, who had internal bleeding. In the months that followed, both of them died in their mud house in Kisii.
Anne said that the only communication she received from Unilever since the attacks was an invitation to return to work months later and a letter offering her about $110 in compensation. The letter suggests that this amount was set and paid for by Unilever’s corporate headquarters in London.
In court, Unilever denied that its own staff participated in the attacks. But when I asked Unilever representatives how the company knew this, they declined to comment further on the issue.
“On behalf of the entire Unilever Tea Kenya Ltd family,” it reads, “we thank Unilever for their understanding, material and moral support and we hope that this timely gesture will go a long way to bring normalcy back to our employees and their families.”
Anne told me she never returned to the plantation because she can’t leave her son, now in his mid-20s. “He developed very bad seizures and panic attacks after what happened and needs constant care,” she said. Severely traumatized and unable to afford the psychological treatment they need, her son and daughter both stopped going to school. “We live off gifts from relatives and neighbors and the little maize we grow on our land,” she said.
The claimants say that Unilever owes them meaningful reparations, but Unilever insists it has already compensated them. The company’s spokespeople told me that it has paid all of the workers who eventually returned to the plantation with cash and new furniture and has also offered their families free counseling and medical care. But they won’t say how much the company gave them or comment on the letter that Anne shared with me.
In the summer of 2018, Anne and a group of other victims rebutted these claims in a letter to Paul Polman, the company’s CEO at the time: “It’s not right that Unilever has said it helped us when we know that is not true,” the letter stated. It continued:
Unilever just wanted us to go back to work as if nothing happened [and those of us who did] were told we must not talk about what happened. We are still scared that we will be punished if we speak about the violence.
Unilever says that after the violence every employee was given “compensation in kind” to offset our lost wages and that we were given replacement items or cash to buy new items to replace our stolen property…but those who were too afraid to return got nothing and only some of those who returned were given KES12,000 [$110], a little more than a month salary, and a little maize, which was then deducted from our salary. We were told that if we saw people with our belongings we should say nothing.
Polman appears not to have responded to the letter.
Under UK law, a parent company can only be held liable for the health and safety breaches of its subsidiaries if it exercises a high degree of control over their safety and crisis management policies.
To prove to the court that the UK parent company did indeed exercise such control over Unilever Kenya, Leigh Day submitted witness statements from former workers, who testified to the frequent visits made by London managers, and from four former managers, who gave evidence that the head office shaped, supervised, and audited the safety and crisis management policies of Unilever Kenya and even made its own safety protocols compulsory. This meant that, as one senior manager with over 15 years of experience with the company put it, Unilever Kenya was « confined to strictly complying with the policies and procedures which had been cascaded down by [Unilever] Plc. “Another senior manager stated that London’s « checklists and detailed policies had to be complied with or an employee would be dismissed or face some other sanction.”
These testimonies seemed to support Leigh Day’s claim that the London headquarters shared liability. Yet to prove it to the court, the law firm needed access to the actual text of the protocols that the managers described. However, since these were pretrial proceedings—meaning that the court had not accepted jurisdiction—Unilever had no duty to disclose relevant materials and simply refused to hand over the documents.
Under UK law, a parent company can only be held liable for the health and safety breaches of its subsidiaries if it exercises a high degree of control over their safety and crisis management policies.
The judge’s ruling made clear that the “weakness” of their evidence played a major role in her decision to deny the Kenyans jurisdiction. Human rights scholars and corporate accountability advocates condemned the ruling. The court had created a catch-22 for the workers, Van Ho observed: “The claimants couldn’t get the documents that showed Unilever UK did something wrong until they had the documents that showed Unilever UK did something wrong.” It’s “dizzying,” she said, and “an unfair expectation for employees who have a lot less power than the multibillion-dollar company that employed them.”
Anne said she remains hopeful that international human rights advocates will support her cause. With other victims, she recently filed a complaint against Unilever at the United Nations, arguing that the company violated the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights. One requirement is that companies must ensure that victims of human rights abuses in their supply chain have access to remediation. Van Ho anticipates that the UN body, which is expected to reach a decision soon, will agree that Unilever breached these guidelines. “Hiding behind legal loopholes and refusing to disclose relevant information to avoid paying reparations is the exact opposite of what the Guiding Principles prescribe,” she said.
Though the United Nations can’t force Unilever to pay up, Anne hopes the case will generate the attention and public pressure necessary to push the company in that direction. When asked what it would mean to her if the workers succeed, she told me, “It would be the greatest moment in my life.”
