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Reimagining a Nation: Kenya Not for Two Tribes Only

13 min read.

As long as we focus on the tribe, we will lose the nation and be stuck in the tribal mire. Kenya will cease to be a society. We will lose our sense of collective responsibility and find in its place a culture of competitive victimhood.



Reimagining a Nation: Kenya Not for Two Tribes Only
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Facing a withering assault over his relationship with his Deputy William Ruto, President Uhuru Kenyatta delivered a measured and thoughtful speech on Kenyan ethnic politics. During the burial of the mother of Hon. Musalia Mudavadi, leader of the Amani National Congress, Kenyatta proclaimed, “two tribes only should not lead this country”. His assertion was by almost every measure extraordinary. Or, perhaps, delivered against the advice of his advisors, who felt that rekindling discussion of the tribalized presidency would roil the usual negative public debate.

Uhuru did not gauge the language of his speech, nor was it shaped by his political handlers. Yet he set the tone for the 2022 presidential elections.

Just like Gandalf the White, in JRR Tolkien’s Return of the King, whose simple word freed King Theoden from an enchantment placed on him by Saruman through Wormtongue, with this pronouncement, Uhuru sought to exorcise the spell that has bound Kenya since independence: politicized ethnicity.

In a cruel irony, having benefited from tribalized politics, Uhuru would now purport to jettison it. His father, President Jomo Kenyatta, spawned the tribal logic that shaped Kenyan post-independence politics. By creating the Gikuyu Embu Meru Association (GEMA), he not only decimated a budding ideology-based party politics but, without shame, also anchored tribalized politics to win the 1969 General elections. Kenyatta commissioned the ominous Gikuyu Oath to galvanize support around his presidency. Rev. John Gatu, former moderator of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA), maintains that Kenyatta administered the oath to solidify tribal unity, besides ensuring that the presidency stayed in the house of Mumbi. Thus, Kenyatta created a super-majority for the political security of his ethnic kin. This approach was not unique to Kenyatta since, according to Prof. James Ogude, from 1963, parties mobilized political support along ethnic lines. These political parties articulated the communal and politicians’ interests, conflating personal with ethnic interests and thus widening social and political schisms.

In employing the colonial script of indirect rule, Jomo Kenyatta made Kenyans outside GEMA what Prof. Mahmood Mamdani, in Neither Settler nor Native, calls permanent minorities. They became tribal outfits and so excluded them from power and state resources. In this act, Kenyatta proffered to his community a distinct advantage in electoral politics, which they continued to enjoy, boasting of the tyranny of numbers.

By adopting a majoritarian democracy, the nation established Kenyan power through political units based on population sizes. Jomo led the nation along lines of cultural and ethnic distinction, politicizing ethnic groups into administrative-political units or tribes. This justified skewed political representation with minority groups not having a single representative at any level of governance, while the dominant had several. This divergence is based on skewed electoral boundary demarcations and the extent of concentrating ethnic groups within political units. The institutions given the authority to create boundaries have often done so, intending to make sure that they dispersed other communities across various political units, thus ensuring minorities were permanent.

President Daniel arap Moi, Kenya’s second president, emulated Kenyatta’s tribal policies. His slogan, siasa mbaya, maisha mbaya (dirty politics, terrible life), epitomized his tribalized political agenda. Moi created his new minorities on a territorial and political basis, which he executed in two ways.

First, Moi capitalized on colonial territorial boundaries, which had become the basis for post-colonial conflicts, as the grounds for political belonging. Moi did not invent differences between ethnic groups, but exploited them. He copied the British tactics. The British, Mamdani argues, politicized real and acknowledged differences between ethnic groups by turning them into legal boundaries deemed inviolable and basing security and economic benefits on locals’ respect for these boundaries.

But not having a large ethnic bloc like GEMA, Moi aped the British. He identified distinctive local customs and histories and perpetuated the imperial historical narrative, census, and law, thus transforming existing cultural differences into boundaries of political identity. Moi amalgamated smaller tribes into a dreaded political juggernaut, the KAMATUSA acronym for Kalenjin, Maasai, Turkana, and Samburu, earmarking the Rift Valley Province as their homeland. In this homeland, they made other communities permanent minorities irrespective of their number. It was, therefore, possible for him to govern the fragmented and fractured large groups, such as the Luo and the Kikuyu.

Moi capitalized on colonial territorial boundaries, which had become the basis for post-colonial conflicts, as the grounds for political belonging.

