Ever since it appeared in the epigraph of Edward Said’s influential critique of Western “experts”, Orientalism, Marx’s dismissal of the French peasantry has come to stand for everything wrong with a certain type of condescending political crusade: elites speaking on behalf of groups viewed as incapable of articulating their own interests.
Commonly known in the humanitarian world as “saviourism”, this patronizing tendency is entrenched within the field of displacement governance, where highly placed individuals employed by donor agencies regularly devise policies on behalf of downtrodden communities whose circumstances are remote from their own.
The dramatic rise to prominence of RLOs (Refugee-led Organizations) presents an important challenge to the paternalism of this order.
Within a short space of time since 2018 when an historic summit in Geneva was convened by refugee leaders from across the world, demands for “a seat at the table” have been recognized at the highest level. In 2019, the UN invited RLO representatives to its own Global Refugee Forum. In 2020, Canada announced an advisory role for a former refugee to observe its international protection meetings; Germany and the USA have since followed suit, underlining the growing acknowledgement of the legitimacy and significance of refugee leadership.
On the surface, these developments would seem to suggest the RLO phenomenon is a rare example of successful “localization”—the transfer of resources and decision-making power to stake-holding communities.
Yet little is known about the regional trajectories of RLOs. This despite the fact that local (or “glocal”) actors in the Global South laid the foundations for the aforementioned developments on the world stage. Without data on the impact of RLOs in camps, settlements and cities where their most important work takes place, their contributions and the obstacles they face remain poorly understood.
Having worked for an international organization as a migration specialist in Kenya and visited Uganda, I’m struck by the vibrancy of RLO mobilization in both countries, as well as the persistent challenges they face. Their successes and their struggles reflect the specificities of displacement governance in East Africa and the surrounding regions—the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa. Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda each host some of the largest refugee populations in the world. Conditions and regulatory frameworks vary and are far from perfect for RLOs in these countries. For the most part, however, they shoulder their “burdens” without succumbing to the anti-immigrant xenophobia rife in more affluent nations. Presidents Museveni of Uganda and Kagame of Rwanda each have lived experience of exile, a fact that reflects a certain acceptance of displacement as a mundane reality rather than an alarming aberration.
This context has important implications for the political agency of refugees. For whilst their participation in public life remains limited and is at times curtailed, RLOs in this region are particularly dynamic and advanced. It is no coincidence that Ugandan RLOs, where refugees enjoy freedom of mobility and association, have played a leading role in the movement for refugee participation in Africa. Studies have identified between 20 and 30 such groups operating in Kampala, home to some 80,000 refugees. The precise number is difficult to ascertain given that RLOs vary in size and visibility.
Defined loosely as organizations established and led by refugees, RLOs include well-established NGOs with transnational networks, funding partnerships and global profiles such as HOCW (Hope of Children and Women Victims of Violence), whose capacious premises in Kampala are not so different from the national or indeed international NGO offices that I have visited in Asia and Africa.
It is no coincidence that Ugandan RLOs, where refugees enjoy freedom of mobility and association, have played a leading role in the movement for refugee participation in Africa.
At the other end of the spectrum, RLOs can be small, informal, community-based “self-help” groups that operate without donor funding or formal membership. Between these two poles are medium-sized operations that lack substantial funding but are registered and possess formal membership structures.
A recent study by refugee researchers, which identified 63 RLOs in Uganda and 138 in Kenya, claimed beneficiaries report positive experiences with RLOs because they treat them with greater dignity and understanding of their needs than larger humanitarian agencies. Service delivery is adapted to local conditions and as a result, targeted towards the needs of groups and individuals. It also tends to be less bound by bureaucratic rules, reaching the newly arrived who lack documentation—often the most vulnerable.
More than mere service-delivery, RLOs are increasingly engaged in advocacy. HOCW’s Congolese founder, John Bolingo Ntahira, contributed to the inaugural Global Refugee Summit in 2018, and remains on the Global Refugee Network’s steering committee, underlining East African RLOs’ pivotal role in driving the international movement for refugee representation in policy-making.
Together with a handful of other pioneering RLO leaders, Bolingo set up RELON (Refugee-Led Organizations Network) in 2017, a network headquartered in Kampala that has branched out into other African countries.
Expanding through international gatherings and leveraging connections in the African Union are high priorities for RELON, which is keen to develop a continental voice. It has campaigned successfully in host countries on issues such as refugees’ access to vaccines, travel documents, and the registration of SIM cards.
This penchant for building solidarities across borders and working at multiple scales of governance holds the key to the innovative potential of RLOs. As transnational actors with diasporic links and cosmopolitan sensibilities, refugee leaders I met are well-travelled, well-networked and inclined towards Pan-African solutions. Unlike many career diplomats who might claim the same, the continental coalitions they build are comprised of people with lived experience of the challenges faced in exile—individuals like Bolingo who shared a home with 70 compatriots in an old bus converted into a make-shift shelter in the early 2000s.
This penchant for building solidarities across borders and working at multiple scales of governance holds the key to the innovative potential of RLOs.
Who better to address the interests of displaced persons than men and women who have themselves experienced or witnessed mortal threats, precarious border-crossings and destitution first-hand, and who still dwell among refugee communities?