Editors Note: This is an edited version of an article first published by The Nation. It is republished here as part of our partnership with Progressive international.
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Nigeria: A Messiah Will Not Fix Country’s Problems
In Nigeria’s recent election cycle, many citizens looked to Peter Obi for change. But the country needs people-led social transformation, not saviors.
On February 25, Nigerians once again took to the polls with a determination that their votes could change the fate of a country in deep despair. For the seventh time since a civilian dispensation began in 1999, Nigerians hoped that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) would conduct a free, fair, and credible election. This hope was reinvigorated by the emergence of technology that would ensure, purportedly, a transparent process. Yet, once again, voters had their dreams crushed with an election marred by violence, ballot box snatching, forged results and, of course, voter intimidation and buying. In the days that followed, despite mounting evidence of irregularities and international outcry, INEC declared Bola Ahmed Tinubu, of the All Progressives Congress (APC), the winner of the presidential poll. The continuation of a gerontocratic oligarchy was solidified.
Although media attention focused on a young class of voters and the uniqueness of this historical moment, a deeper analysis is necessary. If nothing else, this election provided an opportunity to examine the shifting landscape of Nigeria’s elite electoral politics, and the increasingly complex voting patterns of citizens, while understanding these voters are increasingly a minority—less than 30 percent of the registered voters (about one-tenth of the population) cast their vote.
The dizzying rise of Peter Obi as a “third force” candidate over the last nine months was largely due to a movement of emergent and middle-class youth, the so-called “Obidients,” who used technology to galvanize a youthful base to push forward their candidate. That the Obidient movement was formed, ironically, off the back of the EndSARS movement, is in many ways a direct contradiction. The generation that was “leaderless” now suddenly had a leader. The rate at which young people chose this candidate still gives me whiplash. But there was no shaking their convictions. Obi was their candidate, and no one could shake their belief that a new Nigeria would be formed under his presidency, despite the evidence that he was directly endorsed by the same ruling class that has led to the country’s demise.
Obi is not a revolutionary, a social welfarist, nor even pro labor, but he became the savior many youth were looking for to “rescue” Nigeria. Ironically, the millions of youth that fought the EndSARS battle, and named themselves the leaderless soro soke (“speak up” in Yoruba) generation, did not seek elective office themselves. Rather, many put their eggs in Obi’s basket in supporting an older, veteran politician whose clean cut and soft demeanor led to his near deification. Other EndSARS activists, including Omoyele Sowore, were mocked for running in the election and were seen as not experienced enough for the job. In the end Sowore performed abysmally at the polls, despite his demonstrated commitment to Nigerian youth and human rights record and involvement in the EndSARS protests (Sowore’s African Action Congress polled only 14,608 votes, faring worse than in the 2019 election).
This absolute faith in Obi was demonstrated when his followers patiently waited for five days after the election to hear from him. Instead of sending them into the streets, he advised them to wait for him to challenge the electoral irregularities in the courts. Why did a leaderless generation need a hero?
The contradictions in the EndSARS ideology and the Obidient campaign will be tested in the years ahead. After the Lekki massacre on October 20, 2020 brought the massive street protests of the EndSARS movement to an abrupt halt, many of the sites of protests shut down completely and groups that were loosely organized dismantled into relative silence for almost two years. In fact, there was little indication that EndSARS would evolve into a mass political movement until Peter Obi emerged on the scene in May 2022. The first- and second anniversaries of the Lekki massacre were marked by smaller protests in Lagos and a few other cities, which paled in comparison to the numbers at the 2020 protests. Still, efforts to free many of the prisoners arrested during EndSARS are proving difficult, with some protesters and victims still in jail today. There was no direction, no cohesiveness, and no willingness to move forward at that point. But in May 2022, seemingly out of nowhere, things began to shift. A candidate emerged that many EndSARS protesters seemed to think would be the savior.
Understanding the youth divide
While often lumped into a sum, the category of “youth” is not a single class of people. When Obi was said to carry the youth vote he actually only carried the vote of a particular category of young people, an emergent middle and professional class, who were also some of the most vocal in the EndSARS movement. However, if we are to use the discredited election geography as a proxy for representation, it is clear that this demographic is both well defined and narrow. Major urban areas like Lagos and Abuja pulled towards Obi, as did a few Eastern states. The North Central states including Plateau and Benue asserted their own identity by aligning with Obi, perhaps in a rejection of the Northern Muslim tickets of the Peoples Democratic Party (with whom Atiku Abubaker ran) and the APC.
