High and Low, or Down and Out?
Writing in The East African back in 1997, John Githongo described a visit to Mathare Valley. The tour began with the stone structures bordering Juja Road housing and proceeded to pass through successive strata of wood, iron sheet, and finally composite scrap and plastic houses. The number of changaa dens, incidents of criminal activity, and the flow of effluent and filth increased on the way down, directing Mr Githongo to graphically describe the descending levels of the settlement as a de facto class system.
The same relationship between elevation and socio-economic class also holds across most of the countryside. Remove several geographic zones like the narrow coastal fringe between Malindi and Diani, add the linked variable of distance from the ‘centre’ and we have a spatial equation that accurately predicts the socioeconomic status of most Kenyans. Two factors, altitude and proximity to the capital, account for why the material conditions of the country’s rural dwellers become incrementally meaner as one moves down and away from Nairobi.
This allows us to assume with a reasonable degree of confidence that indicators like economic opportunity, household income, educational standards, access to social services, environmental vulnerability, daily calorie intake, access to electricity, and other factors like insecurity will correlate inversely as one moves away from the center and down the country’s ecological gradient.
For example: we can expect people in Machakos to be better off than those in Mbeere, that farm incomes are likely to be higher around Nyahururu than Siaya; and that households in Trans-Nzoia or Chavakali will be wealthier than those on similar-sized farms in Voi. When altitude is similar, distance from the centre comes into play. This indicates conditions in Vanga should be marginally better than in Kiunga while residents of Wundanyi are most likely better off than those in Marsabit although both are high altitude (2300 meters) settlents.
Two factors, altitude and proximity to the capital, account for why the material conditions of the country’s rural dwellers become incrementally meaner as one moves down and away from Nairobi.
The interactive effect of these variables intensifies upon passing the extended arc demarcating Kenya’s highland-lowland interface. The lowlands are often called ‘Kenya B’ due to their isolation. In Africa, spatial separation was a condition to be avoided at all costs. In many societies, banishment from the group, not execution, was the ultimate punishment. Although Westerners may go to great lengths to seek it out – in Africa, there is no splendour in isolation: spatial separation incubates vulnerability in the face of unpredictable dangers and environmental risk while increasing transaction costs.
Yet this was precisely the sentence meted out to the inhabitants of Kenya’s rangelands at the onset of colonialism. The colonial regime erected administrative and economic barriers that transformed spatial separation into a de jure state of economic seclusion.
It is otherwise logical to assume that lower and less predictable rainfall is the single-most important determinant explaining conditions on both sides of the arc. Insofar as rural productive output is largely a function of rainfall, it forms a co-linear relationship with the altitude variable in our equation. But this was not exactly the case before; higher returns to labor made pastoraists the masters of the precolonial economy. As subsequent developments illustrated, in the regions beyond the zones of rain-fed agriculture, state policy became the more critical factor, adding a third independent variable to the equation.
Kenya’s Sessional Paper No. 10 directed the newly independent government to focus investment in high potential areas. The policy framework predictably widened the socio-economic gap between agricultural and pastoral communities created by decades of colonial era spatial separation. Post-independence policy biases soon morphed into a recipe for social exclusion. The rangelands came to be regarded as economically peripheral to the national interest.
For decades, the ingrained perception that ‘we are high and you are low’ defined the natural status quo.
This structural bifurcation still drives perceptions of the country’s expansive lowland landscapes as a breeding ground for livestock rustlers, bandits, and other anti-progressive forces—even while the tourist industry banks on the images of colourful tribesmen, the north’s dramatic landscapes, and pockets of abundant wildlife. While such conditions came to describe the prevailing state of affairs in the north, this was not always the case.
The colonial regime erected administrative and economic barriers that transformed spatial separation into a de jure state of economic seclusion.
The region’s livestock specialists were the premier risk takers of the pre-colonial era. Domesticated animals were both the main repository of agricultural surplus and regional currency of exchange. As the bankers of the regional economy, like the capitalist elite of our times, they may have been proud, aloof and possessed of strong predatory instincts. But they were not separate and independent of their agricultural neighbors. Rather, access to agricultural produce was also a sine qua non for the emergence of pure pastoralism. Dietary driven demand for carbohydrates in the form of grain and the social status associated with owning livestock linked herders and farmers together. Exchange based on niche production drove the expansion of the trade networks across Kenya’s interior prior to colonization.
The acquisition of cattle and the adoption of herders’ military institutions allowed agriculturalists occupying ecologically stable highland zones to expand territorially. During the latter decades of the 19th century they integrated many Maasai, Samburu, and hunter-gather refugees created by conflicts and environmental crisis, tilting the demographic balance towards the highlands on the eve of European intervention.
The Pax Britannica subsequently froze ethnic identities and short-circuited the dynamics of ecozone symbioses. A century of change conditioned by the altitude-spatial model subsequently inverted the pre-colonial dynamic.
Now the equation is again undergoing change. The discovery of oil in Turkana and Marsabit, the LAPSSET mega-project, and the presence of various extractable resouces are now conditioning the notion that the former Northern Frontier District will be the pivot point for Kenya’s next phase of economic expansion. The region’s proposed contribution to the national economic equation presents a mix of cautionary opportunities and potential dangers for the northerners.
Drivers of Kenya’s Top-Down Development Revisited
Around a decade ago a meeting outside Kinna called ‘the University in the Bush’ brought together a collection of pastoralist political leaders, researchers, and civil society actors. During one of the informal evening sessions on the banks of the Bisanadi River, one of the MPs present summed up the discussion of imminent developments by warning, “capitalism is coming!”
The region’s livestock specialists were the premier risk takers of the pre-colonial era. Domesticated animals were both the main repository of agricultural surplus and regional currency of exchange.
He was referring to the planned infrastructural projects, investment in natural resource exploitation, and the accompanying influx of warm bodies that will swamp local communities. The group commiserated over the prospects of the impending changes overwhelming the region’s distinctive way of life.
