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Dedan Kimathi’s Bones and the Politics of Perpetual Promise

13 min read.

What has made it so difficult for successive governments to acknowledge that they may never find Kimathi’s remains?



Dedan Kimathi’s Bones and the Politics of Perpetual Promise
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The recent death of Field Marshall Mukami Kimathi re-ignited the long-drawn-out debate about finding the site where her husband, Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi, was buried so that his remains can be exhumed and reburied.

The re-emergence of the debate was partly triggered by her family stating that Mukami had asked to not be buried until her husband’s remains were recovered so that they could be buried together next to each other. In the end, the government seems to have persuaded the family to proceed with the funeral.

Since Mukami was a public figure—mainly on account of being the widow of Dedan Kimathi—it was expected that senior political figures would flock to her funeral. President William Ruto and his deputy Rigathi Gachagua were present as was their main competitor in the 2022 presidential election, Raila Odinga, who was accompanied by several notable figures including Maina Njenga, the former leader of Mungiki.

During Mukami’s burial, the president and his deputy made a commitment to fulfilling her wish of finding Kimathi’s bones and reburying them next to her. It is unlikely that many of the people who heard this promise believed it. This is not just to do with the trust deficit that the current regime is suffering from, but also because this commitment has been made by previous governments. In fact, some analysts have argued, Kimathi’s remains are unlikely to ever be found. I am inclined to agree and, presumably by this point, our national leaders understand this as well. This begs the question why they keep making this promise, or rather, what makes it difficult for them to acknowledge that they may never find Kimathi’s remains and bring the matter to a close.

In my view, as I argue here, successive governments have found it difficult to close the debate because of the central place that Kimathi has come to occupy in anti-establishment politics as the Kenyan political elite has continued to run the country in extractive and oppressive ways. As a brave freedom fighter who stood up to the oppression of the colonial government, and who died before Kenya gained independence thus remaining untainted by the corruption and oppression that have characterized post-colonial regimes, Kimathi presents the image of citizenship that is at odds with what the Kenyan government demands of Kenyans, while at the same time, he is seen as the kind of leader whose values differ from those of the Kenya’s post-colonial leaders.  For this reason, untamed, Kimathi’s memory is a problem for the state for the same reason that he is a hero to those who fight against oppression: he stands as a challenge to the model of obedient, respectful, and compliant citizenship that the Kenyan state demands of its citizens in the face of oppression and neglect. People leading the anti-establishment struggle have therefore taken Kimathi as their hero and thereby immortalised him. Thus, the discourse about Kimathi’s bones is illustrative of a country that is at war with itself—a war that will produce neither easy victories nor victors.

The long search for Kimathi’s bones

Dedan Kimathi Waciuri was born in Nyeri in 1920. He joined the King’s African Rifles (KAR) in 1940 where he is said to have learned how to handle guns. In 1947, he joined the Kenya African Union (KAU), a political organisation formed in 1944 to agitate for independence. Kimathi rose through the KAU ranks to become one of its most prominent leaders. In 1952, following the Mau-Mau uprising, the British colonial government declared a state of emergency, forcing many Mau-Mau, including Kimathi, into hiding. This turned the uprising into a guerrilla war. Kimathi was captured in 1956 and taken to Kamiti prison where he was hanged the following year.  The exact location of his burial has been a matter of contestation. Over the years, several people have claimed to know where he was buried and some have even claimed to have been witnesses to his execution and burial, but they have offered contradicting accounts which have not yielded much.

The debate about retrieving Kimathi’s bones for reburial has been going on since Kenya gained independence in 1963. In the early years of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s regime (1963-1978), the government recognised Kimathi as a hero. A major street in downtown Nairobi was renamed after him as well as several health and educational institutions in Nyeri and elsewhere in central Kenya. The most notable of these was the Kimathi Technical Institute, which later became Dedan Kimathi University. However, the Kenyatta presidency was marked by demands from Mau Mau veterans, who claimed that they had been neglected by the government, and denied recognition and compensation. Land formed a big part of their demands and, indeed, land was allocated to some of them, including Kimathi’s family.

He stands as a challenge to the model of obedient, respectful, and compliant citizenship that the Kenyan state demands of its citizens in the face of oppression and neglect.