The 2023 election also forces us to re-examine the dynamics of class, ethnic and religious divides and the deepening malaise of the poor and their disengagement with politics. What is clear from this election, like many before, is that Nigeria has yet to come of age as a democracy; indeed, the conditions for democracy simply do not exist. It is also quite evident that the Nigerian elite are adept at changing the political game to suit the mood of the Nigerian people. Electoral malpractices have shifted over time in response to the increasing pressure of civil society for accountable elections. Strong civil society advocacy from organizations focused on accountability and transparency in government have pushed against electoral practices. While these practices continue, there are significant shifts from previous elections where vote buying was brazen. However, it begs the historical questions: has Nigeria ever had a truly free and fair election, and is the process with which democracy is regenerated through the ballot the path for emancipatory politics? These questions become more relevant as the numbers of voters continue to dwindle, with the 2023 election having the lowest turnout in Nigeria’s electoral history, despite the social media propaganda around the youth vote and the turning tide of discontent that was predicted to shape the election.
Lessons from history
The fact that young people were surprised by the events on February 25 may be indicative of youthful exuberance or a startling lack of knowledge of history. The idea that a ruling class, who had brought the EndSARS struggle to a bloody end, would somehow deliver a free and fair election, needs more critical scrutiny. For those that remember the history of the June 12, 1993 elections—annulled after the popular rise of MKO Abiola—the election is no surprise. But for young people deprived of history education, which has been removed from Nigeria’s curriculum for the past 30 years, the knowledge may be limited. When a young person says they have never seen an election like this, they also cannot be faulted, as many young voters were voting for the first time. Given that many youth seem to underestimate the long history of elections and electoral fraud, the question of intergenerational knowledge and of a public history that seems to be absent from electoral discourse cannot be ignored. It is also hard to fault young voters, in a land where there is no hope, and whatever hope is sought after can be found in the marketplace.
Many of the young organizers were adept at reading their constituencies and mobilizing their bases, but some of the elephants in the room were ignored. One of these elephants, of course, was the deep geographic and ethno-religious and class divisions between the North and the South. This is evident in the voting patterns in the North West and North East where Obi’s campaign did not make a dent. Though Obi ran with a vice president from the North, the majority of votes in Northern zones were divided between PDP, APC and New Nigeria People’s Party while two of the North Central states, Plateau and Nasarawa, went to Obi’s Labor party. Kano, the largest voting population in the country went to Rabiu Kwankwaso’s NNPP, an outlier who was ignored to the peril of opposition parties (Kwankwaso was the former governor of Kano).
Obi’s campaign also focused on the emergent middle class youth, as well as appealing to religious sentiments through churches on a Christian ticket and ethnic sentiments appealing to his Ibo base in the South East, where he swept states with more than 90 percent of the vote. The North is largely made up of the rural poor with poverty rates as high as 87 percent and literacy rates among young women in Zamfara state as low as 16 percent. Tracking Obi’s victories, most of the states where he won had lower poverty rates and higher literacy rates; states like Delta and Lagos have the lowest poverty counts in the country. While Obi used poverty statistics to bolster his campaign, his proposed austerity measures and cuts in government spending do not align with the massive government investments that would be needed to lift Nigerians out of poverty. While the jury is still out on the reasons for low voter turnout, deepening poverty and the limited access to cash invariably impacted poor voters.
Historically, Nigeria’s presidency has swung between the North and the South, between Muslims and Christians, and this delicate balance was disrupted on all sides. In 2013, an alliance between the Southern Action Congress (AC), the Northern All Nigeria’s People’s Party (ANPP), and Congressive People’s Alliance (CPC) to produce the Action People’s Congress (APC) was able to remove the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) who had dominated the political scene. Another important historical note is that of the legacy of Biafra that lives on, as an Igbo man has never taken the helm of the Presidency since the Civil War. While Obi ran on the promise of a united youth vote, the lingering ethnic and religious sentiments demonstrate the need for his campaign to have created a stronger alliance with the North and the rural and urban poor.
The failure of the youth vote is also a failure of the left
The other factor that we must examine is the failure of the left to articulate and bring into public critique the neoliberal model that all the candidates fully endorsed. Many young Nigerians believe if Nigeria works, it will work for everyone, and that “good governance” is the answer to the myriad problems the country faces. The politics of disorder and the intentionality of chaos are often overlooked in favor of the “corrupt leader” indictment. The left was divided between the Labor Party, whose presidential flag bearer ran on a neoliberal rather than pro worker or socialist platform, and the African Action Congress, who ran on a socialist manifesto, but failed to capture the imaginations of young people or win them over to socialist politics and ideology. In seeking to disrupt the two party power block, young Nigerians took less notice of the lack of difference between the three front running parties, and chose to select the lesser of three evils, based on credentials and the idea that Obi was “the best man for the job.” In fact, the Nigerian youth on the campaign trail emphasized experience in government as a criteria for a good candidate, over and above fresh ideas.
