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Shifting Rights: Dispossession of Pastoralists by Predatory Stealth

9 min read.

Pastoralist communities are effectively losing their rights to their communal lands through an obscure and predatory engagement process that involves conservation NGOs and self-seeking community leaders.

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Shifting Rights: Dispossession of Pastoralists by Predatory Stealth
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Scientific evidence strongly affirms that arid and semi-arid ecosystems are key frontiers for shifting resource rights and increased exposure to global challenges such as climatic risks. A large share of Kenya’s land is classified as ASALs (Arid and Semi-Arid Lands) with different forms of ecosystems including ranches, community-based conservancies and game reserves, among others, all of which contribute to community livelihoods and resilience as well as to the national economy. As the world grapples with the underwhelming resolutions of COP26, there is increasing need to pay attention to climate justice as a fundamental basis for achieving the Paris targets and sustainable development goals.

This will require that keen attention be paid to the shifting resource rights of ASAL communities. In effect, resource management decisions have often been accompanied by strong claims that these communities have been involved in the decision making process, that consent has been obtained and that they are happy with the decisions taken.

However, what has not been revealed is the manner in which consultations and engagements with these communities have been used to shift rights from communities to other powers. Community engagement is a fundamental platform through which community voices are included in the decision-making process, and therefore, understanding how these engagements are being used to shift resource rights is critical to strengthening the engagement capacities of the affected communities.

This blog provides a reflection from fieldwork undertaken in Samburu County, Kenya, that focused on how land rights intersect with adaptation strategies. The fieldwork was carried out under the Rights and Resilience Project funded by Danida. The project aims to investigate resilience and land rights in the context of pastoral adaptation in Kenya. More specifically, the project looks at how adaptation strategies interact with land needs. The implementation of the project is led by researchers from the University of Copenhagen, The Institute for Development Studies (IDS), University of Nairobi, University of Roskilde, the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS), and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)

How are community-based conservancies are established? 

The concept of Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) underpins the establishment of community-based conservancies (CBC), mainly by communities with an interest in particular outcomes. Conceptually, pastoralist communities, including those living in the ASALs, are expected to drive the establishment of conservancies as a means of preserving resources and supporting their livelihoods both during normal seasons and in times of shocks. However, the process is not a purely community undertaking, but is often catalysed by actors posing as “good Samaritans” who either bring experience, resources, or information to support the process. For instance, the Northern Rangeland Trust (NRT), a Kenyan conservation NGO, has led and financed the establishment of some 23 CBCs covering about 1,687,985 hectares in the Isiolo-Samburu-Laikipia landscape since 2004, involving an estimated 400,000 community members.

A study of the Sera Conservancy situated within the Losesia and Sereolipi Group Ranches in Samburu shows how communities lose their rights to the CBC through a relatively obscure and predatory engagement process. The conservancy was established in 2001 and covers an area of 339,540 ha.

According to community members, the decision to establish the conservancy was driven by the changing ecological conditions (e.g., shifting weather patterns), increasing population and resource scarcity. This meant that the community had to rethink and embrace new ways of managing their resources, inspired by the awareness campaigns carried out by established conservation NGOs such as the NRT. In establishing the conservancy, parts of the group ranches were delineated as wildlife corridors while specific areas were designated for livestock usage.

Communities lose their rights to the CBC through a relatively obscure and predatory engagement process.

The fundamental idea behind the creation of the conservancy was to preserve its ecological and resilience value and promote the resilience of both the conservancy and the community by regulating the availability of feed during the different seasons. This approach to building resilience is widely recognised in international policy on climate change as part of ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA). EbA involves a wide range of ecosystem management practices to increase resilience and reduce the vulnerability of people and the environment to climate change.

