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Navigating the Institutional Lives of an African University

12 min read.

Institutions, including universities, have internal and external lives that are mutually constitutive. Institutional cultures reflect and reproduce prevailing and intertwined national and global contexts, challenges, and opportunities. USIU-Africa’s institutional culture exhibited the complexities and contradictions of its history, location, and aspirations.



Navigating the Institutional Lives of an African University
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The Poverty of Low Expectations

There is a peculiar, if predictable, malaise that afflicts many African postcolonial societies and the mindsets of institutions and individuals: an unsettling sensation of being less than, combined with a desperate yearning to become like them—the former colonial masters—that generates perpetual mimicry and underperformance. This is what underscores the imperatives of existential, epistemic, and economic decolonization.

I commented in an earlier reflection on USIU-Africa’s duality, as a Kenyan and an American university, which is as seductive as it is debilitating, a source of both innovation and inertia. It engenders a perpetual search for a cohesive identity, a precarious institutional culture characterized by uneven expectations, the warring demands of Africanness and Americanness, in which their respective perils, rather than their possibilities, tend to be accentuated.

I frequently encountered and countered the proverbial “African time” by participants and invited speakers turning up late at campus meetings and events, and students complaining about lecturers who came late to class or not at all. I was often surprised by the poor quality of annual reports from some departments and divisions, and delays in the work of several institutional committees and projects. The University Council didn’t acquit itself well either: its committee meetings were often cancelled due to lack of quorum, and in many meetings, it was clear to management that some members had not read the reports we painstakingly prepared.

I repeatedly made it known that I valued timeliness, rigorous standards, robust deliberations, and adherence to high expectations, ethical behavior, and exceptional performance. It was gratifying to see some met the demands of institutional excellence, but many others did not. As is often the case, the laggards were the loudest complainants, who sought to fuel a culture of intolerance, incivility, and illiberalism that reflected the dysfunctions of the larger national polity.

At stake was a battle against the culture of mediocrity evident in all manner of spaces and organizations. The brilliant, young Kenyan journalist, Larry Madowo, incisively captured the culture of low expectations in an article in The Daily Nation of November 15, 2016, titled “Why do Kenyans accept such low standards in everything?” He called it “the at least mindset.”  It is worth quoting at some length.

“This ‘at least’ mindset Kenyans have is just an apology for low standards…. When we are surprised that anything begins on time, we unconsciously allow the organizers of future events to be tardy because we’ve already made it acceptable. We are not outraged when a notorious politician does objectively horrible things because “at least” he cares for the people.

We make excuses for bad behavior because “at least” they haven’t killed anyone. We make excuses for grand corruption even in the face of incontrovertible evidence because the other side is just as bad…

When you criticize anything in Kenya, there is never a shortage of people who will tell you to be positive and stop being so pessimistic. The argument is always that “at least” something is being done.

We accept bare minimums when we are entitled to so much more. Optimism cannot, and should, not be a substitute for a solid critique… You can’t build a merit-based society if any effort demands to be applauded, however little. We scrape the bottom of the barrel so many times, come up with almost nothing and are still pleased that ‘at least’ it’s not entirely empty.”

The following year, in his commencement address at USIU-Africa, the Chief Executive Officer of the Commission for University Education (CUE), Dr. Mwenda Ntarangwi, quoted Madowo’s article above. He implored the graduating students to eschew the “at least mindset.” “Does patriotism mean accepting low standards?” he asked. “Should it not be the other way round, that patriotism means we love this nation so much that we accept nothing but the best from it and that we also give it the best? As you leave here today let me ask you to please change this culture of ‘at least’ and model and expect excellence in all that you do.”

I was troubled by the culture of authoritarianism and discretionary decision making I found, in which the vice chancellor made all decisions even on petty matters. I commented in previous reflections on the debilitating cultures of xenophobia, sexism, and unethical research practices.

The Seductions and Sanctions of Ethnicity

The biggest elephant in the room was ethnic chauvinism, dubbed “tribalism”, a colonial construct that reduces Africans to members of atavistic “tribes.” It is a sad commentary on the endurance of colonial civilizational conceits that many in Kenya and elsewhere on the continent uncritically embrace the term “tribe” for their ethnic groups or nations. I told my students not to use it in my classes for its racist origins and offensiveness to describe African identities that elsewhere are dignified by terms such as ethnicity or nationality and are not mutilated by suffix “tribe” after the name. Who would describe an Englishman or Englishwoman a member of the English tribe?

