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Africa for Africans

10 min read.

After World War II, the Soviet Union and the United States were not only locked in an ideological struggle with each other, but also competed with an anticolonial vision of modernity, an ideology which is still influential today.



Africa for Africans
Photo: "Esprits africains" by Samuel Fosso (Musée du quai Branly - J. Chirac, Paris). Credit Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Flickr CC BY 2.0.
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On the night of March 6, 1957, as Kwame Nkrumah was wiping away tears, he declared the former British colony of the Gold Coast, renamed Ghana, independent. The Ghanaian prime minister proclaimed that “From now on there is a new African in the world … ready to fight its own battles and to show that after all, the black man is capable of managing his own affairs.” According to Nkrumah, the “African Personality”—a confident, independently-minded African—had to be promoted if the African version of modernity was to have any impact. Nkrumah’s words, however (like the declarations and ideas of other postcolonial leaders) have often been labeled as inconsequential, obscure, and utopian. Instead, leaders of newly independent states in Africa and Asia in the 1950s were seen as forging fragile alliances with each other out of fear of being crushed by declining empires or ascending Cold War superpowers. They maximized their interests within a bipolar world by playing off the Soviet Union and the US against each other.

It is clear that our thinking about international relations still suffers from a myopic focus on Europe and the Cold War. Since 1945, Washington and Moscow have had their own spheres of influence in Eastern and Western Europe and have sought to carve up the rest of the globe. What is absent in those narratives, however, is the centrality of ideology and worldviews in the formation of those poles, something historians have picked up on.

After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, historians now contend, the US came out on top after a four-decade-long standoff with its ideological rival the Soviet Union. Both superpowers were locked in an ideological competition for the soul of mankind because they regarded themselves as the defenders of the Enlightenment, an 18th-century intellectual movement shaped by thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke whose obsession with modernity and reason had brought down kings and queens in the French Revolution. The US, seeing itself as the empire of liberty, and the USSR, an empire of equality, channeled their animosity into a Cold War battle for hearts and minds in Europe because atomic weapons made all-out war impossible. When Sputnik, a Soviet satellite, was launched into space on October 4, 1957, both superpowers stepped up their battle to prove the potency of their own social model for modernization. The United States Information Agency and the USSR’s propaganda agency, Telegrafnoye Agentstvo Sovetskogo Soyuza (TASS), set up exhibitions to show who was at the vanguard of science and technology.

In the Global South, American and Soviet officials (and from 1963 onwards the Chinese) wanted to prove how effective their societal model was as a medicine against underdevelopment—forcing postcolonial leaders to choose between one of these ideologies in their own struggle against poverty. With the choice of an ally came money for development. The tyranny of that choice, historians claim, sparked bloody civil wars among opposing factions within newly independent states. For example, as the war of independence against Portugal heated up in the 1960s and 1970s, Angola was torn apart by the struggle between the communist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the anti-communist National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).

In this analysis, the agency of leaders in the Global South is thus limited to harnessing the Cold War to maximize potential benefits. Nkrumah was seen as playing off East against West to obtain as much funding as possible for the Akasombo Dam, a hydroelectric project on the Volta River that was to provide electricity for the aluminum industry and is still in operation today. At the same time, Nkrumah and others within the Afro-Asian coalition tried to preserve a non-aligned position: neutrality between the two Cold War blocs, a stance enshrined at the Belgrade Conference of September 1961 and the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement. The Group of 77 and the Global South coalition within the present-day UN Climate Panel claim to be its successor. Nkrumah, who as leader of the Gold Coast’s Convention People’s Party rose to political stardom in 1952 for demanding immediate independence, supposedly was only able to resist or exploit the pressures of an unchangeable and hostile international system beyond his control.

