The Morality Debate and the Spirit of Capitalism16 min read.
Public discourse on morality and individual virtue has long been emphasised. But as JÖRG WIEGRATZ argues, they only tell part of the story of human beings and human society. Indeed, capitalism and its current variant neoliberalism is a moral order that defines the standards of interaction within a neoliberal society.
“It is not from the benevolence (kindness) of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” – Adam Smith: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations
There is a common position in public debates in many contemporary societies – be it in Uganda, Kenya, Germany, the UK or the US – that we live in an age of moral decline and moral crisis. Typically, this is a more or less direct commentary on the global system that shapes all of these societies: capitalism. Well-known public commentators and analysts in these countries, such as Will Hutton in the case of Britain, will declare that current capitalism is morally bankrupt. Hutton writes: “’Modern capitalism’ has arrived at a moral dead end, interested largely in feathering the nests of its leaders while imposing enormous costs on the rest of society and accepting no reciprocal obligations.”
Others refer to capitalism as just plain immoral and evil; or assert that figures such as fraudulent bankers or hard core, ever-profit-maximising speculators, business owners and managers (who lay off thousands of workers, or close entire factories to move to countries with cheaper labour) have lost their moral compass. This is an argument that one comes across regularly when the latest scandals emerge around systemic, high-level, harm-producing fraud and corruption or when heartless profit-making schemes are exposed, with those paying the price for these schemes being the most vulnerable people, including patients, pensioners, children, poor communities or an unsuspecting public.
Often, the terms “greed” or “selfishness” are dropped somewhere in these analyses as well, which implies that the money-minded actors concerned are immoral greedsters. Other words one regularly finds in such texts are “shocking”, “disgusting”, “devil”, “soul-less”, “cold-hearted”, “inhumane”, “indifferent”, and the like, signalling a sort of (expressed) moral unease and outrage about the critiqued actors and practices. In society usually certain economic activities, certain ways of earning a living, of making money by some groups, get categorised as immoral by some other group. And when a society experiences the rise or becoming more publicly visible of certain – say, new, more innovative, blatant, or radical – forms of money-oriented activities or ways of thinking, you will soon find one commentator pulling the analytical card that has “immoral”, or “moral decline” written on it. Representatives of the state (and the political system more broadly), the church, or unions from time to time run this line in one form or another. Of course, when your analysis asserts that morals are at rock bottom, or have been crowded out, then the diagnosis is to inject “more morality”.
Let me then present some examples of this conventional type of reasoning in public debates from the African continent, more specifically South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Nigeria: “Is it that the moral fibre of our society is irrevocably broken…?”; “[Political leaders have] largely lost their moral compass”; “Our freedom of expression had started eroding our moral fabric”; “Poor parenting and moral decay in society are to blame for runaway corruption”; “[There is now] capitalism without a soul … capitalism has lost its moral shine”; “Nigeria is gradually moving into the future with greater number of its youths turning into drugs addicts and becoming morally bankrupt”; “Only immoral leaders would put politics ahead of Nigeria’s fiscal future”; “The loss of moral values threatens our common existence”; “Government will introduce an examinable subject in schools to teach students and pupils ethics in order to rebuild the country’s degenerating moral values and make the citizens appreciate honesty.”; “Rampant criminal activities… have been blamed on lapse in moral values.” And so on and so forth. Our world is full of such statements from public officials, church leaders, artists, scholars and other professional analysts.
Notably, the youth, or groups such as “drug users”, are regularly depicted as having lost their morals. So are categories of people who just go after money, who are just in it for the money, as they say. This debate is, for instance, existent in discussions about young women dating rich and powerful old men or looking for private sponsors/sugar daddies (“transactional sex”); or about the sex-for-university-marks or sex-for-a-job phenomena, be it in Kenya, Uganda, or Nigeria.
This debate came to the fore in Kenya recently when two women, Sharon Otieno and Monica Kimani, were killed mid last year, allegedly because of having sexual affairs with older men. Al Jazeera later ran an extensive special programme headlined: “Why are Africa’s ‘sugar’ relationships in the spotlight?”, and sub-headlined: “Murder in Kenya fuels conversation about partnerships where money and gifts are traded for sex and companionship.” And, the BBC published a long investigative piece about the phenomenon of sugar-baby-daddy/sponsor/blesser, titled “Sex and the Sugar Daddy’” around the same time. Did at least one of the commentators (in traditional or social media) run the moral decline/immorality argument in this particular case too to discuss the behaviour of the women, and the issue of money and sexual relationships?
Lots of observers and analysts seem to agree then that there is a spreading of immorality – especially in the world of business – and a sort of moral regression across modern society, and that this is the issue that needs sorting. In other words, morals are a good thing (and we need as much of them as possible), and something is attacking these morals, making them diminish. Picture a kind of downward spiral, an eroding kind of trend, a society (or particular groups such as “the youth”, or “bankers”) losing their moral values – something gets thinner by the day, something is in decline. The enemy here is immorality, not morality, or say, a specific type of morality. How easy and clear for an analysis – which one can run year in, year out – without even much need for empirical data to support the claims.
Lots of observers and analysts seem to agree that there is a spreading of immorality – especially in the world of business – and a sort of moral regression across modern society, and that this is the issue that needs sorting. In other words, morals are a good thing (and we need as much of them as possible), and something is attacking these morals, making them diminish.