Transitions in engagements: from decision makers to mere public participants 

The establishment of CBCs is anchored in the community’s support for conservation that involves conservationists providing training and creating awareness among selected community members – mainly the leaders of the various community ranches. The need to establish CBCs is then mooted as an option for ensuring a more effective management of the resources of pastoralist communities especially given the changing climate and the increasing population. This often culminates in some form of negotiation between the community leaders and a promoter (e.g. the NRT). These negotiations begin with initial meetings with community elders and representatives of group ranches where the ideas around CBCs are discussed and the associated benefits highlighted. Community leaders then relay the information to the wider members of the group ranches who are called to attend meetings with selected political leaders such as members of the county assembly and where they are informed about the need to conserve the resources available for pastoralism.

According to members of the Losesia Group Ranch, discussions in community meetings are often based on the understanding that the CBC idea is driven by the community. Yet the reality is that the process is driven by conversations held elsewhere outside the community. The early-stage experiences in initiating the Sera CBC raise key questions around whether the CBC concept as framed in literature and policy is really community-led or are just a model approved by the community. Whatever the case, this represents the first juncture at which rights begin to shift within the engagement space. In this case, the community’s right to decide the best model of conservation for its resources is weakened as the process is driven by conversations initiated outside the community. Indeed, it has been argued elsewhere that the creation of CBCs is motivated by the rich wildlife resources on the community lands rather than by the interests of the community. Yet at the CBC initiation stage community rights still remain relatively high because they still have the power to make and question decisions since no deals have been struck at this point.

Figure 1: Illustration of the critical junctures along the community engagement process where rights shift from the communities to other powerful actors

Figure 1: Illustration of the critical junctures along the community engagement process where rights shift from the communities to other powerful actors

Once a community agrees to the establishment of a CBC, it develops the rules and regulations that will govern the organisational engagement with the CBC. These rules include delineating specific areas for wildlife and others for livestock. Community leaders, in conjunction with the conservation NGO, ensure that the areas demarcated for wildlife become relatively restricted to community access. At the same time, the movement of livestock in certain parts of the conservancy is systematised to ensure that pasture is managed and preserved for use by all during the different seasons. At this point, community rights still remain relatively strong given that most decisions, including the CBC’s rules and regulations are made by the community. However, narratives around wildlife conservation begin to strongly emerge as part of the CBC discourse within the community.

The creation of CBCs is motivated by the rich wildlife resources on the community lands rather than by the interests of the community.

Community members have said that while they appreciate the value of wildlife conservation as part of their culture, they do not have a clear understanding of what rights they have over the conserved wildlife. They are merely informed by their leaders about its potential value in terms of tourism and revenue generation to support various community projects. On the other hand, they are clear about the value that their livestock is able to attract even though livestock is controlled and pushed to the periphery by the drive to delineate wildlife areas.

Therefore, while the communities still feel that they have rights to the CBCs and the associated benefits, whether from wildlife or livestock, their rights are increasingly weakened as they commit to set aside a section of their land for wildlife conservation while they have little control over the expected activities and benefits. Moreover, it is the community itself that will have placed restrictions on access to the designated wildlife areas. This is a clear illustration of how community engagements serve to open up avenues for loss of resources, especially when communities become eager to align to changing conservation models or when they mainly focus on beneficial opportunities without interrogating the inherent consequences.

However, it must be noted that most community members do not have the capacity to interrogate such issues. In cultures that reproduce elites and confer powers differently to different categories of social groups, the collective voice of the community to interrogate emerging issues is relatively weak, and there is a general reluctance to do so because such questioning is seen as going against one’s own culture.

The areas set aside for conservancies are in truth the major frontiers for the further erosion of community rights as new interventions begin to leverage the economic value of wildlife. Several studies have raised concerns about this, equating the designation of wildlife areas to the commodification of wildlife for economic gain. To date, about ten lodges and hotels have been established within CBCs, occupying a significant share of the areas set aside for wildlife conservation. These investment deals are negotiated with community members who all along believe that they are in control of the CBC without realising that they are systematically losing control in this sphere of engagement. Negotiations regarding investments in CBCs are mediated and facilitated by particular conservation NGOs, such as the NRT in the case of Samburu, a conservation NGO which already has very strong connections with donors and investors at the international and domestic levels, as well as with policy and business actors. It is at this juncture, therefore, that powerful new actors are introduced into the community engagement space. This means that decisions at this point are no longer under the remit of the community but rather under a wider cadre of interests with different powers.