At the risk of violence, the state and Moi’s supporters further suppressed the minorities’ right to political opinion. Moi’s supporters, including Willy Kamuren, Baringo North KANU MP (1988-1992), declared, “[That] the Kalenjin, Maasai, Samburu, and West Pokot . . . were ready to protect the Government ‘using any weapon at their disposal’”. He warned, “If any FORD member dared to visit any part of the province, they will regret it for the rest of their lives.” But it was William Ole Ntimama, the then MP for Narok North and Minister for Local Government (1988-1992) who epitomized violence against minorities when he vowed, “We will use rungus if this will be the effective way of ending the talk about multi-party. This I have said on this platform and am repeating it: The violence of Saba Saba was not a milk-drinking party”. In early 1993, tribal clashes broke out in Enoosupukia—which is in Maasailand—between the Maasai and the Kikuyu).

For Moi’s supporters, any call for multi-parties and inclusive government met with calls for Majimboism. (Majimbo, Kiswahili for provinces/states, was a federal system of governing espoused in independent Kenya. The self-government and independence constitutions introduced in 1963 provided some significant characteristics of federalism, but the regionalism created under those constitutions fell short of a full federal system of governance.) Consider the boldness of Willy Kamuren, the Baringo North KANU MP (1988-1992), demanding that they “. . . keep quiet or else we’re ready for the introduction of Majimboism whereby every person will be required to go back to his motherland. Once we introduce Majimbo in Rift Valley, all outsiders who acquired our land will have to move and then leave the land to our children”.

Second, the Moi era re-defined permanent minorities via the prism of political power access. Moi made permanent minorities of the ethnic groups he excluded from power, thus justifying denying them access to economic progress. Their citizenship meant little as long as it precluded them from sovereign power.

Following the 1982 failed coup d’état against his government, Jennifer A. Widner observed that Moi radically altered the composition of key cabinet positions in 1985 and filled them with members of the Kalenjin and smaller communities. Moi’s government policies empowered these native authorities, bestowing benefits and generating higher investment in the homeland, while stunting the rest of the country. In this arrangement, the minorities have suffered most from such dynamic exclusion. Hassan J. Ndzovu noted that the government excluded entire regions from the benefits of state-sanctioned development, since it targeted specific communities for discrimination. This resulted in unbridgeable societal inequalities. Such inequalities violated basic human rights. The Swedish academic and Cambridge don Göran Therborn defines inequality as “a historical social construction which allocates the possibilities of realizing human capacity unequally”. According to Therborn, inequality kills. Inequality puts people asunder and tears families apart. It creates exorbitant squandering, self-indulgent profligacy, and other evils.

Of significance, inequality is a denial of the possibility for everybody’s human capabilities to develop. Therborn further enumerated the effects of inequalities to include premature death, ill health, humiliation, subjection, discrimination, exclusion from knowledge or mainstream social life, poverty, powerlessness, stress, insecurity, anxiety, lack of self-confidence and pride in oneself, and exclusion from opportunities and life-chances. While in Kenya Minorities, Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Diversity, Maurice O. MakOloo observes how many citizens, especially from minority groups, view the state as accessible to only those with strong ethnic affiliations with holders of political power, or economic might. It is disgraceful that Kenya’s post-independent governments institutionalized inequalities among its citizens through ethnic politics.

Appalled at the failure of governments to fulfil their social obligations to the citizenry, distraught Kenyans turned to civil society to agitate for law reforms. They sought laws to restrain the leaders’ inexcusable excesses. Ethnic politics has harmed our society. Such persistent inequality failed the national socio-economic development project. The exacerbation of exclusion and marginalization yielded systemic corruption, nepotism, and discrimination, which came to the fore during Moi’s regime.

Inequality puts people asunder and tears families apart. It creates exorbitant squandering, self-indulgent profligacy, and other evils.

Amid this encircling gloom, we saw a new constitution as a social contract between the people and their rulers. These were the explicit or implicit agreements among the members of a society to cooperate for social benefits, by sacrificing certain individual freedoms for state protection. Such was the Constitution 2010, which Kenya’s former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga maintains reflected the struggles of the people and provided foundations of a renewed hope. It thus allowed people to expect them to keep their promises, cooperate, and so on. Before establishing the basic social contract, nothing was immoral or unjust anything goes. Mutunga states: “In their wisdom, the Kenyan people decreed that past to reflect a status quo that was unacceptable”. For Mutunga, a modern Bill of Rights provided for economic, social, and cultural rights to reinforce the political and civil rights, giving the whole gamut of human rights the power to radically mitigate the status quo and signal the creation of a human rights state in Kenya.

