In recent years, it has become relatively common for public entities and politicians in Kenya to disavow certain content shared through social media, claiming it to be false. This year alone, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) has had to issue two statements dismissing election-related content as fabricated. In July 2021, it was reported through mainstream media that the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) had arrested an individual involved in online fraud. According to the report, the police suspected that the individual hacked into the IEBC’s database and accessed personal details relating to 61,617 registered voters. Shortly after the news broke, the IEBC claimed it was false. Even more recently, in September, the IEBC had to issue a public statement clarifying that a call for applications for jobs in their voter education programme was fake.
These instances have not taken place in isolation; there is a broader discernible upward trend in false or inaccurate content in Kenya. In a 2018 survey of 2,000 Kenyans by Portland Communications, 90 per cent believed they had interacted with false information relating to the 2017 Kenyan elections, while 87 per cent believed that such content was deliberately false. The issue of deliberately spreading false information was the subject of Odanga Madung and Brian Obilo’s research for the Mozilla Foundation. In their report, they highlighted the extent to which the spread of disinformation in Kenya through Twitter was coordinated and well -organized.
These local developments also occur against a backdrop of global trends with striking similarities. Several governments—including Kenya’s—have attempted to rein in the spread of false or inaccurate information through regulation. For example, in 2018 Kenya enacted the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act (CMCA) which criminalizes sharing false information. Noting that some of these countries have directly linked their regulatory objectives to the safeguarding of their democracy, it is worth exploring the ways in which false or inaccurate content compromises democracies, and in particular, electoral integrity.
To a post-truth world
Undoubtedly, the ability to agree on basic facts is a core tenet of democracy. To optimally make a collective decision, voters ought to have access to the same accurate information. While arriving at a single “objective truth” is not always possible due to mediation in communication, it is important for the citizenry to at least have access to, and acknowledge the basic facts that underpin the political processes they are participating in. The increasing spread of false or inaccurate content in recent years points to the solidifying of a “post truth” age where political rhetoric often appeals to emotion and sentiment with little regard to factual rebuttals.
This post-truth concept is not entirely novel. For example, climate change denial and anti-vaxxer sentiments have long persisted despite widespread availability of evidence to refute them. But in recent years, it has gained significant popularity perhaps due to the increasingly populist nature of political campaigning in the digital age. On the same year Donald Trump won the US elections, Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year was “post-truth”. In his campaign, Trump made it a habit of dismissing mainstream news reporting as “fake news” when it contradicted his narrative and even went ahead to later falsely claim he coined the term. Likely emboldened by these trends, other populist leaders around the world began dismissing news reporting as fabricated when it did not suit their narratives – Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines have both accused journalists of spreading “fake news”.
Rather dangerously, some leaders who sound the alarm over false or inaccurate content are often either linked to the deliberate spread of such content or have benefited from it. Trump’s campaign was boosted by a group of Macedonian teenagers who, driven by advertising revenue on Facebook, generated several seemingly genuine news articles that either directly supported Trump or discredited his opponent, Hillary Clinton. The combination of these leaders casting aspersions as to the integrity of traditional media and the spread of “alternative facts” on social media results in a political environment where voters are highly distrustful of each other and of core institutions such as the media. The danger is exacerbated by the nature of social media and how third parties—often with the aid of social media platforms—are able to curate the type of content users are exposed to in a subtle manner as we discussed in our previous article.
Rather dangerously, some leaders who sound the alarm over false or inaccurate content are often either linked to the deliberate spread of such content or have benefited from it.
Distrusting institutions is not the only risk to democracies. In some cases, false content results in violence. In 2016, following claims that Hillary Clinton was running a ring which that was exploiting children sexually in the basement of a pizza restaurant, a man armed with a gun broke into the restaurant to find out if the claim was true – it was not. More recently, a large-scale attack on the US Capitol took place following the outgoing president’s false claims through social media that the election was stolen. In this case, it was reported that Facebook was aware of the potential for violence arising from the false claims but failed to limit their spread. With real dangers like this in mind, the desire to “regulate truth” is understandable. However, attempts to do so have raised a novel set of challenges. For one, it is extremely difficult to define truth let alone purport to regulate it.
Getting the terminology right
The terms “fake news”, “disinformation”, and “misinformation”’ have featured prominently in discourse on the spread of false content. While these terms are generally used to assert that something is untrue, they are sometimes wrongly conflated. This conflation then impairs any attempts at regulation. The term “fake news” does not necessarily refer to one specific type of content. Clair Wardle of FirstDraft has rightly noted that it is an entire eco-system that includes both misinformation and disinformation. Elsewhere, one of us has categorized the nature of this content into two conceptions for purposes of understanding how to regulate it: the deliberate action and the culture around it.
The deliberate action essentially refers to disinformation. Spreading disinformation is the act of intentionally and knowingly sharing false or inaccurate content. For example, the teens in Macedonia spinning fake articles for advertising revenue were involved in a disinformation campaign. In Kenya, Madung and Obilo identified groups of bloggers who were paid to push trends with false content that maligned certain political actors such as those who filed a petition to oppose the Building Bridges Initiative. These disinformation campaigns are often well coordinated and targeted at a particular outcome. Due to the potency of such campaigns in electoral contexts, they have previously been referred to as “distributed-denial-of-democracy attacks”.
