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Carey Francis and the Decolonial Question in Kenya

11 min read.

When we limit politics to personal morality and ethnicity, we have no space for context, or conversation. But that instinct of educated Kenyans to narrow the space for conversation makes sense when we look at the life of Carey Francis.



Carey Francis and the Decolonial Question in Kenya
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A child who went to school beginning in the 1970s, like I did, was fed on a steady dose of “the white man stole our African cultures” as a slogan for explaining all of Kenya’s socio-economic problems. And if one pursued literature as a subject, that slogan was repeated to the point of becoming shrill. At least that’s how I see it today. Back then, as a child, I treated it as the gospel truth and I carried it with me through all my student life, up to my doctoral studies. After all, many of the gurus of decolonial thought are Kenyan, with the classic text on decolonizing the mind being written by a Kenyan. There is no way one could get away with not quoting them, especially not in literature.

But once I was employed as an academic, the decolonial trope would not work, despite my best efforts. The Kenyan education and elite space is a suffocating animal that I had not reckoned with as a student. While I was a student, it was easier to get away with thinking outside the box. Easier, because I was still bullied, beaten and called a rebel (my self-esteem suffered greatly as a result), but I passed exams decently enough, and I would go home to be fed by my parents. My parents, however, suffered ostracization, job loss, and public humiliation for doing the same thing which I was imitating them in doing.

Now that I was employed, I had to walk the same tight rope that they did. That is when I discovered that raising the question of decolonization was not as straightforward as it looked like in the classroom. After all, even the scholars who raised it in the 1970s and 1980s were persecuted by the government and ended up in exile. However, what was left behind was a very strange phenomenon. Decolonization would be constantly cited in academic work, students would talk of colonial mentality even when discussing texts produced as recently as five years ago. But at the same time, there would be no innovation, no thinking about concrete issues, and sad to say, a huge emphasis on guilt and shame.

One instance that I’ve often cited was a conference on the state and identity that was hosted by the Samosa Festival. One interest of the Samosa Festival is to interact with the histories of Kenyan communities that face serious obstacles from the Kenyan state in terms of citizenship. Because African collective identities are locked in tribes, a phenomenon that Mahmood Mamdani explains in Citizen and Subject, tribe is the only political identity which the Kenya state recognizes. Therefore, communities which migrated to Kenya two or three centuries ago, or which live along Kenya’s borders, like the Makonde, Asians, Somalis and Nubians, are subjected to harrowing processes of obtaining identification documents and passports. And that is when they are successful.

The histories of such communities are not part of the mainstream Kenyan national memory. For example, little is known in the Kenyan public memory about workers’ movements during the colonial period, because many of their leaders were Indians who brought an international consciousness to the workers’ and freedom struggles. Yet these workers’ struggles scared the British and the Americans so much that the two governments worked hard to ensure that the radical, anti-colonial worker consciousness was kept at bay.

This was the issue for discussion, or so I thought. Instead, it became yet another session of delving into the riches of our pre-colonial past and shaming the younger generation for not knowing it, without talking about where they would learn it. The conversation got so exasperating that at one point a few of us wondered whether it was possible to have a conversation about Kenyan life without talking about ethnicity. What about other aspects of our identity? We asked. The response I got still makes me shudder.

Someone went through a list of different towns in Kenya, asking me which ones I had visited. I was then informed that people in Nairobi don’t care about ethnicity because they do not know their ethnic identity. I was being shamed into silence with an underhand suggestion that I had no right to speak because I was not African enough.

I refused to back down. I said that the conference was called to talk about the problem of Kenyans whose identity is questioned by the state, who cannot get identity cards, which means they cannot go to school, and as adults, cannot buy property, open a bank account, even get a death certificate for their parents, and here we were, talking about dances, funerals and weddings before colonial times. My friend Adam Hussein, whom I later wrote about in my account of that conference, and who has since passed on, was a great rugby player who qualified for the Kenya national team, but he could not play because he was denied a passport. Later, employers in Kenya would not touch him because he was Nubian. But when he got a job abroad, he could not travel to work without a passport. In other words, he was not wanted in Kenya, but he was not allowed to get out of Kenya. We were here to talk about such problems with identities, and now I was being asked for my travel itinerary as an individual.

I was being shamed into silence with an underhand suggestion that I had no right to speak because I was not African enough.

That has been the frustrating career of decolonizing in Kenya. It has been moralistic, messianic, and individualist and yet unable to address daily Kenyan life. I know of students who have been shamed in class by lecturers claiming that the students are not African or Kenyan enough, while at the same time being given assignments requiring them to discuss the benefits of colonialism. The recently instituted Competency-Based Curriculum is based on the racist ideology of settlers that Africans do not need knowledge, only technical skills. CBC also has a “parental involvement” component that directly draws from family values of US evangelicalism.

None of these problems seem to bother educated Kenyans. For scholars, we will decolonize if this racism is taught in African languages. I have even seen others say that TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) is decolonizing pedagogy. And the same people who thought parental involvement was fun for their own kids, are now ranting about politicians and evangelical churches.

How do we arrive at this spectacular dissonance? In my view, this absurdity is exemplified by one man: Carey Francis.

An honourable man

Edward Carey Francis was the foremost educator in Kenya. He studied mathematics at Cambridge where he later became a fellow. At some point he served in the British army. He then came as a missionary to Kenya, and eventually became well known for his work in two elite schools in Kenya: Maseno in Kisumu, and Alliance in Kikuyu.

