Nigeria’s presidential election, due to be held on February 25, appears set for a surprising outcome. Several opinion polls rank Peter Obi, the presidential candidate of Nigeria’s previously marginal Labour Party, ahead of politicians from the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the main opposition force, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
Obi’s popularity rests at least in part on the young voters who have rallied behind him. These supporters, known as “Obidients,” are an important and social-media savvy segment of the layer aged between 18 and 35 that constitute 42 percent of registered voters, with a strong base in the urban middle classes.
At 61 years of age, Obi himself may not be young, but he appears youthful in contrast to the other leading candidates who slur and stagger. Bola Tinubu of the APC is 70, the PDP’s Atiku Abubakar is 76, while the outgoing president Muhammadu Buhari is 80.
Obi is no novice on the Nigerian political scene, having stood as Atiku’s vice-presidential running-mate in 2019 and served as governor of Anambra state from 2007 to 2014. Yet many of his supporters still perceive him as an alternative to the establishment. The other two candidates are Establishment figures with a capital E.
While Obi is neither a savior or a socialist, the Labour candidate and his Obidents have enlivened the election campaign. They have rekindled optimism about the possibility of change and opened a discussion about the revival of a working-class political alternative. Such optimism has been in short supply over the past decade as social conditions have worsened in Nigeria.
Nigeria’s social crisis
Nigeria is by far the most populous country in Africa today. Its 220 million people face multiple crises with which the new president will have to grapple. Insecurity and violence pose a threat across the country in various forms, from the undefeated Boko Haram insurgent movement to everyday crimes and much in between. Inequality and poverty are rising.
Inflation has reached 21 percent, with unemployment at over 33.3 percent, while the minimum salary of 30,000 naira (about US$65) per month has not increased since 2018, fueling a cost-of-living crisis. 4 out of 10 people live below the poverty line, while the Nigerian elites continue to enrich themselves from the country’s vast natural resources, unable or unwilling to translate those resources into popular welfare.
Today, a country that is both petroleum-rich and petroleum-dependent is not even able to meet its OPEC production quota, and there is a local fuel shortage. For a long time, Nigeria has been a net importer of refined petroleum, with the refineries neglected and working below capacity. These problems are closely related to the extreme corruption in the country.
While the Nigerian economy grew steadily during a period of high global oil prices between 2002 and 2014, inequality and poverty also spiraled at the same time. These conditions have only worsened during the period of stagnation and serial recessions that has characterized the past decade.
Among Nigeria’s citizens, there is strong support for democracy but deep distrust of politicians, political parties, and state institutions. The increasing prevalence of networks circulating fake news adds to popular frustration about the genuine failures of Nigerian institutions.
Breaking the mold
The 2023 election constitutes a departure from the established pattern in Nigeria’s presidential elections over the last decade in two key respects. We are seeing a break with the hegemony of the two main parties, and what seems like a surge in youth engagement.
Between 1999 and 2015, the PDP dominated national politics, winning four consecutive presidential elections, and consistently holding a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, Nigeria’s lower house. The party was a coalition of civilian elites and retired military generals that took power following Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999.
From 2003 onwards, the main challenge to PDP presidential candidates came from Muhammadu Buhari, a retired army general who served as head of state in a military government from 1983 to 1985. Buhari ran as the candidate for several different parties: he finally succeeded in 2015 with the endorsement of the recently formed APC.
It was the first time an opposition party had won the election in Nigerian history. The APC also secured a majority in the House of Representatives that year. Buhari won re-election in 2019, but was not eligible to run this time, having served two terms in office. In his stead, the APC selected Bola Tinubu, a Muslim former governor of Lagos state in the Christian-dominated south and an extremely rich political kingmaker.
For its part, the PDP has undergone an internal crisis threatening its position as the main opposition party. It chose the former vice-president Atiku Abubakar as its standard-bearer. Like Tinubu, Abubukar is a veteran Muslim politician and a very wealthy man, although he hails from the country’s north.
PDP dissenters saw his selection as a violation of “zoning”—the power-sharing arrangement whereby the party is meant to pick a southern Christian candidate following two terms served by a northern Muslim, and vice versa. The disagreement over zoning was partly what inspired Atiku’s 2019 running mate Peter Obi, a Christian from the South, to walk out of the PDP with a group of supporters and join the Labour Party (LP).
Obi quickly attracted an unlikely coalition, garnering support and praise from the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and activists in the #EndSARS campaign against police violence as well as international business publications such as the Financial Times and the Economist. The latter have complimented Obi for his business acumen and commitment to neoliberal orthodoxy.
The apparent upswing of youth interest in the election comes after a steady decline in levels of participation. Voter turnouts in presidential elections fell from 53.6 percent in 2011 to 43.7 percent in 2015 and less than 35 percent four years later. And young people have been even less likely to vote than their older counterparts.