During the previous decades Kenya’s top-down development had relegated the region’s pastoralists to the bottom rung of the country’s economic pyramid, but had left them in control of most of their economic resources while reinforcing their cultural autonomy. Now both are under threat.
The baraza on the Bisanadi also saw the penetration of capital as hardening the marginalisation and spatial isolation of the rangelands into the same kind of class system Githongo observed on the slopes of Mathare Valley.
This discussion, it should be noted, took place at a time when the constitutional reform process had generated the unwieldly Bomas draft. The draft constitution became mired in repetitive cycles of partisan obstruction and political revisionism. The problems, however, were eventually sorted out. Kenyans approved a new and more elegant constitutional dispensation, and its provisons for devolution in the form of counties based on Kenya’s original forty-seven districts came into effect following the 2013 national elections.
Even though the county governments are still young and frequently beset with internal wrangling, they have provided a platform for contesting the imposition of developmental schemes and budgetary decisions by the national government and external investors. Kenya’s national elite, in contrast, retain their old school mentality in regard to their sense of entitlement and their central planning mentality.
The prime exhibit of the latter is Vision 2030. Kenya’s blueprint for joining the ranks of emeging economies, is a pre-devolution document that highlights the role of LAPSSET for opening up remote areas of the coast and northern Kenya for development.
LAPSSET is a US$25 billion fantasy scheme drawn up by plannners in Nairobi, and a potentially attractive honey pot for international investors. The original scheme focusing on the Magogoni port and accompanying facilities and infrastructure was first offered to the Qatari royal family as the Roola Project. The exceedingly generous Memorandum of Understanding involved a 30 year B-O-T (build, operate, and turn-over) project tender that even ceded the control of labor hired to build and man the project to the investor. Some 200,000 hectares of prime Tana Delta land were included as a sweetner.
The Pax Britannica subsequently froze ethnic identities and short-circuited the dynamics of ecozone symbioses.
The Roola MoU became a casualty of the 2007 post election violence and Raila Odinga’s inclusion in the new coalition government. The Prime Minister was interested in selling an expanded version of the project that would include, among other things, a network of roads, railways, and pipelines extending into South Sudan and Ethiopia. It also included ‘state of the art’ tourist cities in Lamu and Isiolo and a new international airports. Governments in Asia and Europe and a number of private sector parties expressed their interest in the project.
The Chinese are now funding the new port while other components of the scheme are awaiting external finance. But the prospects of LAPSSET lifting off as planned are diminishing because funding LAPSSET is actually contingent on oil and other forms of energy generation, like the Lamu coal generation plant, wrapped in an investor-friendly package.
As the people of Lamu and Kenya’s north are discovering, the inhabitants of the areas affected are expected to be passive spectators until that time when they will be allowed to queue up for jobs consistent with their skills and educational background. They are also finding out that implementation of constitutional provisions for community land and redressing historical injustices, along with the new bill of rights, have been put on the back burner.
The Energy Boom Conundrum
Many observers believe that oil, renewable energy resources, and extractive industries will unlock the region’s economic potential. Unfortunately, bringing extractive industries and other capital-intense ventures like large-scale agribusiness industries into a region undergoing socioeconomic transition often ends up creating what the French analyst, Alain de Janvry, defined as disarticulated economies. Where de Janvry’s critique focused on the role of large estates in South America, the same functional dualism is emerging in the north and areas of Ethiopia where local households subsidize the external investors by absorbing the cost of maintaining and reproducing the labor force.
During the previous decades Kenya’s top-down development had relegated the region’s pastoralists to the bottom rung of the country’s economic pyramid, but had left them in control of most of their economic resources while reinforcing their cultural autonomy. Now both are under threat.
For many locals, this form of subsidization still may be preferable to hordes of outsiders snapping most of the jobs and small-scale business opportunities that will come with the new investments. In Africa, the dilemma extends to the creation of economic enclaves in general. The unrelenting cycle of conflict and criminality in the Niger delta illustrates the longer term impact of such disarticluated regional economy; the current conflict in Laikipia represents another variation.
The short but convoluted history of the Turkana wind farm is a case study directly relevant to the high and low thesis. The land for the wind farm was procured through an agreement formed between county council and local investors fronting for a consortium of international companies. The shadowy deal was brokered by the MP for Laisamis and reportedly involved ‘bonuses’ for Marsabit’s county councilors that if once attractive now look like a pittance. The 310 MW wind farm and support facilities are constructed on forty thousand hectares but some 125,000 were allocated to the project. The deal by-passed the standard land board review, and there was no formal contract or MOU catering for the interests of residents and local government alike.
The prospect of inexpensive or subsidized lighting for the locals may have compensated for the arrangements shrouded in darkness. But although the Kenya government is legally commited to purchasing the electricity—there is no provision or contract catering to inhabitants’ access to the electricity generated. The same problem followed construction of the Turkwell Dam, where local Turkana and Pokot children study by lantern light while the highpower lines overhead deliver power to downcountry consumers.
The excuse in both of these cases is that the energy producer is contracted to deliver their power to the national grid. The Lake Turkana Wind Power project web page says locals will be able access the power insofar as the electricity contributes to the supply being tapped by the government’s Rural Electrification Authority. In other words, the herders displaced by the project are supposed to take the pens and notebooks provided to local schools by the project’s corporate responsibility programme, and to keep quiet.
LAPSSET is a US$25 billion fantasy scheme drawn up by plannners in Nairobi, and a potentially attractive honey pot for international investors.
The area’s MP reportedly told his disgruntled constituents, ‘if the donkeys make too much noise, predators will come to eat them’.
In the meantime 98 per cent of the County’s inhabitants depend on wood and charcoal for fuel, with attendant environmental consequences. In addition to the loss of community land and the corresponding ecological stress, pastoralist hopes of reaping direct benefits beyond the counties’ statutory share of profits from Kenya’s energy boom are probably a mirage.