The strange thing about Carey Francis is that he embodied major contradictions. He was devoted to wrong ideas, but he was also an honest man. He was committed to the British Empire and believed that Christianity and British civilization were the way forward for Africa, but he was also blind to the reality that colonialism was destined to be violent. He was so idealistic that he criticized the colonial government for its atrocities and the settlers for their racist attitudes towards Africans. He frowned on his former students joining politics because he felt that politics was a deviation from their more noble calling of teaching and service.

The man’s ideas were deeply flawed, but the wide range of his graduates all had one good thing to say about him: he was sincere and devoted to his students.

The man’s ideas were deeply flawed, but the wide range of his graduates all had one good thing to say about him: he was sincere and devoted to his students. In a biography written by LB Grieves, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga wrote a preface in which he called Francis “a moralist – almost too strict a moralist” who was “only slightly concerned that his model African Christian would never be quite equal to the European Christian”. He praises Francis for being devoted, dedicated to teaching, and showing genuine concern for his students, observing that,

In a newly independent country like Kenya, there are many people who suddenly find themselves in positions of power and influence. In the present materialistic world, temptations to use these positions for personal gain are bound to be great, as morality, honesty and other virtues become blurred. Under these conditions, it needs strong personal conviction and integrity to resist. I am satisfied that although some of those who went through the hands of Carey Francis at school have become victims of such temptations, there are nevertheless many more who have successfully maintained the trust bestowed on them by the Kenya public and who are helping to lay down the foundation of an honest public service for the country.

Duncan Ndegwa, who became the governor of the Central Bank of Kenya, wrote in his eulogy that Francis “was the first European who called me an ‘ass,’ kindly.” He added that Francis

“Was a man whose great intellectual talents were supported by an intense personal faith – a kind of moral rectitude which saw life in simple terms of individual good and evil.

He left his pupils in no doubt of what kind of persons he wanted them to be. This element of paternalism in his approach was perhaps at fault. But the transparent honesty which illuminated all his relationships and the strictness which he applied equally to himself and to others, greatly mitigated such weakness as there may have been.

An individualist himself, he saw his purpose in life to work through individuals. An essentially simple man, he never understood that large organizations also have motivations, dynamics and momentums of their own quite apart from those of individuals.”

Benjamin Kipkorir, the Kenyan historian who did major work on analysing Kenya’s educated elite, and who was also an alumnus of Alliance and Cambridge, had this to say:

Francis was in every sense a great man. The tributes that have been paid to him are legion. Here, it seems to me, lies his greatness. He was “called” to service. No serious historian, no matter how agnostic, can scoff at such a reason.

As an educationist, Francis espoused the elitist approach. He was opposed to mass education – “casting pearls before swine.” He advocated the Colonial office tree-structure approach by which quality literary education was given to a few who in turn should go out to educate the many.

One side of Francis’ character which must be stressed was his ruthlessness. In everything he did, he was thorough. In tackling things he believed to be wrong, and therefore evil, Francis was thoroughly ruthless.

Francis, the missionary, first rate teacher of Africans, bitter and effective critic of government wrongs against Africans, failed to acknowledge that the only solution to African problems was political action. With Mau Mau he was able to have a deeper insight of the African plight. He was thus able to marginally modify, in private, his earlier hostility to politics. But overall, his pronouncements, delivered with his forceful teaching (…) had the effect of preventing many of his better pupils from ever venturing into politics.

From these snippets of his former students, many of whom became major government and political actors in Kenya, we see a conundrum. One, is Francis’s hatred for politics, and two, is Francis’s individual morality. Ndegwa explicitly names the problem here: individualism. What Francis embodied is the rather naïve belief, which he was able to implement as a European pioneer missionary, that individual morality and honesty were enough of a foundation for society. This promise is articulated by Jaramogi in his hope for an “honest civil service” that uses individual morality to avoid exploiting Kenyans.

What is wrong with this picture? Kipkorir and Ndegwa have named it, Carey Francis was anti-political. And to use Lewis Gordon’s formulation of the term, Francis was acting in bad faith. Francis thought that social problems could be solved by individual morality and was blind to the unique dynamics of societies and institutions, and their impact on individual behaviour. This lack of social consciousness was also combined with elitism, the belief that only a few individuals were enough, and deserving enough, to change society.

What Francis embodied is the rather naïve belief that individual morality and honesty were enough of a foundation for society.

So these themes emerge from Francis’s career: individualism, universalism, an aversion to politics, and the ability to hold individual views that contradict one’s social context – the very characteristics of decolonization in the experiences I began with. Decolonization discourse in Kenya is highly moralistic, and it is used to judge people’s individual credentials to qualify as African. It eschews the discussion of social and contemporary issues, which is the substance of politics.

And as I indicated, decolonization in Kenya encourages guilt and shame for being a victim of colonialism. This guilt and shame is now being used to push women to seek genital mutilation to pay a debt to their ancestors. Meanwhile, major social issues, like the geographical spaces still bearing European names, the export of Kenyan workers to countries abroad (to the extent of Kenyans being blamed for the injuries they suffer from rogue employers), the dominance of education policies from the west, the discrimination against Kenyans within their own country and the rampant economic inequality; all these take a back seat in comparison to personal redemption through the return to a pre-colonial past.