Several studies have raised concerns about this, equating the designation of wildlife areas to the commodification of wildlife for economic gain.

According to the Losesia community, representatives of the ranches negotiate with the investors based on their constitution, which allows community members to lease out parts of the conservancies. Various economic advantages are touted during these negotiations, resulting in the perception that the community has given its consent through the local elites who are culturally perceived as representing the interests of the community but who in reality have become self-seeking gatekeepers to community land. In presenting the potential economic benefits, however, the financial details are often concealed from the relatively uninformed community members and it is often simply agreed that a certain percentage of the revenues collected will be ploughed back to support conservation. Community members are also promised jobs and other benefits.

While the constitution encourages interventions that promote the conservation agenda, it is relatively vague on issues of rights and benefit sharing and management. Moreover, there are no clear mechanisms to ensure that investors adhere to the conservation principles enshrined in the CBC agenda. This provides a huge window of opportunity for investors to pursue different agendas and further infringe on the rights of the community. Consequently, community members feel that the investments made within the conservancies have actually shifted focus from conservation to pure profit generation to the exclusion of the community members themselves. Some community members highlighted that investors have often expanded boundaries beyond the agreed areas, have introduced new recreational activities—including illegal game hunting—that are detrimental to the ecology of the conservancies, and in most cases have become less transparent about the revenues they generate. Furthermore, new physical boundaries are established, creating a permanent sense of exclusion from the conservancies.   

Yet this new trajectory, while clearly infringing community rights, is gaining support from the authorities, particularly at the level of the county government where the interest centres on revenue collection. The county government is expected to provide an enabling environment for investors while at the same time protecting the rights of the community but investors’ interests systematically take precedence over community rights. Moreover, concerns have been raised that some county governments are currently developing county conservancy laws aimed at completely shifting the management of conservancies from communities to the counties. Some community members have also raised concerns that conservation NGOs and investors who initially consulted them closely no longer engage them directly but go through the county government. The common interest around revenues and profits has therefore resulted in a powerful coalition between the investors, the county government, and the NRT, that has taken over the management of the conservancies to the near-complete exclusion of the communities.

New physical boundaries are established, creating a permanent sense of exclusion from the conservancies.

This effectively means that communities are no longer in direct control of the conservancies as was originally envisaged. The community engagement process is no longer about the community decision-making process; it has now become merely a public participation exercise. Community members are invited to meetings pertaining to the conservancies as public participants rather than as interested parties with a stake in decision-making. A community member observed that while the CBC retains their name, it is no longer theirs.

What role does policy play in the shifting community rights? 

At the national level, Kenya has developed a range of developmental policies targeting the management of these resources. Additionally, Kenya’s climate change policies such as the National Climate Action Plan, the updated Nationally Determined Contribution, and the Adaptation Action Plan, focus on adaptation and building resilience. These policies acknowledge the role of conservancies in improving livelihoods and the broader economic development, but are more focused on using resources for development rather than for enhancing livelihoods and the resilience of communities. Therefore, national development and resource management policies do not pay attention to the fundamental resource rights necessary to protect local communities from powerful actors. The policies also lack room for strengthening local governance. While the Community Land Act exists to strengthen the role of communities in managing their resources, this law seems to be increasingly superseded by other national and county-level legislations.

The value of traditional and communal resources and rights is less articulated in contemporary conservation policies. This has exposed resilience-building resources such as community conservancies to powerful economic interests that tear apart the communities’ resilience-building social structures, creating further inequalities and social vulnerabilities.

Some county governments are currently developing conservancy laws aimed at completely shifting the management of conservancies from communities to the counties.