These disinformation campaigns are often successful because of the second categorization – the culture of misinformation. In other words, the increasing likelihood of individuals to share false or inaccurate content unintentionally or inadvertently. Misinformation can range from misleading or alarmist headlines to demonstrably false claims passed on by people who had a good faith belief in the accuracy of those claims. For example, a few years ago, the Kenya Bureau of Standards had to issue a statement denying the existence of “plastic rice” in Kenya following the circulation of a video on WhatsApp implying there was. WhatsApp is a particularly notorious avenue through which misinformation is shared locally. Even mainstream media is sometimes susceptible to sharing misinformation as was seen most recently when several newsrooms reported that a Kenyan Senator dialled into a parliamentary debate session from a bar due to a poorly edited clip that was circulating on social media. They later had to recant upon discovering it was an altered clip.
Even mainstream media is sometimes susceptible to sharing misinformation.
Unlike coordinated disinformation campaigns, which may often be linked to a central source, misinformation entails the public playing an active role in both creating and amplifying narratives. As a result, Renée DiResta has referred to misinformation as ampliganda – amplified propaganda. This culture of misinformation has been enabled by several things. First, the use of social media as a source of news content has led to a decline in gatekeeping or fact-checking of content. Second, the nature of social media is such that it amplifies one’s biases and exposes them to content which often confirms their worldview. This in turn results in their likelihood to consume false or inaccurate content unthinkingly. Lastly, the existence of disinformation campaigns, and the discrediting of claims as false by politicians further muddies the waters, making people unsure of what is “objectively true”. This has made addressing the problem of fake news difficult.
Conceivably due to a focus on disinformation, regulation seeking to rein in false or inaccurate content has often been quick to criminalize the spread of fake news. As it was noted in the Kofi Annan Commission on Elections and Democracy in the Digital Age (KACEDDA) report, there is insufficient data regarding the individuals, motives and means behind the spread of fake news, possibly hampering regulatory efforts. Across the world, governments seeking to rein in fake news have either targeted the individuals involved in spreading such content with penal sanctions, or the platforms hosting the content with financial liability. Both approaches are wanting for various reasons. For one, they both purely ignore the broader conception of fake news as a culture enabled by several factors. Second, they also pose a threat to the freedom of expression which, in relation to political speech, is vital.
Take for example Kenya’s CMCA, mentioned above. It criminalizes disinformation, identified in the Act as the intentional publication of false, misleading, or fictitious information which that is disguised as authentic. Those found guilty of committing this offence would be subjected to either a fine not exceeding KSh5 million (approximately US$45,000) or to a term of imprisonment not exceeding two years, or to both. More severely, the CMCA also makes it an offence to knowingly publish false information through any media in a manner calculated to cause disorder or to harm the reputation of a person. While the fine for this offence remains the same as the previous one, the potential prison sentence is a term not exceeding ten years. In no way should the intentional spread of false information be condoned. However, such laws may be the subject of abuse by governments seeking to suppress political activism and allowable expression. For example, Mutemi Kiama was arrested over claims that he violated the CMCA when he shared a poster with President Kenyatta’s image, identification number and a statement ostensibly from Kenyans to the rest of the world renouncing him as Kenya’s representative for purposes of seeking financial loans. This occurred in the context of a broader discourse on Kenya’s debt burden and a section of Kenyans’ displeasure with the economic trajectory of the country.
This abuse is also discernible from the fact that evidence suggests the law is selectively applied. In 2020, a Member of Parliament, John Kiarie, posted a Twitter thread where he raised alarm at the number of people the government had in quarantine following the first confirmed COVID case in the country. His posts directly contradicted the Ministry of Health’s official position, indicating that the situation could be much worse than was officially reported. He was neither arrested nor charged, and the Twitter thread is still available online. The existence of a law that limits the freedom of expression in a subjective manner with the risk of stiff financial and penal sanctions, let alone its abuse, is likely to stifle free expression. More so with respect to political discourse which is crucial in campaigns and elections.
Aside from targeting individuals, some governments have sought to shift the burden of regulating fake news to platforms such as social media by imposing liability on them for their users’ behaviour in certain instances. Arguably the most notable example of this is Singapore’s anti-fake news law which that would enable the government to order platforms to take down false statements which that are against the public interest. Where platforms are at risk of incurring liability for user conduct, they are more likely to pre-emptively censor content they deem problematic. The net effect of fake news laws aimed at platforms would therefore be the suppression of protected speech in an unprocedural manner by private entities. At the same time, the core issue of fake news would not be addressed.
These attempts at regulation which focus primarily on disinformation campaigns, while well–intentioned, seem to have missed the mark. Jeff Kosseff, an Assistant Professor at the US Naval Academy recently remarked that the discourse around fake news has not sufficiently focused on the reason behind people’s susceptibility to such content. Instead, attempts at regulating fake news seem to focus on the individuals and platforms involved, and the mechanics through which it is spread. However, to address both the disinformation and the broader culture of misinformation that enables it, one must go beyond such regulation.
A layered approach
Outlawing disinformation alone will not address the spread of fake news; it may in fact cause more harm than good. This does not mean that it should be tolerated in the name of respecting the freedom of expression, particularly in any context that is likely to lead to widespread violence due to long-standing tensions (e.g., deep running economic or ethnic tensions). Any attempts to outlaw certain speech ought to be contextual, measured, and proportionate to the ends sought. However, beyond this, they ought to be supplemented by policy interventions aimed at reforming the culture which that enables disinformation to take root.