The UNHCR has taken various strides toward enabling meaningful RLO participation, such as issuing innovation awards to RLOs for their work during the pandemic and piloting small grants. More generally, the working relationship between RLOs and big players within the international humanitarian order expands daily with new initiatives documented on social media amidst smiles and handshakes. The former wish to project themselves as legitimate actors on the world stage, in close proximity to the latter, who in turn find it increasingly incumbent upon them to demonstrate awareness of the importance of RLOs.
Yet, beneath the surface of these exchanges lies a simmering tension. Several refugee leaders I interviewed made allegations of bad faith against powerbrokers in the humanitarian field, accusing them of condescension and placing obstacles in their path: actively undermining their access to funding and/or oppressively “micro-managing” them in exploitative unequal “partnerships”, and excluding and patronizing them at every turn.
“Our ‘big brothers’ don’t want to recognize us,” said a key figure in Kenya bitterly. He is convinced that those who currently control the purse strings “fear” losing privileged positions over organizations such as his own. Others who stopped short of explicit accusation made their sentiments known through body language: brows furrowed, jaws clenched at the mere mention of the behemothic agencies, donors and organizations that comprise the humanitarian establishment.
A 2020 article by Oxford researchers lifts the lid on the history of this encounter with sordid allegations against at least one UNHCR IP (Implementing Partner), InterAid, which stands accused of setting up a fake CBO (Refugee Now) run by its own staff to create false evidence of “community” engagement. If the truth of such matters is difficult to verify, their legacy of mistrust and grievance is clear.
At a conference on localization last March in Nairobi during NGO week, refugee leaders and their allies lamented the lack of structural transformation when it comes to funding flows and decision-making in the humanitarian field. Attendees and speakers included Jean Marie Ishimwe, founder of Youth Voices Community, a Kenyan RLO, and INGOs such as Trócaire, an Irish charity committed to localization.
Frustration that growing RLO visibility during the pandemic has failed to alter mind-sets and bottom lines when it comes to partnerships and budgets was palpable. RLOs complained of being instrumentalized or ignored altogether by most big donor agencies and their IPs. Too often, they said, “inclusion” takes the form of tokenism: invitations to participate in activities typically expect them to mobilize their communities for the realization of projects that have already been designed. Offers of “capacity-building”, meanwhile, rarely consider the pedagogical potential of RLOs, whose local knowledge and lived experience of displacement is often lacking among so many of their expat counterparts employed by international and national NGOs. They lamented the lack of multi-year funding for the development of their administrative capacity, a gap that leaves them unable to hire or retain qualified professionals that might boost their ability to attract funding independently, reinforcing their dependency on larger organizations.
Frustration that growing RLO visibility during the pandemic has failed to alter mind-sets and bottom lines when it comes to partnerships and budgets was palpable.
None of this will surprise observers of localization given the almost complete failure to implement the “Grand Bargain” of 2016, which promised to funnel a quarter of humanitarian funds directly to national and local actors within the field of humanitarian governance but delivered a mere 0.5 per cent of tracked funding in 2019.
The hesitancy of large donors to fund RLOs stems at least in part from genuine constraints. RLOs, they say (in private), can be too small and unprofessional to manage and effectively spend large grants that require complex financial auditing. A related concern is the perception that RLOs are unstable given the changing personal trajectories of staff and/or founders, whose individual asylum and resettlement claims can mean suspending operations mid-way through funding cycles. Then there is concern about the potentially distortive impact of funding RLOs, whose ethnic, religious and/or national affiliations arguably make them unsuitable for serving broader, diverse refugee publics.
My own inquiries confirmed what researchers have already documented: that none of these charges should be dismissed, because each contains a grain of truth.
Most RLOs do begin as CBOs catering for specific ethnic and national groupings; oftentimes they possess limited administrative capacity. Those that do manage to grow in size and ambition do indeed tend to be headed by well-educated men. Moreover, it is not unknown for the personnel of RLOs to be resettled in the course of funding cycles. I also heard several references to “founder’s syndrome”, a psychological disorder among some egoistic individuals who struggle to detach their personal interests from those of the organization they have established.
In view of such challenges, some of the most enthusiastic supporters of refugee leadership are seeking to bridge the gap between RLOs and the powerbrokers that perpetuate their exclusion constructively.
COHERE, an INGO with offices in Kampala and Nairobi, has thrown its full weight behind putting refugee-led organizations “in the driving seat”. It does this through training and advice to RLOs on how to attract funds, how to implement and document project work effectively, and how to plan strategically in the longer term. If in its advocacy COHERE counters prejudice among RLO-sceptics, much of its daily work addresses donors’ concerns through corrective measures that acknowledge the need for work on all sides.
Some of the most enthusiastic supporters of refugee leadership are seeking to bridge the gap between RLOs and the powerbrokers that perpetuate their exclusion constructively.
Herein lies the difference between COHERE and reactionary big players dragging their feet on localization: Where the latter use RLOs’ weaknesses as justification to prolong a status quo in which the former can only ever be “beneficiaries”, tokens and symbols in projects they design themselves, the former view them as obstacles that can and must be removed to create a more level playing field.
A glimpse at COHERE’s network provides strong evidence of RLOs’ ability to grow and develop in ways critics seem reluctant to acknowledge. In Kampala, I visited Bondeko Refugee Livelihoods Centre, founded by a Congolese priest now resettled in Canada. Far from parochial, its young staff and membership was diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity: many of those it supports are from Burundi and Rwanda, and like many refugee businesses in Kampala, it even provides employment for Ugandan citizens. The founder’s resettlement seems not have had adverse consequences.