At the county level, county governments are expected to provide an enabling policy environment for the conservation interventions, and to protect the rights of the communities within the conservancies. However, the case of Sera CBC shows that county governments are motivated by the developmental goals tied to revenue collection rather than by community rights. For instance, the Samburu County Integrated Development Plan acknowledges that CBCs are resources that can be harnessed for increased revenue collection and county development. This also aligns with the narrative at the national level where conservancies are viewed through the lens of tourist attraction, foreign exchange, and GDP enhancement. As already highlighted above, some counties are developing county conservation laws aimed at putting conservancies under the direct control of county authorities, which is seen as a threat to the rights of the communities concerned.

What are the implications for resilience? 

The loss of these rights is leading to an accumulation of social injustice such as gender imbalances. Community governance is also weakened by the community’s exclusion from the decision-making process, leading to the loss of resilience-building resources in pastoralist communities. The loss of rights is exacerbated by the state-centric approach to resilience planning, an approach that has been associated with capitalistic ambitions to control resources and the subsequent resource grabs from vulnerable communities, a phenomenon that has created new cycles of climate risk accumulation. Consequently, the proposed development and resilience-building options are yet to encompass the lived realities of the communities that they seek to help.

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Politics

Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning

Rwandans are welcoming, but the government’s priority must be to solve the internal political problems which produce refugees.

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The governments of the United Kingdom and Rwanda have signed an agreement to move asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda for processing. This partnership has been heavily criticized and has been referred to as unethical and inhumane. It has also been opposed by the United Nations Refugee Agency on the grounds that it is contrary to the spirit of the Refugee Convention.

Here in Rwanda, we heard the news of the partnership on the day it was signed. The subject has never been debated in the Rwandan parliament and neither had it been canvassed in the local media prior to the announcement.

According to the government’s official press release, the partnership reflects Rwanda’s commitment to protect vulnerable people around the world. It is argued that by relocating migrants to Rwanda, their dignity and rights will be respected and they will be provided with a range of opportunities, including for personal development and employment, in a country that has consistently been ranked among the safest in the world.

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives. Therefore, most Rwandans are sensitive to the plight of those forced to leave their home countries and would be more than willing to make them feel welcome. However, the decision to relocate the migrants to Rwanda raises a number of questions.

The government argues that relocating migrants to Rwanda will address the inequalities in opportunity that push economic migrants to leave their homes. It is not clear how this will work considering that Rwanda is already the most unequal country in the East African region. And while it is indeed seen as among the safest countries in the world, it was however ranked among the bottom five globally in the recently released 2022 World Happiness Index. How would migrants, who may have suffered psychological trauma fare in such an environment, and in a country that is still rebuilding itself?

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives.

What opportunities can Rwanda provide to the migrants? Between 2018—the year the index was first published—and 2020, Rwanda’s ranking on the Human Capital Index (HCI) has been consistently low. Published by the World Bank, HCI measures which countries are best at mobilising the economic and professional potential of their citizens. Rwanda’s score is lower than the average for sub-Saharan Africa and it is partly due to this that the government had found it difficult to attract private investment that would create significant levels of employment prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment, particularly among the youth, has since worsened.

Despite the accolades Rwanda has received internationally for its development record, Rwanda’s economy has never been driven by a dynamic private or trade sector; it has been driven by aid. The country’s debt reached 73 per cent of GDP in 2021 while its economy has not developed the key areas needed to achieve and secure genuine social and economic transformation for its entire population. In addition to human capital development, these include social capital development, especially mutual trust among citizens considering the country’s unfortunate historical past, establishing good relations with neighbouring states, respect for human rights, and guaranteeing the accountability of public officials.

Rwanda aspires to become an upper middle-income country by 2035 and a high-income country by 2050. In 2000, the country launched a development plan that aimed to transform it into a middle-income country by 2020 on the back on a knowledge economy. That development plan, which has received financial support from various development partners including the UK which contributed over £1 billion, did not deliver the anticipated outcomes. Today the country remains stuck in the category of low-income states. Its structural constraints as a small land-locked country with few natural resources are often cited as an obstacle to development. However, this is exacerbated by current governance in Rwanda, which limits the political space, lacks separation of powers, impedes freedom of expression and represses government critics, making it even harder for Rwanda to reach the desired developmental goals.