Even if Turkana Governor Jospeph Nanok suceeds in his legal battle to up counties’ share of proceeds to 10 per cent, it is naive to think oil will redefine local counties’ developmental trajectory for the better. The likelihood of a national level oil export boom is also not good in light of the reduced long-term value of crude and the billions required to build the requisite export infrastructure. Oil is no longer the black gold of the past. Some observers see oil recovering from the current glut and sustaining prices in the range of $70 per barrel for another two decades; many believe it will continue to slip, and is unlikely to rise above $25 per barrel after 2025.
The age of carbon has peaked and is being dispaced by the new electric economy. Renewable energy sources and power storage technologies transforming the international energy industry have reduced the world’s spending on oil by US$2 trillion over the past decade. The auto industry is another harbinger of things to come. Today’s electric vehicles halve the maintenance costs of petrol and diesel vehicles because their engines and drivetrains use 200 parts where internal combustion engines have 2,000; the expected lifespan of the typical electric car is 800,000 kilometres compared to 250,000 for your average Toyota Probox. And this is just the beginning.
Electrifying the Future
There are several important variables underpinning the shifts we can anticipate during the transition from Kenya’s Vision 2030 to the real world Kenya of the year 2030. The expansion of transport and communication infrastructure will gather speed, attracting a diversified portfolio of external and domestic investment that goes beyond the rent and resource capture focus discussed above. There is no guarantee that socioeconomic conditions in the north will be amenable to such projections. Cultivating an active culture of constitutionalsm is essential if the new legal framework is to translate into adaptive governance—a prerequisite for levelling differentials arising out of a century of high-and-low state policy.
The region’s leaders and brain trust are going to have to take the lead in sorting its internal problems. The formation of the Frontier Counties Development Council (FCDC) is a promising development on this front. It also follows that a more peaceful Horn of Africa region and stabilization of cross-border regions are equally essential for rangeland progress. The expansion of the CEWARN cross-border conflict early warning system and related peace infrastructure initiatives taking root on the ground are also promising developments that will help counter the spatial divide and support more participatory democracy.
They are also finding out that implementation of constitutional provisions for community land and redressing historical injustices, along with the new bill of rights, have been put on the back burner.
There are two other forces that make conventional assumptions about the futurology of northern Kenya a precarious proposition. One is the nation’s unprecedented demographic surge. Rangeland districts hosted the highest birthrates tabulated in the 2009 census and this demographic bulge is driving a socioeconomic de-coupling from the pattern of incremental change on the national scale. The usual measures for alleviating marginal areas’ post independence malaise will not get the job done for the current generation coming of age on the periphery.
Technological change is the real game changer now. But the potential impact of developments in this domain remains problematic, especially for low-tech regions where the digital divide is replacing longstanding spatial and policy-based determinants of inequality. Those who think the often-uncomfortable implications of artificial intelligence, automation, and other avatars of technological efficiency for employment and society in general are limited to the industrial West are sorely deluded.
We are witnessing only the early manifestations of the data-driven technological revolution that include machine learning, cognitive computing, and a range of other more basic technological applications that are reaching into virtually every niche and crevice of economic activity. Technological innovation will be equally critical for enhancing traditional pastoralist livestock production, the management of water, animal health, and conserving the natural resource base. Most importantly are the implications of the information economy and new educational and training methodologies for the unleashing the potential of the human population.
Twenty years after John Githongo’s perceptive observations on the relationship between altitude and class in Kenya, the Digital Divide is the new High and Low. Or, as one sectoral expert recently observed, before the most basic requirement for human existence used to be food and water; now it is food, water, and electricity.
The same problem followed construction of the Turkwell Dam, where local Turkana and Pokot children study by lantern light while the highpower lines overhead deliver power to downcountry consumers.
For the frontier counties, access to electricity is key to harnessing fast moving developments in the field of information and data based technologies. Even the oil industry now employs more data scientists than geologists. The electricity economy is consumer and environmental friendly, increasingly decentralized, and can integrate many different large and small sources of power into highly reliable power grids.
The catch-up strategy for Kenya’s marginalised lowlands and coastal counties will arguably require the overhauling of the rigid education system and remaking it in line with a well-informed curriculum relevant to contemporary issues. But the provision of electricity is the essential enabling factor for the education sector and other local developmental priorities.
If electrifying the rangelands is a test case for the larger region’s process of highland-lowland integration, the current prospects are not encouraging. Kenya Power and Electric Company’s Last Mile Connectivity Project will connect some 312,500 households to the grid, but mainly in peri-urban and other densely populated areas in all counties. European donor funding will help connect another 296,647 households. The company has also subsidized connections for close to 800,000 low-income residents in informal settlements.
Expanding the consumer base and finding markets for the increasing supply is critical for the profitability of the majority state-owned corporation. With new energy generation projects coming on line across the region, the capital-intensive infrastructure for delivering the electricity is a significant constraint. The scale of front-end investment required to expand the national grid partially explains why Nairobi still accounts for 50 per cent of Kenya’s electricity consumption.
The expanding rate of connections is still modest compared to the country’s population growth rate. Kenya has a comprehensive energy sector road map but political interests unfortunately take precedence over technocratic implementation. Supplying outlying regions will be a slow process despite the importance of access to electricity for rectifying historical inequalities dividing the nation.
The absence of meaningful consultation and provisions for at least some local distribution of the power generated are primary reasons why the Lake Turkana Wind Farm is turning out to be a backhanded example of how not to go about closing the gap.
Renewable energy initially seemed to be a win-win proposition, but examples like the Marsabit problem illustrate why its proving more complicated. Technical and economic challenges have dominated the movement towards the planet’s renewable energy future. Local opposition in areas across Europe, the USA, and developing areas now underscore why project planners need to direct equal attention to public attitudes, local benefits, interference with established lifestyles, and impacts on the landscapes affected.