There is a large literature on the colonial invention of “traditions” and “tribes” that many contemporary Africans swear by to invoke some imaginary precolonial cultural authenticity. A distinction is often made between moral ethnicity (ethnicity as a sociocultural identity) and political ethnicity (ethnicity as a political ideology). As an identity ethnicity is not the problem, it acquires its disruptive poison through political mobilization in contestations for power and privileges.

Such is the pervasive and perverse conceit in constructions of cultural and political hierarchies that the marshaling of ethnic identities in national and institutional life is seen as an African pathology. Yet, in the United States and other multicultural societies in the global North ethnicity is substituted by race. As the Trump presidency made it abundantly clear to those who had drank the kool-aid about American democracy, white supremacy is alive and well. Racist politicians routinely mobilize racial difference for the lethal concoction of discrimination, inequality, and disenfranchisement for racialized minorities. As the latter grow, political revanchism escalates, as evident in Trump’s and post-Trump America.

In an online essay posted in late December 2007, written during Kenya’s descent into the abyss of post-election violence, titled “Holding a nation hostage to a bankrupt political class,” I commented on the destructiveness of the country’s politicization of ethnicity. So, I was not surprised by the distractive and disruptive power of ethnicism when I was vice chancellor at USIU-Africa.

As is the case at the national level, the politics of ethnicity at the university reared its ugly head over appointments, promotion, and representation. The higher the position the more fraught the internal contestations and grandstanding. One of the most contentious was for the appointment of an acting Deputy Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs. Two substantive appointments had turned down the offer.

A cabal from one ethnic group held secret meetings to push the candidacy of one of their own, who had applied but was rejected by the search committee that included members of the faculty, staff, student, and university councils, as well as some members of management and the deans’ committee. An influential member of the University Council pushed for his own favorite candidate who was not qualified for the position.

Fortunately, the appointment of the DVC and other members of management was my prerogative as vice chancellor based on recommendations from the search committees. I used the appointment of the vice chancellor as a template in which as candidates we went through various stages concluded by on campus meetings with several groups of the university community. This search was novel in Kenya but common in the United States where I relocated from.

Management and I instituted a transparent process of appointments and promotions for senior administrative and academic positions. As I noted in an earlier reflection, each academic department and school formed an appointment and promotion committee. For heads of key administrative departments, management interviewed the candidates as well.

In 2018-2019, we embarked on a staff redeployment exercise in which about three dozen people were transferred to other departments. Human resource experts recommend such periodic redeployments as an effective tool of talent retention and management. It helps re-energize employees by offering them an opportunity to learn new skills and even assume higher positions and saves employers the high costs of redundancies and recruitment of new employees.

In our case, through the Tuition Waiver Program many employees had earned bachelor’s or master’s degrees ill-suited for the positions they occupied. Management was also keen to break the ethnic enclaves that had emerged over the years in various administrative divisions and departments that were often dominated by members from one or a couple of ethnic groups.

This was initially met with some resistance, but many of the individuals involved increasingly expressed satisfaction with their redeployment. We manage to loosen the stranglehold of ethnic cabals, but they were by no means broken. The ethnic chauvinists looked for every opportunity to attack members of management. Revealingly, they focused their ire on the highly accomplished and effective women in management who were in their early 40s. In my case, this was overlaid by xenophobia, which underscores the fact that layers of bigotry cascade and overlap.

The Blinkered External Gaze

Despite popular mythology, universities have never been ivory towers splendidly isolated from their societies and the wider world. Their values, missions, and institutional cultures reflect their times and locations. The few colonial universities that were established in Africa sought to reproduce the colonial order, while the explosion of universities after independence reflected the expansive dreams of development. Similarly, in the United States it is now widely acknowledged that many of the country’s most prestigious universities were built with enslaved labor, or benefitted from the proceeds of slavery, and laid the intellectual and ideological foundations of American racism.

Prior to my time as vice chancellor, I had written extensively on the entangled, complex, and conflicted relationship between African universities and various external stakeholders. The honeymoon of the early post-independence years wilted as the drive for Africanization or indigenization of the public service was achieved, and as the unforgiving conditionalities of structural adjustment programs (SAPs) imposed with fundamentalist zeal by the international financial institutions wrecked African economies and tore asunder the independence social contract.