Most of these policy interventions would involve education of one form or another. Crucially, governments should engage in both civic education and media literacy campaigns. Empowering the citizenry to both identify accurate sources of information and understand the role of different institutions in a democracy would contribute significantly to stemming the inadvertent spread or consumption of misinformation. This, coupled with collaborative fact-checking initiatives between the government and mainstream media, would enable voters to discern fact from falsehood.
To address both the disinformation and the broader culture of misinformation that enables it, one must go beyond such regulation.
Considering the centrality of social media to everyday news consumption, it would also be prudent to engage these platforms in such fact-checking initiatives. For example in Mexico, the National Electoral Institute (INE) collaborated with social media companies in support of Verificado 2018, a fact-checking initiative that saw the Mexican presidential debates livestreamed on social media from INE headquarters. The collaboration also supported the development of Certeza 2018, a fact-checking system used online which—through a combination of human and machine review—monitored online activity, assessed instances of misinformation, and took action by disseminating the relevant notices. In recognition that fact-checking may occur late after false information is shared, it is also worth mainstream media exploring pre-bunking initiatives. These would involve identifying the common tropes around false narratives and priming audiences to receive them critically. Such efforts have been proposed as solutions to the current spread of misinformation around COVID vaccines. Sander van der Linden likens pre-bunking efforts to inoculation against disinformation and misinformation.
Even where pre-bunking efforts are not adopted, entities involved in the fact-checking initiatives proposed above may collaboratively engage in a debunking campaign by developing counter-messaging once misinformation is disseminated. For this, Indonesia’s example is instructive as noted in the KAF Commission’s report. In Indonesia, the electoral bodies collaborated with civil society and the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology to monitor social media activity and to spread counter-messaging in instances of misinformation, among other things.
While it is indeed necessary to curb the spread of false or inaccurate content, attempting to do so may pose several risks. Governments, social media platforms, and mainstream media ought to collaborate and make use of a few legal and policy-based initiatives to stem the culture of misinformation. The IEBC fortunately has several examples to draw from on how, as an electoral body, it can coordinate efforts around addressing the culture of misinformation around elections. In all, when seeking to curb the spread of fake news (both deliberate and inadvertent), it is important for governments to consider why their citizens are susceptible to false information as opposed to how and by whom that information is spread.
This is the third of a five-part op-ed series that seeks to explore the use of personal data in campaigns, the spread of misinformation and disinformation, social media censorship, and incitement to violence and hate speech, and the practical measures various stakeholders can adopt to safeguard Kenya’s electoral integrity in the digital age ahead of the 2022 elections. This op-ed series is in partnership with Kofi Annan Foundation and is made possible through the support of the United Nations Democracy Fund.
Support The Elephant.
The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.
Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.
Is Somalia’s Quest for Membership of the EAC Premature?
Somalia must first ensure sustained progress in stability, infrastructure development, governance, and economic growth before considering full membership of the East African Community.
The current members of the East African Community (EAC) are Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan. The Somali Federal Government, under the leadership of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has expressed a strong interest in joining the EAC, sparking questions among Somali citizens as to whether the country is ready to join such a large and complex regional bloc.
During President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud initiated Somalia’s pursuit of EAC membership during his previous term as a president from 2012 to 2017. However, little progress was made during his first term and, following his re-election, President Hassan reignited his pursuit of EAC membership without consulting essential stakeholders such as the parliament, the opposition, and civil society. This unilateral decision has raised doubts about the president’s dedication to establishing a government based on consensus. Moreover, his decision to pursue EAC membership has evoked mixed responses within Somalia. While some Somalis perceive joining the EAC as advantageous for the country, others express concerns about potential risks to Somalia’s economic and social development. President Hassan has defended his decision, emphasising that Somalia’s best interests lie in becoming a member of the EAC.
To assess Somalia’s readiness to join the EAC, the regional bloc undertook a comprehensive verification mission. A team of experts well versed in politics, economics, and social systems, was tasked with evaluating Somalia’s progress. The evaluation included a thorough review of economic performance, trade policies, and potential contributions to the EAC’s integration efforts. During this process, the team engaged with various government institutions and private organisations, conducting comprehensive assessments and discussions to gauge Somalia’s preparedness.
One of the key requirements for Somalia is demonstrating an unwavering commitment to upholding principles such as good governance, democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. Somalia must also showcase a vibrant market economy that fosters regional trade and collaboration.
Successful integration into the EAC would not only elevate Somalia’s regional stature but would also foster deeper bonds of cooperation and shared prosperity among the East African nations. While this is a positive step towards regional integration and economic development, there are several reasons for pessimism about the potential success of Somalia’s membership in the EAC.
Somalia must also showcase a vibrant market economy that fosters regional trade and collaboration.
Somalia has faced significant challenges due to prolonged conflict and instability. The decades-long civil war, coupled with the persistent threat of terrorism, has had a devastating impact on the country’s infrastructure, economy, governance systems, and overall stability.
The following fundamental factors raise valid concerns about Somalia’s readiness to effectively participate in the EAC.
