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Competing Narratives and the Crisis in Ethiopia

13 min read.

Since November last year, Ethiopia has been fighting a devastating civil war with the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front. Hibist Kassa argues that the scale of misinformation on the war, lack of context and attempts to impose false narratives is deeply troubling and pervasive. Kassa calls for a nuanced and historically grounded approach to properly analyse the course of events.

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Competing Narratives and the Crisis in Ethiopia
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Since 4 November last year Ethiopia has been caught in a devastating civil war with the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) which has been marked by escalating genocidal attacks on ethnic minorities in Ethiopia. The scale of misinformation and disinformation on the war, brazen lack of context, shameless and downright dangerous attempts to not only impose false narratives, but also impose a narrow human rights agenda skewed to ignore abuses by Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) and its allies is deeply troubling and pervasive.

At the moment, a dangerously simplistic and false narrative labelling the federal government as having an agenda for centralisation, as opposed to the TPLF which is pushing for federalism, is being spread in mainstream media outlets and through scholarly networks. This is drawing on a further over-simplification of the history of empire building and contestation, and the nature of cultural and language identities and their relationship to class stratification.

This year marked the 125th anniversary of the Battle of Adwa in 1896, a historic defeat of a European imperialist power by Africans, with the unification of divided peoples. Lords, serfs and slaves, women and men, mobilised an army of about 100,000 to defeat Italian troops in a matter of hours. The aftermath of the victory also laid the basis for further empire consolidation and forging of the modern state, a contested historical process that has been foregrounded in the current conflict. A nuanced and historically grounded approach is needed to analyse the ways the centre-periphery tensions shaped autonomy in Tigray, recognise the wide spectrum of debates within the TPLF and how elites have deployed this in the current conflict (I examine this in some detail in the Agrarian South Bulletin here).

While the need to get the analysis right on the crisis is important to inform interventions, we also need to understand the nature of the accumulation strategies of elites, the contradictions in these strategies and where this leaves the working class and the advancement of a progressive alternative from below.

What are the competing narratives?

At the moment, mediation is being proposed as was recently advocated in a statement by African intellectuals, that eerily followed the line of the United States and TPLF on the crisis. A robust response by the Global Ethiopian Scholars Initiative and Jon Abbink have highlighted the problematic nature of the statement, and the need for an understanding of what is really at stake in the volatile Horn of Africa region, where a realignment of geopolitical relations between Eritrea-Ethiopia-Somalia, with South Sudanese solidarity, is potentially decentring US domination in the region, and sealing the decline of TPLF. Understanding the tricky and complicated context of the changes underway, demands also for careful attention to what is left out of the dominant narrative of the crisis.

For instance, it was shocking to hear pro-TPLF commentator, Martin Plaut, and now visiting researcher at Kings College Department of War Studies, declared boldly on 5 February this year, that even though a massacre in Mai-Kadra in Western Tigray was terrible, ‘I don’t care who carried them out’ (see 30:00-31:21). This was a genocide of about 1000 men, the elderly and children who were identified as ethnic Amhara by TPLF youth groups. As the men were being slaughtered, women overheard them say they would come for them next. Zelalem Tessema, Co-Chair Ethiopian Association in the UK, who was on the same panel as Plaut said that this was the ‘Srebrenica massacre’ of Ethiopia. Accountability which was so important for Plaut when examining Amhara militias, Ethiopian federal troops and Eritrea’s involvement, was suspended in the case where TPLF militia and its youth members, who later escaped to join refugees on the Sudanese border. The TPLF has continued to commit atrocities in its vicious expansion into Afar and Amhara regions displacing up to 4 million people.

Meanwhile, a coherent campaign sympathetic to TPLF by the US, EU and UN, including the IMF and World Bank, have focused on aspects of the Tigray crisis pressuring the Ethiopian Federal government to revert to mediations with the TPLF. Even when a unilateral ceasefire was declared by the government, the TPLF has continued to encroach upon other provinces in Amhara and Afar provinces, temporarily occupying Lalibela, and slaughtering civilians, destroying historic Churches in Gondar, there was still no universal condemnation of the TPLF except for the instance where the USAID Director in Ethiopia cited widespread TPLF looting of aid goods.

There has also been complete disinterest in the killings of ethnic minorities elsewhere which have been linked to the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), openly allied to TPLF. In principle, violations by any state and non-state actor in Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia should be investigated, victims provided care and culprits held to account. But the geopolitical power struggle that is ongoing has no interest in this kind of accountability agenda. Instead, human rights violations, whether they be genocide, widespread rape, recruitment of children as combatants and violations against Eritrean refugees, have been ignored when TPLF forces have been identified culprits. Talk of accountability and human rights is just a game in a bigger geopolitical battlefield.

Getting the facts right is key!

To make sense of what is an intensely complex crisis, it is important to focus on the following key facts:

  1. On 4 November, after the Federal Government of Ethiopia had transferred US$281 million to the Tigray provincial government, a ‘lightning strike’ so described by TPLFs’ spokesperson, was unleashed on federal troops who were undertaking joint operations with the Tigray provincial forces. Unarmed soldiers and generals were slaughtered in their pyjamas and their bodies left to rot, while other troops were taken as prisoners. Soldiers with specialised training were later summarily executed, ran over with trucks, and women soldiers were raped. When the news of this shocking attack trickled in, it horrified the general public and ended all attempts to mediate tensions between the Federal government and the TPLF.
  2. Prior to the above attack, tensions had been building between the Federal government based in Addis Ababa and the TPLF. The loss of TPLFs almost three-decade dominance of power in the federal government had aggrieved the committee members. To recall, TPLF itself was a political party, with its own hierarchies and membership drawing from various constituencies within Tigray province.
  3. Normalisation of relations with Eritrea was an extremely significant change introduced by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018. This significant change in foreign policy of Ethiopia was made possible under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition with new leadership under Abiy Ahmed as a member of Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO). It was a decisive break from TPLF foreign policy which had treated the Eritrean government as a lethal enemy. The latter which has acted as a bulwark against the expansion of the United States’ AFRICOM in the Horn of Africa, and retained some semblance of sovereignty over its national policy space. These former allies who waged war against the Derg (the military regime that ruled Ethiopia and Eritrea from 1974 to 1987), soon turned into foes over the TPLFs ethnonationalist agenda entrenched in the Ethiopian federalist system, redrawing provinces and the entire governance system on the basis of ethnicity. Each province formed standing armies of their own and entrenched the right to secede in the constitution.
  4. Tigray province is in the northern most part of Ethiopia and shares a border with Eritrea, over which war was waged from 1998-2000, when Abiy was then on the frontline as a solider. A peace treaty was only signed in 2018 once the OPDO under Abiy was in power after a wave of popular protests against TPLF. According to Iqbal Jhazbay (former South Africa ambassador to Eritrea) since the Peace Treaty was signed, this provided Eritrea, ‘a previously isolated regime which has stubbornly resisted being turned into a pawn by foreign powers’ a bridge with which to expand its foreign policy influence in the volatile Horn of Africa. Asmara has resisted a regime change agenda, a challenge now facing Ethiopia, under the new Progress Party (PP) under Abiy, which has now had to resist pressure from foreign powers to dictate its relations with Eritrea.
  5. The successful completion of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has been resisted not only by Egypt and Sudan, but also with backing from the US and Israel. Although GERD was conceptualised and initiated by former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, its successful implementation did not have full backing of his heirs in the TPLF. The Metal and Engineering Corporation, a mega-parastatal, which was charged with manufacturing parts of GERD, manufactured them below expected standards. This delayed the project and has been suspected as an act of subversion instead of incompetence on the part of the parastatal. The combination of Egypt and Sudan, and the realignment of interests with internal actors, like the TPLF (and now OLF), has created another deadly alliance that threatens stability in the Horn of Africa.
  6. Ethiopia is on the brink of national self-sufficiency in wheat production within two years. The Abiy government has also been setting up bread factories to ensure affordability for the urban poor and working people (especially in a time when food prices continue to skyrocket). In addition to the GERD and its potential to provide renewable energy resource to the Horn of Africa and beyond, these developments should be seen as efforts to strengthen productive capacity in the region and hopefully also address energy poverty that falls on the back of women. It is also a case that the infrastructure investments and Industrial Parks especially in the garments industry, have had keen interest from global brands, but also significantly drawn upon domestic resource mobilisation. All these are signs that concrete gains are being made in the country.
  7. Nonetheless, in spite of the Ethiopian governments commitment to liberalisation, this has not enamoured the regime to donors and the Bretton Wood Institutions. Sanctions have been imposed on government officials to travel to the US. Conditionalities for loans are being attached to ensure mediation with TPLF. The interest of the IMF, primarily influenced by the US, in this conflict is noteworthy.
  8. Bretton Woods Institutions, especially the IMF, have been attaching conditionalities to assistance obliging the government to make concessions to the TPLF. This hard-line towards the PP government is puzzling given that it has declared the country open for business, liberalising one of Africa’s last heavily regulated economies and allowing competition with State-Owed Enterprises, electricity and the telecommunications. The Abiy government has also been a very consistent partner in the War on Terror, especially as it relates to operations against Al-Shabab in Somalia.
  9. This indicates that there are higher stakes in Ethiopia’s forging of alliances with Eritrea and Somalia and the broader goal to stabilise the Horn of Africa in a manner that has not centred Washington and its ‘War on Terror’. Lawrence Freeman, on a panel on Ethiopia Television, “Addis Dialogue”, argues that a global political oligarchic faction that maintains neo-colonial control of African countries in particular, sees any actor operating outside US control as threatening their dominance and needing to be dealt with as a threat. Deacon Yoseph Tafari, Chairman of the Ethiopian American Civic Council, concurs and emphasises that the US had initially misread the Abiy government in the beginning of its tenure, and had to confront the reality of its more autonomous approach to foreign policy and its persistence with state led developmental initiatives such as the GERD. It is this aspect that has informed a regime change agenda.
  10. The TPLF which was the dominant force in the previous coalition government had been able to control the security and governance arms of the state and considerable investments in SOEs. It is an open secret that the TPLF had amassed offshore accounts of US$30 billion. At its height, foreign aid reached US$3.5 billion a year. Two to three billion dollars were lost annually through under and over invoicing of imports. Parastatals had become effective vehicles for accumulation of wealth by the top tier of the regime, with varied forms of patrimonial relations with less powerful actors within the party machinery. Proximity to power had its benefits, but none compared with the accumulation of wealth and deepening inequality that was apparent over the last three decades.

Q & A between Munyaradzi Gwisai and Hibist  Kassa which reflects on the state of the working class in Ethiopia today.

MG: The emergent Ethiopian working class was a key player in the 1974 revolution that eventually ousted Emperor Haile Selassie. The wave of strikes helped inspire the popular protests of students, peasants and the junior soldiers. The later eventually wrested power led by the [Marixst Leninist] Derg, provoking a nearly two-decade period of Civil War and instability.

What happened to the Ethiopian working class in this period, in the struggles that ensued… Was class militancy and organisation crushed by repression and war?

HK: As the parastatal, Metal and Engineering Corporation (MetEC)  case highlights, trade unions have struggled, and continued to struggle to organise in Ethiopia. IndustriALL Federation has been making important interventions especially in industrial parks. Important analytical work has been done  on the super exploitation of women workers has drawn attention to how the accumulation strategy of the state that relies on cheap wage labour and the creation of an enabling environment for foreign direct investment, demands the repression of organised labour.

In response to high turnover of the workforce and a wave of wildcat strikes, there have been some moderate reforms to create a means for workers to raise concerns through the Labour Department inspectors and the provision of district offices. In spite of this, trade unions still need to be able to organise workers on the shopfloor. Resistance to this persist.

Moreover, the tension between the focus on large scale foreign direct investments as a means of enabling industrialisation places this strategy in tension with the dynamic and diversified economic activities by smallholder producers in agriculture, cottage industries and the retail sector. Ethiopia has a history of cooperative associations traced to the Derg regime, but these were demobilised by the TPLF dominated EPRDF regime.

MG: Ethiopia is amongst the top five performing economies in Africa in the last decade with annual growth rates of over 10%. A new, younger and expanded working class must therefore have emerged. If the working class retreated in this period leaving the petite bourgeoisie in charge, was there not a significant growth and re-emergence of the working class in the period after 1995? Quantitatively and qualitatively especially after 2000?

What is the degree of organisation, class consciousness, and militancy of this new expanded class? How does it compare to the leading role played by other working classes in the region recently, in Sudan, Egypt, Kenya for example and does it provide a counter to the petite bourgeoisie and their ethnicity – region based politics and mobilization?

HK: A new, younger and expanded working class has emerged, and its face is that of women migrants. The new subjects arising out of the industrialisation process is that of women workers, who are being superexploited as part of the country’s development strategy. Rural-urban migration, and now with covid-19, urban-rural migration, has become significant.

I think if we are to consider the primarily informal character of the labouring classes or working people (as Issa Shivji says) we needs to use different approaches to analyse the forms of resistance to capital and the state, and the ways in which people are building autonomy from below through their livelihoods and even survival strategies. This expanded approach to resistance and understanding of class helps us better draw the connections between the urban poor and dispossessed masses, and rural communities who in carrying the burden of social reproduction even as a gendered cheap wage labour strategy is imposed from above become a basis for drawing  organic linkages with ‘wage workers’ in the formal sector. I think this is an opportunity to think in an interlinked manner and develop a more holistic understanding of what organising interventions can be made by trade unions working in alliance with women’s groups, farmers associations, artisanal miners and casual workers.

Elite wealth accumulation and the gendered working class

It is crucial to also reflect on the nature of corruption facilitated via illicit financial flows and how this has fed into the wealth accumulation strategies of elites in the TPLF dominated ethnic coalition government prior to its removal in 2018. A prime example of this is the mega parastatal, Metal and Engineering Corporation (MetEC).