At a conference of African vice chancellors in 1986, the World Bank baldly declared the continent didn’t need universities; some architects of the Washington Consensus had discovered social rates of return were higher for primary than higher education, voilà! Beleaguered African states facing mounting struggles for the “second independence” arising out of the collapse of the nationalist promises of development and democracy, often led by workers, the youth and university students, were only too happy to dismantle universities as viable spaces of critical knowledge production. So, began the slide towards underfunding at the same time as the number of universities expanded to meet rising demand.

By the time I joined USIU-Africa in January 2016, the hand of the state over the higher education sector had loosened considerably. The president of the republic was no longer chancellor of all the public universities. Regulatory authority rested on an increasingly professional agency, CUE. Private universities were allowed to operate, although doubts about their quality lingered in the public mind and among their alumni as I observed. Moreover, as we experienced at USIU-Africa, the Kenyan regulator was more authoritarian than our American regulator, although that began to change under Dr. Mwenda’s leadership.

Institutional leaders on my campus including members of top governance organs had drunk deep in the autocratic well of the one party state, now overlaid by often misguided corporatist injunctions for profitability and efficiency. Above all, the levels of public funding per student continued to decline, which left many public universities virtually bankrupt when the pipeline of privately sponsored students dried up from 2017.

As I noted in an earlier reflection, the private sector and the rapidly growing class of high net worth individuals did not pick up the slack. Some of Africa’s wealthiest people gladly make generous contributions to exceedingly wealthy universities in the global North rather than those in their own countries. This is not surprising given the fact that these elites send their children to the global North. It’s a vote of no confidence in the academic worth of their local universities, where many of them received their education before the ravages of SAPs.

There’s a long tradition, crystallized in Frantz Fanon’s trenchant critique, The Wretched of the Earth, of depicting African elites as a comparator bourgeoisie, as the least patriotic among their global counterparts. In a paper titled “African Universities and the Production of Elites” delivered at a conference on African elites organized by the University of Toronto in January 2021, I argued for a more nuanced understanding and differentiation of African elites.

However, the fact remains they are the source of the huge illicit outflows of capital from the continent, estimated at $60 billion in 2016 by the UN Economic Commission for Africa High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows from Africa.“This is twice the amount of money flowing in as aid annually. Often, money leaving developing countries illicitly ends up right back in banks in Europe and the U.S.”

Our interest as management in engaging the private sector went beyond financial resources. I’ve long believed principled and mutually beneficial partnerships between universities and business are essential for two other reasons. First, in so far as research and development (R&D) is essential not only for national economic development, an area in which Africa performs abysmally (accounting for a mere 1.0% of global R&D), it is imperative for the growth and competitiveness of African business. The multinational corporations they compete with conduct the bulk of their R&D in their home countries often in collaboration with their research universities. How many African businesses conduct R&D, let alone in partnership with their local universities?

Second, universities are valued by society for their capacity to produce high quality human capital. Historically, business has invested in buying talent, rather than building talent. On their part, universities pride themselves as oases of advanced knowledges production and critical contemplation unsullied by the vocational preoccupations of lesser tertiary institutions. This incongruity in expectations has sometimes resulted in mismatches between university graduates and the needs of the economy and labor market.

In much of Africa, graduate unemployment and underemployment is higher than for those with lower levels of education. In East Africa, according to a story by Gilbert Nganga in University World News of June 2020, 2018, a study by the Inter-University Council of East Africa “shows that Uganda has the worst record, with at least 63% of graduates found to lack job market skills. It is followed closely by Tanzania, where 61% of graduates were ill prepared. In Burundi and Rwanda, 55% and 52% of graduates respectively were perceived to not be competent. In Kenya, 51% of graduates were believed to be unfit for jobs.”

In 2016, the British Council produced a report, Universities, Employability and Inclusive Development covering Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, which our management team found quite alarming as USIU-Africa was ranked lower than its competitors for the employability of its graduates. It prompted us to commission an internal study on the subject. The team consulted existing research and literature, gathered extensive data on the global, regional, and local contexts, carried out a survey of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and employers, and made several recommendations.