Infrastructure plays a critical role in regional integration and economic growth. However, Somalia’s infrastructure has been severely damaged and neglected due to years of conflict. The country lacks adequate transportation networks, reliable energy systems, and while communications infrastructure has improved, internet penetration rates remain low and mobile networks – which are crucial for seamless integration with the EAC – can be unavailable outside of urban centres. Rebuilding such infrastructure requires substantial investments, technical expertise, and stability, all of which remain significant challenges for Somalia.
Political stability and governance
The EAC places emphasis on good governance, democracy, and the rule of law as prerequisites for membership. Somalia’s journey towards political stability and effective governance has been arduous, with numerous setbacks and ongoing power struggles. The lack of a unified government, coupled with weak state institutions and a history of corruption, raises doubts about Somalia’s ability to meet the EAC’s standards. Without a stable and inclusive political environment, Somalia may struggle to effectively contribute to the decision-making processes within the regional bloc.
Economic development and trade
Somalia’s economy has been heavily dependent on the informal sector and faces substantial economic disparities. The country needs to demonstrate a vibrant market economy that fosters regional trade and collaboration, as required by the EAC. However, the challenges of rebuilding a war-torn economy, tackling high poverty rates, and addressing widespread unemployment hinder Somalia’s ability to fully participate in regional trade and reap the benefits of integration.
Somalia continues to grapple with security challenges, including the presence of extremist groups and maritime piracy. These issues have not only hindered the country’s development but also pose potential risks to the stability and security of the entire EAC region. It is crucial for Somalia to address these security concerns comprehensively and to establish effective mechanisms to contribute to the EAC’s collective security efforts.
Economic Disparity and Compatibility
Somalia’s economy primarily relies on livestock, agriculture, and fishing, which may not align well with the more quasi-industralised economies of the other EAC member states. This mismatch could result in trade imbalances and pose challenges for integrating Somalia into the regional economy. For instance, according to the World Bank, Somalia’s GDP per capita was US$447 in 2021 whereas it is US$2081 for Kenya, US$1099 for Tanzania, and US$883 for Uganda. Furthermore, Somalia faces significant economic challenges, including capital flight that drains resources from the country, contributing to its status as a consumer-based economy.
This divergence in economic structures could lead to trade imbalances and impede the seamless integration of Somalia into the regional economy. The substantial economic gap between Somalia and other EAC member states suggests a significant disparity that may hinder Somalia’s ability to fully participate in the EAC’s economic activities. Additionally, Somalia has yet to demonstrate fiscal or economic discipline that would make it eligible for EAC membership. While Somalia has a functioning Central Bank and the US dollar remains the primary mode of financial transactions, the risk of integration lies with the other EAC members; cross-border trade would occur in an environment of instability, posing potential risks to the other member state.
Somalia faces significant economic challenges, including capital flight that drains resources from the country, contributing to its status as a consumer-based economy.
While these fundamental challenges remain, it is important to acknowledge the progress Somalia has made in recent years. This includes the gradual improvement in security conditions, the establishment of key governmental institutions, and the peaceful transfer of power. One can also argue that many of these fundamental economic, infrastructure, political instability, and security concerns exist across the East African Community. However, what makes Somalia unique is the scale of the challenges it faces today. Somalia has adopted a federal political structure, which has not worked well so far. This level of fragmentation and civil political distrust makes Somalia’s case unique. More than ever, Somalia needs meaningful political and social reconciliation before it can embark on a new regional journey.
The absence of an impact assessment by the relevant ministries in Somalia is alarming. Without this assessment, it becomes challenging to make informed decisions about the potential benefits of joining the EAC and the impact on our economy and society. Conducting this assessment should be a priority for Somalia’s ministries to ensure a comprehensive evaluation of the potential benefits and risks involved in EAC membership. Furthermore, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s decision to pursue Somalia’s integration into the EAC lacks political legitimacy as a decision of this nature would normally require ratification through a popular vote and other legal means through parliament. The failure to achieve this could potentially allow another president in the future to unilaterally announce withdrawal from the EAC.
Fragile state of Affairs and internal disputes
The recent reopening of the Gatunda border post between Uganda and Rwanda after a three-year period of strained relations indicates a fragile state of affairs. The East African Court of Justice has ruled that Rwanda’s initial closure of the border was illegal, highlighting the contentious nature of inter-country disputes. Furthermore, Tanzania and Uganda have formally lodged complaints against Kenya, alleging unfair advantages in trade relations, and have even gone as far as threatening Kenya with export bans. These grievances underscore the underlying tensions and competition between member states, which could potentially hinder the harmonious functioning of the East African Community. These political and economic disagreements among member states increase the risks associated with Somalia’s membership. Somalia must carefully evaluate whether it is entering a united and cohesive bloc or one plagued by internal divisions. Joining the East African Community at this juncture carries the risk of being drawn into ongoing disputes and potentially being caught in the crossfire of inter-country rivalries.
Conflict in South Sudan
The prolonged conflict in South Sudan, which has been ongoing since its admission to the East African Community (EAC) in 2016, serves as a cautionary tale for Somalia. Despite the EAC’s efforts to mediate and foster peace in the region, the outcomes have been mixed, resulting in an unsustainable peace. This lack of success highlights the challenges faced by member states in resolving conflicts and maintaining stability within the community. Somalia must carefully evaluate whether its participation in the EAC will genuinely contribute to its stability, economic growth, and development, or if it risks exacerbating existing internal conflicts. Joining the community without a solid foundation of political stability, institutions, and peace could potentially divert resources and attention away from domestic issues, hindering Somalia’s progress towards resolving its own challenges. South Sudan’s admission to the EAC in 2016 was seen as a major step towards regional integration and stability. However, the country has been mired in conflict ever since, with two civil wars breaking out in 2013 and 2016. The EAC has been involved in mediation efforts, with mixed results.