The absence of meaningful consultation and provisions for at least some local distribution of the power generated are primary reasons why the Lake Turkana Wind Farm is turning out to be a backhanded example of how not to go about closing the gap.
The ticket for illuminating much of Africa instead lies with a new crop of creative off-grid options for the region’s low density and scattered population. Methods allowing households to divert money spent on kerosene and candles to purchase solar panels is a major factor behind the spread of innovative start-ups based on a range of adaptive micro-level methods now delivering power to many poorer households.
The problem is not just about catching-up. The former Northern Frontier District, or the New Frontier for Development according to switched-on young northerners, is together with adjacent areas of Ethiopia and South Sudan home to the world’s most diverse collection of indigenous peoples. Empowering these communities will bring a new set of problem-solving energies, social values, and fresh ideas to the region’s stale developmental model with its inherited legacy of class, conflict, marginalization, and social exclusion.
This article appeared in the second issue of The Northerner.
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Boda Boda Justice
Local and national institutions should move beyond perpetuating harmful narratives about boda boda riders and instead leverage their capacity to contribute towards grassroots processes of protection and justice.
We are all familiar with the idea that we, as people, plan, but those plans can be quickly altered by the animate and ever-moving process of life. On October 5th, I had a pretty straightforward plan for the day, and having an accident that could have taken my life was certainly not part of it. I was jogging along my regular route when, ahead of me, I saw a car turning into a wide driveway at great speed. I instinctively slowed down to allow the car to turn, only to be hit from behind by a motorcycle that had veered off the road.
Thrown into a ditch but fully conscious, I touched my head and felt it to be completely drenched. Before I looked at my hand, I readied myself for the eventuality that it was blood I was feeling, and that this could be my last day alive. To my relief, it was just mud. I slowly moved each part of my body, to find that I had no severe injuries. I picked up my glasses, stood up, and processed that I was, indeed, alive. A crowd quickly grew around me, with people asking me who to call, or whether I wanted go to hospital immediately. Through tears, full of adrenaline and in a state of shock, I insisted that I wanted to go home; I hadn’t jogged far. I got onto one of the many boda bodas that had gathered at the scene, and home I went.
Some 20 minutes later, as I was getting into a car with a family friend to be taken to the hospital, still in a state of shock and disarray, a boda boda rider approached me. He is a rider in the local area, so we were familiar with each other. He happened to have seen me leave for my jog before the accident, and was at the same place as I was being brought back, covered in mud and crying, some ten minutes later. He explained that he had been told what had happened, that he knew who had hit me and that he was willing to participate in a justice process. I won’t go into what I went through both physically and emotional here except to say that I had avoided a neck fracture and wore a brace for a few days to allow a slight injury at the back of my neck to heal. The shock took a few days to wear off, and I remain very aware of the fact that October 5th could have gone very differently.
However, what I learned from this experience is that there is an organized structure within the boda boda community that has the capacity to administer justice at the grassroots level, which the local boda boda rider wanted deployed. The episode highlighted the social, political and economic consequences of the way in which this working-class community is perceived by the wider society, and how Kenyan society could change for the better if these broad-brush and often negative societal perspectives were abandoned.
Several months before the incident, a group of boda boda riders had been recorded violently physically and sexually assaulting a woman whose car had hit one of them along Forest Road. The ensuing aggressive and outraged discourse across social media targeted the boda boda community and its collective culture. Given the nature of the injustice faced by that woman—an incident that I can only imagine would leave a person emotionally impacted long after the assault itself—the uproar, indignation, and anger of Kenyans was not misplaced.
What I learned from this experience is that there is an organized structure within the boda boda community that has the capacity to administer justice at the grassroots level
However, even with my limited experience of the country, I felt uneasy about the state’s knee-jerk reaction which was to take all boda bodas off the road in response to the incident. Firstly, I think that the culture of women being subjected to sexual violence as a result of men, or society in general, experiencing emotions like anger towards who they are and what they do has less to do with who boda boda riders are as people, and more to do with what patriarchy has normalized regarding how women should suffer the consequences when men get emotional.
Secondly, the dogmatic nature of the car drivers vs boda boda riders conversation on Twitter felt unfair. Months before the Forest Road incident, I had been part of a small group of people that had spent hours trying to help a boda boda rider that had been hit and badly injured by a car that had then fled the scene. Bystanders at the scene supported the boda boda riders pursuing the car in question, even though they were aware that he might be subjected to violence if caught.
Thirdly, I just couldn’t see where the post-Forest Road social media discourse was going and I was nervous to wade in with what, in the face of the national outrage, felt like a fickle personal opinion of a guest in the country naively suggesting “not all boda boda riders are…” I kept quietly to myself the thought that this just wasn’t who I had experienced the boda boda community to be. Not being a Swahili speaker, one of the ways in which I navigate new parts of Nairobi, and the country generally, is by locating the nearest boda boda stage if I need to ask for directions or for any other help. I have come to know boda boda riders in a way that the capitalist culture doesn’t allow you to get to know the service providers you engage with on a daily basis. But it would have seemed tone-deaf to contribute this experiences to the discourse at the time, although I was reminded of them again following of the October 5th accident.
Bystanders at the scene supported the boda boda riders pursuing the car in question, even though they were aware that he might be subjected to violence if caught.
Victor* the boda boda rider that approached me on my way to the hospital, is the security officer of the local boda boda riders committee. This is why, when he saw that I had been injured and learned that it was as a result of being hit by a boda boda rider, he made it his personal responsibility to advocate for me in a dialogue involving the police, the owner of the bike, the local boda boda community and the person who had hit me. This process lasted a week before I decided to stop pursuing the case because of the intimidation that Victor was facing from boda boda riders in the area. As the week unfolded, I was not only struck by Victor’s commitment to ensure that I obtained justice, but I was struck by his belief in the system that he was a part of and within which he was a leader, a system that I think many Kenyans don’t know exists, or if they do, aren’t sure of its purpose or its effectiveness. Even though in my case the effectiveness of this system was compromised because of the power relations between the owner of the bike and others in the local area, it has inspired me, time and time again, to see Victor organize and mobilize a grassroots system that he has played a role in creating, for the cause of community-based justice.