Euro-Christian Protestantism

Anyone who knows Christian Protestantism can see the same tropes here: African culture is presented as a redemption to individuals who have erred by being colonized, and which they can obtain through personal conversion such as reverse baptism (dropping European names) and literally crucifying (especially the woman’s) body.

In governance, the same epistemic foundation is expressed through a naïve belief that one’s morality is the sole measure of politics. Honesty is the measure of good public service, hence the current overarching political conversation is that the current president is a liar. If one raises the question of whether lying is a category with which to assess a wide range of political issues, the reply, again, is personal: it’s your ethnic group, it’s how you voted (never mind that ballots are secret), and you need to provide a solution to a problem that is not named. And although this moralism is highly Christian, it is common to professing Christians and secularists alike.

Carey Francis embodied the Euro-Christian liberalism that undergirds governance and politics in Kenya through the education system. Francis was moral and honest at the individual level, at the universal level, he believed in the British Empire. In between, he had little to say about the self-determination of African peoples. After independence, this dynamic became moral and ethnic at the individual level, and anti-colonial at the universal level, with little to say about racist policies and inequality in healthcare, education, employment and environment. Ali Mazrui, Kenya’s foremost liberal intellectual, articulated the problem of Western education when he noted that Western education is committed “to both individualism and universalism . . . what is missing is the intermediate category of the particular society in which the scholar operates”. And this problem is specific to the educated middle class, for as JF Ade Ajayi has explained, the missionaries in Africa promoted schooling to establish an African middle class as the “enlightened” purveyors of European-style industrial progress in Africa.

Decolonization discourse in Kenya is highly moralistic, and it is used to judge people’s individual credentials to qualify as African.

This inability to deal with the intermediary category of the local is Kenya’s greatest intellectual weakness, and it affects decolonization as well. We are seemingly unable to see each other as human beings in all our complexity, and to see colonialism as just an aspect of the great historical trajectory of Africa. Instead, we make suffocating demands for proof of authentic African expression which we equate to decolonizing, yet colonialism was a political project, not an individual one.

The same character has been mapped onto Kenyan political life. Kenya is not only facing a tanking economy but a Kenyan middle class that cannot engage in a social conversation without resorting to name calling and character aspersions. The problem is that this is the class with access to international platforms, where it projects itself as secular and anti-colonial. And so the international impression of Kenya is that it has a vocal, anti-colonial, progressive, constitution-quoting educated class, with no idea that at home, the same anti-colonial rhetoric is inflicting injuries on ordinary Kenyans – especially on our children. Again, Mazrui observed this dynamic when he stated that “local African academics are less radical unless confronted with reactionary colonial academics”. Binyavanga Wainaina described this irony even better when he said:

To be a Kenyan is to be cursed by a system that pretends to function. There is enough of a school system, of a health system, of a private sector, good banks and tall buildings for everybody to see them. What nobody tells you is that this splendour is available only to the 5% who make it through the filters.

What is hidden in all the noise about African culture and lying politicians, is a very narrow area for engagement and conversation. When we limit politics to personal morality and ethnicity, we have no space for context, conversation or even innovation. And if one tries to widen the conversation, we accuse them of hypocrisy, which we almost always link to their ethnicity or personal experience. Rarely does the conversation extend to the social and the political.

We make suffocating demands for proof of authentic African expression which we equate to decolonizing, yet colonialism was a political project, not an individual one.

But that instinct of educated Kenyans to narrow the space for conversation makes sense when one looks at the life of Carey Francis. Francis appeared honest when he was judged within the narrow parameters of the school, the exam results of his students, and the prestigious jobs the young men got after school. But his honesty stopped being relevant when it was confronted with the political and institutional reality of colonialism. Nevertheless, the strong culture of individualism and moralism has remained entrenched in Kenyan public discourse. And, ironically, its epistemic foundation of Euro-Christian protestant liberalism seems to be the same foundation of decolonization in Kenya.

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Wandia Njoya is a scholar, social and political commentator and blogger based in Nairobi, Kenya.


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

Somalia must first ensure sustained progress in stability, infrastructure development, governance, and economic growth before considering full membership of the East African Community.



Is Somalia’s Quest for Membership of the EAC Premature?
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The current members of the East African Community (EAC) are Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan. The Somali Federal Government, under the leadership of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has expressed a strong interest in joining the EAC, sparking questions among Somali citizens as to whether the country is ready to join such a large and complex regional bloc.

During President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud initiated Somalia’s pursuit of EAC membership during his previous term as a president from 2012 to 2017. However, little progress was made during his first term and, following his re-election, President Hassan reignited his pursuit of EAC membership without consulting essential stakeholders such as the parliament, the opposition, and civil society. This unilateral decision has raised doubts about the president’s dedication to establishing a government based on consensus. Moreover, his decision to pursue EAC membership has evoked mixed responses within Somalia. While some Somalis perceive joining the EAC as advantageous for the country, others express concerns about potential risks to Somalia’s economic and social development. President Hassan has defended his decision, emphasising that Somalia’s best interests lie in becoming a member of the EAC.

To assess Somalia’s readiness to join the EAC, the regional bloc undertook a comprehensive verification mission. A team of experts well versed in politics, economics, and social systems, was tasked with evaluating Somalia’s progress. The evaluation included a thorough review of economic performance, trade policies, and potential contributions to the EAC’s integration efforts. During this process, the team engaged with various government institutions and private organisations, conducting comprehensive assessments and discussions to gauge Somalia’s preparedness.