This Constitution gave the ultimate authority to the people of Kenya, which they delegated to institutions. In return, the institutions must serve them and not enslave them. It sought to set up a framework to organize the operations of political parties and transform them into effective agents of democracy, national development, and national cohesion.

Kenya has since experimented with this new social order. By law, political parties were to have a national character and draw their members from across the country. Besides, they had to espouse a national agenda and thus promote national unity. Regrettably, ethnic politics remained weaved into political parties, with our law impotent and unable to solve inequalities and exclusion.

In 2013, for example, the two main political blocs had no presence outside the home region of their principal leaders. For instance, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) of Raila Odinga has Luo Nyanza as its bedrock of support, while the Ford Kenya of Moses Wetangula is in practice a Bukusu-Luhya party. The Wiper Democratic Movement, led by Kalonzo Musyoka, draws its numeric strength from the Kamba people in the lower Eastern. Meanwhile, The National Alliance (TNA) of President Uhuru Kenyatta was a Kikuyu party, even though some of its leaders were from other regions. The United Republican Party (URP) of the Deputy President William Ruto drew its membership strength from the Kalenjin communities.

Here is an irony. The parties that formed coalitions and alliances did so to aid their respective leaders to accede to political power as an end. The articulation of ethnic interests meant little. These groups were a mere voting bloc whose leaders remained unaccountable.

The 2017 elections had a different format. The political parties formed coalitions, providing a key impetus to unite their ethnic groups. For example, NASA comprised of ODM, Ford-Kenya, and Wiper party, was an alliance of the Luo, Luhya and Kamba ethnic groups associated with the individual parties in the alliance. Similarly, the Jubilee Alliance represented the GEMA, the Kalenjin, and other groups in the Rift Valley.

The exacerbation of exclusion and marginalization yielded systemic corruption, nepotism, and discrimination, which came to the fore during Moi’s regime.

They formed these coalitions of convenience with the sole motivation of gaining a parliamentary majority. Political parties have continued to represent ethno-regional interests. We appear paralyzed by the “tribal logic” at the crossroads of either facing chaos or forming a community. Thus, again sinking the desired changes into the deep trenches of ethnic politics.

I fear that politics will continue to disappoint our expectations. There will be a rising tide of anger and resentment. The majority of Kenyans will feel anxious, uncertain, fearful, aggressive, unstable, unrooted, and unloved. In the meantime, our leaders will focus on promoting themselves instead of the one thing that will give them lasting happiness, making life better for others.

Perhaps, this explains Uhuru’s intervention upon seeing the trajectory of the 2022 elections. In his statement, Uhuru appears to recognize the imperative of eliminating tribalism. He spoke with the urgency of one determined to rise above these divisions. One is ready to repair the cords that bind the nation. To him, this is the time. But we do not seem to be there yet!

Take the case of Hon. Ruto, leader of the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) and his Kenya Kwanza alliance. He tried to change the debate on tribalism, which he saw unravelling his ambition, and make the election about economic inequalities of the haves vs the have-nots. Ruto campaigned for a change in the fortunes of those struggling at the base of the economy, arguing that it was a prerequisite for peace. He hoped this focus would erase the impact of inequalities among Kenyans. But the UDA party ought to be cognizant that focusing on the market economy will foster inequalities and fester corruption. The market proffers capitalism. And capitalism seeks to build a happy society based on the exploitation of man by man.

On the opposing side is Hon. Raila Odinga’s Azimio la Umoja-One-Kenya. The alliance promises to unite Kenyans by including every ethnic group ready to join with them to achieve inclusion and prosperity for all Kenyans. This is their antidote to tribal politics but, on the contrary, pundits have deemed the alliance as an aggregate of tribal kings and queens. There has been limited discussion about Kenya within the parties, yet where mentioned, it is to make it easy to get political power in the interests of their leaders in the guise of the allied communities. Ethnic considerations are the basis for negotiating positions in government. Hence, the whispers within Azimio that Akamba people are negotiating for 20 per cent of the government.

Regrettably, ethnic politics remained weaved into political parties, with our law impotent and unable to solve inequalities and exclusion.