With about seventy SOEs, seven military hardware manufacturing entities, about 12,500 employees, MetEC is a significant force in the Ethiopian economy. Under the TPLF, it successfully disbanded trade union organising on the shopfloor. In 2014, labour unions confronted the then CEO Knife Dangew and they were dismissed for being focused on rights bargaining and of being wedded to the legacy of the previous ‘Marxist Leninist’ military dictatorship. Instead, the trade union federation was expected to focus on the objective of attaining middle income status. In 2018, a parliamentary review revealed extensive graft, with overpricing of domestic and international procurement of up to US$2 billion, in some cases 400% higher than market prices. He was arrested in November 2018, and charged over the procurement of two shipping vessels, two hotels and a plastics factory.

The description below by Tim Hall of an industrial park, in Hawassa, now in the newly established Sidama province, gives us a glimpse of the pre-Covid situation:

Over 17,000 young women from predominately rural areas and a variety of ethnicities have, from 2017, migrated to work at the Hawassa Industrial Park (HIP), employing around 120,000 mainly women workers at potential full capacity. They face long shifts, low salaries given living costs between 800 to 2000 BIRR a month (US$27–68) and new challenges in an unfamiliar urban context, which are exacerbated by their status and dislocation from familial networks.

The brief description Hall offers above is that of women who form self-help groups on the basis of ethnicity and religion.

While there is a case for understanding ethnicity (or kinship as Archie Mafeje argues) in terms of how it can be an organising element in the labour process, the rigid and impervious colonial conceptions of ethnicity institutionalised by the TPLF cannot be underestimated. As relevant as this is to understand the reproduction of inequalities, in the Ethiopia case, it is also important to weigh how these have been entrenched as an organising principle of society.

The ability to render some groups as vulnerable as in the case of the non-Sidamo women migrant workers in Hawaasa or the migrant farmworkers massacred in Mai-Kadra also needs to be treated with caution. TPLF as a dominant force in the EPRDF coalition had almost three decades with an effective machinery to entrench this in the everyday forms of social, political and economic spheres of society, from ethnic development banks to redrawing provincial borders as in Raya to subsume areas where Amhara ethnic minorities can be disenfranchised.

Beyond this, there is also a dangerous oversimplification of vast periods of history and the association of repressed classes with specific language and cultural groups has fed a dangerous and divisive propaganda. This labels certain language groups as exploiters and oppressors and others victims of dispossession and oppression without a grounded understanding of complex and fluid categories, alongside complex economic and historical processes. These claims have also justified horrific violence by the OLF against the Amharic speaking people such as the disembowelment of pregnant women, the slicing off of the breasts of women and rape.

Progressive scholars, the working class and Ethiopia

Progressive scholars have to build bridges to engage with the intelligentsia in Ethiopia who have persevered through military dictatorship under the Derg in the 1970s and 1980s, and through 27 years of TPLF-dominated rule. Ethiopian scholars have been speaking out, as in this speech in 1994 by Mammo Muhcie in London that is an eerily precise analysis of TPLF as it is today.

In the midst of this conflict, Ethiopian scholars have been repeatedly trying to get their voices heard by the Ethiopian government and the international community. The statement widely shared by African intellectuals (including on roape.net) that presumed Ethiopian scholars cannot speak for themselves therefore came across as deeply condescending. If there is genuine interest in supporting Ethiopian scholars to get their perspectives and analysis on the crisis, and build bridges for meaningful interventions, the first step has to be through a serious and deliberate process of engagement.

There is also a need to pay attention to the accumulation strategies of elites and the manner they fit (or do not fit) within imperialism. Within this, an expanded understanding of a gendered working class is needed, recognising the strategically important role of women’s labour as a source of cheap wage labour. In addition, it is still important to not lose sight of how a liberal government like the PP, in pursuing its own ambitions to assert sovereignty over foreign policy and natural resources, has fallen from grace and is facing the age-old colonial/imperialist strategy of ‘divide and rule’ tactics both at the national level and regional levels through the TPLF, OLF and external actors such as Sudan and Egypt.

This also gives us insight into the accumulation strategy of the EPRDF, which still operates under a constitution and governance system setup by the TPLF dominated government. This draws out a broader lesson to the challenges arising out of an ambitious developmentalist elite in Africa. Although, the TPLF has been subjected to accountability processes after their removal from control of the federal government, there is still a broader lesson here for development in Africa, and this demands further interrogation.

Some on the left have admired the capacity of the ruling class in Ethiopia to pursue developmentalist ambitions with industrial parks as a strategy, for instance. But the limits of this strategy also need to be highlighted, as this also has relied on cheap wage labour and migrant women workers who have been rigidly constrained from organising in trade unions. Wildcat strikes and high turnover of labour has meant this is not a stable accumulation strategy, even on their own terms. It begs a broader question, what is the nature of a viable developmental strategy?

In addition, the pressures arising out of a gendered understanding of working class dynamics lays a basis to consider what developmental alternatives can be fought for. Such an alternative also demands a rupture from the existing imperialist architecture of power to assert control over resources which destabilises the global financial and geopolitical arrangements that the emerging Eritrea-Ethiopia-Somalia relations pose. Failure to recognise this is akin to enabling the catastrophic outcome of interventions in Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, the reason why there has been a robust and vociferous rejection of any possible intervention by the likes of Global Ethiopian Scholars Initiative and Jon Abbink.

Progressives have a responsibility to centre an understanding of imperialism and the national question, as Sam Moyo and Paris Yeros pull together in Reclaiming the Nation, to navigate this terrain and build bridges with the radical intelligentsia and popular formations in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa who want to construct a transformative agenda themselves. A first step has to be rejecting the ethnonationalist, genocidal agenda of TPLF, OLF and their allies.

This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).

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Hibist Kassa is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for African Alternatives in Cape Town, South Africa. She is also a Research Associate at the Centre for African Studies and Chair in Land and Democracy in South Africa.

Politics

Africa’s Land, the Final Frontier of Global Capital

If the designs of global big money are not stopped in their tracks, Africa is threatened with environmental degradation and nutritional poverty.

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Africa’s Land, the Final Frontier of Global Capital
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Three great factors are coming together to constitute what may be a whole new, and final chapter in the book of horrors that have been visited on the African people since the birth of Western European capitalism.

If Native Africans do not begin to think very deeply about what this is going to mean for what is left of them, in terms of their livelihoods and ways of living, then the recent past will seem like a small piece of paradise.

Unlike our ancestors, who are often blamed — opportunistically — for the original conquest of Africa and the trade in enslaved Africans that came before it, this time round, there will be no excuses or debate. Africa now knows what colonial conquest is and what it does, in a way that our unfortunate ancestors could not.