They found that employers expected technical, subject, and soft skills. Among the soft skills valued in the current job market, the following stood out: communication and interpersonal skills, problem solving skills, using own initiative and being self-motivated, working under pressure, organizational skills, teamwork, ability to learn, numeracy, valuing diversity and cultural differences, and negotiation skills. For the future, employers identified the skills that would become more critical included the following: literacies in various media, scientific literacy, ICT literacy, financial literacy, curiosity, persistence and grit, adaptability, service orientation, leadership, and social awareness.

Following the survey, the university enhanced its support systems for student employability preparedness. Existing programs for life and soft skills training were strengthened or new ones established. This included reforming general education, improving career training and job fairs, internships, and community service, and creating youth boot camps. The university also sought to infuse innovation and entrepreneurship in its academic curricula and extra-curricular activities by setting up an incubation and innovation center and introducing an assessment system for extra-curricular activities.

Also, we worked hard to enhance partnerships with the private sector, both international and local companies. We enjoyed modest success. Examples include the establishment of an apprenticeship and innovation program by a major local company, an AppFactory by Microsoft, the only one then in Kenya and 14th on the continent. We soon established a presence as an institution that was serious about employability that enabled us to attract the African Development Bank to select our university as one of four for a coding center of excellence and win a competitive bid by the World Bank to provide employability training for more than 30,000 young people in six counties.

As gratifying as these efforts were, it rankled that we failed to attract local companies to support research including those owned or run by members of our own board and council. Similarly, as I noted in a previous reflection, we were unable to crack the door to philanthropic giving from high net worth individuals locally.

Together with the Director of University Advancement and some members of his team we also put considerable efforts to forge partnerships with several embassies from the G20 countries and others that had sizable numbers of students at the university. We were able to secure funding from the US Embassy in Nairobi to establish a state of the art social media lab that produced highly regarded reports on the social media landscape in Kenya. Two of our most entrepreneurial faculty members got a multi-million dollar grant from USAID jointly with an American university for a project on youth employability and empowerment.

Management also put efforts in building external partnerships abroad. For example, the Director of University Advancement and I undertook a six week partnerships development and fundraising trip to the USA between April and May 2018. The trip presented an opportunity to promote the interests of the university to numerous constituencies including universities and research associations, foundations, our alumni, Kenyan and African diaspora communities, government agencies, private corporations, individuals, and potential friends. The visit covered 10 cities namely, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, New York City, Washington DC, Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, and Detroit. Nearly 90 engagements took place.

We returned with four main takeaways that were summarized in a detailed report shared with the university’s academic and administrative leaders. First, we found a strong desire to engage with Africa in general, and African universities. Second, USIU-Africa enjoyed a strategic advantage because of its dual accreditation in Kenya and the USA. Third, we noted that all the universities we visited both big and small, research intensive and teaching oriented, were almost invariably better resourced than we were, and they seemed to have stronger cultures and systems of governance, management, and fundraising that provided us opportunities to reimagine our future. Finally, we were often urged by our interlocutors to actively engage American companies and organizations based in Kenya.

In the report we noted that to take full advantage of the partnership and fundraising opportunities we had cultivated it was imperative we needed to build our capacities, raise our visibility and value as a partner institution. First, we needed to strengthen the capacity of the Advancement division in terms of personnel, skills, and IT infrastructure.

Second, the establishment of an office of Global Affairs led by a senior academic with extensive private and public sector experience was essential to shepherd and oversee international academic partnerships. Third, in many of our conversations it became clear that we could position USIU-Africa as a research and policy hub in East Africa in collaboration with American institutions by establishing specialized institutes and centers that they could partner with and support.

Finally, it was necessary to review and strengthen our systems and processes to make them more effective for international engagements. Specifically, we needed to expand student accommodation to attract more foreign students. During the trip we repeatedly heard complaints about the slowness with which African institutions conduct business including responding to basic communication, negotiations and signing of MoUs, following up on agreements, and where necessary timely reporting on resource utilization.

We urged the divisions and the schools to work closely with University Advancement to pursue the various opportunities the trip had opened. Save for a few inter-institutional partnerships that were established, by the time the Covid-19 pandemic broke out there was little follow up.

Some would say there were “at least” some follow ups. In my book that was not good enough.

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Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is a Malawian historian, academic, literary critic, novelist, short-story writer and blogger. He is the Associate Provost and North Star Distinguished Professor at Case Western Reserve University.


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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