A few days after we stopped pursuing the case, Victor and I sat down for an interview. Victor, who is 26 years old, has been a rider in the area for just over two years. Prior to that, Victor had been working in personal and housing security. In his words, it’s because of that experience that he was encouraged to take on the role of security officer and was elected by an overwhelming majority. “First of all, you have to understand, when you see a boda boda rider, you need to know that he is not only standing there for the money. We are keeping an eye on our surroundings in order to keep it secure,” was how Victor began his response to my question about the specifics of his role as a security officer. He went on to explain that “When anything happens regarding boda bodas, a security officer is the first person that is asked, ‘What happened?’ It doesn’t matter if it is 1 am or 3 am in the morning; if there is an incident, I have to wake up and attend to the situation, to understand what happened, who was involved, and what process is required moving forward. If you consider my area, it is part of my job to know every corner of it and be aware of every person operating in my constituency.” Victor explains that each boda boda committee that exists per constituency has a chairperson, security officer, treasurer, and secretary. “As committees, we are known by the NTSA [National Transport and Safety Authority], local police, and local community elders,” he says. People can serve in these positions until they move on, there is no term limit, and, he adds, one does not earn more for taking a leadership position. Sometimes, a person who has received help from a boda boda rider or from the committee will offer compensation in the form of materials such as boots or jackets, or cash. “We also support people financially. If a driver needs to repair his bike because of a hit, or if he needs to pay for damages caused and can’t afford it, we can organize amongst ourselves to support the person affected and be repaid slowly,” Victor explains.
It has inspired me, time and time again, to see Victor organize and mobilize a grassroots system that he has played a role in creating, for the cause of community-based justice.
I asked Victor whether the level of organization that he was describing was present before the Forest Road incident. “After [that incident], measures got much stricter when it comes to registering with the NTSA. It used to be easy. You could talk to someone at any stage and you can start driving. Now it’s much more organized. There was the president’s order that this is the case, but even us, it is something that we took very seriously. You know, it causes you shame when someone from your community harms others.” When I asked Victor why he does this work, and why he pursued my case so vigorously, he shared the following moving reflections: “I didn’t study security or go past Form 2, but this comes from inside of me. I feel very good when I know that everybody in my surroundings is safe and secure. The only reason that I do this is because I care about justice and fairness.” Interestingly, towards the end of our discussion, Victor also described a brief encounter he had had with the recently elected Governor of Nairobi, Johnson Sakaja. “I told him that we need to know each other; he needs to know us guys and we need to know them.”
As an Oromo who is actively engaged in the liberation struggle going on in Ethiopia today, I cannot help but feel a connection between the way Oromo grassroots cultural and political processes and institutions interested in the administration of justice have been misrepresented by the political and economic elites (of all ethnicities), and the way the reality of the boda boda community’s collective life has been similarly unjustly misinterpreted. If local and national institutions could move beyond perpetuating harmful narratives about boda boda riders in order to keep them at the margins of society and use them as political scapegoats when convenient, they could play a productive role in empowering and resourcing this community’s capacity to organise for grassroots justice and projection.
“The only reason that I do this is because I care about justice and fairness.”
Speaking off the record (but giving permission to use this information on the record), Victor told me about a domestic violence dispute that he was able to safely intervene in because of the work he does as a security officer. The victim in question was over 30kms away from Victor’s station, but because he could identify her as a member of his local community whose safety he feels personally responsible for, he took effective action to protect the woman. Even if—like in any institution where power and people are involved—the security institution within the boda boda community is not perfect, it is one of the many ways through which grassroots processes of protection and justice can have a transformative impact where more formalized institutional processes fall short. There is great scope for the latter to be empowered by the former in order to achieve that which I think we all want: to live safely and freely.
*Name has been changed to protect the rider
Swahili Muslim Practices and Sage Philosophy
In his book Swahili Muslim Publics and the Postcolonial Experience Kai Kresse examines the dynamics of Islamic subjectivity in postcolonial Kenya and the myriad issues relating to the hybridized nature of postcoloniality itself in Africa.
Indisputably, the Kenyan intellectual tradition is rich, varied and influential. Furthermore, much more is known about its modern intellectual practices than its ancient discursive traditions. Perhaps this is due to the widespread popularity of its contemporary literary artists and public intellectuals. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Kenya’s foremost novelist and public intellectual exerts an arresting presence over most issues deemed distinctly Kenyan. And this is understandably so, given his remarkable productivity, range and resilience as an author. Ultimately, perhaps much less can be said of his late compatriot, Binyavanga Wainaina, who was an equally influential essayist, unconventional journalist and famed memoirist. Wainaina’s lauded memoir, One day I will write about this place is a lambent, often lushly written but also arguably frustrating personal account of modern-day Kenya. Wainaina was concerned with the transitional or even fragmented phases of the contemporary moment and his confessional role as a self-appointed spokesman on the larger national canvas. He wrote enticingly about the Kenyan urban lingo intriguingly called Sheng but failed to explore momentous historical events such as the anti-colonial Mau Mau rebellion or paradigmatic precolonial life worlds suppressed by the colonial intrusion.
Wainaina also implicitly advanced the view that the contemporary moment was all that counts, that all we needed to know about an undoubtedly complex nation such as Kenya was enshrined in the present. But of course, Kenya has far more to offer intellectually and culturally and this is why accounts such as Kai Kresse’s Swahili Muslim Publics and the Postcolonial Experience (2019) paint a deeper and more nuanced picture of the Kenyan intellectual tradition. Kresse, a German, ZMO Berlin-based anthropologist specializing in East African intellectual and philosophical traditions employs self-reflexive discursive strategies to complicate his positionality and the overall project of anthropology as a discipline. This makes his writings unusually refreshing and intellectually stimulating.
