Ethiopia: The Grim Search for Political Light in a Crisis9 min read.
For a political system in a country like Ethiopia that is a “no-accountability zone” for state actors and powerful political elites, the social field is critical to building a political community that is more democratic and more in sync with the logic and sociality of “the governed”, argues Semeneh Asfaw.
Ethiopia is suffering. It has become a large community of pain. A dizzying daily multiplication of death and violence in various parts of the country, an all-out war and mass starvation in Tigray, a disquieting feeling of a society at war with itself, describes our current situation. The war continues to spread across the country. Mistrust between communities, fear, insecurity, hopelessness, a crushing inflation, a sense of a deteriorating future, and a constantly declining social world, define the mood of our times. This situation, coupled with political and social tensions, has been slowly building up since 2014. A popular upsurge in the following years resulted in an implosion within the ruling EPRDF regime, culminating in the ascension of Abiy Ahmed to power, as prime minister, in April 2018. Inter-communal conflict and political violence continued to put a heavy strain on the country in the years that followed, albeit with a new vigour.
Social suffering as a function of war, displacement, migration, and political and structural violence is, in the main, generated by state and military powers. The un-acknowledged pain and social misery of individual communities by the larger society besets the crisis of the social. “Enemy”-making discourse has pitted organized political actors against each other in wars of negation, injecting and provoking frightening levels of social antagonism between communities. Discursive and actual wars are waged against simplistically defined single enemies who are often constructed as the culprit of all evils, and all social, political and economic problems. Reckless and unhinged political language is crowned as “truth”, while human suffering is often dismissed as hyperbole.
Powerful political players, in and outside the state, with significant sway and influence on political discourse, gave rise to this condition. For that reason, seeking the solution to our predicament must involve the political elite. However, this on its own is not a sufficient remedy; as polarization and hostility between communities is upsetting the social-structure, “fixing” the problem by relying on a narrowly defined political solution would not suffice. Beyond a state that is on the brink of collapse, we are facing a social fabric that is fast decomposing, unable to hold together its diverse constituent parts.
Caustic political rhetoric and insidious political discourse have contaminated the “power block” or the political structure, and have gone further to cause a considerable wound to our social relations. This ubiquitous crisis that is a manifestation of the entrenched, political, social and moral adversity that the country is facing calls for a more imaginative approach, beyond conventional politics. To deal with the implications of the crisis of politics on the social demands that we implore and pay attention to the emotive, to help us connect with one another as a society.
In the absence of a collective outrage, individual communities are left to grieve massive death, displacement and starvation in isolation. The general public is far too divided to speak in unison. This is perhaps most apparent with the war in Tigray—between Federal and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) forces—that has left in its wake atrocities and destruction on an enormous scale. Very few in the larger public are willing to imagine the deprivations of daily life and the feelings of isolation that Tigrayans are undergoing as a result of this ruinous war. Death, hunger, persecution or the violation of the female body as a site of a cruel game do not seem to move the larger public.
Nevertheless, the enormity of the destruction that this war has caused in Tigray does not make the case of Tigray singular. Rather, this war is but a climactic landmark that expresses the debilitating effects of selective outrage on the social. Human fatality, dislocation and the devastation of towns, cities and livelihoods due to political violence have become numbingly mundane and superfluous in the past three years. No regional state or linguistic and cultural communities have been left unaffected. The casualness of suffering has cast aside an alibi for a fundamental crisis that has befallen the country—the social fabric is witnessing the crumbling of its covenants.
The social assets that held the society together are eroded, and appear too frail to avert our downward spiral into a moral abyss. Shared social norms like tur (ጡር) or neg bene (ነግ በኔ) that dissuaded people from engaging in acts of injustice on others, that had long sustained the social compact, despite the historically widespread violence, and the despotism of the Ethiopian state, have been eroded. This glue that has long been the life force of the social-fabric is everywhere desecrated. The social that has been the bulwark of interconnections between heterogeneous communities and groups is fracturing under the weight of the crisis of conventional politics.
The enormity of the destruction that this war has caused in Tigray does not make the case of Tigray singular.
However, recognizing that the crisis of the moment has permeated society or that there are cracks in the social fabric should not hinder us from appreciating the political validity and vitality of the social. While the condition for the proliferation of social suffering is indifference and disregard for loss and pain, collective mourning of all suffering could be a site of possibility for healing. This recognition should motivate us to strive to rescue the social from further degradation so that we can connect with each other—to feel beyond our political affiliations and identities, and to envision a politics of the social that is based on reherahe ርህራኄ (“radical empathy”/radical humanity).