Somalia must evaluate the readiness of its institutions, infrastructure, and economy to effectively engage with the East African Community. Comprehensive preparations are crucial to ensure that joining the community is a well thought-out and strategic decision, rather than a hasty move that could further destabilise the nation. Somalia needs to assess whether its infrastructure, institutions, and economy are sufficiently developed to cope with the challenges and demands of integration. Premature membership could strain Somalia’s resources, impede its growth, and leave it at a disadvantage compared to more established member states.
Somalia must carefully evaluate whether it is entering a united and cohesive bloc or one plagued by internal divisions.
Somalia must ensure sustained progress in stability, infrastructure development, governance, and economic growth before considering full membership of the EAC. A phased approach that prioritises capacity building, institution-strengthening, and inclusive governance would enable Somalia to lay a solid foundation for successful integration and reap the maximum benefits from EAC membership in the long term. Failure to address these concerns would make Somalia vulnerable to exploitation and market monopolies by stronger economies, and could also risk a lack of seamless convergence for Somalia’s membership. While there is political will from EAC leaders to support Somalia’s membership, it is vitally important that they make the right decision for Somalia and the EAC bloc as a whole to ensure a successful integration. I believe that, at this juncture, the disadvantages of Somalia joining the EAC outweigh the benefits.
2023 Marks 110 Years Since the Maasai Case 1913: Does it Still Matter?
It was a landmark case for its time, a first for East Africa and possibly for the continent. A group of Africans challenged a colonial power in a colonial court to appeal a major land grab and demand reparations. They lost on a technicality but the ripple effects of the Maasai Case continue to be felt.
In the name Parsaloi Ole Gilisho there lies an irony. It was spelled Legalishu by the colonial British. Say it out loud. He gave them a legal issue, all right. And a 110-year-old headache.
This extraordinary age-set spokesman (a traditional leader called ol-aiguenani, pl. il-aiguenak) led non-violent resistance to the British, in what was then British East Africa, that culminated in the Maasai Case 1913. Ole Gilisho was then a senior warrior, who was probably in his mid- to late thirties. In bringing the case before the High Court of British East Africa, he was not only challenging the British but also the Maasai elders who had signed away thousands of acres of community land via a 1904 Maasai Agreement or Treaty with the British. This and the 1911 Agreement – which effectively rendered the first void – are often wrongly called the Anglo-Maasai Agreements. In Ole Gilisho’s view, and those of his fellow plaintiffs, these elders had sold out. The suit accused them of having had no authority to make this decision on behalf of the community. This represented a very serious challenge by warriors to traditional authority, including that of the late laibon (prophet) Olonana, who had signed in 1904, and died in 1911.
The British had expected the Maasai to violently rebel in response to these issues and to colonial rule in general. But contrary to modern-day myths that the Maasai fought their colonisers, here they resisted peacefully via legal means. They hired British lawyers and took the British to their own cleaners. Spoiler: they lost, went to appeal, and lost again. But archival research reveals that the British government was so convinced it would eventually lose, if the Maasai appealed to the Privy Council in London (they didn’t), that officials began discussing how much compensation to pay.
The facts are these. The lawsuit was launched in 1912. There were four plaintiffs, Ole Gilisho and three fellow Purko (one of the 16 Maasai territorial sections) Maasai. In Civil Case No. 91 they claimed that the 1911 Maasai Agreement was not binding on them and other Laikipia Maasai, that the 1904 Agreement remained in force, and they contested the legality of the second move. They demanded the return of Laikipia, and £5,000 in damages for loss of livestock during the second move (explained below). Ole Gilisho was illiterate and had never been to school. But he and his fellow plaintiffs were assisted by sympathetic Europeans who were angered by the injustice they saw being perpetrated against a “tribe” that British administrators conceded had never given them any trouble. These sympathisers included people who worked for the colonial government, notably medical Dr Norman Leys and some district officials, lawyers, a few missionaries, the odd settler, and a wider group of left-wing MPs and anti-colonial agitators in Britain.
What had led up to this? After the 1904 Agreement, certain groups or sections of Maasai had been forcibly moved from their grazing grounds in the central Rift Valley around Naivasha into two reserves – one in Laikipia, the other in the south on the border with German East Africa. The British had pledged that this arrangement was permanent, that it would last “so long as the Maasai as a race shall exist”. But just seven years later, the British went back on their word and moved the “northern” Maasai again, forcing them at gunpoint to vacate Laikipia and move to the Southern Reserve. In all, it is estimated that the Maasai lost at least 50 per cent of their land, but that figure could be nearer 70 per cent. The ostensible reason for moving them was to “free up” land for white settlement – largely for British settlers but also for South Africans fleeing the Boer War (also called the South African War).
But just seven years later, the British went back on their word and moved the ‘northern’ Maasai again, forcing them at gunpoint to vacate Laikipia and move to the Southern Reserve.