Still, this did not fully address the Mau Mau question. Their calls were echoed by some politicians, including JM Kariuki who would later be assassinated, giving the discourse of betrayal more prominence. There are myths about the Mau Mau, Kimathi and Kenyatta that I shall not go into here. However, an important one to note is the claim that Kenyatta was behind Kimathi’s capture and execution because he wanted an easier path to the leadership of the country following independence. The veracity of such claims is often hard to establish, and the truth might be more complicated, as is often the case. Be that as it may, these myths serve important political purposes. Because both Kenyatta and Kimathi were leading Kikuyu figures, Kenyatta’s leadership tended to be compared with Kimathi’s legacy. In light of the evolving post-colonial crisis that was blamed on poor leadership, it is not surprising that people might want to imagine what things would have been like under Kimathi’s leadership. Mau Mau politics were a crucial factor here.

Importantly, when Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Kenya’s first vice president, fell out with Kenyatta and broke away from the Kenya African National Union (KANU) to form the Kenya Peoples’ Union (KPU) together with other politicians in 1966, they decided to take up the Mau Mau cause as part of their wider agenda demanding a fairer distribution of wealth in the country. And since Dedan Kimathi was widely known and acknowledged to be the leader of the Mau Mau, his place in the fight against inequality and in support of redistributive policies in post-colonial Kenya had begun to take shape.

There followed a public debate about retrieving Kimathi’s bones so that he could be accorded a respectful burial as a national hero. For instance, in 1968, GG Kariuki, then member of parliament for Laikipia West, raised the question of exhumation of Kimathi’s body in parliament and also asked for a monument to be erected in his honour. At the time, the government signalled a willingness to embark on that pursuit. If it were to succeed, that would have been the best time as there would have been more people who might have been able to provide information. In response to GG Kariuki’s question, the then Minister of State Mbiyu Koinange said that the government would proceed as proposed by GG Kariuki, relying on Mau Mau elders to locate the grave so that Kimathi’s remains could be re-buried in the Nairobi City Centre. Koinange also announced that a monument in Kimathi’s honour would be erected at the junction of Kenyatta Avenue and Kimathi Street.

Because both Kenyatta and Kimathi were leading Kikuyu figures, Kenyatta’s leadership tended to be compared with Kimathi’s legacy.

The government’s attitude seems to have changed soon thereafter, in the wake of Tom Mboya’s assassination in 1969. Melissa Wanjiru-Mwita’s analysis of the debate on the politics of the renaming of a street in Nairobi after Tom Mboya gives us a sense of a state that was quickly coming to terms with the politics of memory. Little wonder then that, soon after Tom Mboya’s assassination, the government backtracked on its pledge to build monuments in memory of national heroes in the country. Speaking specifically of Kimathi, Kamwithi Munyi, who had previously been very vocal on Mau Mau issues before his appointment as Assistant Minister, said “Singling out one freedom fighter for a ceremonial reburial would not be consistent with the spirit of building a united nation… It would be a waste of public funds and time to locate graves and exhume their remains.” Evidently, the Kenyatta government wanted to draw the matter of Kimathi’s legacy to a close. It did not succeed.

In fact, during Daniel arap Moi’s presidency, the campaign for the retrieval of Kimathi’s bones for reburial gained even more steam. This needs to be understood in the context of the governance crisis that marked the country’s politics at the time, especially the brutality meted against those who opposed Moi’s rule. This is already well documented. Still, many groups emerged that challenged Moi’s rule, amongst them the Mwakenya group. Some of these groups identified Kimathi as their hero in their struggle against oppression. In The Dedan Kimathi Papers, Maina wa Kinyatti, a former political prisoner and member of Mwakenya, writes, “Kimathi lives on in the continuing struggle of our people for democracy and social justice.”

It is therefore hardly surprising that the Moi government was opposed to any efforts to retrieve Kimathi’s remains and offer him a state funeral. In July 1993, the question of locating Kimathi’s grave was again raised in parliament by Kiraitu Murungi, then an opposition member of parliament, triggering intense debate. The then Minister for Home Affairs Francis Lotodo said that the government could not locate Kimathi’s grave as, in his words, “The colonialists buried the late Dedan Kimathi in a mass grave along with others who then faced similar fate.” Raila Odinga, then member of parliament for Lang’ata, rejected this claim, insisting that there were people who knew where Kimathi had been buried. Lotodo insisted that attempting to find Kimathi’s remains would be futile because they would only “end up getting skulls and you will not know which one belongs to Kimathi”.

As opposition leaders—including Raila Odinga and Kiraitu Murungi who had challenged Moi’s government on the Kimathi question—came into the government when Mwai Kibaki won the presidency in 2002 buoyed by the wave of a united opposition, it was now their turn to attempt to solve the puzzle. Even though this is unlikely to have been a priority for Kibaki himself, addressing past injustices was an important part of the agenda of the government as many of the people in his government had suffered abuse under the Moi regime. Moreover, as some analysts have argued, Kibaki—himself a Kikuyu from Nyeri—could not be seen to be doing nothing about it. Importantly, Kiraitu Murungi was now the Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs, and the task of resolving this matter lay squarely in his docket.