As an expat employed by an international organization engaged in advocacy, refugee leaders’ critiques of the humanitarian sector’s paternalism can feel close to the bone. When they fume against the condescension of do-gooders who represent their interests without walking in their shoes, are they talking about me?
None of the refugee leaders I interviewed for this article said so (explicitly), and it would be easy enough to join them in pointing fingers elsewhere. More challenging than “speaking the truth to power”, however, is speaking it to oneself: to admit that the entrenched privilege they seek to dismantle includes my own.
To the legions of foreign “experts” whose postings in the Global South involve analysing, shaping or influencing policies that do not directly affect us, RLOs pose questions we should be asking ourselves everyday about our long-term presence and role in the Global South. Above all: What are we doing to devolve power and resources to present and future generations of stakeholders?
Signatories of the Charter 4 Change such as COHERE and Trócaire have committed to channelling a quarter of humanitarian funding directly to national and/or local NGOs. But many larger bureaucratized entities with decades of heritage and established identities have shown little urgency in adapting to a world in which refugees are partners rather than beneficiaries. Despite many words and some (limited) deeds, commitment to structural reform remains unproven and there is scant evidence of the soul-searching that should be taking place.
For African NGOs, a different kind of self-reflection may be required. Although “local” in terms of registration, these tend to be staffed by highly educated professionals hailing from host country elites, among whom lived experience of exile is rare. It is easier for them to attract donor funding than RLOs, which can cause resentment and rivalry. One refugee leader I interviewed seethed as he recounted rebuffing an invitation from a national NGO to participate in a project as a beneficiary: “We’ll get our own funding to work on this issue,” he scoffed, insisting he could have implemented the same project more effectively.
Devota Nuwe, acting Co-Director of The Refugee Law Project, a highly respected national NGO based in Kampala, has occasionally found herself on the receiving end of such sentiments in the course of her career as a displacement specialist. The kinds of remarks directed at her and her colleagues by individual refugee leaders aggrieved at salaried professionals whose job it is to support them suggest a frankness rarely directed against INGO workers. (“Those clothes you’re wearing, it’s because of us!”).
What such sentiment fails to acknowledge is that there are contexts in which refugees cannot easily represent themselves—in which they must be represented by non-refugees. Defending or appealing on their behalf in courts of law, for example, is specialized work that requires qualified professionals acquainted with the host country’s legal system and political context.
Perhaps this explains Nuwe’s relaxed attitude towards the rise of RLOs, whom she and her colleagues have welcomed into their industry, despite the occasional criticism that comes their way. “There’s room for all of us,” she chuckles, when I ask her if she ever gets anxious about the prospect of a competitive threat from individuals who openly tell her they should be in her place.
In truth, national NGOs that enjoy the trust of their stakeholders have nothing to fear from the rise of RLOs. The same can be said of INGOs already cooperating in partnerships with RLOs, in which each plays a distinct but complementary role to achieve common objectives.
In truth, national NGOs that enjoy the trust of their stakeholders have nothing to fear from the rise of RLOs.
Indeed, there is something to be said for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s oft-cited commitment to making humanitarian action “as local as possible, as international as necessary”. The trouble with the current setup is that it under-utilizes the potential of refugees, and is far more international than it needs to be. In the words of John Bolingo Ntahira: “No one understands refugees’ problems better than we do”. Those of us who profess expertise on displacement would do well to acknowledge this basic fact and its transformative potential.
This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.
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Is Somalia’s Quest for Membership of the EAC Premature?
Somalia must first ensure sustained progress in stability, infrastructure development, governance, and economic growth before considering full membership of the East African Community.
The current members of the East African Community (EAC) are Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan. The Somali Federal Government, under the leadership of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has expressed a strong interest in joining the EAC, sparking questions among Somali citizens as to whether the country is ready to join such a large and complex regional bloc.
During President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud initiated Somalia’s pursuit of EAC membership during his previous term as a president from 2012 to 2017. However, little progress was made during his first term and, following his re-election, President Hassan reignited his pursuit of EAC membership without consulting essential stakeholders such as the parliament, the opposition, and civil society. This unilateral decision has raised doubts about the president’s dedication to establishing a government based on consensus. Moreover, his decision to pursue EAC membership has evoked mixed responses within Somalia. While some Somalis perceive joining the EAC as advantageous for the country, others express concerns about potential risks to Somalia’s economic and social development. President Hassan has defended his decision, emphasising that Somalia’s best interests lie in becoming a member of the EAC.
To assess Somalia’s readiness to join the EAC, the regional bloc undertook a comprehensive verification mission. A team of experts well versed in politics, economics, and social systems, was tasked with evaluating Somalia’s progress. The evaluation included a thorough review of economic performance, trade policies, and potential contributions to the EAC’s integration efforts. During this process, the team engaged with various government institutions and private organisations, conducting comprehensive assessments and discussions to gauge Somalia’s preparedness.
One of the key requirements for Somalia is demonstrating an unwavering commitment to upholding principles such as good governance, democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. Somalia must also showcase a vibrant market economy that fosters regional trade and collaboration.