Rwanda’s structural constraints as a small land-locked country with no natural resources are often viewed as an obstacle to achieving the anticipated development.

As a result of the foregoing, Rwanda has been producing its own share of refugees, who have sought political and economic asylum in other countries. The UK alone took in 250 Rwandese last year. There are others around the world, the majority of whom have found refuge in different countries in Africa, including countries neighbouring Rwanda. The presence of these refugees has been a source of tension in the region with Kigali accusing neighbouring states of supporting those who want to overthrow the government by force. Some Rwandans have indeed taken up armed struggle, a situation that, if not resolved, threatens long-term security in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region. In fact, the UK government’s advice on travel to Rwanda has consistently warned of the unstable security situation near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi.

While Rwanda’s intention to help address the global imbalance of opportunity that fuels illegal immigration is laudable, I would recommend that charity start at home. As host of the 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled for June 2022, and Commonwealth Chair-in-Office for the next two years, the government should seize the opportunity to implement the core values and principles of the Commonwealth, particularly the promotion of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression, political and civil rights, and a vibrant civil society. This would enable Rwanda to address its internal social, economic and political challenges, creating a conducive environment for long-term economic development, and durable peace that will not only stop Rwanda from producing refugees but will also render the country ready and capable of economically and socially integrating refugees from less fortunate countries in the future.

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Politics

Beyond Borders: Why We Need a Truly Internationalist Climate Justice Movement

The elite’s ‘solution’ to the climate crisis is to turn the displaced into exploitable migrant labour. We need a truly internationalist alternative.

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“We are not drowning, we are fighting” has become the rallying call for the Pacific Climate Warriors. From UN climate meetings to blockades of Australian coal ports, these young Indigenous defenders from twenty Pacific Island states are raising the alarm of global warming for low-lying atoll nations. Rejecting the narrative of victimisation – “you don’t need my pain or tears to know that we’re in a crisis,” as Samoan Brianna Fruean puts it – they are challenging the fossil fuel industry and colonial giants such as Australia, responsible for the world’s highest per-capita carbon emissions.

Around the world, climate disasters displace around 25.3 million people annually – one person every one to two seconds. In 2016, new displacements caused by climate disasters outnumbered new displacements as a result of persecution by a ratio of three to one. By 2050, an estimated 143 million people will be displaced in just three regions: Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Some projections for global climate displacement are as high as one billion people.

Mapping who is most vulnerable to displacement reveals the fault lines between rich and poor, between the global North and South, and between whiteness and its Black, Indigenous and racialised others.

Globalised asymmetries of power create migration but constrict mobility. Displaced people – the least responsible for global warming – face militarised borders. While climate change is itself ignored by the political elite, climate migration is presented as a border security issue and the latest excuse for wealthy states to fortify their borders. In 2019, the Australian Defence Forces announced military patrols around Australia’s waters to intercept climate refugees.

The burgeoning terrain of “climate security” prioritises militarised borders, dovetailing perfectly into eco-apartheid. “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally; it is through them that we will save the planet,” declares the party of French far-Right politician Marine Le Pen. A US Pentagon-commissioned report on the security implications of climate change encapsulates the hostility to climate refugees: “Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico, and South America.” The US has now launched Operation Vigilant Sentry off the Florida coast and created Homeland Security Task Force Southeast to enforce marine interdiction and deportation in the aftermath of disasters in the Caribbean.

Labour migration as climate mitigation

you broke the ocean in
half to be here.
only to meet nothing that wants you
– Nayyirah Waheed

Parallel to increasing border controls, temporary labour migration is increasingly touted as a climate adaptation strategy. As part of the ‘Nansen Initiative’, a multilateral, state-led project to address climate-induced displacement, the Australian government has put forward its temporary seasonal worker program as a key solution to building climate resilience in the Pacific region. The Australian statement to the Nansen Initiative Intergovernmental Global Consultation was, in fact, delivered not by the environment minister but by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

Beginning in April 2022, the new Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme will make it easier for Australian businesses to temporarily insource low-wage workers (what the scheme calls “low-skilled” and “unskilled” workers) from small Pacific island countries including Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu. Not coincidentally, many of these countries’ ecologies and economies have already been ravaged by Australian colonialism for over one hundred years.