Cold War historians consider the Congo crisis, which erupted after June 30 1960 when the Belgian colonizers left, to be emblematic of this dynamic. After a scathing speech by Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba condemning the racism of the Belgian colonizer on Independence Day, soldiers rioted, Sud-Kasai province and the mineral-rich province of Katanga seceded, and Lumumba asked the Soviets for assistance because he felt the UN troops were dragging their feet. Through his actions, Lumumba ushered in an era of US-Soviet competition on the continent, while more seasoned pan-Africanists like Nkrumah, who had sent troops within the context of the UN operation in the Congo, realized they could no longer afford Cold War neutrality. After Nkrumah’s pan-African ally Lumumba was assassinated, he increasingly embraced the Soviet model while also receiving aid for his Akosombo dam from then-US president John F. Kennedy and US entrepreneur Edgar Kaiser. Depending on who you asked, Nkrumah was branded a communist or a capitalist, an ambiguity the Ghanaian leader exploited to guarantee the survival of his newly independent state.

This narrative however narrows the diplomatic skill of leaders such as Nkrumah to their ability to play realpolitikThe profound ideological commitments and visions of the future that animated the fight against empire were supposedly cast aside as soon as postcolonial leaders entered the international arena. Nevertheless, as Nkrumah’s nightly speech and Ghana’s archives reveal, the spread of pan-African modernity was a key objective of Accra’s foreign policy in the 1950s and 1960s. Unlike the powers in the Global North, African leaders believed that the civilizing mission—the belief that whites needed to psychologically and economically develop non-whites, incapable of self-government—and not tradition, was the enemy of progress.

Strikingly this ambition to correct European modernity by embracing an idealized “authentic” image of the past, something Nkrumah called the “African Personality,” did not follow the laws of Cold War realpolitik. Pan-African modernity did not emerge in opposition to or in alignment with US or Soviet ideology. Instead, Nkrumah and other freedom fighters on the African continent shared a common ambition to attain anticolonial modernity and make real the promise of the Haitian Revolution. In 1791 a charismatic Black general, Toussaint Louverture, staged a revolt in the French colonial possession of Saint-Domingue (in the area of modern-day Haiti) after the Napoleonic state reversed the abolition of slavery, in effect limiting the French revolutionary values of liberty and equality to whites. The values that European empires and the Cold War superpowers turned into the core of their respective social models, and which led them to colonize and intervene in societies beyond their borders, was from the very beginning met with resistance for being exclusionary and racist.

We should therefore understand Nukrumah and other anticolonial leaders in a new light—not as a disjointed group of men and women who resisted Cold War pressures, but as actors who held influential opinions about the precise meaning of the Enlightenment values that structured the 20th century. Anticolonial intellectuals were 19th-century revolutionaries who wanted to chart an inclusive route to progress promised by the Haitian Revolution, and independent states afforded them that opportunity. They were not very different from other revolutionaries who had also successfully embedded their beliefs within the newly created states that their revolutions afforded them. Marxists in the Soviet Union wanted to achieve the aims of the Bolshevik Revolution, capitalists in the US were eager to export the ideas of the American Revolution, and imperialists within European nation-states sought to spread the benefits of the Industrial Revolution.

African nationalists in the 1950s were steeped in the Haitian revolutionary intellectual tradition by way of the French and British West Indies. St. Lucian economist Arthur Lewis was flown into Ghana to devise an economic development strategy in line with Africa’s precolonial culture and history, because he famously did not subscribe to a single economic growth theory and attached more weight to the sociological and historical characteristics of underdeveloped societies. Nkrumah believed modernization and industrialization were powerful tools that had been wielded by people who had erroneously believed modernity meant the end of tradition instead of the end of the civilizing mission. Foreign aid could therefore be accepted from every quarter, but always had to be accompanied by ideological education in the service of psychological liberation: the freeing of Africans from the inferiority complex of the civilizing mission.