One of the key requirements for Somalia is demonstrating an unwavering commitment to upholding principles such as good governance, democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. Somalia must also showcase a vibrant market economy that fosters regional trade and collaboration.

Successful integration into the EAC would not only elevate Somalia’s regional stature but would also foster deeper bonds of cooperation and shared prosperity among the East African nations. While this is a positive step towards regional integration and economic development, there are several reasons for pessimism about the potential success of Somalia’s membership in the EAC.

Somalia must also showcase a vibrant market economy that fosters regional trade and collaboration.

Somalia has faced significant challenges due to prolonged conflict and instability. The decades-long civil war, coupled with the persistent threat of terrorism, has had a devastating impact on the country’s infrastructure, economy, governance systems, and overall stability.

The following fundamental factors raise valid concerns about Somalia’s readiness to effectively participate in the EAC.

Infrastructure development

Infrastructure plays a critical role in regional integration and economic growth. However, Somalia’s infrastructure has been severely damaged and neglected due to years of conflict. The country lacks adequate transportation networks, reliable energy systems, and while communications infrastructure has improved, internet penetration rates remain low and mobile networks – which are crucial for seamless integration with the EAC – can be unavailable outside of urban centres. Rebuilding such infrastructure requires substantial investments, technical expertise, and stability, all of which remain significant challenges for Somalia.

Political stability and governance

The EAC places emphasis on good governance, democracy, and the rule of law as prerequisites for membership. Somalia’s journey towards political stability and effective governance has been arduous, with numerous setbacks and ongoing power struggles. The lack of a unified government, coupled with weak state institutions and a history of corruption, raises doubts about Somalia’s ability to meet the EAC’s standards. Without a stable and inclusive political environment, Somalia may struggle to effectively contribute to the decision-making processes within the regional bloc.

Economic development and trade

Somalia’s economy has been heavily dependent on the informal sector and faces substantial economic disparities. The country needs to demonstrate a vibrant market economy that fosters regional trade and collaboration, as required by the EAC. However, the challenges of rebuilding a war-torn economy, tackling high poverty rates, and addressing widespread unemployment hinder Somalia’s ability to fully participate in regional trade and reap the benefits of integration.

Security Concerns

Somalia continues to grapple with security challenges, including the presence of extremist groups and maritime piracy. These issues have not only hindered the country’s development but also pose potential risks to the stability and security of the entire EAC region. It is crucial for Somalia to address these security concerns comprehensively and to establish effective mechanisms to contribute to the EAC’s collective security efforts.

Economic Disparity and Compatibility

Somalia’s economy primarily relies on livestock, agriculture, and fishing, which may not align well with the more quasi-industralised economies of the other EAC member states. This mismatch could result in trade imbalances and pose challenges for integrating Somalia into the regional economy. For instance, according to the World Bank, Somalia’s GDP per capita was US$447 in 2021 whereas it is US$2081 for Kenya, US$1099 for Tanzania, and US$883 for Uganda. Furthermore, Somalia faces significant economic challenges, including capital flight that drains resources from the country, contributing to its status as a consumer-based economy.

This divergence in economic structures could lead to trade imbalances and impede the seamless integration of Somalia into the regional economy. The substantial economic gap between Somalia and other EAC member states suggests a significant disparity that may hinder Somalia’s ability to fully participate in the EAC’s economic activities. Additionally, Somalia has yet to demonstrate fiscal or economic discipline that would make it eligible for EAC membership. While Somalia has a functioning Central Bank and the US dollar remains the primary mode of financial transactions, the risk of integration lies with the other EAC members; cross-border trade would occur in an environment of instability, posing potential risks to the other member state.

Somalia faces significant economic challenges, including capital flight that drains resources from the country, contributing to its status as a consumer-based economy.

While these fundamental challenges remain, it is important to acknowledge the progress Somalia has made in recent years. This includes the gradual improvement in security conditions, the establishment of key governmental institutions, and the peaceful transfer of power. One can also argue that many of these fundamental economic, infrastructure, political instability, and security concerns exist across the East African Community. However, what makes Somalia unique is the scale of the challenges it faces today. Somalia has adopted a federal political structure, which has not worked well so far. This level of fragmentation and civil political distrust makes Somalia’s case unique. More than ever, Somalia needs meaningful political and social reconciliation before it can embark on a new regional journey.

The absence of an impact assessment by the relevant ministries in Somalia is alarming. Without this assessment, it becomes challenging to make informed decisions about the potential benefits of joining the EAC and the impact on our economy and society. Conducting this assessment should be a priority for Somalia’s ministries to ensure a comprehensive evaluation of the potential benefits and risks involved in EAC membership. Furthermore, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s decision to pursue Somalia’s integration into the EAC lacks political legitimacy as a decision of this nature would normally require ratification through a popular vote and other legal means through parliament. The failure to achieve this could potentially allow another president in the future to unilaterally announce withdrawal from the EAC.

Fragile state of Affairs and internal disputes

The recent reopening of the Gatunda border post between Uganda and Rwanda after a three-year period of strained relations indicates a fragile state of affairs. The East African Court of Justice has ruled that Rwanda’s initial closure of the border was illegal, highlighting the contentious nature of inter-country disputes. Furthermore, Tanzania and Uganda have formally lodged complaints against Kenya, alleging unfair advantages in trade relations, and have even gone as far as threatening Kenya with export bans. These grievances underscore the underlying tensions and competition between member states, which could potentially hinder the harmonious functioning of the East African Community. These political and economic disagreements among member states increase the risks associated with Somalia’s membership. Somalia must carefully evaluate whether it is entering a united and cohesive bloc or one plagued by internal divisions. Joining the East African Community at this juncture carries the risk of being drawn into ongoing disputes and potentially being caught in the crossfire of inter-country rivalries.