Rebuilding the social
As politicians are taking us down the bottomless pit, there are way too many of us in this society who are too preoccupied with trailing behind and echoing self-absorbed “leaders”. In this epoch of populist un-reason, vitriolic political language heaved in a discursive climate dominated by a sinister, invisible virtual space, seduces its clients to speak without bounds—without care. Politics is condensed into an art of following. The political arena has depoliticized social actors and turned the public into “users” and “consumers”, whose “political” role is largely limited to “liking”, “disliking”, “re-tweeting”, “sharing” and ultimately, doing the bidding of powerful political actors and “social media patriots”. The journey to the precipice continues and the tragedy multiplies, if we as a society continue to refuse to feel the pain that we see meted out everywhere in our common land.
Even if the social is more than its national identification, it is largely reduced to its “political expression”—“the nation”—in this moment of crisis. And the nation, either in its pan-Ethiopian or particular forms, has become the chief arbiter that determines whose pain, agony and loss matters. It has come to define communities in contradistinction against one another. Rather than nurturing and struggling for the positive, free expression of community and publicness, nationalisms of all vintages have mobilized war-making speeches that caricature presumed opponents. Contenders are seen not as adversaries to engage, but as enemies to be annihilated. Simple answers are sought to complex political, economic and social problems. In such a highly polarized context, the instinctive human identification with pain and loss appears to lose its force. Pan-Ethiopian nationalism, or identity politics, while privileging the concerns of some, appears to predicate their activism on the negation of, or insensitivity to, the pain of what they consider to be the other. In our failure to identify, empathize and value all suffering, our society is morphing into a horrifying assemblage of disjointed, antagonistic, mutually cancelling communities.
I believe the question we must ask in this moment of crisis needs to be, what can we do when conventional politics has failed and “love for country” or “love for the nation” is the vector of the war machine? What can be done when jingoism and oppositional nationalism justify war and when they deepen the crisis by excusing impunity and carnage as “collateral damage”? What do we do when speech is muted by “sheer violence” and “rational” deliberation appears impossible? What can we do where politics is held hostage by political elites? Where do we seek our answers when structural decline and calls for more war are threatening to engulf us all?
In our failure to identify, empathize and value all suffering, our society is morphing into a horrifying assemblage of disjointed, antagonistic, mutually cancelling communities.
To my mind, from the vantage point of society and social actors, the remedy is to be found in the effort we make to rebuild and reconstitute the social. In a society that is so intermingled, where interconnections are far too many to disentangle and a common future is unavoidable, recognizing suffering is imperative to re-build the social fabric. Our survival as a society depends on our ability to empathize with one another. First and foremost, recognizing the social demand that we “bear witness” to pain to reclaim and take back our human ability to empathize with others. Through reherahe (ርህራሄ)—a term that is often used in Ethiopia to describe the radical humanity of mothers— we transcend the limits of our supposed inability to identify and reconnect with the anguish and distress of others. Hence, if we were to allow reherahe as a shared sentiment for all, we could open it up to reshape society and repair our disintegrating inter-communal relations. As a “civic virtue”, it would be freed from its narrow confines as the “natural” preserve of our mothers, and could be used to govern this polity and transform our political life.
The poesis of collective mourning and the politics of the social
We need to reaffirm our connectedness through an act of collective mourning. Our survival does not depend on our commitment to die or sacrifice for “the nation”. Rather, the survival of the social fabric depends on our ability to recognize suffering in the entire society. This demands the unequivocal rejection of the conditions that engender the explosion of social misery. And the precondition for this is the rejection of all wars of negation fought in the name of “the survival”, “unity”, or “the love of” the nation. Instead of relying on political actors, or sinking into the passion of our hearts, we must insist on relating to one another with the depth of our humanity, our wailing guts and emotive faculties.
In these wars of the people against the people, nothing makes sense except mourning all suffering through commonly shed tears. Until and unless we do that, we have no real victories to celebrate, no heroes to praise, no flags to wave. Nothing but the hollow, Pyrrhic victory that is in fact the demise of our social world. The only victory that makes sense is one that expiates and affirms our social ties. And this victory starts with the repudiation of these wars of negation.