“Kimathi lives on in the continuing struggle of our people for democracy and social justice.”

In the very first year of Kibaki’s presidency, several important things happened, both hits and misses. A major win was when Dr Chris Murungaru, then Minister for Internal Security, lifted the ban on Mau Mau that had been in place for over 40 years. This move effectively re-designated Mau Mau as freedom fighters rather than terrorists as they had been termed by the colonialists. Even though the minister said that lifting the ban would not be accompanied by compensation for the Mau Mau fighters, calls for the Mau Mau veterans to be honoured gained steam. A major flop, and a source of great embarrassment for the government, was when they brought an Ethiopian peasant farmer, Ato Lemma Ayanu, into Kenya as the “long lost” Mau Mau hero General Stanley Mathenge. Later, a taskforce that Kiraitu Murungi had appointed reported that they had not been able to find Kimathi’s grave, and the prison authorities were not sure that he was buried in the prison compound. What an anti-climax. The following year, on 15 January 2004, Kimathi’s family was given access to Kamiti Prison in the company of eight individuals who had claimed to know where the body was buried but again the search proved futile. The Kibaki government then shifted their attention to erecting a statue of Kimathi in Nairobi, which they did.

Claiming the spirit of Kimathi 

Curiously, the failure to trace Kimathi’s remains did not stop politicians from making claims that the government would retrieve Kimathi’s bones. At the national level, some of these statements have been in response to calls for the government to address the matter or to criticism for not doing enough to celebrate our national heroes. Of course, we cannot disregard the opportunism of politicians who want to claim the Kimathi legacy and be seen to be on the side of the country’s majority poor. That being said, it is by looking a bit more closely at Kimathi’s memory within the context of Kikuyu politics that we might be able to better understand why claiming the spirit of Kimathi matters so much. This question has been explored by other analysts in the historical context and therefore it may not be necessary to go into it here. Instead, it is perhaps more productive to consider the present moment. For this, we need to go back to Mukami’s funeral and zoom in on two men: Rigathi Gachagua and Maina Njenga.

Rigathi Gachagua, then first-term member of parliament for Mathira Constituency in Nyeri, was picked by President Ruto (then Deputy President) as his running mate in the run-up to the 2022 election. The pair ran on an anti-establishment ticket, promising the poor people (“hustlers”) that they would institute a bottom-up economic model and root out the so-called dynasties that had captured the state. During that contest, and thereafter, Rigathi frequently claimed to be a descendant of Mau Mau. However, the veracity of these claims—among others that he has made—has been called into question.  Their main competitor in that election was Raila Odinga who, with a long history of anti-establishment politics, was now on the same side as Uhuru Kenyatta who had previously been his bitter rival. Raila was also joined by a coterie of other politicians with mixed histories, ranging from the former fiery Justice Minister Martha Karua to Maina Njenga, the former leader of Mungiki. The Ruto-Gachagua ticket won the election.

As Uhuru Kenyatta seemingly exited the scene, the question turned to who the new Mt Kenya kingpin would be. While Rigathi was seen as a potential front-runner by virtue of holding the second-highest political office in Kenya, his ascendancy to that position was not guaranteed; there is a history of politicians who have occupied high office without being able to ascend to the position of kingpin. Even though it seemed likely—and it still does—that allegiances in the Mt Kenya region would be split, this did not put a stop to the discussions. Some insisted that Uhuru would remain the kingpin, and this became more pronounced as he returned to the domestic political scene to reclaim control of the Jubilee Party. Others said that Rigathi would be able to grasp the position while yet others suggested, more quietly, that it would be Maina Njenga. Then, in mid-April, about two weeks before Mukami died, a video emerged that sent  shockwaves in central Kenya.

We cannot disregard the opportunism of politicians who want to claim Kimathi’s legacy and be seen to be on the side of the country’s majority poor.