The first factor is that capitalism is fast running out of things to destroy in order to make profits. The climate crisis is the best evidence of this. This has been a long-term trend, certainly since the 1960s. However, the most recent financial collapse of 2008 certainly intensified it. Of the grand things and sectors left for capitalism to ravage, there is the production of food for the masses of people crowded into the towns and cities of the West, with no space, time or fundamental skills to produce it for themselves from scratch.

The global corporate food industry is based on one key assumption: that the human race, as it continues to grow in number, will become less and less able to independently produce food for itself. These is because of embedded assumptions about the inevitability of intensive urbanization, as well as time and lifestyle choices, themselves often culturally encouraged, if not imposed, by the same industry.

Food, that indispensable need, is now recreated as a guaranteed industrial commodity.

And so, a lot of corporate interest and money has migrated into the corporate agriculture sector, globally. Global big money is now trying to colonise food production itself, on a global scale, in order to find new ways of keeping its money valuable. Writing in mod-2011, the late Dani Nabudere perceives a deeper conflict:

During the first three months of 2008-the year the global economic crisis intensified, international nominal prices of all major food commodities reached their highest levels for fifty years. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation-FAO reported that food price indices had risen, on the average, by 8% in 2006 compared with the previous year.  In 2007, the food index rose by 24% compared with 2006 and in the first three months of 2008, it rose by 53% compared with 2007. This sudden surge in prices was led by increases in vegetable oils, which on the average increased by 97%, followed by grains with an increase of 87%, dairy products with 58% and rice with 46%.

This means that investing in food, or the assumption of the future existence of food as a commodity to be traded. In short, what is known as the Futures market. But the problem with futures is that at some point, the commodity will have to come into existence.

The second thing native Africans need to be aware of, and arising from the first, is that African land is going to be in demand in a way not seen even at the height of the period of European colonial domination.

Most of the world’s arable land is now found somewhere in Africa. It is unclear if by this is meant arable land under use, or also land that can be put to agricultural use (but may be located under a forest, or something, at present).

The March 2012 issue of Finance & Development Magazine sheds some light on that equation:

Throughout the world, it is estimated that 445 million hectares of land are uncultivated and available for farming, compared with about 1.5 billion hectares already under cultivation. About 201 million hectares are in sub-Saharan Africa, 123 million in Latin America, and 52 million in eastern Europe. . .

The third factor is that arable land is only arable if it has fresh water near it. And it is only viable for corporate exploitation if it also has no people on it. Africa is therefore the prime target: plenty of fresh water, and very few real land rights.

In my estimation, the area of Africa between the Western and Eastern Rift Valleys running along the length of the Nile valley below the Sahel has been identified as on the last open, near-virgin territories, ripe for intensive mechanized agricultural exploitation.

That area’s human settlements have historically originated around the pattern of freshwater bodies. A lot of Uganda was once a wetland. As a result, the country will find itself located at the very epicentre of any such an enterprise.

Dr Mike Burry, a now legendary American stock market operator is reported in the Farmfolio website to have said, “I believe that agricultural land – productive agricultural land with water on site – will be very valuable in the future . . . . I’ve put a good amount of money into that.”

The website goes on to report quite sarcastically,

Over the next three decades, the UN forecasts the global population to increase to about 10 billion. How do you imagine farmland investments will benefit from an over 30% increase in mouths to feed? Good luck feeding two billion people with Bitcoin or gold nuggets.

In this sense, colonialism was just the attempted start, with the former white settler farm economies of Kenya and southern Africa as the increasingly decrepit leftovers. The goal now is African land in general, wherever land can be turned over to large-scale (and therefore mechanised, “scientised” and corporatized) production of the commodities needed to make factory food.

The implications are clear: the goal of the huge capitalist formations that dominate public and foreign policy in the industrial countries, and whose agribusiness interests have a global reach, is to turn Africa into a huge farm, both as an opportunity, and as a response to an internal crisis.

In a May 2017 opinion piece published in the UK Guardian newspaper, then United Nations Environment Programme Head Erich Solheim made a similar point:

Several scenarios for cropland expansion – many focusing on Africa’s so-called “spare land” – have already effectively written off its elephants from having a future in the wild. These projections have earmarked a huge swathe of land spanning from Nigeria to South Sudan for farming, or parts of West Africa for conversion to palm oil plantations.

All this speaks directly to the immediate future of the African people. Put bluntly, in order to put industrial agriculture in place here, there will have to be genocide, massive environmental damage, widespread human displacement, and therefore repression and conflict as the tools of implementation.

African land is going to be in demand in a way not seen even at the height of the period of European colonial domination.

The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), calls the bringing of the US agribusiness model to Africa “a grave mistake”. They describe the model as “the single largest cause of biodiversity loss worldwide,” that “also fails to solve hunger, negatively impacts small-scale farmers, and causes environmental harm.”

It is in this context that the debates in Uganda and Kenya, for example, about land use and policy, can then be appreciated.

In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has launched a political offensive (once again) against the Kingdom of Buganda, describing its neo-traditional land tenure system as “evil” and in desperate need of reform.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone. First of all, Mr Museveni has firmly established himself as the pre-eminent fixer for imperialist ambitions in the Great Lakes Region. Whatever the owners of Western capital want here is what he will always try to deliver, no matter the collateral damage. Secondly, whenever the Ugandan president hatches a plan targeting the wealth and resources of native Ugandans, he begins with an attack on Buganda. Not because there is anything more valuable there, but because it enables the ideological seduction of a useful section of Ugandan political society: Ugandan “patriotism” was built on the notion that native identities are a bad thing, and that the Ganda identity is the worst of all.

It worked in the process of marginalising native voices in the independence movement and replacing them with smooth-talking “pan-Africanists”.

It then worked again with the creation of the culture of dictatorship between 1966 and 1979. Voices raised in opposition were easily dismissed as “divisive”, or retrograde. The mission now, was to build the new non-ethnic nation.

More recently, it has been deployed again to justify global neo-liberal designs on African land, through dismissing native resistance to it as “backward” and “parochial”.

Once it has been politically established that the overriding of native objections to anything is an essential and desirable part of development, then the “principle” can be applied in practice, to all other parts of the country.

Through its loyal and devoted client, the National Resistance Movement regime, Western capitalism is targeting all Ugandan land, regardless of which natives own it and under what system.

The same principle works differently in Kenya, but towards the same end. Initial white settler-based agriculture was never successful. Part of the story of Kenyan independence is actually the story of the Empire at headquarters becoming increasingly unwilling to deploy the economic, political and military resources needed to maintain a colony largely for the benefit of a small group of unproductive, self-regarding “middle-class sluts”, as one of the British commanding officers is alleged to have described the settlers.

However, a legacy of that time is that unlike in Uganda, vast areas of Kenya’s potentially productive land are still in white and foreign ownership. And a lot of this is in areas historically within a pastoralist ecosystem.

A succession of Kenyan governments neglected to address this historical injustice. In fact, through corruption, key individuals in a number of those regimes actively took advantage of the situation and joined the white families in becoming big landholders themselves.