The alternative we have is to let these wars continue to not only destroy our future, but also to repudiate the ways we lived in the past. We must acknowledge that despite the injustices and inequities of the past, wrought by successive ruling regimes, the social domain has never seen the levels of polarization and social antagonism that we are currently witnessing between linguistic and cultural communities. The resilience of the social-fabric was such that it was able to maintain, throughout the 20th century, a level of social decorum that retained a sense of community within and between different communities.
Sure, this larger community was not a community where every group was politically alive and treated the same. Nor was it a community that lived “in harmony” and “tolerance”, as some would like us to believe. Nonetheless, it was at the same time a heterogeneous and multi-ethnic community that shared cultural assets, sentiments and experiences, whose common ties nurtured similar socialities. In spite of its in-built inequities, differences, rivalries, contesting interests and conflicts, it was a community that was bound and enlivened by shared values of moral restraint with a deep sense of human fragility, inter-dependent social life and mutual-aid.
Beyond the act of collective mourning to re-build the social fabric, the social field should also be a space for thinking about the otherwise, to envision a better future. Where the social is conceived as a site of political transformation, it could create the condition of possibility for the activation of the affective and moral ties that have long bound the social compact. Social assets such as mutual-aid and solidarity with the aggrieved can serve not only to repair the social fabric but also to remake a more robust social realm.
Our survival does not depend on our commitment to die or sacrifice for “the nation”.
Ritual practices like Leqso (the communal act of mourning with the bereaved) and edir (the mutual aid association of neighbours) that are shared social assets across various communities in the country, could be calibrated to repair our troubled inter-communal relations and our beleaguered social world. Leqso and edir, that form key elements of our social existence, have long forged a sense of neighbourliness among members of heterogeneous communities. Members of edir who visited and counselled mourners, and fed and catered for the bereaved, as well as the leqestegnoch, who gathered to participate in collective acts of mourning, made up the community. This guild of mourners grieved together as a community. Many grieved the dead among them. Some grieved loved ones who were long departed while others mourned the “prospective death” of loved ones as well as their own mortality. Leqso and edir produced the platform for communal care, and prompted the engagement of communities with the human condition. They forged and strengthened communal bonds and created the possibility for collective healing to occur.
In this moment of crisis, a politics of the social that insists on collective mourning and healing is most imperative, as it obliges us to re-think and activate inbuilt social devices to bridge communities pulled apart by hostile political discourse and political violence. The politics of the social that emerges from the sentimental, normative and communitarian practices of everyday people could thus rely on such shared social assets to rebuild and reconstitute the social.
While recognizing that “the political” and “the social” domain are imbricated and that their energies flow into in the constitution of one another, there is also political value in distinguishing the social as a sphere that has its own logic of existence and raison d’être. This recognition entails that the assets of the social must be made more visible to animate, humanize and democratize the political arena. For a political system in a country like Ethiopia that is a “no-accountability zone” for state actors and powerful political elites, the social field as a “site of dynamic [political] possibility” is critical to building a political community that is more democratic and more in sync with the logic and sociality of “the governed”.
The political domain should reflect and respond to the associated life of its heterogeneous groups, as well as their concerns and aspirations. By capitalizing on our social assets, this moment of crisis is a moment when we need to seek to reconstitute society as a field of co-existence and co-creation for a multi-ethnic “labouring community”. Such a society could allow for the emergence of a community that does not just merely co-exist peaceably, but one that strives to create a substantively equal and just political community.
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Anatomy of a Multi-Million Dollar Colonial Carbon Project in Kenya
The Northern Kenya Grasslands Carbon Project (NKCP) attempts to achieve a number of firsts but fails dismally in almost all of them, if the exposition by Survival International is anything to go by.
The legality, credibility and worth of a multi-million-dollar carbon trade project that forces pastoralists in Kenya to abandon age-old cultural practices, has been put to question in an assessment report that depicts it as conceptually misguided, abusive, potentially dangerous, lacking in genuine consent from the owners of the land and doomed to fail.
Based in northern Kenya, the project was however ok’d by international assessors and big-buck companies that have already bought the credits. The organization behind the project has been earning millions despite the fact that it does not own the land and has been unable to prove whether, or how, the project stores carbon in the soil. Nevertheless, this has not stopped the organization from touting it as one of the largest carbon removal projects on earth.