Driven by such strategic considerations, these alliances extensively use “ethnic arithmetic”, which tries to include as many groups as necessary to secure electoral victory. Overall, these types of ethnic coalitions prove to be internally fragile and short-lived. The two basic differences between the two multi-ethnic types are their respective motivation and internal stability: The alliance type corresponds to the logic of Donald Horowitz’s coalitions of convenience and coalitions of commitment. But these parties continue to manifest as a multi-ethnic alliance and multi-ethnic integrative parties, both of which, representing various ethnic communities, have widened the existing divisions.

Whatever form political parties take, the 2022 alliances—Kenya kwanza and Azimio—should desist from creating their minorities like previous governments. In both movements, the internal party discussions centre on “us versus them”. Party supporters prefer the local leaders they can trust to articulate their interests. Many people seek to join the winning team for fear of exclusion. It should not be that way.

Re-imagining a moral Kenya

Attempts to strengthen our institutions by creating institutions that offer democratic checks and balances, decreeing values in public service, have collapsed. The Constitution 2010, despite its inclusive and democratic laws, did not translate this promise into the life of the nation. Our leaders remain in breach of the social contract, and that, with impunity. Exclusion and inequalities continue to define our society.

For many Kenyans, the greatest sense of belonging and security derives not from the state but from the mediation of ethnic networks. If we are to turn things around in our society, we should heed the advice of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In his book The home we build together: Recreating Society, Sacks suggests that a society should develop on ideals such as justice, compassion, human dignity, welfare, relations between employer and employee, the equitable distribution of wealth, and the social inclusion of those without power (widows, orphans, strangers). Sacks maintains, “To these issues, a social contract is irrelevant. What matters is a social covenant”.

This requires a distinctive logic. Market economics and liberal democratic politics alone cannot sustain societal cohesion.

The market has been merciless. Politics are deceiving, divisive, confrontational, and extreme. Organizing our nation around the state (power) and market (economy) breeds inequalities and exclusion. In his book Morality, Sacks advances the third element for building a society: morality. Morality humanizes the competition for wealth and power. It is the redemption of our solitude. Sacks contends that morality gives us a concern for the welfare of others, an active commitment to justice and compassion, and a willingness to ask not just what is good for me but what is good for “all of us together”. We cannot outsource this aspect, however important to the market and the state.

We appear paralyzed by the “tribal logic” at the crossroads of either facing chaos or forming a community.

A society is a moral achievement, which we form through our habits. Sacks admonishes that we must cultivate self-restraint, develop a capacity to defer the gratification of instinct, and grow the habits of heart and virtues, without which we disintegrate.

State formation is not the real challenge facing democracies. Our challenge, observed Sacks, “[is] not about power but about culture, morality, social cohesion, about the subtle ties that bind, or fail to bind, us into a collective entity with a sense of shared responsibility and destiny.” Morality depends on each of us.

President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, in his Ujamaa ideology, articulated what Sacks proffers as a moral society. Prof. Aloo Mojola of St. Paul’s University observes that Nyerere was dealing with inequalities, which in his judgment undermined mutual respect and humane relationships and destroyed the values and infrastructure necessary for a fair and egalitarian society. Central to Nyerere’s value of human brotherhood, according to Mojola, was his firm belief in Ubuntu, the equivalent of the Swahili term Utu.

This Nyerere defined thus: “Man is the purpose of all social activity. The service of man, the furtherance of human development, is, in fact, the purpose of society itself”. To emphasize Ubuntu’s importance, Desmond Tutu writes:

Ubuntu is the essence of being human. It speaks of how my humanity is caught up and bound up inextricably with yours . . . We are made for complementarity . . . Ubuntu speaks of spiritual attributes such as generosity, hospitality, compassion, caring, and sharing . . . The concept states that people are more important than profits.

Nyerere based his Ujamaa philosophy on communitarian thinking espoused in Africa’s extended families. He protracted this communitarian thinking beyond the circle of ethnic groups to include all humanity. His idea is that all humans should see each other as members of the same family. Nyerere stated, “As members of the ever-extending family . . . Bin adamu wote ni ndugu zangu, na Afrika ni moja,” All humans are my brothers and sisters, and Africa is one. In most African traditional heritage, the “society” extended the basic family unit. On extended family, Nyerere contends:

It can no longer confine the idea of the social family within the limits of the tribe, nor indeed of the nation. . . Our recognition of the family to which we all belong must be extended yet further– beyond the tribe, the community, the nation, or even the continent – to embrace the whole society of mankind.