Successful integration into the EAC would not only elevate Somalia’s regional stature but would also foster deeper bonds of cooperation and shared prosperity among the East African nations. While this is a positive step towards regional integration and economic development, there are several reasons for pessimism about the potential success of Somalia’s membership in the EAC.
Somalia must also showcase a vibrant market economy that fosters regional trade and collaboration.
Somalia has faced significant challenges due to prolonged conflict and instability. The decades-long civil war, coupled with the persistent threat of terrorism, has had a devastating impact on the country’s infrastructure, economy, governance systems, and overall stability.
The following fundamental factors raise valid concerns about Somalia’s readiness to effectively participate in the EAC.
Infrastructure plays a critical role in regional integration and economic growth. However, Somalia’s infrastructure has been severely damaged and neglected due to years of conflict. The country lacks adequate transportation networks, reliable energy systems, and while communications infrastructure has improved, internet penetration rates remain low and mobile networks – which are crucial for seamless integration with the EAC – can be unavailable outside of urban centres. Rebuilding such infrastructure requires substantial investments, technical expertise, and stability, all of which remain significant challenges for Somalia.
Political stability and governance
The EAC places emphasis on good governance, democracy, and the rule of law as prerequisites for membership. Somalia’s journey towards political stability and effective governance has been arduous, with numerous setbacks and ongoing power struggles. The lack of a unified government, coupled with weak state institutions and a history of corruption, raises doubts about Somalia’s ability to meet the EAC’s standards. Without a stable and inclusive political environment, Somalia may struggle to effectively contribute to the decision-making processes within the regional bloc.
Economic development and trade
Somalia’s economy has been heavily dependent on the informal sector and faces substantial economic disparities. The country needs to demonstrate a vibrant market economy that fosters regional trade and collaboration, as required by the EAC. However, the challenges of rebuilding a war-torn economy, tackling high poverty rates, and addressing widespread unemployment hinder Somalia’s ability to fully participate in regional trade and reap the benefits of integration.
Somalia continues to grapple with security challenges, including the presence of extremist groups and maritime piracy. These issues have not only hindered the country’s development but also pose potential risks to the stability and security of the entire EAC region. It is crucial for Somalia to address these security concerns comprehensively and to establish effective mechanisms to contribute to the EAC’s collective security efforts.
Economic Disparity and Compatibility
Somalia’s economy primarily relies on livestock, agriculture, and fishing, which may not align well with the more quasi-industralised economies of the other EAC member states. This mismatch could result in trade imbalances and pose challenges for integrating Somalia into the regional economy. For instance, according to the World Bank, Somalia’s GDP per capita was US$447 in 2021 whereas it is US$2081 for Kenya, US$1099 for Tanzania, and US$883 for Uganda. Furthermore, Somalia faces significant economic challenges, including capital flight that drains resources from the country, contributing to its status as a consumer-based economy.
This divergence in economic structures could lead to trade imbalances and impede the seamless integration of Somalia into the regional economy. The substantial economic gap between Somalia and other EAC member states suggests a significant disparity that may hinder Somalia’s ability to fully participate in the EAC’s economic activities. Additionally, Somalia has yet to demonstrate fiscal or economic discipline that would make it eligible for EAC membership. While Somalia has a functioning Central Bank and the US dollar remains the primary mode of financial transactions, the risk of integration lies with the other EAC members; cross-border trade would occur in an environment of instability, posing potential risks to the other member state.
Somalia faces significant economic challenges, including capital flight that drains resources from the country, contributing to its status as a consumer-based economy.
While these fundamental challenges remain, it is important to acknowledge the progress Somalia has made in recent years. This includes the gradual improvement in security conditions, the establishment of key governmental institutions, and the peaceful transfer of power. One can also argue that many of these fundamental economic, infrastructure, political instability, and security concerns exist across the East African Community. However, what makes Somalia unique is the scale of the challenges it faces today. Somalia has adopted a federal political structure, which has not worked well so far. This level of fragmentation and civil political distrust makes Somalia’s case unique. More than ever, Somalia needs meaningful political and social reconciliation before it can embark on a new regional journey.
The absence of an impact assessment by the relevant ministries in Somalia is alarming. Without this assessment, it becomes challenging to make informed decisions about the potential benefits of joining the EAC and the impact on our economy and society. Conducting this assessment should be a priority for Somalia’s ministries to ensure a comprehensive evaluation of the potential benefits and risks involved in EAC membership. Furthermore, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s decision to pursue Somalia’s integration into the EAC lacks political legitimacy as a decision of this nature would normally require ratification through a popular vote and other legal means through parliament. The failure to achieve this could potentially allow another president in the future to unilaterally announce withdrawal from the EAC.
Fragile state of Affairs and internal disputes
The recent reopening of the Gatunda border post between Uganda and Rwanda after a three-year period of strained relations indicates a fragile state of affairs. The East African Court of Justice has ruled that Rwanda’s initial closure of the border was illegal, highlighting the contentious nature of inter-country disputes. Furthermore, Tanzania and Uganda have formally lodged complaints against Kenya, alleging unfair advantages in trade relations, and have even gone as far as threatening Kenya with export bans. These grievances underscore the underlying tensions and competition between member states, which could potentially hinder the harmonious functioning of the East African Community. These political and economic disagreements among member states increase the risks associated with Somalia’s membership. Somalia must carefully evaluate whether it is entering a united and cohesive bloc or one plagued by internal divisions. Joining the East African Community at this juncture carries the risk of being drawn into ongoing disputes and potentially being caught in the crossfire of inter-country rivalries.