The left also failed to garner the EndSARS movement and channel it into a political force. The emergent youth middle class, not the workers and the working poor, continued to carry the message of liberal rather than revolutionary politics. Unfortunately, just as the gunning down of Nigerian protesters caught young people off guard in October 2020, so too the massive rigging of this election. However, there is no cohesive movement to fight the fraud of this election. The partisan protests and separate court cases by the Labor Party and PDP, demonstrate that the disgruntled candidates are fighting for themselves, rather than as a single voice to call out electoral fraud and the rerun of the election. The fact that there is acceptance of the National Assembly election outcomes and not the presidential election, points to the seeking of selective justice, which may eventually result in the complete disenfranchisement of the Nigerian people.
At this time we must seek answers to our current dilemma within history, the history that we so often want to jettison for the euphoria or overwhelming devastation of the moment. The question for the youth will now be, which way forward? Will we continue to rely on the old guard, the gerontocratic oligarchy that has terrorized Nigerians under the guise of different political parties for the past 24 years? Or will we drop all expectations and pursue the revolution that is sorely needed? Will young people once again rise to be a revolutionary vanguard that works with millions of working poor to form a truly pro-people, pro-poor party that has ordinary Nigerians as actual participants in a virbrant democracy from the local to the federal levels, not just during election time but every day? Will the middle class Nigerian youth be willing to commit class suicide to fight alongside the poor to smash the existing oligarchy and gerontocracy and snatch our collective destiny back?
It is a time for truth telling, for examining our own shortcomings. As young people, as the left, and as civil society, we have relied too long on the oppressors for our own liberation.
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.
Africa in the New World Disorder
The war in Ukraine indicates a new world disorder, where great powers fight for primacy and Africa continues to be exploited.
There are some of us in Africa who believe that we should not invest any serious thinking in the war in Ukraine as it is one of the “European tribal wars.” The logic of that belief is that in Africa we have too many of our own problems to invest energy and effort in European problems. The trouble of being African in the present world order, however, is that all problems and wars end up African in effect if not in form. In the sense in which one who knows it feels it, every war in the world is an African war because Africans have, for the longest time, felt and known wars that are not of their creation. The African condition itself can be understood as a daily experience of war.
Over centuries Africa has been structured and positioned to be on the receiving end of all world problems. As such, Africa is not only the storied cradle of mankind, but also the cemetery of the human condition where every human and world problem comes to kill and to die as well. The worst of the human condition and human experiences tend to find final expression in Africa. It is for that reason that Julius Nyerere once opined that the Devil’s Headquarters must be in Africa because everything that might go wrong actually goes wrong in the continent.As the world tiptoes precariously from the COVID-19 pandemic, at the same time it seems to be tottering irreversibly towards a nuclear World War III. The countries of the world that have the power and the privilege to stop the war pretend to be unable to do so. Even some powerful and privileged Western thinkers are beating the drums of war. For instance, Slavoj Zizek, considered “the most dangerous philosopher in the West,” wrote for The Guardian in June 2022 to say: “pacifism is the wrong response to the war in Ukraine,” and “the least we owe Ukraine is full support, and to do that we need a stronger NATO.” Western philosophers, not just soldiers and their generals, are demanding stronger armies and bigger weapons to wage bigger wars. In Ukraine, the conflict is proving too important to be left to the soldiers, the generals and the politicians. In that assertion Zizek speaks from the Euro-American political and military ego, whose fantasy is a humiliating total defeat of Russia in Ukraine. Zizek, the “dangerous philosopher” takes his place as a spokesperson for war and large-scale violence, agitating from a comfortable university office far away from the horrors of Bakhmut.