Put bluntly, in order to put industrial agriculture in place here, there will have to be genocide.

Today, the three-way contestation between native (often pastoralist) communities, dogged white and other land oligarchs, and a wavering, uncaring state, rumbles on.

Co-author of The Big Conservation Lie: The Untold Story of Wildlife Conservation in Kenya, longstanding Kenyan conservation biologist, and land rights activist, Mordecai Ogada, has long argued that the whole wildlife tourism-based “conservation” industry run off the vast settler-leased native landholdings is basically a landgrab. The question will be Is this just for tourism, or will it be open to other ventures, like industrial agriculture?

It could lead to something deeper. Arguments for “development” and “rangeland/wildlife conservation” will be mobilised as a cover to carry out large-scale land grabbing and the eviction of peasants and pastoralists from lands they have historically occupied. Not just for the parochial descendants of the original white settlers now turned “conservationists”, but the kind of mega-scale mechanised planting that has been so central (and destructive) to the American mid-west, the Amazon basin, and native Canada.

This was also partly how the war that eventually split Sudan played out in the now separated south, and still plays out in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains. A significant section of Arab-descended northern economic elites was centered on the production of wheat. According to the Sudanese intellectual Dr Fatimer Babiker Mahmoud, in the late 1980s, this sector was making millions of dollars annually from the large-scale planting, harvesting and export of the grain to Europe, Asia and the Arab world.

Sometimes this meant the clearing of the more fertile lands of the south, the Nuba mountain lowlands and the Darfur region – all largely inhabited by Black Africans –  for the mechanised growing of wheat. This is what gave the conflict its racial character, as Arab chauvinist arguments were used to justify this genocide.

But, as with the white settler projects, these should be seen as trial runs in the greater measurement of our economic history. There is a need to understand the sheer scale and scope of these operations.

What may be coming will be much grander in scale, out of both Western necessity and greed.

Of the top ten foods listed as traded the most within global trade by  the Just-Food Magazine website in 2014, (fish, soybean, wheat, palm oil, beef, soybean meal, corn, chicken meat, rice and coffee) there are five key items that drive the processed food industry: palm oil, wheat, soya and corn.  It seems sugar cannot be accurately measured because it features in just about anything processed.

In addition, meat production (chicken, beef and pork) is dependent on the others on the list. Cattle are fed on corn, and soya (and the soybean meal) comprises part of what is fed to chickens.

The scale of the operations means that huge sums of money are invested. In today’s world, this means money from banks and institutional investors (hedge funds, etc.) as shareholders in agribusiness corporations. Poultry factories can contain up to forty thousand chickens permanently locked in cages for laying, or just warehouses of several thousand square feet. In early 2020, some 20 million chickens were being slaughtered each week in the United Kingdom. Corn and other grain are usually planted on lots measuring thousands of hectares apiece.

When investing on this scale, certain guarantees must be put in place. These are not matters that are left to chance, or fortune. And the primary purpose of all capitalist economic activity, especially in the West, is to obtain the biggest private return possible on any investment. And also usually in the shortest possible turnaround time.

This is why “insurance” measures are locked in from the start. In particular, chemical-based fertilisers, pesticides and fungicides and also increasingly, the use of genetically modified seeds and livestock, as well as steroids and antibiotics to promote rapid growth and prevent sicknesses.

In fact, through corruption, key individuals in a number of those regimes actively took advantage of the situation and joined the white families in becoming big landholders themselves.

The goal is huge, regular volumes of uniform products to be processed and marketed to huge urbanized populations.

The whole commercialisation process begins in the West, where this industry is the most developed. The European conquest of the continents of north and South America, also mark the period when food production migrated from being a community-based activity, to an industry.

This led to the clearance of human settlement from large areas of land, as well as the destruction of forests and wetlands, all to make way for the animal ranches and very big plantations.

This way of life is now being increasingly imposed on all societies, as “the normal”.

The recent riots in the Republic of South Africa for example, are an illustration of the dangers of becoming prisoners of a privately owned, mechanised food supply system, and also an attempted repudiation of it.

The rest of Africa is quickly “catching up” to this advanced backwardness, with the increasing rate of unplanned migration to urban centers due to loss of opportunities in community-based agriculture.

In Uganda for example, this process was driven by the intentional Museveni-led neo-liberal disruptions to the adapted system of community-based agriculture that has been built up in the country over a period of nearly eight decades.

Agricultural production remains at the heart of this struggle. The Africans sought to ensure that they continued to produce their indigenous food crops so as to retain food sovereignty, while at the same time engaging in the new cash crop economy that was encroaching on their land and labour power.

Official African policy within each African state, as well as in the regional economic blocs and the various policy and finance bodies (such as the African Development Bank), remain uncritically in support (or at least not opposed) to this general strategic direction.

What may be coming will be much grander in scale, out of both Western necessity and greed.

“Africa must start by treating agriculture as a business,” wrote African Development Bank (AfDB) President Dr Akinwumi Adesina, in African Business magazine in 2017.  “It must learn fast from experiences elsewhere, for example in south east Asia, where agriculture has been the foundation for fast-paced economic growth, built on a strong food processing and agro-industrial manufacturing base.”

Our official planners suffer from a tragic tendency of conflating any activity involving money and machines, with “development”. The intention is to duplicate life as it is almost universally led in the Western-style countries. They think is will bring “industrialisation”, and through that, jobs.

There are four significant conflicts or budding conflicts on the continent right now, in which arable land for mechanisation will increasingly become a factor. These are in southern Ethiopia, Congo and the whole Sahel zone, anchored on Nigeria (and Sudan), and Kenya.

If these developments are not challenged and stopped, Africa can look forward to environmental degradation, and nutritional poverty.

We will all become Africans in South Africa, and poor people in the West.

Assuming the Western industrial system lasts much longer. And that the planet also does.

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Politics

How Capitalism Uses and Abuses the Arts

The arts business is a very flawed, archaic and extremely exploitative model but artists continue to rely on corporate sponsorship, without questioning the shrinking spaces and opportunities for the arts to thrive.

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In my last piece, I talked about how our education system destroys the arts by corrupting the meaning of education, work and the arts. And I said that these lies that are perpetuated in the name of education come from the unholy and abusive marriage between education and business. (I have said elsewhere that this marriage should be annulled immediately.)

In this piece, I’m going to talk about how capitalist business is the prime beneficiary of the terrible state of the arts in Kenya.

​Businesses swing artists between two extremes. On one hand, which I already explained in my previous letter, the business (parasite) sector encourages the education system to degrade the arts, so that art does not look like real work that takes skill and resources. By doing that, the business sector justifies artists not being paid for their work. If you have noticed that you are not getting paid, or your payment is delayed, it is because of that madharau for the arts. The accountants cooking books look at you and think to themselves “Why should I pay someone for shaking around or singing for people? Even I could have done that work if I wasn’t here balancing books.”

On the other hand, capitalism does pay artists huge amounts of money, like we see in Hollywood where people like Oprah and Jay Z have become billionaires through entertainment.