By the time the case came to court, Ole Gilisho had become a defendant, even though he was in favour of the plaint. So were at least eight other defendants. He had signed the 1904 Agreement, and now stood accused with 17 other Maasai of having no authority to enter into such a contract. The first defendant was the Attorney General. Ole Gilisho’s son-in-law Murket Ole Nchoko, misspelled Ol le Njogo by the British, and described as a leading moran (il-murran or warrior) of the Purko section, was now the lead plaintiff. The plaint was called Ol le Njogo and others v. The Attorney General and others.
Challenges facing the plaintiffs
Most Maasai were illiterate in those days, and this obviously placed them at a major disadvantage. They could not write down their version of events. They were forced to rely, in their dealings with officials and their own lawyers, upon translators and semiliterate mediators whose reliability was questionable. But it is evident, from the archival record which includes verbatim accounts of meetings between Maasai leaders and British officials in the run-up to the moves and case, that the level of verbal discourse was highly sophisticated. This comes as no surprise; verbal debate is a cornerstone of Maasai society and customary justice. Unfortunately, that alone could not help them here. They knew they needed lawyers, and asked their friends for help. Leys, who was later sacked from the colonial service for his activism, admitted in a private letter: “I procured the best one in the country for them.” This was more than he ever admitted openly.
Local administrators used intimidation and all kinds of devious means to try and stop the case. (I didn’t come across any evidence that the Colonial Office in London sanctioned this; in fact, it ordered the Governor not to obstruct the main lawyer or his clients.) They allegedly threatened Ole Gilisho with flogging and deportation. They threatened and cross-questioned suspected European sympathisers, including Leys and the lawyers. They banned Maasai from selling cattle to raise the legal fees, and placed the Southern Reserve in continuous quarantine. It was hard for the plaintiffs, confined to a reserve, to meet their lawyers at all. At one point, lawyers were refused passes to enter the reserve, and their clients were prevented from leaving it.
We hear Ole Gilisho’s voice in the archival record. Forced to give a statement explaining his actions to officials at Enderit River on 21 June 1912, when asked if he had called Europeans to his boma, he replied: “Is it possible for a black man to call a white man?” He denied having called the Europeans (probably lawyers or go-betweens), saying they had come to him. Leys later explained to a friend that Ole Gilisho had probably been “terrified out of his wits”, and hadn’t meant what he said.
What happened in court
The case was thrown out when it first came before the High Court in Mombasa in May 1913. The Maasai appealed, and that is when the legal arguments were fully aired by both sides – lawyers for the Crown and the Maasai. The appeal was dismissed in December on the grounds that the plaintiffs’ claims were not cognisable in municipal courts. The two agreements were ruled not to be agreements but treaties, which were Acts of State. They could not, therefore, be challenged in a local court. It was impossible for the plaintiffs to seek to enforce the provisions of a treaty, said the judges – “The paramount chief himself could not bring such an action, still less can his people”. Claims for damages were also dismissed.
The Court of Appeal’s judgement centred on the status of a protectorate, in which the King was said to exercise powers granted to him under the Foreign Jurisdiction Act of 1890. Irrational as it sounds, the Crown claimed that British East Africa was not British territory, and the Maasai were not British subjects with any rights of access to British law, but “protected foreigners, who, in return for that protection, owe obedience” to the Crown. As Yash Pal Ghai and Patrick McAuslan later put it, when discussing the case in a 1970 book: “A British protected person is protected against everyone except the British.” On the plus side, the judges ruled that the Maasai still retained some “vestige” of sovereignty. (The Maasai’s lawyer argued that they did not.) This triggered later moves by Maasai politicians, in the 1960s, to float the idea of secession from Kenya and the possible creation of a sovereign Maasai state. John Keen had threatened this in 1962 at the second Lancaster House Conference in London, attended by a Maasai delegation.
Alexander Morrison, lawyer for the Maasai, argued that British rule and courts were established in the protectorate, which had not been the case 30 years earlier. The Maasai were not foreigners but equal to other British subjects in every way. The agreements were civil contracts, enforceable in the courts, and not unenforceable treaties. If one took the Crown’s claim about Acts of State to its logical conclusion, he argued, a squatter refusing to leave land reserved for the Maasai could only be removed by an Act of State. None of his arguments washed with the judges. (See my 2006 book Moving the Maasai for a fuller account.)
Morrison advised his clients to appeal. It seems they couldn’t raise the funds. However, oral testimony from elders reveals a different story: Ole Gilisho had planned to sail to England to appeal to the Privy Council, but he was threatened with drowning at sea. This is impossible to verify, but it rings true.
In an interview carried out on my behalf in 2008 by Michael Tiampati, my old friend John Keen had this to say about the outcome of the case: “If the hyena was the magistrate and the accused was a goat, you should probably know that the goat would not get any form of justice. So this is exactly how it was that the Maasai could not get any fair justice from British courts.”