United States President, Joe Biden, spoke from the same egopolitics of war before the Business Roundtable CEO Quarterly Meeting on March 21 last year: “And now is a time when things are shifting… there’s going to be a new world order out there, and we’ve got to lead it. And we’ve got to unite the rest of the free world in doing it.” Clearly, an “end of history” fantasy of another unipolar world led by the US and its NATO allies has possessed Western powers that are prepared to pump money, weapons and de-uniformed soldiers into Ukraine to support the besieged country to the “last Ukrainian.” During a surprise visit to Kyiv on the eve of the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Biden hawkishly said the US will support Ukraine in fighting “as long as it takes,” dismissing diplomatic alternatives. Suggestions for a negotiated settlement in Ukraine that have come from influential figures, such as Henry Kissinger on the right and Noam Chomsky on the left, have been dismissed with the sleight of the left hand, and this is as Ukraine is literally being bombed to dust. African countries that have for years been theaters of colonial invasions, proxy wars, sponsored military coups, and regime changes can only see themselves in Ukraine. What Ukraine is going through is a typical African experience taking place in Europe and the first victims are Europeans this time.
Being Africans in Africa, at the least, should equip us with the eyes to see the war in Ukraine for what it is, a war driven by a Euro-American will to power, a spirited desire for world dominion against the Russian fear of NATO encirclement and containment, and nostalgia about a great Soviet empire. It is a war of desires and fears from which the belligerents will not back off. The envisaged “new world order” can only be another “world disorder” for an Africa that has for so long been in the periphery of economic, political, and military world affairs.
Destined for war: The Thucydides trap
Well before the war, the Singaporean diplomat and scholar Kishore Mahbubani described how the “world has turned a corner” and why “the West has lost it” in trying to maintain its economic and political dominion by any means necessary and some means unnecessary. Power is shifting under the feet of a young and fragile Euro-American empire that will not lose power peacefully, hence the spirited desire to force another unipolar world without China and Russia as powers. Taiwan and Ukraine are the chosen sites where the Euro-American establishment is prepared to militarily confront its threatening rivals. That “from AD 1 to 1820, the two largest economies were always those of China and India” and that “only in that period did Europe take off followed by America” is little understood. That the Euro-American empire has not been the first and it will not be the last empire is little understood by the champions of the “new world order” that Francis Fukuyama, in 1989, mistakenly declared as “the end of history and the last man;” a world ruled by the West, led by the US and its European allies had arrived and was here to stay in Fukuyama’s enchanting prophecy. Ensuing history, 9/11 amongst other catastrophic events, and the present war in Ukraine, were to prove Fukuyama’s dream a horrific nightmare. Mahbubani predicts that the short-lived rise and power of the Euro-American Empire has “come to a natural end, and that is happening now.” It seems to be happening expensively if the costs in human life, to the climate and in big dollars are to be counted.
In the struggle of major world powers for dominion of the globe Ukraine is reduced to a burnt offering. While, on the one hand, we have a terrified Euro-American empire fearing a humiliating return to oblivion and powerlessness, on the other hand we have the reality of an angry China and Russia, carrying the burden of many decades of geopolitical humiliation. Such corners of the world as Africa become the proverbial grass that suffers when elephants fight. The scramble to reduce Africa to a sphere of influence for this and that power is a spectacle to behold and the very definition of the new world disorder; a damaged and asymmetrical shape of the world where the weaker other is dispensable and disposable.
In its form and content, this new world disorder is ghastly to ponder, not only for Africa, but also for the rest of the world. Graham Allison pondered it in 2015 and came up with the alarming observation that “war between the US and China is more likely than recognised at the moment” because the two powerful countries have fallen into the Thucydides Trap. The ancient Greek historian, Thucydides, described the trap when he narrated how avoiding war becomes next to impossible when a ruling power is confronted by a rival rising power that threatens its dominion. Thucydides witnessed how the growing power and prosperity of Athens threatened Sparta in ancient Greece, driving the two powers to war. The political and historical climate between China and the US captures the charged political temperatures that punctuated the relations between an entitled and proud Sparta confronted with the growth and anger of a frightening Athens. The proverbial chips were down.
For the US and China to escape the Thucydides Trap that is luring both superpowers to war, “tremendous effort” is required of both parties and their allies. The effort is mainly in mustering the emotional stamina to see and to know that the world is going to be a shared place where there must never be one center of power; that political, economic and military diversity is natural, and the world must be a decolonial pentecostal place where those of different identities, and competing interests can share power and space, is the beginning of the political wisdom that can guarantee peace. President Xi Jinping of China seems to have read Allison’s warning about the Thucydides Trap that envelops China and the US because on a visit to Seattle he was recorded saying: “There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides Trap in the world. But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might make such traps for themselves.” The world is sinking deeper into new disorder and violence because rival powers cannot resist the Thucydides Trap and keep repeating “strategic miscalculations” based on their will to power and desire for global dominion.