It is not an anomaly that Australia is turning displaced climate refugees into a funnel of temporary labour migration. With growing ungovernable and irregular migration, including climate migration, temporary labour migration programs have become the worldwide template for “well-managed migration.” Elites present labour migration as a double win because high-income countries fill their labour shortage needs without providing job security or citizenship, while low-income countries alleviate structural impoverishment through migrants’ remittances.

Dangerous, low-wage jobs like farm, domestic, and service work that cannot be outsourced are now almost entirely insourced in this way. Insourcing and outsourcing represent two sides of the same neoliberal coin: deliberately deflated labour and political power. Not to be confused with free mobility, temporary labour migration represents an extreme neoliberal approach to the quartet of foreign, climate, immigration, and labour policy, all structured to expand networks of capital accumulation through the creation and disciplining of surplus populations.

The International Labour Organization recognises that temporary migrant workers face forced labour, low wages, poor working conditions, virtual absence of social protection, denial of freedom association and union rights, discrimination and xenophobia, as well as social exclusion. Under these state-sanctioned programs of indentureship, workers are legally tied to an employer and deportable. Temporary migrant workers are kept compliant through the threats of both termination and deportation, revealing the crucial connection between immigration status and precarious labour.

Through temporary labour migration programs, workers’ labour power is first captured by the border and this pliable labour is then exploited by the employer. Denying migrant workers permanent immigration status ensures a steady supply of cheapened labour. Borders are not intended to exclude all people, but to create conditions of ‘deportability’, which increases social and labour precarity. These workers are labelled as ‘foreign’ workers, furthering racist xenophobia against them, including by other workers. While migrant workers are temporary, temporary migration is becoming the permanent neoliberal, state-led model of migration.

Reparations include No Borders

“It’s immoral for the rich to talk about their future children and grandchildren when the children of the Global South are dying now.” – Asad Rehman

Discussions about building fairer and more sustainable political-economic systems have coalesced around a Green New Deal. Most public policy proposals for a Green New Deal in the US, Canada, UK and the EU articulate the need to simultaneously tackle economic inequality, social injustice, and the climate crisis by transforming our extractive and exploitative system towards a low-carbon, feminist, worker and community-controlled care-based society. While a Green New Deal necessarily understands the climate crisis and the crisis of capitalism as interconnected — and not a dichotomy of ‘the environment versus the economy’ — one of its main shortcomings is its bordered scope. As Harpreet Kaur Paul and Dalia Gebrial write: “the Green New Deal has largely been trapped in national imaginations.”

Any Green New Deal that is not internationalist runs the risk of perpetuating climate apartheid and imperialist domination in our warming world. Rich countries must redress the global and asymmetrical dimensions of climate debtunfair trade and financial agreements, military subjugation, vaccine apartheidlabour exploitation, and border securitisation.

It is impossible to think about borders outside the modern nation-state and its entanglements with empire, capitalism, race, caste, gender, sexuality, and ability. Borders are not even fixed lines demarcating territory. Bordering regimes are increasingly layered with drone surveillance, interception of migrant boats, and security controls far beyond states’ territorial limits. From Australia offshoring migrant detention around Oceania to Fortress Europe outsourcing surveillance and interdiction to the Sahel and Middle East, shifting cartographies demarcate our colonial present.

Perhaps most offensively, when colonial countries panic about ‘border crises’ they position themselves as victims. But the genocide, displacement, and movement of millions of people were unequally structured by colonialism for three centuries, with European settlers in the Americas and Oceania, the transatlantic slave trade from Africa, and imported indentured labourers from Asia. Empire, enslavement, and indentureship are the bedrock of global apartheid today, determining who can live where and under what conditions. Borders are structured to uphold this apartheid.