Painstakingly, and as if wielding the metaphorical fine-toothed comb and literary scalpel, Survival International has dissected the project in ways that expose its fundamental flaws, conceptual weaknesses and inherent inability to achieve what it loudly asserts and gets paid for. The international indigenous rights organization has inserted the analytical blade deep into the bowels of the project in its report Blood Carbon: how a carbon offset scheme makes millions from indigenous land in Northern Kenya.
As one reads through the 68-page analysis, there emerges the image of a deceptive, elaborate scheme that has little to do with what the project claims say it is all about. It is clear that the whole project has not aligned itself with the basic tenets of soil carbon retention. One gets a strong sense that the project owners have capitalized on the haplessness of the communities they purport to work with and the unquestioning eagerness of big polluters in the West to escape the blame by paying for what can literarily be described as hot air. These are polluting companies that have pumped millions to buy the carbon credits in the inexplicable belief that paying someone else in the southern hemisphere lessens the guilt associated with polluting the planet.
Unambiguously and with clarity, the exposé narrates the story of a large, well-funded non-governmental outfit that has unabashedly continued to benefit from distorting the truth while destabilizing and side-lining key traditional institutions that have managed and guided grazing practices adopted by pastoralist communities in northern Kenya over long periods of time.
Traditions influence resource use
As the narrative unfolds, it emerges that the project covers about two million hectares of one of the most remote and dry regions of Kenya. It brings on board some 13 wildlife conservancies that host more than 100,000 inhabitants, most of whom are members of the indigenous Samburu, Borana, Maasai and Rendille communities. Being pastoralists, the inhabitants rely on the naturally-occurring pastures, water, salt and other resources so vital for their extensive livestock rearing. To these communities, the health and wellbeing of cattle, sheep, goats, camels and, to some extent, donkeys is directly linked, in more ways than one, to their own survival, wealth and status. They inhabit a region with a delicate ecology which “drove” them to come up with a rational and pragmatic indigenous resource use and management system that places the elders in the driving seat, giving them the power to make decisions that bind other members of the community. Today, the pastoralists are in dire straits due to droughts that have risen in severity and frequency owing to climate change. As a result, the region now experiences a minor drought every two to three years and a major one every ten years or so, often resulting in severe famines and the attendant deaths of thousands upon thousands of livestock.
NRT’s support from the moneyed
This is the ecological, socio-economic and cultural context upon which the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) based the carbon trading project. Established in 2004 by Ian Craig, a rather “unseen” conservation personality from the old colonial stock, NRT prefers to be known as a “membership organization”. The body states that it improves people’s lives, creates and sustains peace and conserves the environment. Today, the organization boasts of bringing into its fold some 43 community conservancies spread over 63,000 square kilometres in the northern and coastal parts of the country. This area is significant as it constitutes more than 10 per cent of Kenya’s total land surface.
The NRT’s conservation work has drawn in the moneyed lot in the West who have generously kept it way above water financially. The amounts it receives each year are humongous and can turn other green organizations greener with envy. USAID, for instance, has donated some US$32 million since 2004. Over the years, USAID’s support was topped up by generous contributions from the who-is-who in the European giving order. Besides the European Union, Denmark and France, the organization receives over US$25 million from 46 donors each year. It is not known exactly how much the organization receives from whom as it does not publish its annual accounts. However, the financial support the NRT receives has greatly aided in raising its visibility as a wildlife conservation outfit whose model was adopted by the EU as the latter rolled out conservation in 30 African countries under NaturAfrica banner. Corporates too have come calling with accolades and cash as the NRT gives them somewhere “to hide their guilt”. For instance, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development bestowed the “Lighthouse” Award on the NRT last year.
Expanding the NRT mandate
With such support and encouragement, the NRT has kept adding on to its initial conservation mandate. Besides taking up the maintenance of peace and security, the organization is also involved in livestock marketing. Its conservation, peace-making and security initiatives have however raised a hue and cry from many people in Kenya who question why a non-governmental body has armed units and controversially takes up what is solely mandated to the Kenya government by the country’s constitution. But the NRT feels justified in its peace-building mission, saying that this creates the right conditions necessary for its conservation programme. Those opposed, however, including many of the affected indigenous people, say that the organisation’s conservation activities are disruptive to the lives and livelihoods of local people as they require them to cede part of their communally-owned lands to create room for “core” areas that are exclusively used by investors, tourists and wildlife.