The problem with China (the Athens of our present case) that troubles the US as the Sparta of the moment is that, as Allison observes, “China wants to be China and accepted as such—not as an honorary member of the West.” The problem with world powers, past and present, seems to be that they cannot live with difference. In fact, political, economic and cultural differences are quickly turned from competition to conflict, from opposition to total enmity. How to translate antagonism to agonism, and to move from being enemies to being respectful adversaries that can exist among each other in a conflictual but shared world is a small lesson that seems to elude big powers, whose egopolitics drives their geopolitics into a kind of militarized lunacy. One would be forgiven, for instance, to think that playground toys are being spoken of when presidents of powerful countries talk about monstrous weapons to be deployed in Ukraine. Observing from Africa one can hazard the view that big powers might be small and slow learners, after all. The death-drive of the superpowers is perpetuated by the desire to force other countries, including other powers, to be “more like us” when they are formidably determined to be themselves. To break out of the Thucydides Trap and avoid war, for instance, the US has to generate and sustain enough emotional stamina to live with the strong truth that China is a 5,000-year-old civilization with close to 1.5 billion people and in its recent rise is only returning to glory and not coming from the blue sky. And that the world has to be shared with China and other powers, and countries. China, and allies, would also not have learnt well from many years of decline if they dreamt and worked for a world under their sole dominion.
Any fantasy of one world ruled from one mighty center of power is exactly that, a fantasy that might be pursued at the dear cost of a World War. Away from that fantasy, the future world will be politically pentecostal, not a paradise but a perpetually in the making and incomplete world where human, national, cultural, political and religious differences will be normal. From Africa that future world is thinkable and world powers should be investing thought and action in that and not in new monstrous weapons and military might.
Africa in the new world disorder
The symptoms are spectacular and everywhere to be seen. It can be the Namibian President, Hage Geingob, on live television having to shout at a German politician, Norbet Lammert, for complaining about the growing Chinese population in Namibia. Geingob asks why Germans land in Namibia on a “red carpet” and do “what they want” but it becomes a huge problem for the West when the Chinese are seen in Namibia. That Namibia should not be reduced into a theater of contestation between the West and China because it is a sovereign country was Geingob’s plea to the German politician. It can be President Emmanuel Macron of France, in May 2021, asking President Paul Kagame of Rwanda for forgiveness for France’s role in the genocide of 1994—the bottom line being that African conflicts and genocides bear European footprints and fingerprints. Africa is reduced to the West’s crime scene, from slavery to colonialism and from colonialism to present coloniality.
Coloniality is brought to life with, for instance, the US Republican lawmakers launching a bill “opposing the Republic of South Africa’s hosting of military exercises with the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation and calling on the Biden administration to conduct a thorough review of the US-South Africa relationship.” Africa as an object that does not have the agency to act for itself but is acted upon in the new world disorder, is real. It is Africa as a child in the world system that must be protected from other relationships and that must be told who to relate with and who not to relate with. It is also Africa as an owned thing that must be protected from rival owners. Behind the myth of African independence and liberation is the reality of Africa as a “sphere of influence,” about which world powers are still scrambling for control and ownership, including Russia and China. When in January 2018, Donald Trump referred to African countries as “all these shithole countries,” he meant that Africa still metaphorized the toilet of the world order, where disposable waste and dispensable people were to be found. Looking at the world disorder from Africa is a troubling view from the toilet of world affairs.
Looking at the world disorder from Africa with African eyes and sensibility makes it obvious that it is Africa that should be against war and for a decolonial, multipolar world order where differences are legitimated, not criminalized; where economic competition, political opposition, and rivalry are democratized from antagonism to agonism; and where political opponents are adversaries that are not necessarily blood enemies that must work on eliminating each other to the “last man.” Such a world order may be liberating in that both fears and desires of nations may play out in a political climate where might is not necessarily right. From long experiences of being the dominated and exploited other of the world, Africa should expectedly be the first to demand such a world.
World powers need to be persuaded or to pressure themselves to understand what Mahbubani prescribes as a future world order that is against war, and liberating in that it is minimalist, multilateral, and Machiavellian. Minimalist, in that major countries should minimize thinking and act like other countries are minors that should be changed into their own image. Multilateral in the sense that world institutions, such as the United Nations, must be pentecostal sites where differences, fears and desires of all countries are moderated and democratized. Machiavellian in that world powers, no matter how mighty they believe they are, must adapt to the change to the order of things and live with the truth that they will not enjoy world dominion alone, in perpetuity. The world must be a shared place that naturalizes and normalizes political, economic, cultural, and human diversity.