Conflict in South Sudan
The prolonged conflict in South Sudan, which has been ongoing since its admission to the East African Community (EAC) in 2016, serves as a cautionary tale for Somalia. Despite the EAC’s efforts to mediate and foster peace in the region, the outcomes have been mixed, resulting in an unsustainable peace. This lack of success highlights the challenges faced by member states in resolving conflicts and maintaining stability within the community. Somalia must carefully evaluate whether its participation in the EAC will genuinely contribute to its stability, economic growth, and development, or if it risks exacerbating existing internal conflicts. Joining the community without a solid foundation of political stability, institutions, and peace could potentially divert resources and attention away from domestic issues, hindering Somalia’s progress towards resolving its own challenges. South Sudan’s admission to the EAC in 2016 was seen as a major step towards regional integration and stability. However, the country has been mired in conflict ever since, with two civil wars breaking out in 2013 and 2016. The EAC has been involved in mediation efforts, with mixed results.
Somalia must evaluate the readiness of its institutions, infrastructure, and economy to effectively engage with the East African Community. Comprehensive preparations are crucial to ensure that joining the community is a well thought-out and strategic decision, rather than a hasty move that could further destabilise the nation. Somalia needs to assess whether its infrastructure, institutions, and economy are sufficiently developed to cope with the challenges and demands of integration. Premature membership could strain Somalia’s resources, impede its growth, and leave it at a disadvantage compared to more established member states.
Somalia must carefully evaluate whether it is entering a united and cohesive bloc or one plagued by internal divisions.
Somalia must ensure sustained progress in stability, infrastructure development, governance, and economic growth before considering full membership of the EAC. A phased approach that prioritises capacity building, institution-strengthening, and inclusive governance would enable Somalia to lay a solid foundation for successful integration and reap the maximum benefits from EAC membership in the long term. Failure to address these concerns would make Somalia vulnerable to exploitation and market monopolies by stronger economies, and could also risk a lack of seamless convergence for Somalia’s membership. While there is political will from EAC leaders to support Somalia’s membership, it is vitally important that they make the right decision for Somalia and the EAC bloc as a whole to ensure a successful integration. I believe that, at this juncture, the disadvantages of Somalia joining the EAC outweigh the benefits.
2023 Marks 110 Years Since the Maasai Case 1913: Does it Still Matter?
It was a landmark case for its time, a first for East Africa and possibly for the continent. A group of Africans challenged a colonial power in a colonial court to appeal a major land grab and demand reparations. They lost on a technicality but the ripple effects of the Maasai Case continue to be felt.
In the name Parsaloi Ole Gilisho there lies an irony. It was spelled Legalishu by the colonial British. Say it out loud. He gave them a legal issue, all right. And a 110-year-old headache.
This extraordinary age-set spokesman (a traditional leader called ol-aiguenani, pl. il-aiguenak) led non-violent resistance to the British, in what was then British East Africa, that culminated in the Maasai Case 1913. Ole Gilisho was then a senior warrior, who was probably in his mid- to late thirties. In bringing the case before the High Court of British East Africa, he was not only challenging the British but also the Maasai elders who had signed away thousands of acres of community land via a 1904 Maasai Agreement or Treaty with the British. This and the 1911 Agreement – which effectively rendered the first void – are often wrongly called the Anglo-Maasai Agreements. In Ole Gilisho’s view, and those of his fellow plaintiffs, these elders had sold out. The suit accused them of having had no authority to make this decision on behalf of the community. This represented a very serious challenge by warriors to traditional authority, including that of the late laibon (prophet) Olonana, who had signed in 1904, and died in 1911.
The British had expected the Maasai to violently rebel in response to these issues and to colonial rule in general. But contrary to modern-day myths that the Maasai fought their colonisers, here they resisted peacefully via legal means. They hired British lawyers and took the British to their own cleaners. Spoiler: they lost, went to appeal, and lost again. But archival research reveals that the British government was so convinced it would eventually lose, if the Maasai appealed to the Privy Council in London (they didn’t), that officials began discussing how much compensation to pay.
The facts are these. The lawsuit was launched in 1912. There were four plaintiffs, Ole Gilisho and three fellow Purko (one of the 16 Maasai territorial sections) Maasai. In Civil Case No. 91 they claimed that the 1911 Maasai Agreement was not binding on them and other Laikipia Maasai, that the 1904 Agreement remained in force, and they contested the legality of the second move. They demanded the return of Laikipia, and £5,000 in damages for loss of livestock during the second move (explained below). Ole Gilisho was illiterate and had never been to school. But he and his fellow plaintiffs were assisted by sympathetic Europeans who were angered by the injustice they saw being perpetrated against a “tribe” that British administrators conceded had never given them any trouble. These sympathisers included people who worked for the colonial government, notably medical Dr Norman Leys and some district officials, lawyers, a few missionaries, the odd settler, and a wider group of left-wing MPs and anti-colonial agitators in Britain.