There have also been claims that well-trained and armed NRT rangers have been involved in extrajudicial killings and other forms of human rights abuses as documented by the Oakland Institute, a US-based think tank, in its report Stealth Game: “Community” Conservancies Devastate Land & Lives in Northern Kenya. The report dealt a devastating blow to the image of the organization as it exposed how the NRT and its partners, allegedly dispossessed the herder communities of their ancestral lands through corruption, violence and intimidation to create and maintain the wildlife conservancies.
There have also been claims that well-trained and armed NRT rangers have been involved in extrajudicial killings and other forms of human rights abuses.
The NRT and controversy appear to be bedfellows. According to the Survival International report, the organization rolled out the carbon project almost a decade ago when the claims made against it were starting to gain public attention. The project is ambitious, opens new ground in the global carbon trading regime and is hinged on the involvement of pastoralist communities in the region. Essentially, it leans on the thinking that were the pastoralists to move away from traditional “unplanned” grazing and embrace “planned” rotational grazing, this would give vegetation over the vast area a better chance to grow prolifically. Consequently (as the thinking goes), this would result in greater storage of carbon in the soils of the project area. The NRT estimated that as much as 750 kilos of additional carbon would be stored in each hectare every year. Cumulatively, the organization estimated that the project could generate about 1.5 million tons of extra carbon “storage” per year and thereby produce 41 million tons of carbon credits for sale over its project’s 30-year lifespan. This would, in turn, generate between US$300million and US$500 million according to Survival’s estimates. With such highly attractive end results, the NRT labelled the project a “natural climate solution” as it went into the carbon credit market.
Project ok’d by assessors
Before taking the carbon credits to potential buyers, the project was taken through the Verra System, which is touted to have a “rigorous set of rules and requirements”. Documents show that the auditors appointed to “validate” the project struggled for several years to obtain answers to some of their questions about serious problems with the project. Some were never answered but, astonishingly, the project was eventually passed and credited with generating real, credible and permanent emissions reductions; it was attributed with the ability to store additional carbon in the soil. Since it was ok’d in the Verra System, the project has so far generated some 3.2 million carbon credits which the NRT’s agents had sold out by January 2022. Although the gross income the organization received is unknown, Survival International estimates that it has generated between US$21 million and US$45 million with some of the credits being offloaded to Netflix and Meta Platforms (formerly Facebook).
Impenetrable wall of conspiracy
Usually, the true value of claims made by conservation NGOs in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa is hard to ascertain. This is because the same outfits are allowed to assess the before-and-after scenarios of the conservation projects they are involved in. In some cases, local and international assessors are contracted to undertake evaluation studies. But as external assessors visit the field, they are usually chaperoned by officials from the same NGOs they have been commissioned to scrutinize. Even where assessors demand to do “independent” reviews, their work is largely hampered by language, and geographical and cultural barriers. This has created an almost impenetrable “wall of silence and conspiracy” because what ends up constituting the findings on impact is actually more or less what the NGO wanted the assessors to know in the first place. By the end of the day, the NGO ends up with a good image and a nod from donors. It is no wonder that there is little to show for all the billions pumped into conservation. In any case, species have been disappearing and wildlife populations are dwindling while the worst effects of climate change bite hard even within the NRT carbon project.
The project is ambitious, opens new grounds in the global carbon trading regime and is hinged on the involvement of pastoralist communities in the region.
As far as the carbon trading project is concerned, the truth typically deviates, to a great extent, from what is stated by the organization and the project assessors. Survival International established an unmistakable dichotomy between what the NRT has eloquently put in the project’s documents and the reality in the project area. Most importantly, the NRT did not inform the communities properly about the project, “let alone receive their free, prior and informed consent to it”. As Survival International officials toured the area, they established that the organization had, at best, merely shared the required information with a small number of people who sat on the boards of the 13 conservancies. However, the information given was limited, was not shared in native languages, and was done “long after the project started”. The same was reported by the project’s auditors during the initial verification of the project. This is a clear violation of some of the principles that carbon trading projects are expected to adhere to.