The freedom to stay and the freedom to move, which is to say no borders, is decolonial reparations and redistribution long due.

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Politics

The Murang’a Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Elections

The Murang’a people are really yet to decide who they are going to vote for as a president. If they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves. Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Can Jimi Wanjigi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction?

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In the last quarter of 2021, I visited Murang’a County twice: In September, we were in Kandiri in Kigumo constituency. We had gone for a church fundraiser and were hosted by the Anglican Church of Kenya’s (ACK), Kahariro parish, Murang’a South diocese. A month later, I was back, this time to Ihi-gaini deep in Kangema constituency for a burial.

The church function attracted politicians: it had to; they know how to sniff such occasions and if not officially invited, they gate-crash them. Church functions, just like funerals, are perfect platforms for politicians to exhibit their presumed piousness, generosity and their closeness to the respective clergy and the bereaved family.

Well, the other reason they were there, is because they had been invited by the Church leadership. During the electioneering period, the Church is not shy to exploit the politicians’ ambitions: they “blackmail” them for money, because they can mobilise ready audiences for the competing politicians. The politicians on the other hand, are very ready to part with cash. This quid pro quo arrangement is usually an unstated agreement between the Church leadership and the politicians.

The church, which was being fund raised for, being in Kigumo constituency, the area MP Ruth Wangari Mwaniki, promptly showed up. Likewise, the area Member of the County Assembly (MCA) and of course several aspirants for the MP and MCA seats, also showed up.

Church and secular politics often sit cheek by jowl and so, on this day, local politics was the order of the day. I couldn’t have speculated on which side of the political divide Murang’a people were, until the young man Zack Kinuthia Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) for Sports, Culture and Heritage, took to the rostrum to speak.

A local boy and an Uhuru Kenyatta loyalist, he completely avoided mentioning his name and his “development track record” in central Kenya. Kinuthia has a habit of over-extolling President Uhuru’s virtues whenever and wherever he mounts any platform. By the time he was done speaking, I quickly deduced he was angling to unseat Wangari. I wasn’t wrong; five months later in February 2022, Kinuthia resigned his CAS position to vie for Kigumo on a Party of the National Unity (PNU) ticket.

He spoke briefly, feigned some meeting that was awaiting him elsewhere and left hurriedly, but not before giving his KSh50,000 donation. Apparently, I later learnt that he had been forewarned, ahead of time, that the people were not in a mood to listen to his panegyrics on President Uhuru, Jubilee Party, or anything associated to the two. Kinuthia couldn’t dare run on President Uhuru’s Jubilee Party. His patron-boss’s party is not wanted in Murang’a.

I spent the whole day in Kandiri, talking to people, young and old, men and women and by the time I was leaving, I was certain about one thing; The Murang’a folks didn’t want anything to do with President Uhuru. What I wasn’t sure of is, where their political sympathies lay.

I returned to Murang’a the following month, in the expansive Kangema – it is still huge – even after Mathioya was hived off from the larger Kangema constituency. Funerals provide a good barometer that captures peoples’ political sentiments and even though this burial was not attended by politicians – a few senior government officials were present though; political talk was very much on the peoples’ lips.

What I gathered from the crowd was that President Uhuru had destroyed their livelihood, remember many of the Nairobi city trading, hawking, big downtown real estate and restaurants are run and owned largely by Murang’a people. The famous Nyamakima trading area of downtown Nairobi has been run by Murang’a Kikuyus.

In 2018, their goods were confiscated and declared contrabrand by the government. Many of their businesses went under, this, despite the merchants not only, whole heartedly throwing their support to President Uhuru’s controversial re-election, but contributing handsomely to the presidential kitty. They couldn’t believe what was happening to them: “We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him.”

We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him

Last week, I attended a Murang’a County caucus group that was meeting somewhere in Gatundu, in Kiambu County. One of the clearest messages that I got from this group is that the GEMA vote in the August 9, 2022, presidential elections is certainly anti-Uhuru Kenyatta and not necessarily pro-William Ruto.