Contemporary African resistance
Unbeknown to the Maasai, there was growing anti-colonial resistance in the same period in other parts of Africa. All these acts of resistance have inspired African activists in their continuing struggles. To mention a few: the Chilembwe rebellion in Nyasaland, now Malawi (1915); the Herero revolt in German South West Africa, now Namibia (1904–1908); resistance in present-day Kenya by Mekatilili wa Menza (largely 1913-14); the First Chimurenga or First War of Independence in what is now Zimbabwe (1896–1897); and the Maji Maji rebellion in German East Africa, now Tanzania (1905–1907). But none of these rebellions involved lawsuits. The closest precedent may have been R vs Earl of Crewe, Ex-parte Sekgoma in 1910. Chief Sekgoma, who had been jailed by the British in the Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana) after many attempts to remove him as chief, instructed his lawyer to bring a writ of habeus corpus against the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Crewe. He demanded to be tried in an English court, refusing an offer of release on condition that he agrees to live in a restricted area of the Transvaal. The suit was dismissed, the court ruling that the King had unfettered jurisdiction in a protectorate, and his right to detain Sekgoma was upheld. Sekgoma apparently said: “I would rather be killed than go to the Transvaal. I will not go because I have committed no crime – I wish to have my case tried before the courts in England or else be killed.” Freed in 1912, he died two years later.
The case, and other key events in early twentieth century Maasai history, have given rise to several myths. They include the idea that the stolen land should “revert” to the Maasai after 100 years, but that was not stated in the 1904 Agreement, which was not limited in time, was not a land lease, and has not “expired” as many people claim. Neither agreement has. Keen knew this, but nonetheless called for the land to “revert”. Other myths include the idea that Olonana’s thumbprint was placed on the 1911 Agreement posthumously, and it must therefore be invalid. But neither his thumbprint nor name are on the document, which was “signed” by his son Seggi. Anyhow, Olonana was a key ally of the British, who had no reason to kill him (which is another myth).
The original of the 1904 Agreement has never been found, which has led some Maasai to believe that it never existed and therefore all the land must be restored and compensation paid for its use to date. There may be sound legal arguments for restorative justice, but this is not one of them. These myths are ahistorical and unhelpful, but may be understood as attempts to rationalise and make sense of what happened. Some activists may wish that the Maasai had resisted violently, rather than taken the legal route. Hence the insistence by some that there was a seamless history of armed resistance from the start of colonial rule. Not true. There are much better arguments to be made, by professional lawyers with an understanding of international treaty rights and aboriginal title, which could possibly produce results.
Ole Gilisho had planned to sail to England to appeal to the Privy Council, but he was threatened with drowning at sea.
Where does all this leave the Maasai today? Over the years, there has been much talk of revisiting the case and bringing a claim against Britain (or Kenya) for the return of land or reparations for its loss. None of this has resulted in concrete action. I attended a planning workshop in Nairobi in 2006 when plans were laid for a lawsuit. VIPs present included the late Ole Ntimama, scholar Ben Kantai and John Keen. Keen declared, with his customary flourish, that he would stump up a million shillings to get the ball rolling. I don’t know how much money was raised in total, but it disappeared into thin air. As did the lawyers.
Leading lawyers have advised that too much time has passed, and (unlike the successful Mau Mau veterans’ suit) there are no living witnesses who could give evidence in court. It is unclear whether the agreements still have any legal validity. The British government might argue, as it previously has, including in response to my questions, that it handed over all responsibility for its pre-1963 actions to the Kenyan government at independence. This is a ludicrous argument, which is also morally wrong. Former colonial powers such as Germany have accepted responsibility for historical injustices in their former colonies, notably Namibia. Has the time come for Ole Gilisho’s descendants to call a white man to court?
Who Is Hustling Who?
In Kenya, political elites across the spectrum are trying to sell off the country for themselves—capitulation is inevitable.
My drive to Limuru happened on the first Wednesday (July 19) of the protests. Everything was eerily quiet, Nairobi, renowned for its traffic jams, was quiet. Matatus and buses were parked in their hubs. Shops and stalls were closed. Even the hawkers that dot the roads and highways stayed home. Save for the heavy police presence everywhere, it felt like the country had come to a standstill.
We got to Kangemi shortly after the police had shot and wounded two protestors—the road was strewn with stones and armed riot police huddled by the side of the road waiting for the next wave of attacks that never came. In the end, six people would be shot to death throughout the country, and countless were injured and arrested. Coming from the US, where police arrest protestors and shoot black people, there were no surprises here. The US can hardly be the standard of good policing or democratic practices, but the lives lost simply for asking the government to center the people in its economic planning seemed especially cruel.
But it was the emptiness of the roads that made the whole drive eerie. Perhaps I was refracting what was happening in Kenya through what followed the 1982 coup in which 240 people were killed; or the ethnic clashes of the 1990s that culminated in the 2007 post-election violence. Yet, there was a general agreement among people that there was something different about the Kenya of today—that something was already broken and the nightmares to come were slowly but surely revealing themselves—like a bus carrying passengers and the driver realizing the brakes were out just as it was about to descend a steep hill.
Voting with the middle finger
But all this was predictable. President Ruto has been a known quantity since the 1990s when he led the violent Moi youth wingers. He and his running mate and later president, Uhuru Kenyatta, were brought in front of the ICC to face charges of crimes against humanity following the post-election violence in 2007. Some key witnesses disappeared and others were intimidated into silence. Who in their right mind gives evidence against those in control of the state? The ICC was already discredited as being Western-crimes-against-humanity friendly (the US has never been a signatory rightly afraid its former presidents, such as George Bush, would be hauled before the court). The ICC eventually withdrew the case in March 2015.