The entire project can be seen as one that exploits and grossly interferes with the lives of tens of thousands of pastoralists. As the project unfolded, the communities have been increasingly losing control of their lands and the power to determine how to use it. As the organization went about removing what it calls “cultural barriers” to carbon retention in the soil, the unfairness of the entire approach emerged in the sense that people who have very little to do with polluting the planet were forced to alter how they have survived in order to adhere to the dictates of an organisation that used falsehoods and unproven methods to receive finances it does not deserve. This notwithstanding, the project is attempting to replace the prevailing practice in which boys herd livestock by paying cash to adults to be doing the task. This is seen as a blatant attempt to destroy the dignity of the men and women who are traditionally not involved in such an activity. This, as the report says, is likely to face “rejection and failure”.
Watch: Is the Northern Kenya Grasslands Carbon Project a Racket?
In addition, the report raises serious issues on the legality of the project. Half of the project area is on lands classified as trust lands which are subject to the provisions of the Community Lands Act 2016. The Act mandates not the NRT but the relevant county governments with “holding the land in trust” until they are formally registered as community lands. However, the registration process has taken too long, with the delays being partly attributed to what some locals say is “active obstruction” by the powerful organization. Indeed, the legality of the conservancies established by the NRT was challenged in the Environment & Lands Court in 2021. The case is still going on.
Related to the legality of the project is the question raised in Survival International’s report as to whether the NRT has the right to trade on carbon stored in the soils of lands that it does not own. The organization did not have a formal agreement with the communities in the 13 conservancies before it embarked on the project. It cobbled together the agreements in June 2021, eight-and-half years after it started the project. On this, the report says that “NRT did not have a clear contractual right to sell the carbon during this period”.
Survival International estimates that it has generated between US$21 million and US$45 million with some of the credits being offloaded to Netflix and Meta Platforms.
In its communication, the NRT has consistently claimed that it does not own the relevant lands. One then would expect that it would have let the biggest share of proceeds from the carbon trade project go to the communities. However, Survival International says that the organization not only continues to hog the lion’s share of the proceeds, but has the final say on how the proceeds are distributed. The organization claims that it dishes out 30 per cent of the total funds to the 13 conservancies “for purposes which the communities themselves determine”. But Survival International disputes this. “This largely proves not to be the case,” the report avers, going on to state that 20 per cent of the conservancies’ portion is actually spent on the “NRT’s prescribed” grazing practices while 60 per cent is distributed at the discretion of the organization. Community leaders interviewed during the investigation by Survival International said that the distribution is done “through a largely opaque process” and that the money “is used to exert control over communities and to promote NRT’s own priorities”.
Whipping communities into acceptance
The report terms the credibility of the carbon offsets as “wanting” and its impact on the pastoralist communities as “negative”. The project’s very success (or lack of it) depends on whipping communities into accepting a radical shift from the age-old traditional grazing pattern they have been practicing to what the organization believes would bring about the required carbon offsets. But for Survival International, this could “endanger [the] livelihoods and food security” of the pastoralists besides being “culturally destructive”. By establishing a project which demands that the herders confine their animals to the project area, the NRT’s desire was to align the project with one of the requirements of the relevant methodology. But the whole thinking attaches no value to what is obviously a rational and pragmatic animal husbandry practice adopted by the communities hundreds of years before the project was ever started.
The NRT did not inform the communities properly about the project, “let alone receive their free, prior and informed consent to it”.
More poignantly, the NRT’s demands for a change in grazing patterns appears insensitive to the problems pastoralists have been experiencing with the worsening changes in the climate. This is also a typical example of the predicament presented to communities in Africa whenever they are forced to engage in activities that hardly cater for their own survival and interests. To many “woke” Kenyans today, although the NRT was formed in Kenya, its very philosophy and operations are “alien and transplanted” from Europe. Many deem it to be a body that has boldly and with single-minded determination rekindled the colonial scenario in which white people see nothing wrong with using force and money to put in place changes that do not benefit African communities but instead are extremely disruptive to their lives.
Does the NRT deserve the millions?
The NRT cannot escape the accusation of carbon colonialism and nor can the polluting companies that find nothing wrong with dealing with a “broker” and everyone else to the exclusion of the owners of the land upon which the carbon trading project is based. This notwithstanding, the question arises as to whether the organization deserves the millions of dollars paid to it by Netflix and other companies. For one, the project does not provide believable evidence that traditional grazing has led to the degradation of soils and hence the loss of soil carbon. “It is based on a presumption that the traditional forms of grazing were causing degradation of soils and that only the carbon project could remedy this,” the report says. It adds that the NRT does not support “with any empirical evidence” the assertion that degradation there happens due to “unplanned grazing.”