Apparently first aired on TikTok, the popular social media platform, the video showed Maina leading a sizeable group of young men in song and prayer. As the video spread though WhatsApp groups, the question on many people’s minds was: Is Mungiki back? I watched the video several times, trying to figure out what it was about it that not only caught and sustained my attention, but also elicited strong emotions within me. There was so much about the video that was familiar and yet everything felt strange. As I discussed it with some friends about a week later, I was able to put my finger on what it was that made the video so compelling. Here was a group of young men, seemingly hundreds of them, standing in orderly fashion, listening attentively as Maina spoke, responding enthusiastically to his calls, and when he led them in song, every single one of them seemed to know the song well and sung it in almost the same fashion in which we sing the national anthem. The kind of cohesion and coordination that the video displayed cannot emerge by chance. And whatever this grouping was, whatever the event was, it was clear that Maina was firmly in charge. Whether he intended it or not, the video signalled that Maina had effectively fired his first shot, claiming a stake in the battle for supremacy in central Kenya. A shot which, I might add, excited some in as strong measure as it filled many others with trepidation.

Significantly, the song that Maina led the group in singing was a Mau Mau song whose core message is that wendani (which translates to a communal love that we can also describe as unity and solidarity), is of a higher value than wealth. The song narrates the story of Mau Mau uprising, including detention of Kikuyu people by the colonialists, and how wendani was crucial to the survival of the community. Kariuki wa Kiarutara has done a rendition of the song, Kung’u Maitu, which is the reason why the song may feel familiar to many Kikuyu people even if they do not know the original Mau Mau song. Given the context of the unfolding supremacy battle between unequally matched opponents, we can read the singing, led by Maina, as an invitation to Rigathi to display his Mau Mau credentials. The stage was Mukami’s funeral. Rigathi required the support of Kwame Rigii to sing a Mau Mau song, Mwene Nyaga. On that front, Maina won.

In the video, Maina, who now describes himself as a bishop, then seems to open a second battle front. While Mungiki, the grouping that Maina led, was seen as a traditionalist movement, Maina mixes both Kikuyu spiritual rhetoric with Christian rhetoric. Since the Kenya Kwanza government has taken a heavily evangelical tone, Maina seems to take advantage of the Easter season to signal his Christian credentials. In the short speech he makes, he says that the purpose of the event is to celebrate unity and “to remember the death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.” Talking of the rising Christ, he says, in a rather vague fashion but one which elicits excitement in the crowd, “We’re rising with him.” He then asks the group to turn around and face Mt Kenya so that they can pray. His prayer blends both the Kikuyu prayer (Thaai) and the Christian prayer. Given the significance of Christianity in central Kenya, especially the evangelical movement, Maina would not be able to claim a victory here so easily. And since Rigathi’s wife is a pastor, he has credibility among evangelical church leaders. He is able to move around churches in a way that Maina may never be able to do.

Whether he intended it or not, the video signalled that Maina had effectively fired his first shot, claiming a stake in the battle for supremacy in central Kenya.

Of course, Maina’s challenge was not going to go unanswered. Soon, Maina was being pursued by the police. His homes were raided. Police said that they found a gun in one of his houses. He was summoned to the DCI where he showed up in a day that was full of drama. Many of his supporters showed up and spent the time singing Kikuyu traditional songs. Similar scenes unfolded when he was arraigned in court in Nakuru. Maina said that the government was pursuing him to stop him from attending Mukami’s funeral. In the end, he was able to attend the funeral. And even though he did not speak, his presence was noted. The effect that this has had however, is to reintroduce talk of dealing ruthlessly with Mungiki into the public discourse. Led by Rigathi, senior government officials have warned that the government will not allow a return of Mungiki. This has led to justified fears that the government may carry out executions of young Kikuyu men in a manner similar to what happened during Kibaki’s presidency, drawing the condemnation of many including the UN Special rapporteur on extra-judicial executions.

Strategically, however, and simply by virtue of wielding state power, the one arena on which Rigathi could easily upstage Maina and claim the Mau Mau legacy without turning him into a martyr, is to deliver on the promise to retrieve Kimathi’s bones. Succeeding in doing so would mean that Rigathi would have achieved what other senior Kikuyu leaders have been unwilling or unable to do. It is therefore unsurprising that he would make the promise, yet again, that the government will attempt to recover Kimathi’s bones. Whether it will make any meaningful efforts that go beyond what has been attempted in the past remains to be seen. I am not holding my breath.

Beyond these political contestations, however, we must also ask ourselves if it matters whether Kimathi’s bones are retrieved or not. To my mind, whether they retrieve the bones or not, Kimathi’s legacy has been firmly cemented by the decades during which he has come to anchor the struggle for freedom and liberation in Kenya.

May his spirit continue to inspire generations of Kenyans to action against our oppressors.

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Dr. Kamau Wairuri is a researcher, writer, and educator. His research interest is in the politics of criminal justice in Africa.


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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