What had led up to this? After the 1904 Agreement, certain groups or sections of Maasai had been forcibly moved from their grazing grounds in the central Rift Valley around Naivasha into two reserves – one in Laikipia, the other in the south on the border with German East Africa. The British had pledged that this arrangement was permanent, that it would last “so long as the Maasai as a race shall exist”. But just seven years later, the British went back on their word and moved the “northern” Maasai again, forcing them at gunpoint to vacate Laikipia and move to the Southern Reserve. In all, it is estimated that the Maasai lost at least 50 per cent of their land, but that figure could be nearer 70 per cent. The ostensible reason for moving them was to “free up” land for white settlement – largely for British settlers but also for South Africans fleeing the Boer War (also called the South African War).
But just seven years later, the British went back on their word and moved the ‘northern’ Maasai again, forcing them at gunpoint to vacate Laikipia and move to the Southern Reserve.
By the time the case came to court, Ole Gilisho had become a defendant, even though he was in favour of the plaint. So were at least eight other defendants. He had signed the 1904 Agreement, and now stood accused with 17 other Maasai of having no authority to enter into such a contract. The first defendant was the Attorney General. Ole Gilisho’s son-in-law Murket Ole Nchoko, misspelled Ol le Njogo by the British, and described as a leading moran (il-murran or warrior) of the Purko section, was now the lead plaintiff. The plaint was called Ol le Njogo and others v. The Attorney General and others.
Challenges facing the plaintiffs
Most Maasai were illiterate in those days, and this obviously placed them at a major disadvantage. They could not write down their version of events. They were forced to rely, in their dealings with officials and their own lawyers, upon translators and semiliterate mediators whose reliability was questionable. But it is evident, from the archival record which includes verbatim accounts of meetings between Maasai leaders and British officials in the run-up to the moves and case, that the level of verbal discourse was highly sophisticated. This comes as no surprise; verbal debate is a cornerstone of Maasai society and customary justice. Unfortunately, that alone could not help them here. They knew they needed lawyers, and asked their friends for help. Leys, who was later sacked from the colonial service for his activism, admitted in a private letter: “I procured the best one in the country for them.” This was more than he ever admitted openly.
Local administrators used intimidation and all kinds of devious means to try and stop the case. (I didn’t come across any evidence that the Colonial Office in London sanctioned this; in fact, it ordered the Governor not to obstruct the main lawyer or his clients.) They allegedly threatened Ole Gilisho with flogging and deportation. They threatened and cross-questioned suspected European sympathisers, including Leys and the lawyers. They banned Maasai from selling cattle to raise the legal fees, and placed the Southern Reserve in continuous quarantine. It was hard for the plaintiffs, confined to a reserve, to meet their lawyers at all. At one point, lawyers were refused passes to enter the reserve, and their clients were prevented from leaving it.
We hear Ole Gilisho’s voice in the archival record. Forced to give a statement explaining his actions to officials at Enderit River on 21 June 1912, when asked if he had called Europeans to his boma, he replied: “Is it possible for a black man to call a white man?” He denied having called the Europeans (probably lawyers or go-betweens), saying they had come to him. Leys later explained to a friend that Ole Gilisho had probably been “terrified out of his wits”, and hadn’t meant what he said.
What happened in court
The case was thrown out when it first came before the High Court in Mombasa in May 1913. The Maasai appealed, and that is when the legal arguments were fully aired by both sides – lawyers for the Crown and the Maasai. The appeal was dismissed in December on the grounds that the plaintiffs’ claims were not cognisable in municipal courts. The two agreements were ruled not to be agreements but treaties, which were Acts of State. They could not, therefore, be challenged in a local court. It was impossible for the plaintiffs to seek to enforce the provisions of a treaty, said the judges – “The paramount chief himself could not bring such an action, still less can his people”. Claims for damages were also dismissed.
The Court of Appeal’s judgement centred on the status of a protectorate, in which the King was said to exercise powers granted to him under the Foreign Jurisdiction Act of 1890. Irrational as it sounds, the Crown claimed that British East Africa was not British territory, and the Maasai were not British subjects with any rights of access to British law, but “protected foreigners, who, in return for that protection, owe obedience” to the Crown. As Yash Pal Ghai and Patrick McAuslan later put it, when discussing the case in a 1970 book: “A British protected person is protected against everyone except the British.” On the plus side, the judges ruled that the Maasai still retained some “vestige” of sovereignty. (The Maasai’s lawyer argued that they did not.) This triggered later moves by Maasai politicians, in the 1960s, to float the idea of secession from Kenya and the possible creation of a sovereign Maasai state. John Keen had threatened this in 1962 at the second Lancaster House Conference in London, attended by a Maasai delegation.
Alexander Morrison, lawyer for the Maasai, argued that British rule and courts were established in the protectorate, which had not been the case 30 years earlier. The Maasai were not foreigners but equal to other British subjects in every way. The agreements were civil contracts, enforceable in the courts, and not unenforceable treaties. If one took the Crown’s claim about Acts of State to its logical conclusion, he argued, a squatter refusing to leave land reserved for the Maasai could only be removed by an Act of State. None of his arguments washed with the judges. (See my 2006 book Moving the Maasai for a fuller account.)
Morrison advised his clients to appeal. It seems they couldn’t raise the funds. However, oral testimony from elders reveals a different story: Ole Gilisho had planned to sail to England to appeal to the Privy Council, but he was threatened with drowning at sea. This is impossible to verify, but it rings true.