Although the NRT was formed in Kenya, its very philosophy and operations are “alien and transplanted” from Europe.
At the same time, the project’s core activity of “planned rotational grazing” does not seem to be taking place. “The limited information provided by the project purporting to show a decline in vegetation quality prior to the project does not in fact show this at all,” the report says. In any case, evidence presented by the NRT indicates that the quality of vegetation “has declined since the project started”. The report concludes that “this would suggest that soil carbon in much of the area is in fact also declining.”
Brick by brick
Survival International dismantles, brick by brick, most of the project’s foundational claims. Besides painting the carbon storage assessment method as “unsuitable”, the report disputes the credibility of the periodic reports on grazing activities submitted by the 13 conservancies, terming them “entirely worthless”. The report says that they cannot be relied upon to ascertain whether the rotational grazing has been implemented let alone its outcomes. Added to this is the fact that the NRT used an error-laden method to measure the amount of carbon retained in the soil. This was the use of remote sensing to establish vegetation cover rather than direct measurement of soil carbon. Apparently, the NRT is aware of the weaknesses of this approach and actually admits that it contains very large margins of error and inaccuracy—Survival International terms it “demonstrably faulty”. Further, it is highly doubtful that any additional carbon stored (which is unlikely) can last long in the project area. In this regard, Survival International asserts that the worsening changes in climate in most parts of the project area as well as the entire northern Kenya region “will result in declines in vegetation and soil carbon storage”.
The NRT purports that it was able to count the number of days livestock spend away from the project area. This information is essential in knowing whether the extra carbon supposedly stored in the project area’s soils might come at a cost of carbon simply being lost somewhere else through grazing, thus invalidating the project. But the monthly grazing reports used to monitor livestock movements are inadequate for such a purpose; they lack credible information on where animals are at any given time, and are based on maps that are vague and border on guesswork. Besides this, the project area is largely remote, inaccessible and this makes it almost impossible to monitor what happens in the highly porous boundaries of the project. Although the NRT says that it has the mechanism to detect and monitor livestock movement off the project area, it does not comply with the methodology under which the project was developed in the first place. This can be translated to mean that the organisation has little or no idea of the amount of carbon “leakage”.
An informed lie?
From a layman’s assessment of the report, it is clear that the project has “adhered” to the long tradition in which many conservation NGOs in Kenya misrepresent facts for the purpose of securing funding from those ready to open their purses in the West. One cannot explain how the NRT was able to secure the nod of assessors and huge amounts of money from big-buck companies. The explanation lies elsewhere; the success with which such NGOs manage to get millions in funding has to do with whether they are able to include white people, either as founders, as members of their boards or as staffers in the top echelons of their establishments. For some reason, NGOs that recruit white people in Kenya stand a far better chance of securing financial support from Europe or America. In this regard, the NRT is associated with the Craig family who have lived in Kenya since the early 1900s. This is a family that has more than a casual relationship with the British royal family. For instance, not only did Prince William have an intimate friendship with Jessica Craig, the daughter of the founder of the NRT, Ian Craig, before he married Kate Middleton, but he also proposed to Kate at Craig’s former family home in Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. A casual observer might not see the connection, but many organizations formed by white people in Kenya are able to easily get away with unjustifiable untruths and half-truths. Those who fund them appear to have no desire to commission independent assessments that would shed light on the truth value of such organizations in solving the problems they purport to address.
The NRT carbon project is no different. It clearly misrepresents facts while its truth value and worth are questionable. One is unable to decide whether the entire project is based on a carefully crafted lie arrived at through the use of a complicated algorithm, or that it is simply a sham.
Kenya’s Police Are Violent and Unaccountable – Should They Be Abolished?
After Kenya’s independence in 1963, the police were “Africanised” but retained much of their colonial character. Under Daniel arap Moi’s authoritarian regime (1978-2002), the police continued to play a key role in repressing dissent.
A world without the police is inconceivable to many people. The police are viewed as part of modern society’s foundation, ensuring democracy and keeping people safe.
In practice, however, police around the world sometimes repress social movements, stifle democracy, and exacerbate social and racial injustice. Across the African continent, they often use force to prop up repressive regimes. And in Kenya in particular, extortion and extrajudicial killings by the police are rampant.