Prof. Mojola maintains that the Arusha Declaration (Azimio la Arusha) is central to understanding Nyerere’s agenda. Thus Nyerere explained, “The Declaration is about the way we shall make a reality of human equality in this country, and how our citizens will achieve full control over their affairs”. Nyerere interpreted the Azimio to be “. . . based on the assumption of human equality, on the belief that it is wrong for one man to dominate or to exploit another, and on the knowledge that every individual hopes to live in society as a free man able to lead a decent life in conditions of peace with his neighbours. The document is, in other words, Man-centred. . . It is a commitment to the belief that there are more important things in life than the amassing of riches, and that if the pursuit of wealth clashes with things like human dignity and social equality, then the latter will be given priority”. For Nyerere, therefore, service to humanity was the purpose of society.

Ruto tried to change the debate on tribalism, which he saw unravelling his ambition, and make the election about economic inequalities of the haves vs the have-nots.

Raila’s Azimio-One-Kenya should adopt the spirit and policies of Azimio la Arusha, as espoused by Nyerere, and not just parrot the word. How do we persuade Kenyans to covenant to Utu politics? The blemish in Nyerere’s Ujamaa, observes Andrew Coulson, was in its forceful enforcement. It was not voluntary and not all Tanzanians freely embraced the policies. However, Prof. Mojola (2020) notes, these policies have had a good effect on Tanzania. Since society is the home we build together, I share Sacks’ conclusion that we may only recreate our society through social covenanting. He avers that while social contract can create a state, only a social covenant can create a society. According to Sacks:

Covenant complements the two great contractual institutions: the state and the market. We enter the state and the market as self-interested individuals. We enter a covenant as altruistic individuals seeking the common good. The state and the market are competitive. In the state, we compete for power; in the market, we compete for wealth. Covenantal institutions are essentially cooperative. When they become competitive, they die.

We can re-imagine Kenya in the framework advanced by Rabbi Sacks to achieve a sense of common belonging, which is imperative for a healthy society.

As long as we focus on the “tribe”, we will lose the “nation” and be stuck in the tribal mire where we act on tribal self-interest without a commitment to the nation’s common good. Kenya will cease to be a society and instead have identity groups. We will lose our feeling of collective responsibility and find in its place a culture of competitive victimhood.

Samora Machel, the independent president of Mozambique, rightly warned, “For the nation to live, the tribe must die”. If colonization and neo-colonization created permanent minorities, which were maintained through the politicization of identity, the counterpoint is the unmaking of the permanence of these identities. We must move from the politics of “our tribe” to the politics of “Kenya”. Only then will we rediscover the counter-intuitive truth, as Sacks states, that a nation is strong when it cares for the weak, that it becomes invulnerable when it cares about the vulnerable.

One day, Kenyans will rise above ethnic divisions and recognize the ties that bind all. I pray this message finds ready and listening ears to believe.

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Rev. Canon Francis Omondi is a Priest of All Saints Cathedral Diocese of the ACK, a Canon of the All-Saints Kampala Cathedral of the Church of Uganda, Adjunct Lecturer at St. Paul’s University, Limuru, and Research Tutor at the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life. Views expressed here are his own.


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.



Is Somalia’s Quest for Membership of the EAC Premature?
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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 development

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.

Security Concerns

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.

Assessing Readiness

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.

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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.



2023 Marks 110 Years Since the Maasai Case 1913: Does it Still Matter?
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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.

Enduring myths

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?

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Who Is Hustling Who?

In Kenya, political elites across the spectrum are trying to sell off the country for themselves—capitulation is inevitable.



Who Is Hustling Who?
Photo: bennett tobias on Unsplash.
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There should be no doubt that Kenya is in an intractable economic crisis. Filling up gas for a drive from Nairobi to my hometown in Limuru cost 10,000 ksh (about USD70). As a result of the high gas costs prices for everything else have gone up, including public transportation. And those who cannot hike up operating costs, such as the hordes of boda boda motorcycle taxis, are hardly making anything or operating at a loss.Tax hikes mean those who are employed are taking less money home. And no point in kidding ourselves, in a corrupt country some of that money being generated from the higher taxes is going to the politicians. As will the promised 1 billion USD loan from the IMF on whose behest the new austerity measures are being implemented. It is a form of madness to think that a corrupt government will only steal money generated by taxes and do public good with the IMF loan. In short, in a country where close to half the population lives on less than USD2 a day, Kenya is simply unaffordable and the promise of relief is a lie—certainly a convenient lie for the government and IMF officials but a devastating one for Kenya’s majority poor.

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.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site every week.

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