“The Murang’a people are really yet to decide, (if they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves) on who they are going to vote for as a president. And that’s why you see Uhuru is craftily courting us with all manner of promises, seductions and prophetic messages.” Two weeks ago, President Uhuru was in Murang’a attending an African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) church function in Kandara constituency.

At the church, the president yet again threatened to “tell you what’s in my heart and what I believe and why so.” These prophecy-laced threats by the President, to the GEMA nation, in which he has been threatening to show them the sign, have become the butt of crude jokes among Kikuyus.

Corollary, President Uhuru once again has plucked Polycarp Igathe away from his corporate perch as Equity Bank’s Chief Commercial Officer back to Nairobi’s tumultuous governor seat politics. The first time the bespectacled Igathe was thrown into the deep end of the Nairobi murky politics was in 2017, as Mike Sonko’s deputy governor. After six months, he threw in the towel, lamenting that Sonko couldn’t let him even breathe.

Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people

“Igathe is from Wanjerere in Kigumo, Murang’a, but grew up in Ol Kalou, Nyandarua County,” one of the Mzees told me. “He’s not interested in politics; much less know how it’s played. I’ve spent time with him and confided in me as much. Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people. President Uhuru wants to use Igathe to control Nairobi. The sad thing is that Igathe doesn’t have the guts to tell Uhuru the brutal fact: I’m really not interested in all these shenanigans, leave me alone. The president is hoping, once again, to hopefully placate the Murang’a people, by pretending to front Igathe. I foresee another terrible disaster ultimately befalling both Igathe and Uhuru.”

Be that as it may, what I got away with from this caucus, after an entire day’s deliberations, is that its keeping it presidential choice close to its chest. My attempts to goad some of the men and women present were fruitless.

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest. Kiambu has produced two presidents from the same family, Nyeri one, President Mwai Kibaki, who died on April 22. The closest Murang’a came to giving the country a president was during Ken Matiba’s time in the 1990s. “But Matiba had suffered a debilitating stroke that incapacitated him,” said one of the mzees. “It was tragic, but there was nothing we could do.”

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest

It is interesting to note that Jimi Wanjigi, the Safina party presidential flagbearer is from Murang’a County. His family hails from Wahundura, in Mathioya constituency. Him and Mwangi wa Iria, the Murang’a County governor are the other two Murang’a prominent persons who have tossed themselves into the presidential race. Wa Iria’s bid which was announced at the beginning of 2022, seems to have stagnated, while Jimi’s seems to be gathering storm.

Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Jimi’s campaign team has crafted a two-pronged strategy that it hopes will endear Kenyans to his presidency. One, a generational, paradigm shift, especially among the youth, targeting mostly post-secondary, tertiary college and university students.

“We believe this group of voters who are basically between the ages of 18–27 years and who comprise more than 65 per cent of total registered voters are the key to turning this election,” said one of his presidential campaign team members. “It matters most how you craft the political message to capture their attention.” So, branding his key message as itwika, it is meant to orchestrate a break from past electoral behaviour that is pegged on traditional ethnic voting patterns.

The other plunk of Jimi’s campaign theme is economic emancipation, quite pointedly as it talks directly to the GEMA nation, especially the Murang’a Kikuyus, who are reputed for their business acumen and entrepreneurial skills. “What Kikuyus cherish most,” said the team member “is someone who will create an enabling business environment and leave the Kikuyus to do their thing. You know, Kikuyus live off business, if you interfere with it, that’s the end of your friendship, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

Can Jimi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction? As all the presidential candidates gear-up this week on who they will eventually pick as their running mates, the GEMA community once more shifts the spotlight on itself, as the most sought-after vote basket.

Both Raila Odinga and William Ruto coalitions – Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya and Kenya Kwanza Alliance – must seek to impress and woe Mt Kenya region by appointing a running mate from one of its ranks. If not, the coalitions fear losing the vote-rich area either to each other, or perhaps to a third party. Murang’a County, may as well, become the conundrum, with which the August 9, presidential race may yet to be unravelled and decided.

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