Conflict in South Sudan

The prolonged conflict in South Sudan, which has been ongoing since its admission to the East African Community (EAC) in 2016, serves as a cautionary tale for Somalia. Despite the EAC’s efforts to mediate and foster peace in the region, the outcomes have been mixed, resulting in an unsustainable peace. This lack of success highlights the challenges faced by member states in resolving conflicts and maintaining stability within the community. Somalia must carefully evaluate whether its participation in the EAC will genuinely contribute to its stability, economic growth, and development, or if it risks exacerbating existing internal conflicts. Joining the community without a solid foundation of political stability, institutions, and peace could potentially divert resources and attention away from domestic issues, hindering Somalia’s progress towards resolving its own challenges. South Sudan’s admission to the EAC in 2016 was seen as a major step towards regional integration and stability. However, the country has been mired in conflict ever since, with two civil wars breaking out in 2013 and 2016. The EAC has been involved in mediation efforts, with mixed results.

Assessing Readiness

Somalia must evaluate the readiness of its institutions, infrastructure, and economy to effectively engage with the East African Community. Comprehensive preparations are crucial to ensure that joining the community is a well thought-out and strategic decision, rather than a hasty move that could further destabilise the nation. Somalia needs to assess whether its infrastructure, institutions, and economy are sufficiently developed to cope with the challenges and demands of integration. Premature membership could strain Somalia’s resources, impede its growth, and leave it at a disadvantage compared to more established member states.

Somalia must carefully evaluate whether it is entering a united and cohesive bloc or one plagued by internal divisions.

Somalia must ensure sustained progress in stability, infrastructure development, governance, and economic growth before considering full membership of the EAC. A phased approach that prioritises capacity building, institution-strengthening, and inclusive governance would enable Somalia to lay a solid foundation for successful integration and reap the maximum benefits from EAC membership in the long term. Failure to address these concerns would make Somalia vulnerable to exploitation and market monopolies by stronger economies, and could also risk a lack of seamless convergence for Somalia’s membership. While there is political will from EAC leaders to support Somalia’s membership, it is vitally important that they make the right decision for Somalia and the EAC bloc as a whole to ensure a successful integration. I believe that, at this juncture, the disadvantages of Somalia joining the EAC outweigh the benefits.

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

It was a landmark case for its time, a first for East Africa and possibly for the continent. A group of Africans challenged a colonial power in a colonial court to appeal a major land grab and demand reparations. They lost on a technicality but the ripple effects of the Maasai Case continue to be felt.



2023 Marks 110 Years Since the Maasai Case 1913: Does it Still Matter?
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In the name Parsaloi Ole Gilisho there lies an irony. It was spelled Legalishu by the colonial British. Say it out loud. He gave them a legal issue, all right. And a 110-year-old headache.

This extraordinary age-set spokesman (a traditional leader called ol-aiguenani, pl. il-aiguenak) led non-violent resistance to the British, in what was then British East Africa, that culminated in the Maasai Case 1913. Ole Gilisho was then a senior warrior, who was probably in his mid- to late thirties. In bringing the case before the High Court of British East Africa, he was not only challenging the British but also the Maasai elders who had signed away thousands of acres of community land via a 1904 Maasai Agreement or Treaty with the British. This and the 1911 Agreement – which effectively rendered the first void – are often wrongly called the Anglo-Maasai Agreements. In Ole Gilisho’s view, and those of his fellow plaintiffs, these elders had sold out. The suit accused them of having had no authority to make this decision on behalf of the community. This represented a very serious challenge by warriors to traditional authority, including that of the late laibon (prophet) Olonana, who had signed in 1904, and died in 1911.

The British had expected the Maasai to violently rebel in response to these issues and to colonial rule in general. But contrary to modern-day myths that the Maasai fought their colonisers, here they resisted peacefully via legal means. They hired British lawyers and took the British to their own cleaners. Spoiler: they lost, went to appeal, and lost again. But archival research reveals that the British government was so convinced it would eventually lose, if the Maasai appealed to the Privy Council in London (they didn’t), that officials began discussing how much compensation to pay.

The facts are these. The lawsuit was launched in 1912. There were four plaintiffs, Ole Gilisho and three fellow Purko (one of the 16 Maasai territorial sections) Maasai. In Civil Case No. 91 they claimed that the 1911 Maasai Agreement was not binding on them and other Laikipia Maasai, that the 1904 Agreement remained in force, and they contested the legality of the second move. They demanded the return of Laikipia, and £5,000 in damages for loss of livestock during the second move (explained below). Ole Gilisho was illiterate and had never been to school. But he and his fellow plaintiffs were assisted by sympathetic Europeans who were angered by the injustice they saw being perpetrated against a “tribe” that British administrators conceded had never given them any trouble. These sympathisers included people who worked for the colonial government, notably medical Dr Norman Leys and some district officials, lawyers, a few missionaries, the odd settler, and a wider group of left-wing MPs and anti-colonial agitators in Britain.