In an interview carried out on my behalf in 2008 by Michael Tiampati, my old friend John Keen had this to say about the outcome of the case: “If the hyena was the magistrate and the accused was a goat, you should probably know that the goat would not get any form of justice. So this is exactly how it was that the Maasai could not get any fair justice from British courts.”
Contemporary African resistance
Unbeknown to the Maasai, there was growing anti-colonial resistance in the same period in other parts of Africa. All these acts of resistance have inspired African activists in their continuing struggles. To mention a few: the Chilembwe rebellion in Nyasaland, now Malawi (1915); the Herero revolt in German South West Africa, now Namibia (1904–1908); resistance in present-day Kenya by Mekatilili wa Menza (largely 1913-14); the First Chimurenga or First War of Independence in what is now Zimbabwe (1896–1897); and the Maji Maji rebellion in German East Africa, now Tanzania (1905–1907). But none of these rebellions involved lawsuits. The closest precedent may have been R vs Earl of Crewe, Ex-parte Sekgoma in 1910. Chief Sekgoma, who had been jailed by the British in the Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana) after many attempts to remove him as chief, instructed his lawyer to bring a writ of habeus corpus against the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Crewe. He demanded to be tried in an English court, refusing an offer of release on condition that he agrees to live in a restricted area of the Transvaal. The suit was dismissed, the court ruling that the King had unfettered jurisdiction in a protectorate, and his right to detain Sekgoma was upheld. Sekgoma apparently said: “I would rather be killed than go to the Transvaal. I will not go because I have committed no crime – I wish to have my case tried before the courts in England or else be killed.” Freed in 1912, he died two years later.
The case, and other key events in early twentieth century Maasai history, have given rise to several myths. They include the idea that the stolen land should “revert” to the Maasai after 100 years, but that was not stated in the 1904 Agreement, which was not limited in time, was not a land lease, and has not “expired” as many people claim. Neither agreement has. Keen knew this, but nonetheless called for the land to “revert”. Other myths include the idea that Olonana’s thumbprint was placed on the 1911 Agreement posthumously, and it must therefore be invalid. But neither his thumbprint nor name are on the document, which was “signed” by his son Seggi. Anyhow, Olonana was a key ally of the British, who had no reason to kill him (which is another myth).
The original of the 1904 Agreement has never been found, which has led some Maasai to believe that it never existed and therefore all the land must be restored and compensation paid for its use to date. There may be sound legal arguments for restorative justice, but this is not one of them. These myths are ahistorical and unhelpful, but may be understood as attempts to rationalise and make sense of what happened. Some activists may wish that the Maasai had resisted violently, rather than taken the legal route. Hence the insistence by some that there was a seamless history of armed resistance from the start of colonial rule. Not true. There are much better arguments to be made, by professional lawyers with an understanding of international treaty rights and aboriginal title, which could possibly produce results.
Ole Gilisho had planned to sail to England to appeal to the Privy Council, but he was threatened with drowning at sea.
Where does all this leave the Maasai today? Over the years, there has been much talk of revisiting the case and bringing a claim against Britain (or Kenya) for the return of land or reparations for its loss. None of this has resulted in concrete action. I attended a planning workshop in Nairobi in 2006 when plans were laid for a lawsuit. VIPs present included the late Ole Ntimama, scholar Ben Kantai and John Keen. Keen declared, with his customary flourish, that he would stump up a million shillings to get the ball rolling. I don’t know how much money was raised in total, but it disappeared into thin air. As did the lawyers.
Leading lawyers have advised that too much time has passed, and (unlike the successful Mau Mau veterans’ suit) there are no living witnesses who could give evidence in court. It is unclear whether the agreements still have any legal validity. The British government might argue, as it previously has, including in response to my questions, that it handed over all responsibility for its pre-1963 actions to the Kenyan government at independence. This is a ludicrous argument, which is also morally wrong. Former colonial powers such as Germany have accepted responsibility for historical injustices in their former colonies, notably Namibia. Has the time come for Ole Gilisho’s descendants to call a white man to court?
Who Is Hustling Who?
In Kenya, political elites across the spectrum are trying to sell off the country for themselves—capitulation is inevitable.
My drive to Limuru happened on the first Wednesday (July 19) of the protests. Everything was eerily quiet, Nairobi, renowned for its traffic jams, was quiet. Matatus and buses were parked in their hubs. Shops and stalls were closed. Even the hawkers that dot the roads and highways stayed home. Save for the heavy police presence everywhere, it felt like the country had come to a standstill.
We got to Kangemi shortly after the police had shot and wounded two protestors—the road was strewn with stones and armed riot police huddled by the side of the road waiting for the next wave of attacks that never came. In the end, six people would be shot to death throughout the country, and countless were injured and arrested. Coming from the US, where police arrest protestors and shoot black people, there were no surprises here. The US can hardly be the standard of good policing or democratic practices, but the lives lost simply for asking the government to center the people in its economic planning seemed especially cruel.
But it was the emptiness of the roads that made the whole drive eerie. Perhaps I was refracting what was happening in Kenya through what followed the 1982 coup in which 240 people were killed; or the ethnic clashes of the 1990s that culminated in the 2007 post-election violence. Yet, there was a general agreement among people that there was something different about the Kenya of today—that something was already broken and the nightmares to come were slowly but surely revealing themselves—like a bus carrying passengers and the driver realizing the brakes were out just as it was about to descend a steep hill.