In the end, artists are treated like battered spouses. One minute, a spouse is being abused and beaten, and the next minute, when the battered person has had enough, the abuser apologizes, swears how much they love the battered person and promises not to beat the spouse again. And the cycle starts again.

Art and wealth

The first thing to understand about the arts business is that it is a very flawed, archaic and extremely exploitative model. I will talk mainly about music, but book publishing and other types of art business work using the same principle.

Basically, the art business uses the rentier model, like a landlord. A landlord builds a house once but earns money on that house as long as he owns the right to that house. The “work” of living there, or the business carried out there, is done by other people, but the landlord earns a cut of that work despite doing no work. Simply because he owns the property in which the work was done.

And that is the same thing record labels and studios do. They provide initial capital and make the artist sign a 360-degree contract that allows the label to earn from everything the artist is involved in for the rest of the artist’s life: performance, recording, brand merchandise and even artistic license. An artist who is signed to a record label is an enslaved person. In the US, artists who are lucky earn 10 to 15 per cent of the revenues they generate for the music industry. The rest are unlucky and earn much less, if anything.

Imagine that. For every artist billionaire we know, their record label earns nine times more.

As an artist, you’re probably thinking, “Well, it may be exploitative but at least it works. Why can’t those exploiters come and work in Kenya?”

Actually, they are working here, and we know it. They have names like MCSK and Liberty Afrika. And the way these companies exploit artists is the same way other companies exploit everybody else in employment. The wages we earn are nothing compared to the profits that entitled, lazy and ignorant fat cats make from our work, and yet — as we see with the doctors — companies are constantly coming up with new schemes to avoid paying us for the work we do.

An artist who is signed to a record label is an enslaved person.

And we should not compare ourselves to the Queen Beys and Justin Beibers of the West; rather, we should be aware that even in the Westmany artists are exploited.

I tell my arts students that they should spend time in the university studying and imagining a different model for earning income from the arts. For instance, 360-degree contracts should be considered slavery and outlawed. Saying that every future income of an artist is tied to the initial capital invested in their recording is just as ridiculous as a food supplier to a restaurant saying that they should earn 90 per cent of every plate or meal served by the restaurant. Once the food is delivered and paid for, the contract should end there. Artists should pay studios, publishers and marketers separately as bills, not on promise of royalties.

But because my students have been told that education is only for jobs, none has ever taken up my challenge to think about this.

Virgin territory

There is another form of abuse and exploitation of artists that is less talked about because it is less easy to quantify. That is idea theft.

Through platforms like hubs, and through demanding proposals for shows and other performances, institutions exploits the artist’s energy and innovation, then pull the rug from under the artist and run off with the idea. That is why artists will start small concert gigs and before long, corporates, instead of sponsoring those gigs, create their own versions because they can pour in the money to make it big.

And these initially sustainable and indigenous ideas soon turn into monsters. These corporates invade natural parks like Hells Gate to sell even bigger than they should. Not only do they subvert eco-systems, they also crush their conservation opponents with media blitz and economic blackmail. What started as a Kenyan artistic initiative is not only hijacked but also turned into a short term, exploitative and destructive tsunami that dies almost as soon as it is born.

I tell my arts students that they should spend time in the university studying and imagining a different model for earning income from the arts.

Other artists report having given studios or media houses an idea for a show, leaving with a promise that they will hear from the producers. Within a few weeks, they see a bad version of the show they proposed. Is it a wonder that television entertainment is so unimaginative and poorly executed?

But this is the nature of capitalism: like a paedophile, it lets nothing mature and thrive. It instead derives a perverted sense of pleasure from exploiting the vulnerable and destroying budding ideas before the ideas develop to maturity.

Impunity and abuse

This paedophilia is replicated across all institutions. As someone recently said on Twitter, we are often employed on the promise of our ideas, upon which we are promptly frustrated and prevented from developing them.

No institution has escaped change and democratic supervision like the workplace. Workers around the world are succumbing to the abuse of the workplace, whether they are employed or not. Stress levels are high, and sexual bullying, mental illness, addiction and suicide are on the rise. The workplace has become a crime scene, where people get away with abuse and psychological torture.

But what is slightly unique about the arts is that when artists suffer from the same vices, the business world convinces us that this inhumanity is part of the artists’ creativity. That is why the high rate of depression and suicide among artists is not treated as a pandemic. When artists suffer violence such as being shot in clubs and being drugged and raped, we the abused and terrorized Kenyan public thinks that their abuse comes with the artistic territory.

In fact, we even accept that the business community does not treat artists as workers like other employees. Artists are not paid a salary, pension and benefits. They don’t go on leave. They are on the road all the time, or constantly searching for new gigs and new contracts, and never taking a break. The constant toil takes a toll on their minds and bodies and they start to use substances to stabilize their lives instead of getting some rest. Then there is the parasite industry of the paparazzi who make sales from intruding on artists’ lives and selling the details to the world.

The workplace has become a crime scene, where people get away with abuse and psychological torture.

But instead of us criminalizing these vices committed against artists, we let the business world convince us that this inhumanity is part of the artists’ creativity. That is utter nonsense.

Worse, the impunity also makes every new generation join the arts thinking that creativity requires criminality, substance abuse and insanity.

And the business sector has an evil, devilish interest in making literal murder and depravity acceptable for artists. Because of the power of the arts to free people, capitalism cannot let the arts thrive on their own, for the arts will inspire the people to challenge the tyranny of business by looking for alternative business models.

But at the same time, capitalism needs the power of the arts to manipulate people to behave in the interests of business. It puts the arts on a leash, so that the arts go only where capital wants the arts to go — to sedating the masses into accepting exploitation or into buying things.

And the artists, unfortunately, are joined to corporations at the hip and naively celebrate their reliance on corporate sponsorship, without questioning the shrinking spaces and opportunities for the arts to thrive.

And we artists need to understand that this abusive relationship is made possible by the hostility of the church. Instead of the church being our refuge in times of trouble, the clergy side with the state when the state crushes us through bans and censorship that are implemented in the name of morality.

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Politics

Laikipia Land Crisis: A Ticking Time Bomb

Historic land injustices, changing land ownership and use, and heightened competition for natural resources — exacerbated by the effects of climate change — make for a perfect storm.

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“Here we have a territory (now that the Uganda Railway is built) admirably suited for a white man’s country, and I can say this with no thought of injustice to any native race, for the country in question is either utterly uninhabited for miles and miles or at most its inhabitants are wandering hunters who have no settled home . . . .” Sir Harry Johnstone

There have been significant changes in the pattern of land ownership in Laikipia in the last two decades. These changes are set against a background of profound inequalities in land ownership in a county where, according to data in the Ministry of Lands, 40.3 per cent of the land is controlled by 48 individuals or entities. The changes have not brought about an improvement in the lives of the pastoralists and other indigenous communities who occupied Laikipia before colonisation. These groups — and the Maasai in particular, following their 1904 and 1911 treaties with the British — were forced out and relegated to reserves in southern Kenya to make way for the establishment of large commercial ranches owned by White settlers. Those indigenous inhabitants who remained were pushed by subsequent colonial legislation to Mukogodo in the north of the county, the driest part of Laikipia.