What had led up to this? After the 1904 Agreement, certain groups or sections of Maasai had been forcibly moved from their grazing grounds in the central Rift Valley around Naivasha into two reserves – one in Laikipia, the other in the south on the border with German East Africa. The British had pledged that this arrangement was permanent, that it would last “so long as the Maasai as a race shall exist”. But just seven years later, the British went back on their word and moved the “northern” Maasai again, forcing them at gunpoint to vacate Laikipia and move to the Southern Reserve. In all, it is estimated that the Maasai lost at least 50 per cent of their land, but that figure could be nearer 70 per cent. The ostensible reason for moving them was to “free up” land for white settlement – largely for British settlers but also for South Africans fleeing the Boer War (also called the South African War).

But just seven years later, the British went back on their word and moved the ‘northern’ Maasai again, forcing them at gunpoint to vacate Laikipia and move to the Southern Reserve.

By the time the case came to court, Ole Gilisho had become a defendant, even though he was in favour of the plaint. So were at least eight other defendants. He had signed the 1904 Agreement, and now stood accused with 17 other Maasai of having no authority to enter into such a contract. The first defendant was the Attorney General. Ole Gilisho’s son-in-law Murket Ole Nchoko, misspelled Ol le Njogo by the British, and described as a leading moran (il-murran or warrior) of the Purko section, was now the lead plaintiff. The plaint was called Ol le Njogo and others v. The Attorney General and others.

Challenges facing the plaintiffs

Most Maasai were illiterate in those days, and this obviously placed them at a major disadvantage. They could not write down their version of events. They were forced to rely, in their dealings with officials and their own lawyers, upon translators and semiliterate mediators whose reliability was questionable. But it is evident, from the archival record which includes verbatim accounts of meetings between Maasai leaders and British officials in the run-up to the moves and case, that the level of verbal discourse was highly sophisticated. This comes as no surprise; verbal debate is a cornerstone of Maasai society and customary justice. Unfortunately, that alone could not help them here. They knew they needed lawyers, and asked their friends for help. Leys, who was later sacked from the colonial service for his activism, admitted in a private letter: “I procured the best one in the country for them.” This was more than he ever admitted openly.

Local administrators used intimidation and all kinds of devious means to try and stop the case. (I didn’t come across any evidence that the Colonial Office in London sanctioned this; in fact, it ordered the Governor not to obstruct the main lawyer or his clients.) They allegedly threatened Ole Gilisho with flogging and deportation. They threatened and cross-questioned suspected European sympathisers, including Leys and the lawyers. They banned Maasai from selling cattle to raise the legal fees, and placed the Southern Reserve in continuous quarantine. It was hard for the plaintiffs, confined to a reserve, to meet their lawyers at all. At one point, lawyers were refused passes to enter the reserve, and their clients were prevented from leaving it.

We hear Ole Gilisho’s voice in the archival record. Forced to give a statement explaining his actions to officials at Enderit River on 21 June 1912, when asked if he had called Europeans to his boma, he replied: “Is it possible for a black man to call a white man?” He denied having called the Europeans (probably lawyers or go-betweens), saying they had come to him. Leys later explained to a friend that Ole Gilisho had probably been “terrified out of his wits”, and hadn’t meant what he said.

What happened in court

The case was thrown out when it first came before the High Court in Mombasa in May 1913. The Maasai appealed, and that is when the legal arguments were fully aired by both sides – lawyers for the Crown and the Maasai. The appeal was dismissed in December on the grounds that the plaintiffs’ claims were not cognisable in municipal courts. The two agreements were ruled not to be agreements but treaties, which were Acts of State. They could not, therefore, be challenged in a local court. It was impossible for the plaintiffs to seek to enforce the provisions of a treaty, said the judges – “The paramount chief himself could not bring such an action, still less can his people”. Claims for damages were also dismissed.

The Court of Appeal’s judgement centred on the status of a protectorate, in which the King was said to exercise powers granted to him under the Foreign Jurisdiction Act of 1890. Irrational as it sounds, the Crown claimed that British East Africa was not British territory, and the Maasai were not British subjects with any rights of access to British law, but “protected foreigners, who, in return for that protection, owe obedience” to the Crown. As Yash Pal Ghai and Patrick McAuslan later put it, when discussing the case in a 1970 book: “A British protected person is protected against everyone except the British.” On the plus side, the judges ruled that the Maasai still retained some “vestige” of sovereignty. (The Maasai’s lawyer argued that they did not.) This triggered later moves by Maasai politicians, in the 1960s, to float the idea of secession from Kenya and the possible creation of a sovereign Maasai state. John Keen had threatened this in 1962 at the second Lancaster House Conference in London, attended by a Maasai delegation.

Alexander Morrison, lawyer for the Maasai, argued that British rule and courts were established in the protectorate, which had not been the case 30 years earlier. The Maasai were not foreigners but equal to other British subjects in every way. The agreements were civil contracts, enforceable in the courts, and not unenforceable treaties. If one took the Crown’s claim about Acts of State to its logical conclusion, he argued, a squatter refusing to leave land reserved for the Maasai could only be removed by an Act of State. None of his arguments washed with the judges. (See my 2006 book Moving the Maasai for a fuller account.)

Morrison advised his clients to appeal. It seems they couldn’t raise the funds. However, oral testimony from elders reveals a different story: Ole Gilisho had planned to sail to England to appeal to the Privy Council, but he was threatened with drowning at sea. This is impossible to verify, but it rings true.