While propping up the Ghanaian economy with British, American, and Soviet funds, Ghana’s Office of the President prioritized the production of The Ghanaians, a movie that urged African countries to follow modern Ghana by showing students engaging their lecturer in a building that was still under construction. Cartoons and postcards conjured up a rich African past. Nkrumah instructed the freedom fighters who attended the All African Peoples’ Conference in Accra in 1958 to not ignore the “spiritual side of the human personality,” because Africans’ “material needs” made them vulnerable to subjugation. The liberation of African psychology also guided Kenyan leader Tom Mboya, who claimed Kenyans were “capable of gauging the ulterior motives” of those who offered assistance, while Julius Nyerere of Tanzania wanted education to liberate body and mind because “colonial education” had “induced attitudes of human inequality.”

The nerve center for psychological and cultural liberation from empire was Ghana’s Bureau of African Affairs. With its printing press, library, linguistic secretariat, conference hall, and publications section it had to spread the “African Personality,” the notion that Africans should embrace African culture and reject the colonial inferiority complex. By uniting the continent, the second pillar of pan-African modernity, Africans could be shielded from ideological alternatives, and psychological liberation could be accelerated. In Pan-Africanism or Communism? The Coming Struggle for Africa, George Padmore, one of Nkrumah’s closest advisers, sought to create an autonomous pan-African ideology better able to meet the challenge of underdevelopment. Pan-African and pan-Arab schemes were ranked beside imperialism, communism, or capitalism and were not understood in solely political or racial terms, but viewed as alternative development models. Even for astute theorist Immanuel Wallerstein, this was self-evident. “The strength of the pan-African drive,” he wrote in 1961, had to be “attributed precisely to the fact that it is a weapon of the modernizers.” If the pan-African project failed, modernization would also be set back.

Under a sky filled with fireworks on the eve of independence, Nkrumah had already made clear how total his vision for the world was and what was at stake. Independence would be “meaningless” unless it was “linked up totally” with that of the “continent.” Finance minister Komla Agbeli Gbedemah agreed, declaring during his visit to India in September 1957 that freedom was “indivisible.” In the words of the All-African People’s Conference Steering Committee: “stable peace” was impossible in a world that was “politically half independent and half dependent.” If Ghana’s anticolonialism stopped at its borders, the country would not be able to remain independent. Pan-African modernity had a continental focus but aspired to remake the world as a whole. In the words of C.L.R. James, “the modernization necessary in the modern world” could only be attained “in an African way.”

Ghana did not shy away from projecting its brand of anticolonial modernity to other parts of Africa. To convert Ghana’s symbolic strength into real influence, Nkrumah and his ministers developed a network strategy. After spinning webs of freedom fighters, political activists would convince the general population and, once in power, fix their gaze on Accra, ultimately leading to African unity. To that end, Accra was converted into a revolutionary Mecca, and the Conference of Independent African States (CIAS) held in April 1958, and the All-African People’s Conference later that year were organized to attract leaders and activists. In November 1959, Nkrumah announced his plan to convert the Winneba Party College into an institute where selected members of all nationalist movements could be trained to “propagate” the “essence of African unity . . . throughout the continent of Africa.” This place, which became the Kwame Nkrumah Ideological Institute and also the Kwame Nkrumah Youth Training School, and the Builder Brigade for unemployed men, was exemplary of the Ghanaian modernization model, which fused African culture and progress. Since most students came from other African countries that were not necessarily wedded to socialism, the Bureau of African Affairs, which had devised a 10-week training program, decided to remove socialism from the curriculum. Instead, public relations techniques and courses on political party organizing—with topics such as elections, party branches, and propaganda vans—were foregrounded to strengthen the drive toward African unity and encourage the African Personality.