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.
Understanding the Crisis in Northern Kenya
The violence plaguing the North Rift region in Kenya is complex, as it is caused by a multiplicity of factors
On the 14th of February 2023, Kenya held a national prayer day in accordance with our government’s habit of holding ‘prayers’ when certain stressors reach an unbearable level on a national scale. Currently, there are many factors triggering national stressors, and one of them is a complex security issue loosely termed “banditry”, for which our government has no viable solution. So, we pray, declaring war on our people, instead of reflecting on and addressing the root causes of the crisis.
Over the years, these theatrics, which reflect the inadequacy of the government’s policies in dealing with our challenges, have occurred in different forms including ‘prayer breakfasts’, ‘national prayers’, ‘crusades’, and other forms of supplication. And while these functions are met with a wide spectrum of reactions ranging from approval to derision, depending on people’s spiritual or political leanings, it is crucial for us as citizens to realize that as much as these may be expressions of faith at our leaders’ personal level, at the political level they are basically ‘time-outs’ or pressure release valves. Where one has a strategy, time-outs create room for the implementation of plan ‘B’ or ‘C’. However, in the absence of a strategy, time-outs are called in the vain hope that the adversary or adversity at hand will somehow lose momentum.
There is more to the “banditry” phenomenon than meets the eye
There have been violent conflicts of many kinds in northern Kenya for many decades, some driven by terrorism, ethnic animosity, resource conflict, cattle rustling and other factors. Since 2017, however, many Kenyans have had greater awareness of the fact that the violence in northern Kenya isn’t just mere disorder; people have come to terms that there are definite geographical, economic and social patterns to, and causes of, the violence. The ongoing sporadic skirmishes of violence and cattle rustling in the North Rift area are exacerbating the difficulties that the communities there are already facing as a result of a debilitating drought. Most tragically, the violence in the region has led to the death of 16 security personnel and over 100 civilians in 6 months, a period largely overlapping with the first 5 months of H.E. President William Ruto’s time as the president. Sadly, over the years, Kenya had become largely inured to this slow-burning war due to its long duration and the boorish mentality that made the majority of us see certain parts of the country and pastoralists as somewhat ‘backward’ or ‘lesser’ beings. The most harmful effect of this attitude has been the inability or unwillingness of Kenyans to understand the root of this problem.
Things came to a head on the 11th of February 2023 when a group of security personnel on patrol were ambushed on the Lodwar-Kitale highway resulting in the death of 3 officers and the loss of guns, ammunition and patrol vehicles. This daylight highway attack was a huge affront to the authorities, resulting in instant opprobrium from citizens all over the country who wonder why our much-vaunted security agencies still couldn’t subdue these “bandits” after all these years.
Such attacks were turning into exasperating feelings of déjà vu because we see the same places, roughly the same seasonal conditions, the same kind of weapons, and even the same meaningless terminology and knee-jerk government reactions time and again. In every other part of Kenya, when laws are broken, they are investigated and addressed all along the chain from perpetrators, enablers, participants and beneficiaries. Most of the time, cases are brought to logical conclusions, but not in this case. Why?
Insights into the depth of this particular problem came from a very knowledgeable (if unexpected) source. The Governor of Trans-Nzoia County, Mr George Natembeya, came out at the National Prayer Day with a hard-hitting statement, asking the President not to let people around him “shield” him from the realities on the ground concerning the “banditry” in the North Rift areas. He went on to detail the woes of the security personnel working in the area, claiming that they were being sent into a veritable war zone without adequate allowances, equipment and even food supplies. I was personally taken aback because the previous operation took place when Mr Natembeya was the Rift Valley Regional Coordinator (RC), a position he held until last year when he resigned to run for a political office. Ironically, the office of RC is a very senior position in the executive arm of the Kenya Government that placed Mr Natembeya in direct charge of deploying the security personnel who suffered the same deplorable working conditions he was now lamenting about. In a show of cognitive dissonance that is so typical of Kenyans, the Governor was widely praised for his ‘straight talk’ and honesty in ‘speaking truth to power’. Obviously buoyed by this newfound adulation, he went on to hold a press conference where he robustly advocated military involvement in the operation against bandits, firmly stating that the civilian security apparatus (where he spent the majority of his career before moving into politics) is inadequate to protect Kenyans. This advocacy was worrisome because the use of the loose term ‘banditry’ betrays a lack of knowledge of the identity or objectives of the adversaries.