Kresse’s research into Kenyan intellectual formations spans three decades beginning with a work on sage philosophy published in 1997 and continuing to a monograph on philosophizing in Mombasa. In addition, his training as an anthropologist grants him perspectives and insights an ordinary philosopher would not only miss but perhaps would also not fully appreciate.
Kresse’s book is not just a close and intimate examination of the dynamics of Islamic subjectivity in postcolonial Kenya but also speaks to the myriad issues relating to the hybridized nature of postcoloniality itself in Africa.
The Kenyan coastals, marginalized by centuries of external rule either by the Portuguese, the British or by Kenyan upcountry domination, classify their current status as “double periphery”. The coastals claim they are marginalized within the broader Kenyan nation space and also within the specific Muslim configuration of their geographic location.
As such, they are forced to endure a form of silence. This silence and the accompanying encroaching sense of marginality speak volumes when compared, for instance, with the political dominance of the northern Islamic elites in Nigeria, or in the cases of Senegal and Somalia.
In Nigeria, the Hausa/Fulani oligarchy has dominated the country since independence and its overbearing presence is often considered an inevitability or a fait accompli. Minorities such as the Ogoni, Ijaw, Tiv, Nupe and so many other ethnic groups in both southern and northern Nigeria have had to contend with Hausa/Fulani hegemony. From a Nigerian and Senegalese point of view, it is difficult to imagine an Islamic minority in an African context agitating for its own political expression or survival when Islam is considered to be the religious faith of political and military elites. Unfortunately, in Kenya, Muslims constitute a minority and once again, such sociopolitical complexities attest to the hybridized dynamics of postcoloniality in contemporary Africa.
In Kenya, works advocating self-determination such as Regionalism: True Freedom to Save the Coastal People, penned and self-published by an anonymous former education officer, bring to mind the plight of the Ogoni under the inspiring leadership of Ken Saro-Wiwa or the Igbo under Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu during the Biafran/Nigerian crisis between 1967 and 1970. The sometimes violent contestations between ethnic minorities and majorities to gain political freedom or control are also inflected by a religious coloration. The shifts and eruptions caused by political power are never exactly definitive but move instead like swings of a pendulum according to the imperatives of circumstance and history.
Kresse argues that Swahili Muslim intellectual culture in Kenya is rather well developed. Exclusively Muslim and Swahili communities often overlap, cross-fertilizing intellectual and cultural patterns and crisscrossing one another in a mutually reinforcing way.
The concept and broad understanding of humanness are key to fostering relations of mutuality, therefore affirming the essence and significance of the human. The human, just as in the Southern African concept of ubuntu, is realized in continual social acts of mutual recognition and acceptance. Rather than being an isolated being, or even more radically, a frank social fact, the human, in fact, is a being-in-social process, reinforced and re-enacted in a continuum of social acts and affirmations that lead to mutual recognition, validation and reinforcement. Thus the ultimate goal of the human in existence and by extension, within the community, is to seek the good within oneself, re-living it in everyday life and tangibly creating sociality through a continual implementation of its values.
Kresse eloquently explores the philosophical basis of Swahili Muslim understanding of the human and then delves into the specificities of the intellectual culture it produced which turns out to be intricate, well-developed and ultimately, profoundly humanizing. It is a pity that continentally or globally, very little is known about this astounding intellectual culture. This culture also bears elements of political subversion, social discontent and self-determination which are expressed in narratives and counter-narratives of poetry (utendi) and radical political commentary.
The human, just as in the Southern African concept of ubuntu, is realized in continual social acts of mutual recognition and acceptance.
Kresse’s latest book, Rethinking Sage Philosophy: Interdisciplinary perspectives on and beyond H. Odera Oruka, co-edited with Oriare Nyarwath (2022), continues his focused exploration of Kenyan historic intellectual formations, this time, the discourse of sage philosophy, a form of re-configured folk philosophy popularized by the late pivotal modern-day Kenyan philosopher, Henry Odera Oruka. Under the philosophical school known as sage philosophy, a presumably western trained philosopher identifies the invariably illiterate elders of a rural, ethnic community and attempts to collate the folk wisdom and critical reflections of that community regarding life, knowledge and metaphysics, which are then translated and rendered in a metropolitan medium. Perhaps what needs to be tracked are the conceptual and linguistic transitions inherent in these renditions and how they might be contributing to the (un)making of a new philosophical language. Gathering an impressive pool of Kenyan and international scholars, the Kresse co-edited book places sage philosophy at the centre of postcolonial philosophical thought while seeking to eschew the essentializing and frequently polarizing overtones of coloniality.
Once again, a tripartite epistemological structure becomes evident. Ali Mazrui had argued that Africa, and Kenya in particular, is defined by a triple heritage comprising an indigenous African tradition, a Muslim/Mediterranean influence and a Christian/western inheritance. In Kresse’s work, so far, another kind of tripartite discursive formation reveals itself; one marked by an Islamic intellectual history, an indigenous/endogenous philosophical system known as sage philosophy and then a western philosophical idiom and canon through which a folk system of thought is articulated and elaborated. Either consciously or unwittingly, Kresse’s project traces the contours of Kenyan social thought as they unfold within the often overlapping matrixes of Islam, indigeneity and westernity with evident conceptual continuity and singularity.
Exclusively Muslim and Swahili communities often overlap, cross-fertilizing intellectual and cultural patterns and crisscrossing one another in a mutually reinforcing way.
The current trajectory of Kresse’s work tends to shadow contemporary European thinkers such as the late German philosopher, Heinz Kimmerle and Dutch anthropologist/philosopher, Wim van Binsbergen who interrogate questions of interculturality, otherness and marginality—often from a multiplicity of positionalities and perspectives—while also seeking to unbundle the inheritances of their North Atlantic intellectual pedigree.