In an interview carried out on my behalf in 2008 by Michael Tiampati, my old friend John Keen had this to say about the outcome of the case: “If the hyena was the magistrate and the accused was a goat, you should probably know that the goat would not get any form of justice. So this is exactly how it was that the Maasai could not get any fair justice from British courts.”

Contemporary African resistance

Unbeknown to the Maasai, there was growing anti-colonial resistance in the same period in other parts of Africa. All these acts of resistance have inspired African activists in their continuing struggles. To mention a few: the Chilembwe rebellion in Nyasaland, now Malawi (1915); the Herero revolt in German South West Africa, now Namibia (1904–1908); resistance in present-day Kenya by Mekatilili wa Menza (largely 1913-14); the First Chimurenga or First War of Independence in what is now Zimbabwe (1896–1897); and the Maji Maji rebellion in German East Africa, now Tanzania (1905–1907). But none of these rebellions involved lawsuits. The closest precedent may have been R vs Earl of Crewe, Ex-parte Sekgoma in 1910. Chief Sekgoma, who had been jailed by the British in the Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana) after many attempts to remove him as chief, instructed his lawyer to bring a writ of habeus corpus against the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Crewe. He demanded to be tried in an English court, refusing an offer of release on condition that he agrees to live in a restricted area of the Transvaal. The suit was dismissed, the court ruling that the King had unfettered jurisdiction in a protectorate, and his right to detain Sekgoma was upheld. Sekgoma apparently said: “I would rather be killed than go to the Transvaal. I will not go because I have committed no crime – I wish to have my case tried before the courts in England or else be killed.” Freed in 1912, he died two years later.

Enduring myths

The case, and other key events in early twentieth century Maasai history, have given rise to several myths. They include the idea that the stolen land should “revert” to the Maasai after 100 years, but that was not stated in the 1904 Agreement, which was not limited in time, was not a land lease, and has not “expired” as many people claim. Neither agreement has. Keen knew this, but nonetheless called for the land to “revert”. Other myths include the idea that Olonana’s thumbprint was placed on the 1911 Agreement posthumously, and it must therefore be invalid. But neither his thumbprint nor name are on the document, which was “signed” by his son Seggi. Anyhow, Olonana was a key ally of the British, who had no reason to kill him (which is another myth).

The original of the 1904 Agreement has never been found, which has led some Maasai to believe that it never existed and therefore all the land must be restored and compensation paid for its use to date. There may be sound legal arguments for restorative justice, but this is not one of them. These myths are ahistorical and unhelpful, but may be understood as attempts to rationalise and make sense of what happened. Some activists may wish that the Maasai had resisted violently, rather than taken the legal route. Hence the insistence by some that there was a seamless history of armed resistance from the start of colonial rule. Not true. There are much better arguments to be made, by professional lawyers with an understanding of international treaty rights and aboriginal title, which could possibly produce results.

Ole Gilisho had planned to sail to England to appeal to the Privy Council, but he was threatened with drowning at sea.

Where does all this leave the Maasai today? Over the years, there has been much talk of revisiting the case and bringing a claim against Britain (or Kenya) for the return of land or reparations for its loss. None of this has resulted in concrete action. I attended a planning workshop in Nairobi in 2006 when plans were laid for a lawsuit. VIPs present included the late Ole Ntimama, scholar Ben Kantai and John Keen. Keen declared, with his customary flourish, that he would stump up a million shillings to get the ball rolling. I don’t know how much money was raised in total, but it disappeared into thin air. As did the lawyers.

Leading lawyers have advised that too much time has passed, and (unlike the successful Mau Mau veterans’ suit) there are no living witnesses who could give evidence in court. It is unclear whether the agreements still have any legal validity. The British government might argue, as it previously has, including in response to my questions, that it handed over all responsibility for its pre-1963 actions to the Kenyan government at independence. This is a ludicrous argument, which is also morally wrong. Former colonial powers such as Germany have accepted responsibility for historical injustices in their former colonies, notably Namibia. Has the time come for Ole Gilisho’s descendants to call a white man to court?

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Who Is Hustling Who?

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



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

My drive to Limuru happened on the first Wednesday (July 19) of the protests. Everything was eerily quiet, Nairobi, renowned for its traffic jams, was quiet. Matatus and buses were parked in their hubs. Shops and stalls were closed. Even the hawkers that dot the roads and highways stayed home. Save for the heavy police presence everywhere, it felt like the country had come to a standstill.

We got to Kangemi shortly after the police had shot and wounded two protestors—the road was strewn with stones and armed riot police huddled by the side of the road waiting for the next wave of attacks that never came. In the end, six people would be shot to death throughout the country, and countless were injured and arrested. Coming from the US, where police arrest protestors and shoot black people, there were no surprises here. The US can hardly be the standard of good policing or democratic practices, but the lives lost simply for asking the government to center the people in its economic planning seemed especially cruel.

But it was the emptiness of the roads that made the whole drive eerie. Perhaps I was refracting what was happening in Kenya through what followed the 1982 coup in which 240 people were killed; or the ethnic clashes of the 1990s that culminated in the 2007 post-election violence. Yet, there was a general agreement among people that there was something different about the Kenya of today—that something was already broken and the nightmares to come were slowly but surely revealing themselves—like a bus carrying passengers and the driver realizing the brakes were out just as it was about to descend a steep hill.