Obi’s electoral surge has changed the stakes of the campaign. But in order to understand the rise of Obi and evaluate the wider prospects for a pro-worker political alternative, we need to take a step back and look at the recent history of protest and social movements in Nigeria.
In parallel to the increase in voter apathy over the past decade, there have been significant episodes of social mobilization in Nigeria. Two notable examples were the January 2012 Occupy Nigeria protests and the 2020 #EndSARS movement. Both had a tangible impact on the election campaigns that followed, in 2015 and 2023 respectively.
Occupy Nigeria and Buhari’s victory
Occupy Nigeria was a nationwide protest movement and general strike in January 2012 against the removal of fuel subsidies by the government of the PDP’s Goodluck Jonathan. The so-called January uprising was the biggest wave of protests since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999. The trigger came from increased fuel prices, which had an immediate impact on the cost of transport, medicine, and food. But the protest also expressed wider feelings of disappointment and mistrust in Nigeria’s experience of liberal democracy.
Trade unions had led an earlier series of fuel subsidy protests. Five took place between 2000 and 2007, and there had also been several such movements during the 1980s and ’90s. In 2012, on the other hand, a new generation of Nigerian youth using social media filled the country’s streets.
This episode did not lead to renewed ties of solidarity between the traditional labor movement and new currents in civil society. In the wake of Occupy Nigeria, civil society groups appeared to be fragmented and mutually distrustful. Unions described the activists as unorganized, disconnected, and lacking formal leadership or representation.
For their part, supporters of Occupy Nigeria accused the unions of capturing the protests and unilaterally striking a compromise deal with the government for partial reinstatement of the subsidy. They saw the unions as being more and more associated with the Nigerian elites in the capital Abuja.
Yet opposition politicians were still able to capitalize on the frustrations, energies, and demands for change that emerged from the street. Three opposition parties came together to form the APC in 2013. In addition to its “progressive” self-designation, the APC ran its 2015 campaign on the slogan “change,” with support from some key union leaders, established civil society groups, and Occupy Nigeria activists alike. The 2012 protests alone cannot explain the APC victory, but they certainly contributed to its legitimacy and success.
Tech-savvy young people, inspired by the sense of agency they had drawn from 2012, also contributed to the work of campaigning and election monitoring. Many threw their weight behind Buhari, the former dictator and “born again” democrat, in a way that resembles the current phenomenon of “Obidience.” Much like Obi today, Buhari was portrayed as a pious anti-establishment figure whose rise was based on merit and who could be trusted to take action against corruption.
In addition, Buhari was more willing to use the state in some domains of economic policy—some even called him a social democrat, albeit mistakenly—and supporters considered him more likely to improve the security situation. As a Muslim with a military background, he was expected to combat Boko Haram effectively.
This sense of hope at Buhari’s election soon gave way to anguish. His terms in office have been a massive disappointment in most areas, although some of the APC’s youth and labor supporters are still backing the incumbent party in this year’s election.
From #EndSARS to Obi
The #EndSARS protests of 2020 came just after the NLC union federation accepted the removal of fuel subsidies by the government in return for promises to revive the refineries and repeal taxes on the minimum wage. The NLC called off a planned strike against the removal of subsidies in September of that year.
The NLC later reverted to its previous position on fuel subsidies. In the short term, however, the move was widely considered a betrayal. The absence of labor mobilization left a vacuum that was soon filled by other forms of action.
A week later, there was a large-scale mobilization of urban youth who were protesting against police violence under the hashtag #EndSARS. “SARS” was the acronym for the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, which had become notorious for its violence against young people. The protest movement also took up the demand for fuel prices to be kept low and articulated a wider desire for political change.
The NLC leadership only supported the protests after coming under outside pressure, although they did not call for a strike. Whereas the 2012 strike had ended after a negotiated settlement with the government, the #EndSARS activists refused to meet public representatives. They defined themselves as a leaderless movement. With a distrustful view of institutions and politicians—and recalling what they saw as the compromised and co-opted role the unions had played in 2012—they insisted that their demands were non-negotiable.
The SARS unit was dissolved, but the protests continued and escalated. On October 20, in what Amnesty called a “brutal crackdown by security forces on peaceful #EndSARS protesters,” at least 12 people were killed in what became known as the Lekki Toll Gate massacre, further damaging the legitimacy of the APC regime.
Coming from a movement that declared itself leaderless, anti-institutional, and anti-establishment in 2020, some key #EndSARS activists have now embraced Peter Obi. There is a striking resemblance between the informal coalition of “Obidients” and the bloc of APC supporters that emerged in the wake of the 2012 fuel subsidy protest.
This should remind us that these mobilizations absorbed and articulated a range of disenchantments from across the ideological spectrum. Those sentiments could be revolutionary and opposed to neoliberalism, or based on a liberal, anti-corruption, “good governance” framework.