Kresse’s interest in the philosophical and intellectual traditions of Muslims in Kenya, has succeeded in unearthing systems of thought, social activism and instances of political resistance that complicate Kenya’s supposedly unitary Christian construct of itself. And then his earlier work on sage philosophy, a largely Kenyan-spawned modern—perhaps Christian-based—philosophy tradition further complicates an already multi-layered national intellectual history and identity.
At the political level, there are also real existential entanglements to consider. Kenya, like any other colonial creation, ought to be viewed as a political and geographical aberration formed on the basis of a largely irrational colonial diktat. But like other postcolonial territorial anomalies-turned-miracles in Africa, it has managed to finesse its numerous irreconcilable differences into the improbable semblance of a nation.
The universe presented in Swahili Muslim Publics and the Postcolonial Experience invariably yields a philosophical and intellectual tradition that has been virtually ignored in current African philosophical discourse. And then, in investigating the ramifications of sage philosophy, Kresse’s work further highlights the significance and impact of a dominant Kenyan philosophical formation. Arguably, Kresse’s attempt to bridge a fundamental epistemological schism by amalgamating a minority Muslim discourse (Swahili intellectual practices) with sage philosophy is certainly a kind of epistemic project a Kenyan would ordinarily find impossible to execute. This is due to the ingrained and perhaps often insurmountable separations caused by fractious internal politics and differences. There is also an implicit epistemic holism in this project of intellectual reconstruction. But how much it serves Kenyans from a practical point of view is another matter entirely.
Thabo Mbeki and the Quest for an Independent and Prosperous Africa
An interview with former South African president Thabo Mbeki on 19 June 2022 presented an opportunity for Africans within and outside the intellectual community to raise issues around particular developments in South Africa and the continent following the end of apartheid.
The quest for an independent and prosperous Africa spans several generations, continents, and themes. Notably, from the eighteenth century, people of African descent in Europe, America, the West Indies, and on the continent have been engaged in different variations of the liberation struggle to uphold their humanity, independence, and right to self-determination. After the triumph of the abolitionist movements over the menace of institutionalized slavery, Africa was again saddled with the task of dislodging an imperialist regime that wanted to perpetuate itself on the continent by every means available.
In most of Africa, colonialism produced various forms and levels of exploitation, deprivation, and shame—segregation. This prevalent atmosphere of injustice was to inform the establishment of resistance movements manifested in Pan-African coalitions and nationalist organizations focused on uniting Africans in a movement against the shackles of European imperialism. However, due to the varied nature of the colonial establishment around the continent, the successes of these liberation movements were also not to be attained uniformly. With the collapse of the South African apartheid regime in 1994 representing a close in the chapter of colonial oppression in Africa, the struggle for independence was drawn out in colonies like South Africa, Algeria, and to a lesser degree, Zimbabwe and Namibia, which had substantial settler populations.
After liberation came the task of nation-building. The process of post-independence nation-building has been arduous for most of Africa, a situation emphasized by the frequent occurrence of violent conflicts on the continent. Many of the challenges—such as international sabotage, corruption, marginalization, unemployment, conflict and diseases—identified as impeding growth and development on the continent can be tied to the problem of national cohesion around Africa’s “nation-states”. In the absence of a powerful overriding national sentiment, an array of competing ethnic/sub-national interests within Africa’s national boundaries—a by-product of Africa’s colonial past—has made it difficult for African states to present a united front against threats to their (individual and collective) socio-political and economic wellbeing. Hence, territorialism, ethnicity, racialism, corruption, and nepotism thrive and continue to undermine African efforts at political and economic independence and prosperity.
Former South African president Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki has been an avid campaigner for an independent, united, and prosperous Africa for over half a century. Born in South Africa to activist parents, Thabo Mbeki was inclined to join the struggle against the oppressive white minority government in 1955 at the young age of 13. With a passion uncommon among youths of his era (during colonialism), young Thabo became an active member of the youth wing of the African National Congress (ANC), the leading organization protesting the oppressive apartheid regime in South Africa. During his activism years in the ANC, Thabo’s diplomatic skills and commitment to the organization’s objectives gained him some recognition and provided an opportunity for him to serve in very important capacities.
In December 1994, after South Africa’s first elections under universal suffrage, Thabo Mbeki was elected unopposed as the ANC’s deputy president, a position that saw him serving under the nation’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela. As a long-standing member of the ANC who served with and succeeded Nelson Mandela as the country’s president, Thabo Mbeki’s role in South Africa’s emergence as a continental model transcends the era of nationalist struggle to include the critical years of reconciliation, recovery, and reconstruction. Even after his tenure as South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki has maintained his commitment to the unity and development of Africa, for which he has continued to serve in different diplomatic capacities. Hence, an interview with Thambo Mbeki presented an opportunity for Africans within and outside the intellectual community to ask questions and raise issues around particular developments in South Africa and the continent following the end of apartheid (liberation). Leading with the questions was a select panel that included the duo of Prof. Paul Zeleza, the former Vice-Chancellor of the United States International University Africa, Kenya, and Naledi Moleo, a media practitioner.
While discussing the lessons the ANC learned from the liberation struggle and the challenges encountered in building a post-apartheid nation, Mbeki conceded that creating a new nation, especially after coming out of colonial oppression, was indeed an important challenge. According to him, the first political challenge confronting the new government was determining what kind of society it wanted to build, whether a one-party state or a multi-party democracy. This decision was particularly critical owing to a substantial settler population in South Africa and the high expectations held by an erstwhile oppressed majority. On its part, the government approached the task with two notable convictions. One, that there were no set ways to build a democracy. Two, that there were not going to be any quick fixes. Hence, in attending to the business of nation-building, the leadership made the informed decision to engage the people by communicating its policy decisions with them regularly and honestly so that they do not become disillusioned by the pace of development and withdraw their support.
The first political challenge confronting the new government was determining what kind of society it wanted to build, whether a one-party state or a multi-party democracy.