“Immunization” and “vaccination” were commonly relied upon by European and US psychological warfare experts in the 1950s, but were also employed after 1960 by African nationalists, who discerned a potential threat to authentic African culture, and worried about the repercussions of interference. Nkrumah believed Ghanaians and Africans had to be immunized from foreign ideas and the continent sheltered from neocolonial propaganda—the most recent iteration of a long history of continental exploitation that originated with the slave trade and evolved into the colonial project. Likewise, Hastings Banda in Malawi was adamant about African uniqueness, El Ferik Ibrahim Abboud of Sudan defined “political ideology” as a type of intrusion because it led to “political indoctrination,” and Haile Selassie talked about “engorgement”—a gradual process that destroyed identity. A non-aligned position, therefore, had to include active resistance against non-African ideologies and neocolonial intrusion. Africans had to keep an eye out for neocolonialists, who even after independence sought to undercut Africa for their own gains through all kinds of subversive activities ranging from economic penetration and cultural assimilation, to ideological domination, to psychological infiltration.

A worldview in which neocolonialists could psychologically and culturally undercut the African Personality, not the Cold War, shaped Nkrumah’s understanding of nonalignment. Nkrumah had always shied away from exploiting the Cold War rivalry, because “when the bull elephants fight, the grass is trampled down.” Playing off the USSR and the US against each other would not yield benefits, but rather result in the destruction of weak nations and make it more difficult to attain African unity. While leaders such as Julius Nyerere also expressed their fear of becoming trampled grass, Nkrumah’s Monroe Doctrine for Africa made Accra’s stance distinctive. In a speech to Congress in 1958, Nkrumah linked his reading of Marcus Garvey’s “Africa for the Africans” with the US foreign policy doctrine of 1823: “Our attitude … is very much that of America looking at the disputes of Europe in the nineteenth century. We do not wish to be involved.” Even after Lumumba’s assassination in January 1961, the archives show Nkrumah did not want to give up his nonaligned position even though an aid tried to convince him “to play the East off against the West.” Within pan-African circles in Ghana Lumumba’s assassination was seen as a vindication of the view that Africa had to unite if it wanted to safeguard its own road to progress. The Congo crisis was not a defeat, but proof that “the colonial regime” was “gasping its last breath.”

The East and the West were barred from using Ghana as a “propaganda forum” after Nkrumah learned that psychological warfare plans were developed in NATO meetings. Permanent secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Michael Dei-Anang ordered an investigation into the press releases of every embassy in Accra after he stumbled on a US research project on psychological methods “used by the Capitalists and Colonialists to win over Ghanaians.” Nkrumah also tried to personally convince other African leaders of the need to immunize their populations against neocolonialism. In a letter to Nyerere, in December 1961, Nkrumah wrote about how successful African economic integration hinged on a “stable political direction,” which only a common ideological project could provide. In a letter to Kenyan leader Jomo Kenyatta, Nkrumah conveyed that public opinion had to be managed because the press was a “deadly weapon” that remained in the imperialists’ arsenal and required an “effective antidote.” He offered to send an expert from the Guinea Press, a government-sponsored corporation, to assist local journalists.

The story of Ghana shows how leaders of the Global South did not just emerge in world affairs after the fall of the Berlin Wall or as a consequence of explosive economic growth in the 2000s. Rather, they have always been involved in struggles over the direction of the globe. Nationalist leaders were not only forced to make a choice between a capitalist or communist pole, but sought to correct and improve European modernity by eliminating racism and disdain for precolonial culture while promoting their own anticolonial modernization project that saw precolonial culture not as an obstacle but as a precondition for effective development.

An acknowledgment of that history helps us view the enduring influence of anticolonial critiques as expounded by countries that cry neocolonialism, such as China, India, or Brazil, as something more than hypocrisy. The defiant posture is an expression of deep-rooted ideas about a better version of modernity that are as much part of the 20th century as communism and capitalism. The debates on climate justice and social justice are therefore not a breeding ground for multipolarity, but simply a reminder that there have been multiple routes to modernity ever since modernity and progress were identified as policy objectives after World War II.

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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Frank Gerits is an assistant professor at Utrecht University since March 2020 and a research fellow at the International Studies Group at the University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South 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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