I kept asking everyone I met, why was Ruto voted in spite of his history? The answers varied: He rigged the elections; he did not rig and if he did, he only managed to be better at it than Raila Odinga; he appealed to the youth with the idea of building a hustler nation (what a telling term); the Kikuyus have vowed never to have a Luo president and therefore opted for Ruto who is Kalenjin as opposed to Odinga who is Luo.
I sat with older Kikuyu men in the little Nyama Choma spot in Limuru Market and they talked about a generational divide between the Kikuyu and youth (Ruto) and the elderly Kikuyus (Odinga). But the one I heard over and over again was that Kenyans are tired of the Kenyatta and Odinga political dynasties. As one Trump supporter was to say, they voted for him with the middle finger. And so, the Kenyans who voted for Ruto were giving a middle finger to the Kenyatta, Moi and Odinga political dynasties. But no one had really expected buyer’s remorse to kick in one year into the Ruto presidency.
I also asked about Odinga’s protests: what was the end game? One theory is that he was looking at power-sharing, having done it once before, following the 2007 elections. In our shorthand political language, he was looking for another handshake. Some said the people have a right to protest their government, and he is simply asking the government to repeal the tax hikes and reinstate the fuel subsidies. Others believed that he wants to be a genuine and useful voice of opposition for the good of the country and its poor.
My own theory is that he is attempting a people-powered, centered, democratic, and largely peaceful takeover—where people take to the streets to overthrow an unpopular government. We saw this in Latin America in the 2000s. In response to Odinga’s absence during the three days of protests (he was sick), some leaders in his Azimio party have started using this language. The only problem with this strategy is that the sitting government has to be wildly unpopular. Ruto still has a lot of support, meaning that he does not have to compromise or give up power. It was to my mind turning into a stalemate and I was worried that the state would respond with more state-sponsored violence.
But real economics broke the stalemate. In a country where people are barely surviving and the majority are poor without savings to rely on, or relatives to reach out to for help, the hawkers, small stall and shop owners simply went back to work. In other words, those that would have been hurt the most by three days of protests (a day at home literally means a day without food for the family) simply went back to work, and the matatus and buses hummed back to life, slowly on Thursday and full throttle by Friday.
Saturday around Westlands might as well have been as busy as a Monday as people overcompensated for lost time to either sell or shop. If the protests were going to succeed the opposition (composed of some of the wealthiest families in Kenya, including Odinga’s) really should have thought about how best to protect those who would be the most affected. They should find legal and innovative ways to put their money where their political mouths are.
Cuba as Kenya’s north star
Odinga had to change tactics and called for a day of protest against police violence instead of three-day weekly protests in perpetuity. He is now in danger of turning into a caricature of his old revolutionary self and becoming an Al Sharpton, who instead of protesting the American government for the police killings of black people, protests the police themselves leaving the government feeling sanctimonious. Obama or Biden could weigh in, in righteous indignation without offering any real change (remember Obama’s emotional pleas over gun shootings and police shootings as if he was not the one occupying the most powerful office in the US)?
The one question that keeps eating at me is this: why is the most apparent outcome at the time a surprise later? Ruto was always going to sell off Kenya with a percentage for himself and his friends. Odinga was always going to capitulate. The end result is that the Kenyan bus will continue to careen on without brakes. So, what is to be done?
I was in Cuba earlier this year. I got a sense of the same desperation I felt in Kenya but the difference is Cubans have free access to healthcare, education, housing, and food security. They have free access to all the things that make basic survival possible. Before calling for the tax hikes and cutting fuel subsidies might it not have been more prudent to have a safety net for Kenyans? Would that not have been the most logical thing? But of course not, Ruto is acting at the behest of the IMF and big money. Ruto has learned the art of pan-African political rhetoric. Abroad he can call for a different non-US-centered economic system and castigate the French president over paternalism but at home, his politics are hustler politics.
Life in Cuba is difficult, as a result of relentless sanctions from the US, but it is far from impossible. It remains the north star for those who understand discussions around fundamental change as the only starting point. We can have arguments about the nature of those fundamental changes, but we can all agree we should not be a country where one family, say the Kenyatta family, owns more than half a million acres of land. Or where, as Oxfam reported, four individuals hold more wealth than that held by 22 million Kenyans. The kind of politics that begin with a necessity for fundamental change will obviously not come from Ruto.
But one hopes it can still come from the Odinga camp. Or even better, from a genuinely progressive people-powered movement that has inbuilt questions of fundamental change in its political, economic, and cultural platform.
In spite of the empty roads, Limuru Market was thriving and Wakari Bar kept its reputation as one of the best places for Nyama Choma and for lively political conversations. People are paying attention, after all, it is their lives and livelihoods on the line. Politicians, especially those in the opposition and the political left should listen as well.
Op-Eds1 week ago
Tigray Atrocities: Extending ICHREE Mandate Crucial for Accountability
Op-Eds1 week ago
Climate Change and the Injustice of Environmental Globalism
Reflections1 week ago
Ama Ata Aidoo: A Tribute
Reflections1 week ago
Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo: A Mother and a Gardener
Data Stories1 week ago
Sex Education: Are We Doing Enough?
Op-Eds3 days ago
Are These the Dying Days of La Françafrique?
Op-Eds2 days ago
Wave of Coups in Françafrique: Is Africa’s Oldest Autocracy Next?
Data Stories12 hours ago
State of Hunger: Unravelling Kenya’s Food Crisis