On the question of his proudest achievement at the age of 80, Mbeki spoke about the sense of fulfilment that came with being part of a successful liberation struggle against colonial oppression. He also explained that the South African struggle provided Africans, home and abroad, with a reason to unite under the belief that a free South Africa would further stimulate development processes on the continent. Mbeki added that South Africa has, within its capacity, made some contributions to Africa’s development challenge. However, he lamented that Africa had lost the respect it had from the rest of the world, which resulted from the agreement between Africa and the G8 countries in which the latter agreed to meet Africa’s development needs at its recommendation.
Reacting to the popular question of youth participation in leadership, and specifically whether there was any plan within the ANC to hand over the reins to a younger generation, Mbeki recalled his progressive rise within the party from a place of relative insignificance to subsequent positions of responsibility and authority. According to Mbeki, his emergence within the party was not the result of a “handing over” but a natural progression in rank. As young party members, their continued commitment to the struggle ensured they became the ideal candidates to fill vacancies when they arose. Thus, he advised that young people should develop strong youth organizations to address the challenges of poverty and unemployment in their communities. This way, they gain the necessary leadership experience and from their role as youth leaders gradually rise to become national leaders.
Mbeki spoke of the pressure of meeting the high expectations of people within and outside the country concerning the key challenges encountered while in office. Another source of anxiety for the new post-apartheid government, he said, was the fear of possible counter-revolutionary action by disgruntled elements within South Africa’s large settler population who did not believe in a new South Africa. The ANC government decided that a special political approach was necessary to guard against counter-revolutionary tendencies that could manifest either in the assassination of key ANC leaders or as attacks on critical infrastructure. Therefore, for political and economic expedience, they decided on a measured approach in implementing political and economic reconstruction programmes as symbolized by the party’s famed reconciliatory post-apartheid political stance, the systematic introduction of a wealth tax, and the gradual extension of social welfare packages like the child grants to otherwise excluded Black populations.
Speaking on the impact of the reform programmes implemented by the Mandela administration during which he served as vice-president, Mbeki drew attention to the challenges the government inherited from the old apartheid government, particularly the huge debts incurred in a final attempt to buy dissenting voices. Given this financial deficit, the government decided to implement policies to bring the population to a level of development sufficient to generate wealth for the country. Towards that end, the budget structure was changed to cut down on foreign debt while directing the bulk of the generated revenues towards human development programmes instead of debt servicing. Mbeki alluded that these changes induced some economic expansion based on an expanded workforce that generated the wealth required to maintain a certain level of spending on social benefits. The resulting economic growth recorded was maintained for some period until the disruption brought about by the 2007/2008 financial crisis which was caused by the collapse of US banks and from which the economy never fully recovered.
The ANC government decided that a special political approach was necessary to guard against counter-revolutionary tendencies.
Addressing the matter of the constitutional issues faced while in office, particularly what Naledi Moleo described as a sharp decrease in the popularity of the constitution, Mbeki pointed out that this was mostly a result of the disappointment that followed the government’s decision to follow the path of reconciliation instead of the expected retaliation for centuries of alien oppression. He went further to explain that the ANC government’s decision to adopt a constitution that provided for the rights of everyone living in South Africa (Black or white) was more than an immediate reaction to political exigencies—a peaceful and mutually beneficial coexistence had always been part of the party’s ideology. Moreover, this decision was thought to be best for the state’s progress and to prove wrong those detractors who doubted the (Black) government’s capacity to operate a non-racial and non-sexist system while addressing the imbalances of the past; Mbeki said these people believed South Africans were incapable of that level of sophistication. He also discussed ideas of pride in an African identity and African self-esteem, which had come under severe attack from colonial oppression, and of the systematic alterations made to the African person (identity), beginning with his name and progressing to other aspects of his being (culture), all in an attempt to create a subservient subject/population. Mbeki said these were factored into the liberation agenda, informing important elements within the drafted constitution aimed at rejecting the colonial legacy and recovering the people’s self-esteem.
Concerning the socio-political challenges encountered while in office, Mbeki explained that, with regards to HIV/AIDS, the government opted to come at the challenge from the angle of correcting the South African population’s immune deficiency to boost resistance to the virus. As for COVID-19, the biggest challenge was overcrowding, which made respecting safety guidelines difficult, and the inability of Africa to produce its own vaccines. Hence, while acknowledging that the government did relatively well in responding to these crises, he also conceded that more needs to be done in the area of medical research in Africa to counter such crises in the future.
Coming around to the subject of xenophobic attacks, Mbeki explained that South Africa’s Black population was very accommodating and that these attacks were orchestrated by the enemies of the state who wanted to see it fail. He insisted that the organizers of these attacks played on the economic insecurities of the average South African to achieve particular political goals, including attempts to destabilize the country and to influence election outcomes in Zimbabwe by terrorizing its migrant population in South Africa. He emphasized that these saboteurs must be identified and stopped as a matter of political urgency because they continue to threaten stability in South Africa. According to Mbeki, these people want South Africa to fail because it communicates a particular political message.
While acknowledging that the government did relatively well in responding to these crises, he also conceded that more needs to be done in the area of medical research in Africa.
Lastly, on the question of conflicts and the challenge of political instability on the continent, which also formed a bulk of the questions from the audience, Mbeki related this to a sharp decline in the sense of Pan-Africanism among Africans. In his view, this dwindling commitment to a pan-African ideal has also negatively impacted the capacity of the African Union (AU) to carry out the duties for which it was established. As it is, the AU boasts of mechanisms for early detection of conflicts, but how effective have these been in conflict prevention? How well has the continental body fared in its conflict resolution attempts? For these reasons, Mbeki called for a greater commitment to the pan-African ideal, hence the need for an African renaissance. For this renaissance movement to achieve the goals of development (modernization) and prosperity in Africa, it must have the backing of a committed and well-organized youth with the passion to see such a vision come to fruition.
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