The pastoralists did not recover their land with the end of colonial rule. On the contrary, Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya, encouraged White settlers to remain after independence and today, some of the descendants of those settlers who decided to make Kenya their permanent home still occupy vast swathes of land in Laikipia County. Those who were unwilling to remain in Kenya under majority rule sold their land to the Kenyatta administration. As Catherine Boone, Fibian Lukalo and Sandra Joireman observe in Promised Land: Settlement Schemes in Kenya, 1962 to 2016,

With the approach of independence, the settler state and the British government stepped in to protect the interests of Kenya’s white land-owners by creating a land market for white settlers who wanted to sell their agricultural holdings, and supporting land values for those who wanted to stay. The buyer of most of these properties was the Government of Kenya, using loans provided by the British Government and the World Bank. Through this process, the Kenyan state acquired about half of the land in the (ex-) Scheduled Areas.

In 1968, under the World Bank-funded Kenya Livestock Development Programme — whose stated objective was “to increase beef production for home consumption and export mainly by subsistence pastoral groups” — the government enacted the Land (Group Representative) Act (Cap. 287) that saw the creation of 13 group ranches in the northern part of Laikipia, which is the driest part of the county. However, well-connected local elites helped themselves to part of the land, excised as individual ranches. There are 36 such individual ranches that should have been part of the group ranches.

Those ranches that were sold to the Kenyan government by the departing British settlers are within the expansive Laikipia plateau. The government later sold them to land buying companies formed by Kikuyus that in turn subdivided them into individual holdings. Examples of such lands include Kamnarok, Kimugandura, Kirimukuyu, Mathenge, Ireri and Endana, among others. The remaining land was gazetted as government land such ADC Mutara and Kirimon, or outspans such as Ngarendare and Mukogodo, which were used for finishing livestock for sale to the Kenya Meat Commission.

Land tenure and use

In the Kenyan context, and compared to other counties, the history of land in Laikipia County is unique, with a diversity of tenure systems each representing a unique system of production. The map below shows the different land use and tenure systems in Laikipia County that include large-scale ranches, large-scale farms, group ranches and smallholder farms.

There are 48 large-scale ranches sitting on 40.3 per cent of the total land area in Laikipia County, 9,532.2km², some of which are still owned by the descendants of the colonial settlers. The ranches  occupy huge tracts of land, the three largest being Laikipia Nature Conservancy with 107,000 acres, Ol Pejeta with 88,923.79 acres, and Loisaba with 62,092.97 acres.

Source: Ministry of Lands

Most of these large-scale ranches — many of which have an integrated economic system that includes livestock, horticulture, wildlife conservation and tourism — were acquired during the colonial period and legislation governing their ownership was taken from the colonial law and integrated into the constitution of independent Kenya under the land transfer agreement between the colonial government and the Kenyatta regime. It should be noted that the Maasai land campaign of 2004 pushing the government to address historical injustices following the forced ouster of Maasai from their ancestral lands in Laikipia, brought to light the fact that some of these ranches had no legal documents of ownership. In an article titled In the Grip of the Vampire State: Maasai Land Struggles in Kenyan Politics published in the Journal of Eastern African Studies, Parselelo Kantai observes,

Ranchers interviewed could not remember how long their own land-leases were supposed to last, were unaware of the Anglo-Maasai Agreement, and, in at least one case, were unable to produce title deeds to their ranches. And when opinion was expressed, it bordered on the absurd: the ‘invaders’, observed Ms Odile de Weck, who had inherited her father’s 3,600-acre Loldoto Farm, were not genuine — not Maasai at all. They were, she noted emphatically, Kikuyus. The Maasai, she said, had willingly ceded rights to Laikipia, had been compensated long ago and now resided happily in some other part of Kenya, far away.

Immediately following the campaign, the Ministry of Lands started putting out advertisements in the print media inviting those landowners whose leases were expiring to contact it.

Twenty-three large-scale farms occupy 1.48 per cent of the land in Laikipia County. These farms are mostly owned by individuals from the former Central Province who bought the land following sub-division by the Kenyatta administration, or through land buying companies, which opted not to sub-divide the land but to use it as collateral to access bank loans.

Source: Ministry of Lands

Smallholdings sit on 27.21 per cent of the total land area in Laikipia County. These farms were initially large-scale farms bought by groups of individuals who later sub-divided them into smallholdings of between two and five acres. There are three categories of farmers in this group: those who bought land and settled to escape land pressure in their ancestral homes, those who bought the land for speculative purposes, and those who bought land and used it as collateral for bank loans. A majority of the first group still live on their farms, practising subsistence, rain-fed agriculture. Most members of the other two groups are absentee landowners whose idle land has over time been occupied by pastoralists in search of water and pasture for their animals, or by squatters seeking to escape the population pressure in the group ranches. In some cases, pastoralists have bought the idle land and have title.

The 13 group ranches cover 7.45 per cent of the total Laikipia land area and are occupied by pastoralists who use them for communal grazing. However, some of the group ranches such as Il Ngwesi, Kijabe, Lekurruki and Koija have also established wildlife conservancies and built tourist lodges.

Laikipia land use.

Source: CETRAD

Changing land ownership, changing landscapes

Since the late 1990s, when agitation for political reforms and a new constitution began in earnest, and in the intervening period, new patterns of land ownership and land use have been emerging in Laikipia County.

Data from the Laikipia County Government indicates that 16 of the 48 large-scale ranches have been internally sub-divided into units of between 3,000 and 4,000 acres, with the land rates due for each sub-division paid according to the size of the sub-division. The sub-divisions are made through private arrangements and do not appear in the records at the Ministry of Lands. There are claims that the sub-divided parcels have been ceded to European retirees looking to acquire land for holiday homes in Laikipia, and to White Zimbabweans. There are also claims that the large, palatial, private residences that have sprung up within the sub-divided parcels are in fact tourist destinations for a high-end clientele in a business that operates outside Kenya’s tourism regulatory framework and violates Kenya tax laws.

In the Kenyan context, and compared to other counties, the history of land in Laikipia County is unique, with a diversity of tenure systems each representing a unique system of production.

Whatever the case, the County Government of Laikipia confirms, “Most of the white settlers buying property are soldiers or tourists who loved the [county’s] climate, its people and natural beauty and want to experience it all over again. Big time investors [sic] in real estate flock the area, either to buy or construct multi-million shilling holiday homes, targeting wealthy European settlers and tourists.”

The Laikipia County Government also confirms that the large-scale ranches have also been leasing training grounds to the British Army Training Unit Kenya (BATUK), adding, “In 2009 BATUK expanded these grounds to 11 privately owned ranches, including Sosian, Ol Maisor and the Laikipia Nature Conservancy.”