Voting with the middle finger

But all this was predictable. President Ruto has been a known quantity since the 1990s when he led the violent Moi youth wingers. He and his running mate and later president, Uhuru Kenyatta, were brought in front of the ICC to face charges of crimes against humanity following the post-election violence in 2007. Some key witnesses disappeared and others were intimidated into silence. Who in their right mind gives evidence against those in control of the state? The ICC was already discredited as being Western-crimes-against-humanity friendly (the US has never been a signatory rightly afraid its former presidents, such as George Bush, would be hauled before the court). The ICC eventually withdrew the case in March 2015.

I kept asking everyone I met, why was Ruto voted in spite of his history? The answers varied: He rigged the elections; he did not rig and if he did, he only managed to be better at it than Raila Odinga; he appealed to the youth with the idea of building a hustler nation (what a telling term); the Kikuyus have vowed never to have a Luo president and therefore opted for Ruto who is Kalenjin as opposed to Odinga who is Luo.

I sat with older Kikuyu men in the little Nyama Choma spot in Limuru Market and they talked about a generational divide between the Kikuyu and youth (Ruto) and the elderly Kikuyus (Odinga). But the one I heard over and over again was that Kenyans are tired of the Kenyatta and Odinga political dynasties. As one Trump supporter was to say, they voted for him with the middle finger. And so, the Kenyans who voted for Ruto were giving a middle finger to the Kenyatta, Moi and Odinga political dynasties. But no one had really expected buyer’s remorse to kick in one year into the Ruto presidency.

I also asked about Odinga’s protests: what was the end game? One theory is that he was looking at power-sharing, having done it once before, following the 2007 elections. In our shorthand political language, he was looking for another handshake. Some said the people have a right to protest their government, and he is simply asking the government to repeal the tax hikes and reinstate the fuel subsidies. Others believed that he wants to be a genuine and useful voice of opposition for the good of the country and its poor.

My own theory is that he is attempting a people-powered, centered, democratic, and largely peaceful takeover—where people take to the streets to overthrow an unpopular government. We saw this in Latin America in the 2000s. In response to Odinga’s absence during the three days of protests (he was sick), some leaders in his Azimio party have started using this language. The only problem with this strategy is that the sitting government has to be wildly unpopular. Ruto still has a lot of support, meaning that he does not have to compromise or give up power. It was to my mind turning into a stalemate and I was worried that the state would respond with more state-sponsored violence.

But real economics broke the stalemate. In a country where people are barely surviving and the majority are poor without savings to rely on, or relatives to reach out to for help, the hawkers, small stall and shop owners simply went back to work. In other words, those that would have been hurt the most by three days of protests (a day at home literally means a day without food for the family) simply went back to work, and the matatus and buses hummed back to life, slowly on Thursday and full throttle by Friday.

Saturday around Westlands might as well have been as busy as a Monday as people overcompensated for lost time to either sell or shop. If the protests were going to succeed the opposition (composed of some of the wealthiest families in Kenya, including Odinga’s) really should have thought about how best to protect those who would be the most affected. They should find legal and innovative ways to put their money where their political mouths are.

Cuba as Kenya’s north star

Odinga had to change tactics and called for a day of protest against police violence instead of three-day weekly protests in perpetuity. He is now in danger of turning into a caricature of his old revolutionary self and becoming an Al Sharpton, who instead of protesting the American government for the police killings of black people, protests the police themselves leaving the government feeling sanctimonious. Obama or Biden could weigh in, in righteous indignation without offering any real change (remember Obama’s emotional pleas over gun shootings and police shootings as if he was not the one occupying the most powerful office in the US)?

The one question that keeps eating at me is this: why is the most apparent outcome at the time a surprise later? Ruto was always going to sell off Kenya with a percentage for himself and his friends. Odinga was always going to capitulate. The end result is that the Kenyan bus will continue to careen on without brakes. So, what is to be done?

I was in Cuba earlier this year. I got a sense of the same desperation I felt in Kenya but the difference is Cubans have free access to healthcare, education, housing, and food security. They have free access to all the things that make basic survival possible. Before calling for the tax hikes and cutting fuel subsidies might it not have been more prudent to have a safety net for Kenyans? Would that not have been the most logical thing? But of course not, Ruto is acting at the behest of the IMF and big money. Ruto has learned the art of pan-African political rhetoric. Abroad he can call for a different non-US-centered economic system and castigate the French president over paternalism but at home, his politics are hustler politics.

Life in Cuba is difficult, as a result of relentless sanctions from the US,  but it is far from impossible. It remains the north star for those who understand discussions around fundamental change as the only starting point. We can have arguments about the nature of those fundamental changes, but we can all agree we should not be a country where one family, say the Kenyatta family, owns more than half a million acres of land. Or where, as Oxfam reported, four individuals hold more wealth than that held by 22 million Kenyans. The kind of politics that begin with a necessity for fundamental change will obviously not come from Ruto.

But one hopes it can still come from the Odinga camp.  Or even better, from a genuinely progressive people-powered movement that has inbuilt questions of fundamental change in its political, economic, and cultural platform.

In spite of the empty roads, Limuru Market was thriving and Wakari Bar kept its reputation as one of the best places for Nyama Choma and for lively political conversations. People are paying attention, after all, it is their lives and livelihoods on the line. Politicians, especially those in the opposition and the political left should listen as well.

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

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