Kenya is unusual for its extensive attempts to reform the police. Reform efforts began in earnest in 2008, when the police were found to be complicit in post-election violence. And yet, after 15 years and billions of shillings spent, the police reform project has largely failed.
The Kenyan police remain repressive, unaccountable and effectively unreformable. Many citizens complain about how the police treat them like ATMs – a source of cash. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the police killed tens of Kenyans while enforcing curfew measures.
We’ve conducted hundreds of interviews, discussion groups and over a decade of ethnographic research into how counter-terrorist policing and securitisation have shaped Nairobi. And in turn, how local residents respond to police violence and build their own practices of care, mutual aid and security.
We have come to the conclusion that the police make most people feel less safe. Many residents told us they don’t depend on the police for their safety: they keep each other safe. Given the impasse of police reform – and citizen responses to this – there is a strong argument to be made for the abolition of the Kenyan police altogether.
Policing at an impasse
Modern police institutions made their first appearances on the African continent as part of colonisation and the expansion of European capitalist interests.
In Kenya, the roots of policing lie in early colonial “conquest”. The Imperial British East African Company developed security forces to protect its expanding economic interests in the 1890s, and the Kenya-Uganda Railroad developed its own police force in 1902.
After Kenya’s independence in 1963, the police were “Africanised” but retained much of their colonial character. Under Daniel arap Moi’s authoritarian regime (1978-2002), the police continued to play a key role in repressing dissent.
There have been calls to reform the Kenyan police for decades. But the 2007-08 post-election violence, in which police were complicit in widespread ethnic violence, accelerated attempts at reform.
Over the past 15 years, police reform has been enshrined in the 2010 constitution and actualised in numerous acts of parliament. It’s been supported internationally with funding and technical expertise from the UN, the US and the EU, among others. It prompted the reorganisation of the police service and the establishment of civil oversight mechanisms.
Yet, despite all of these efforts, the Kenyan police remain corrupt, violent and unaccountable.
Civilian oversight over the police has proved ineffectual. The Independent Policing Oversight Agency has managed to bring only 12 cases of police violence to conviction out of more than 20,000 complaints received between 2012 and 2021. That is only one out of every 1,667 complaints. The under-resourced agency simply can’t grapple with the immense volume of reported police abuses.
The case for abolition
Police reform has failed. Is it time to consider abolition?
Abolition is not about simply tearing things down, but rather asking what should exist in place of outdated and violent systems that no longer serve people. Abolition is a creative and constructive project with deep philosophical roots.
So why abolish the Kenya police?
- The police are functionally obsolete for most Kenyans. In many low-income neighbourhoods, our research shows that people avoid calling the police to respond to crises or crimes. For many, experience shows that the police can make matters worse.
- The police often exacerbate insecurity, violence and corruption. To provide for their own safety, residents increasingly organise themselves into networks of friends, family and neighbours for basic safety. For instance, women in Mathare, Nairobi, organise their own security practices, which include conflict resolution, de-escalation of violence and support for survivors.
- In more affluent neighbourhoods, residents increasingly rely on private companies to provide security in their compounds. Police are seen as one among many security services available for hire. In our research, the few positive experiences with the Kenyan police were reported (predominantly) by such affluent residents.
- The remaining function of the police is “enforcing order” and protecting the state against society. Officers uphold and protect a rarefied governing class and political elite against the population.
Police abolition, therefore, would mean dismantling ineffective and repressive institutions and replacing them with systems of actual safety, systems that enable society to thrive.
What should replace the police?
When confronted with the idea of “abolition” for the first time, many people often respond: “but who will keep us safe?”
In Nairobi, the answer is to be found in existing social practices. The problem is that there’s a lack of resources to support alternatives to punitive security. We call for defunding the police and investing these resources in such alternatives.
- Invest in communities.When we ask about local security problems, residents often answer that the lack of schools, food, land, quality housing, water, electricity, toilets, healthcare and safe places for kids to play are what cause “insecurity”. Reinvestment in community means funding such social infrastructure to allow people to thrive. This reduces crime and violence.
- Invest in alternative safety mechanisms.This means strengthening dispute-resolution mechanisms that help resolve conflicts without violence. The government needs to support existing social justice centres, networks and movements fighting for change.
When these forms of social reinvestment are pursued, the need for the police is greatly diminished.
Wangui Kimari, Anthropologist, University of Cape Town and Zoltán Glück, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, American University
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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.
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