Multinationals have also moved in, buying up the large-scale farms, particularly those situated near permanent sources of water, where they have set up horticultural businesses growing crops for export to the European market. The arrival of export horticulture in Laikipia has increased competition for resources as “agro-industrial horticulture, pastoralism and small holder agriculture compete for land, capital, and water, with access to water being particularly hotly contested.”

Absentee owners of smallholdings that have over time been occupied by squatters are also selling their land. With the help of brokers and officials from the Ministry of Lands, the smallholdings are consolidated and sold to individuals and companies who may not be aware that the land is occupied and that the sale could be a potential source of conflict.

Only the group ranches — which are occupied by pastoralists who use traditional grazing management techniques — have not changed hands and remain intact. They are, however, facing pressure from a growing population, intensive grazing and increasingly frequent droughts that are putting a strain on the natural resources.

On the other hand, most of the land gazetted as government land has been grabbed by senior government officials, politicians and military personnel. Of the 36 government outspans, only four remain. Outspans neighbouring large-scale ranches have been grabbed by the ranch managers and such grabbed land has since changed hands and been acquired by individuals.

Where farmers were settled in forests during the era of former President Daniel arap Moi, forest cover was plundered for timber and the forest floor given over to cultivation. When President Mwai Kibaki succeeded Moi, these farmers were constantly under threat of eviction but they continue to occupy the forests to date. There are, however, intact forest reserves where on-going human activity has not had a negative impact. They are used and managed by pastoralists as grazing lands, or managed by conservation groups, or by the government.

Impact of change of ownership on other livelihood groups 

Land deals are coming to compound an already existing multiplicity of problems related to the access, use and management of scarce resources in Laikipia County. Compared to neighbouring counties, in the past Laikipia received moderate rainfall and severe droughts like those experienced in 2009, in 2017 and now in 2021 were the exception. This attracted pastoralists from Baringo, Samburu and Isiolo counties to settle in the county in search of water and pasture for their livestock.

Over time, land pressure in central Kenya also forced subsistence farmers to move and settle in Laikipia, practicing rain-fed agriculture and keeping small herds of sheep, goats and cattle. This has led to competition for space and resources that has been compounded by frequent and increasingly severe droughts in recent years.

“The Maasai, she said, had willingly ceded rights to Laikipia, had been compensated long ago and now resided happily in some other part of Kenya, far away.”

The consolidation of smallholdings belonging to absentee owners where land that had previously been sub-divided into units of between two and five acres is now being merged to form bigger units of 500 acres and above, sold off and fenced is further reducing the land available to pastoralists and to squatters who have been using such idle land to graze livestock and grow crops, leaving them with limited options and leading to an increase in levels of vulnerability as they have to rely on relief food in order to survive.

The smallholder land consolidation process, which is being undertaken by former ranch managers who are brokering for individual buyers, is also blamed for the over-exploitation of natural resources in some areas and their conservation in others. In those areas occupied by farming communities, forest cover has been exploited either for charcoal burning, firewood or timber production as people look for alternative sources of livelihood. In the smallholdings where pastoralists have title, overgrazing of the rangelands due to constrained mobility does not allow the range to regenerate. This in turn has led to the degradation of the land and the emergence of unpalatable invasive species of plants like prosopis that render grazing areas unusable, further compounding the problem of access to pasture in the few areas left for pastoralists to graze.

In the group ranches, the most degraded rangelands are overrun with opuntia stricta, an invasive species of cactus whose fruit is harmful to livestock and has caused “economic losses in excess of US$500 in 48% of households in Laikipia”.

On the other hand, in the large-scale ranches, large farms, consolidated smallholder farms and group ranches where conservation and resource use fall under the intensive management of a few individuals, the availability of resources is assured even during times of stress. However, the availability of resources for one group of users and the lack of resources for another often leads to conflict as those without poach from those who have them. One example is when pastoralists graze illegally in the large-scale ranches whenever there is scarcity in their own areas, leading to arrests and sometimes confiscation of livestock from the pastoralists by government agencies in an attempt to protect the large-scale ranches.

Historical injustices and government failures

Article 60 of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 guarantees equitable access to land and security of land rights. Further, Article 68(c)(1) states, “Parliament shall enact legislation to prescribe minimum and maximum land holding acreages in respect of private land.” Parliament has failed to pass such legislation and, indeed, the government has shied away from addressing historical land injustices in Kenya in general and in Laikipia – where they are most visible – in particular. Policy makers rarely discuss justice in the context of land reform and what has taken place are land law reforms in lieu of the essential land reforms that would confront the material consequences of unequal access to land. As Ambreena Manji observes in her paper Whose Land is it Anyway?,

The consequences of a legalistic approach to land reform are starkly evident in Kenya’s new land laws. First and foremost, it foreclosed debates about redistribution, prioritising land law reform as the most effective way to address land problems and so evading more difficult questions about who controls access to land how a more just distribution might be achieved.

The recent violence that visited death and destruction on parts of Laikipia is a continuation and an escalation of a crisis that first came to a head in May 2000 when pastoralists drove their livestock into Loldaiga farm. Then the Moi government intervened and allowed the pastoralists into the Mt Kenya and Aberdare forests while big ranchers supported the government by allowing some animals onto their ranches.

In 2004, pastoralists again occupied commercial ranches while agitating for the non-renewal of land leases which they believed had expired. This time the Kibaki government used force to dislodge them. However, the question of land leases remains unresolved to date. Outbreaks of violence have become more frequent since 2009, caused by a combination of factors including the effects of climate change and increasingly frequent droughts that force pastoralists from neighbouring Baringo, Isiolo and Samburu into Laikipia in search of water and pasture. This inevitably leads to conflicts with ranchers onto whose land they drive their animals.

Population pressure, from both humans and livestock, is another cause of conflict in Laikipia. The carrying capacity of group ranches is stretched to the limit while it is plenty on neighbouring commercial ranches. Moreover, population migration to Laikipia from neighbouring counties is placing additional pressure on resources.

The sub-divisions are made through private arrangements and do not appear in the records at the Ministry of Lands.

The proliferation of small arms in the county has added to the insecurity; pastoralists from neighbouring counties invade and occupy commercial ranches, conservancies, smallholdings and forests armed with sophisticated weapons. Laikipia pastoralists have also acquired weapons both to defend themselves and their animals and to invade other land.

Politicians have since 2009 also been encouraging pastoralists from neighbouring counties to move to Laikipia on promises of protection in exchange for votes. There are also claims that politicians have been helping the pastoralists to acquire arms and that most of the livestock being grazed in private ranches and farms belongs to senior government officials and politicians who have exerted pressure on the government not to act on the pastoralists.

In the twilight of another Kenyatta government, relations between the commercial farmers and ranchers, the pastoralists and the smallholders remain poor and there is a lot of suspicion among them, with each group acting as an isolated entity. But for how long can the big commercial ranches and large-scale farms continue to thrive in the midst of poor farmers and dispossessed pastoralists?

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