While some Obi supporters are avowed socialists, they come across as a fragmented group of individuals, more or less coordinated, but primarily rallying behind an individual candidate rather than representing a form of cross-societal solidarity. Obi may be credited with improving health and education in Anambra during his time as governor, but he is not a social democrat with a positive view of state intervention in the economy. His neoliberal politics and desire to extend privatizations and cut state spending conflict with the Labour Party’s own program.
Trade unions and the Labour Party
The NLC established the Labour Party in 2002. It was originally known as the Party for Social Democracy, adopting its current name the year after its foundations. It built upon a series of attempts by Nigerian labor to establish a party and translate the historical popularity of the country’s trade unions into electoral power, dating back to the days of British colonial rule.
However, a divide quickly opened between the NLC and LP leadership teams. While there have been irregular debates within the NLC about reviving the Labour Party as a working-class party, in practice it has served as an occasional platform for politicians who did not secure a place on the tickets of the larger parties.
The most successful of these politicians was Olusegun Mimiko. Mimiko left the PDP and served two terms as the LP governor of Ondo state between 2009 and 2017, only to return later to the PDP. In practice, the LP has been a marginal party: in the 2019 presidential election, its candidate received just 5,074 out of 28 million votes cast.
When the former NLC president Adams Oshiomhole ran successfully to become governor of Edo State, it was as the candidate of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) party rather than his own Labour Party. The ACN later joined Buhari’s All Progressives Congress, and Oshiomhole was the APC’s national chairman between 2018 and 2020.
Neither the NLC nor the other main union federation, the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria, has previously given overt support to the LP (or any other party for that matter). This year’s election is an exception, although the support for Obi’s campaign has been somewhat half-hearted, with several local NLC chapters and individual union activists continuing to support the APC. Unions affiliated to the NLC had an estimated membership of seven million in 2018.
There have been factional struggles within the LP as well as between the party and the NLC. The union federation has developed its own platform of demands on behalf of Nigerian workers. The demands include a reasonable and annually negotiated minimum wage, free education from primary to tertiary level and free public health care services, an end to the privatization of public enterprises and assets, the construction of “world-class public infrastructure” such as roads and railways, and the revival of the refineries.
His chosen means for doing so include support for private-sector investment, “vigorously” pursuing policies of economic liberalization, and further privatizations, especially of the energy sector and the refineries. Obi’s plan to drastically reduce government spending entails public-sector job losses.
After the election
Nigeria’s left and labor movement are divided in their attitude to Obi and the LP. The smaller eco-socialist African Action Congress (AAC) party, for instance, argues that the Obi campaign is a trojan horse. So far in its history, the LP has not been capable of mobilizing union members into the party and building organizational structures beyond a narrow focus on election campaigns.
While the LP may lack those structures, the NLC does possess real organizational weight. However, its unions have been severely weakened by decades of neoliberalism and attacks on labor rights, and the congress does not have a strong network of social alliances.
Will the NLC be able to build on the historic base and structures of Nigerian trade unionism and turn the LP into an effective working-class party? And will the federation be willing and able to hold Obi accountable if he becomes Nigeria’s president?
The NLC held its national delegates’ conference on February 7 and 8 this year. Obi was present, along with the other presidential candidates, and the delegates elected a new leadership team.
While the outgoing NLC leaders had been associated with the APC, the new president Joe Ajero has a more left-wing background, and he affirmed the federation’s commitment to build a worker-centred LP. Ajero has also threatened strike action by the unions if the federal government does not immediately deliver relief to Nigeria’s citizens on price increases and the limited availability of fuel and banknotes.
As with the previous campaign of Buhari in 2015, the optimism that surrounds Obi rests more on faith in his image as a seemingly honest “outsider” than on the emergence of coherent and democratic institutions that could hold leaders accountable to the popular movements that give them strength. A victorious Obi would likely seek to reinvigorate the fight against corruption and embrace a more liberal economic direction in a departure from the unsuccessful statist experiments pursued by the Buhari administration.
However, even if Obi wins the election, he will face opposition from a parliament that will probably still be dominated by the established parties and politicians. And should he nonetheless succeed in pushing through his desired return to a more market-oriented path, this would only deepen Nigeria’s lingering crisis driven by poverty and inequality.
In this respect, an Obi administration would not differ much from one run by Tinubu or Atiku. Indeed, the three leading candidates have all declared their intentions to again attempt to remove the fuel subsidies. The NLC has attacked these proposals and demanded concrete plans to revive the country’s refineries and provide Nigerian workers with decent jobs. If fuel subsidies are removed amid the wider economic crisis, we could see another dramatic upsurge of popular protests. The outcome, though, will depend on whether Nigerian youth and trade unions are ready to finally take charge of their own political future—within or outside of the LP—rather than continually serve to elevate the next ruling-class messiah.
Camilla Houeland is a researcher at the Fafo, Norway, and associate professor II in Sociology and Human Geography at the University of Oslo.
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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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