Voting with the middle finger
But all this was predictable. President Ruto has been a known quantity since the 1990s when he led the violent Moi youth wingers. He and his running mate and later president, Uhuru Kenyatta, were brought in front of the ICC to face charges of crimes against humanity following the post-election violence in 2007. Some key witnesses disappeared and others were intimidated into silence. Who in their right mind gives evidence against those in control of the state? The ICC was already discredited as being Western-crimes-against-humanity friendly (the US has never been a signatory rightly afraid its former presidents, such as George Bush, would be hauled before the court). The ICC eventually withdrew the case in March 2015.
I kept asking everyone I met, why was Ruto voted in spite of his history? The answers varied: He rigged the elections; he did not rig and if he did, he only managed to be better at it than Raila Odinga; he appealed to the youth with the idea of building a hustler nation (what a telling term); the Kikuyus have vowed never to have a Luo president and therefore opted for Ruto who is Kalenjin as opposed to Odinga who is Luo.
I sat with older Kikuyu men in the little Nyama Choma spot in Limuru Market and they talked about a generational divide between the Kikuyu and youth (Ruto) and the elderly Kikuyus (Odinga). But the one I heard over and over again was that Kenyans are tired of the Kenyatta and Odinga political dynasties. As one Trump supporter was to say, they voted for him with the middle finger. And so, the Kenyans who voted for Ruto were giving a middle finger to the Kenyatta, Moi and Odinga political dynasties. But no one had really expected buyer’s remorse to kick in one year into the Ruto presidency.
I also asked about Odinga’s protests: what was the end game? One theory is that he was looking at power-sharing, having done it once before, following the 2007 elections. In our shorthand political language, he was looking for another handshake. Some said the people have a right to protest their government, and he is simply asking the government to repeal the tax hikes and reinstate the fuel subsidies. Others believed that he wants to be a genuine and useful voice of opposition for the good of the country and its poor.
My own theory is that he is attempting a people-powered, centered, democratic, and largely peaceful takeover—where people take to the streets to overthrow an unpopular government. We saw this in Latin America in the 2000s. In response to Odinga’s absence during the three days of protests (he was sick), some leaders in his Azimio party have started using this language. The only problem with this strategy is that the sitting government has to be wildly unpopular. Ruto still has a lot of support, meaning that he does not have to compromise or give up power. It was to my mind turning into a stalemate and I was worried that the state would respond with more state-sponsored violence.
But real economics broke the stalemate. In a country where people are barely surviving and the majority are poor without savings to rely on, or relatives to reach out to for help, the hawkers, small stall and shop owners simply went back to work. In other words, those that would have been hurt the most by three days of protests (a day at home literally means a day without food for the family) simply went back to work, and the matatus and buses hummed back to life, slowly on Thursday and full throttle by Friday.
Saturday around Westlands might as well have been as busy as a Monday as people overcompensated for lost time to either sell or shop. If the protests were going to succeed the opposition (composed of some of the wealthiest families in Kenya, including Odinga’s) really should have thought about how best to protect those who would be the most affected. They should find legal and innovative ways to put their money where their political mouths are.
Cuba as Kenya’s north star
Odinga had to change tactics and called for a day of protest against police violence instead of three-day weekly protests in perpetuity. He is now in danger of turning into a caricature of his old revolutionary self and becoming an Al Sharpton, who instead of protesting the American government for the police killings of black people, protests the police themselves leaving the government feeling sanctimonious. Obama or Biden could weigh in, in righteous indignation without offering any real change (remember Obama’s emotional pleas over gun shootings and police shootings as if he was not the one occupying the most powerful office in the US)?
The one question that keeps eating at me is this: why is the most apparent outcome at the time a surprise later? Ruto was always going to sell off Kenya with a percentage for himself and his friends. Odinga was always going to capitulate. The end result is that the Kenyan bus will continue to careen on without brakes. So, what is to be done?
I was in Cuba earlier this year. I got a sense of the same desperation I felt in Kenya but the difference is Cubans have free access to healthcare, education, housing, and food security. They have free access to all the things that make basic survival possible. Before calling for the tax hikes and cutting fuel subsidies might it not have been more prudent to have a safety net for Kenyans? Would that not have been the most logical thing? But of course not, Ruto is acting at the behest of the IMF and big money. Ruto has learned the art of pan-African political rhetoric. Abroad he can call for a different non-US-centered economic system and castigate the French president over paternalism but at home, his politics are hustler politics.
Life in Cuba is difficult, as a result of relentless sanctions from the US, but it is far from impossible. It remains the north star for those who understand discussions around fundamental change as the only starting point. We can have arguments about the nature of those fundamental changes, but we can all agree we should not be a country where one family, say the Kenyatta family, owns more than half a million acres of land. Or where, as Oxfam reported, four individuals hold more wealth than that held by 22 million Kenyans. The kind of politics that begin with a necessity for fundamental change will obviously not come from Ruto.
But one hopes it can still come from the Odinga camp. Or even better, from a genuinely progressive people-powered movement that has inbuilt questions of fundamental change in its political, economic, and cultural platform.
In spite of the empty roads, Limuru Market was thriving and Wakari Bar kept its reputation as one of the best places for Nyama Choma and for lively political conversations. People are paying attention, after all, it is their lives and livelihoods on the line. Politicians, especially those in the opposition and the political left should listen as well.
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