The first major cause for alarm was the haughty ‘pre-devolution’ tone with which Mr Natembeya pronounced himself on the deployment of the military. He proceeded to even give recommendations on the orders that need to be issued, stating that they should be instructed to “decimate” the bandits. This is a startlingly cavalier term when used by a senior public servant in reference to citizens who haven’t been positively identified in any way. It is a term that could be useful in the primitive theatre of war, where opponents are positively identified by uniforms, positions or other means, but sustainable solutions to the security problems in the North Rift region invariably require more sophisticated approaches that would ensure that innocent citizens are protected and not “decimated” alongside. It would have been much easier for us ‘spectators’ to dismiss these statements as hot air emitted by someone who failed in his earlier responsibilities, but we lost that option when the government moved with speed to implement these external ‘instructions’.
The main cause of a complex issue
The violence plaguing the North Rift region in Kenya is complex, as it is caused by a multiplicity of factors. If it was simple, it would have been solved a long time ago through any of the heavy-handed responses deployed by successive governments against it. My work as a conservationist has given me unique insights into one aspect of it which seems to have been ignored by many.
Northern Kenya has a roughly 5-year drought cycle, and 2017 was a drought year. As a consequence, pastoralists moved south into Laikipia county in search of pasture. They invaded private ranches and provoked an inevitable state response, which resulted in the death of many ranchers, pastoralists, security personnel, and hundreds of livestock.
I headed a team of consultants tasked by an indigenous rights NGO to study Marsabit, Isiolo, Laikipia, and Samburu counties in a research project aimed at uncovering the dynamics and drivers of the southward transhumance and the resultant conflicts. We collected data from hundreds of respondents, including ranchers, pastoralists, government personnel and NGO practitioners. Three things stood out in our findings. The first was the sheer distances covered by the pastoralists with their animals, and the second was the fact that almost all the (government-designated) livestock movement routes have been blocked by private landowners. The most compelling finding, however, was that a vast majority of the pastoralists were from homelands that were now ‘wildlife conservancies’ controlled by the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT),( -a conservation NGO. The pastoralists had lost access to their dry-season grazing areas.
After completing our fieldwork and analysis, we planned and held a validation workshop in Nanyuki on the 14th of June 2017. The findings of our report presented at the workshop resonated well with the community members who attended the workshop, some of whom provided us with further insights into the crisis. Our views on NRT were also ‘validated’ by a dramatic moment when my presentation was interrupted by their Laikipia county director, Mr Richard Kasoo, who literally screamed at me to stop vilifying NRT and had to be ejected from the room by the elders present. The top NRT management later called a more cordial meeting at a Nanyuki hotel, asking me as the team leader to expunge certain items from the report, which they felt portrayed them in a ‘negative light’. Much to their chagrin, I declined to do so, out of respect for my team and our respondents. This entire experience was a cameo of what ails us in this arena. Man-made stressors are routinely met with deafening silence and frantic inactivity until we invariably take ‘ruthless’ steps to ‘decimate’ the people we should have engaged before the fighting broke out. As such, those of us who observed the violent resource conflict in 2017 know that it wasn’t brought to an end by any human intervention. The drought ended, the rains came, and people who were fighting simply went back home.
These findings and my views have since been shared with several senior state officials and several non-state actors as well (including the protagonists), but have been invariably met with deafening silence and frantic inactivity. This is not to suggest that this is the only set of causes because the bloodletting certainly predates wildlife conservancies, which only started around 2004. Ethnic animosities that exist in this and other parts of Kenya are realities that we must factor in. The displacement and loss of access to resources also eliminated a lot of the geographical space that typically limited contact and conflict between some communities, resulting in more frequent flare-ups. However, the negative impact of conservation practices on the communities’ ways of life is definitely one of the easier drivers to deal with, so it is difficult to imagine that anyone is dealing with the more intractable and socio-politically fractious ones.
Most notably, the alacrity with which government authorities have embraced the advice of a former RC with a less-than-stellar record to handle a crisis is a worrying indication of not having a plan. One doesn’t need to be an expert to know that militaries aren’t trained to investigate, arrest or prosecute, so we could be courting numerous extrajudicial killings. The Interior Minister speaking in January, added his voice to the frightening miasma, saying that the Government will be ‘ruthless and brutal’ in this operation. We don’t seem to have had a plan for what we are doing now, so it cannot be easy to envision any plan for managing the inevitable fallout of such violence either. We are at war with ourselves in pitch darkness, struggling to finish ‘the other’ before dawn because the light of day might reveal who we really are.
This article was first published by The Pan African Review.
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