But is this line of argument perhaps not as useful as it seems, as both diagnosis and prescription? Notably, whatever country you look at, very few commentators or scholars, let alone politicians, ever offer an analysis of capitalism and capitalist society as a moral order itself, as a moral system and moral economy with a moral grammar and all sorts of moral-economic milieus and cultures – across economic sectors, professions, locations. And, very few analysts would argue that what so many observers describe and interpret as a case of moral decline, crisis and bankruptcy, is actually a case or phenomenon of moral change in society, and what observers diagnose as a problem of immorality (or absence of morality) is actually a problem of morality, i.e. a problem of particular socially dominant and powerful moral cultures, moral milieus and moral economies in a capitalist society, of the type of moral views, justifications and priorities, of the type of moral actors that this particular social order – and capitalist polity and political economy – tends to bring about.
That said, to get a different analysis and debate concerning morals in today’s society, to move beyond the moral decline thesis and other conventional takes on the matter, three analytical insights or analytical starting points are crucial: capitalism is a moral order; the so-called bad/immoral actors are moral actors too; what is happening in front of our eyes can be treated analytically as cases of moral change, not moral decline or moral bankruptcy.
Capitalism is a moral order
One of the reasons for the popularity of the moral-decline/immorality argument is a particular understanding of morals that is apparently widespread in public discourse. According to this line of reasoning, morals are about being pro-social i.e. being good to other human beings; supporting others to flourish; being altruistic, caring, helpful, honest, selfless; foregoing one’s self-interest; not acting on the basis of self-interest; and so on. If one starts with such a notion of morals, then, of course, one might think that fraudsters or the super-rich are immoral or that our world is in moral decline – look at all the fraud, corruption, deception, violence, inequality, egotism, and narcissism in human affairs. And if you look through these analytical lenses at the history of humanity – i.e. at the actual practices of human beings and the explicit or implicit logics underpinning them – then you might indeed declare a large chunk of what humans do, of human history, as simply “immoral”, i.e. as immoral practice of immoral actors, as immoral decisions, immoral rulers, immoral government, immoral societies and so on.
Human history then in many (not all) aspects looks like a story of moral decline, moral crisis, moral bankruptcy, going on for centuries. Humans inflicting misery and suffering on others, destroying families, villages, cities and countries; using, exploiting and humiliating each other – and destroying the environment and extinguishing species – because of this decline or absence of morals. In other words, all these practices – and respective repercussions for the well-being of others affected by them – exist because of other factors than (i.e. everything but) our morals. They exist not because of the presence of (particular) morals, i.e. not because of the dominance of specific morals over others in society. If you are a morality analyst that adopts this conventional angle – morals are about being pro-social – you can ignore that big chunk of our human history, because all this immoral or amoral stuff has nothing to do with our morals, and our moral order and moral culture more broadly, and the political, economic, social and psychological factors and conditions that bring these about. To study human morals, it is sufficient then to focus on fair trade, altruism, charity, solidarity, and the like, i.e. the pro-social practices; that is where the music plays.
However, you might take a different, more open, flexible understanding of morals that allows you to, analytically speaking, see morals and moral culture de facto everywhere where humans relate and interact with each other and thus matters of their well-being – and related matters of (in)justice, (un-)fairness, (in-)decency, (in-)authenticity etc. – come into play, are affected, are at stake, or are negotiated. This take would allow researching, seeing, discussing and critiquing the moral underpinning of the entire spectrum of social practices from good” to “bad”. It would see (as some movies and TV series do) the prime sites of fraud, corruption, boardroom sell-outs, violence, humiliation, oppression, and exploitation as moral sites as well, as sites where moral codes, views and priorities operate too just as in the boardroom of the altruists (though arguably different sort of morals). How is that possible, you wonder, to find morals where they are supposedly absent, where people operate who have lost, as we heard, their moral compasses? It really depends on the definition and take on morals one applies.
But note: when I talk of moral order I don’t necessarily mean a “good” (just, humane, fair, socially progressive) order. Instead, moral order or moral culture here refers, amongst others, to an order that has a wide range of existent – dominant and non-dominant, complementing, conflicting and competing – moral norms, interpretations, views, beliefs, claims, demands, tensions, contradictions, discourses, imaginations, and so on regarding matters of good/bad, right/wrong, acceptable/unacceptable, legitimate/illegitimate, and so on in social relations and practices, including in the economy. And, in this sense, capitalism, and its different variants from colonial to neoliberal capitalism, is (and has always been) a moral order, culture, system too; with a wide range of moral milieus and moral economies, with a wide mix of notions of right/wrong, good/bad, acceptable/unacceptable, praiseworthy/blameworthy, with various patterns and distributions of benefit and harm, of flourishing and suffering.
Morals don’t necessarily mean or imply pro-social practice (i.e. a practice that fosters the flourishing of others, is honest etc.). As human history and research shows, there are operational, actually-existing, on-the-ground morals in particular social settings that prescribe or advance that it is acceptable, right, good, and necessary to defraud (or intimidate, threaten, evict, exploit, enslave, etc.) and thus harm another human being or social group, for particular reasons. Professionals who work or have worked in fraud-invested companies or organisations at times say – once they face a judge, investigator, or reporter, or blow the whistle – that fraud was the culture in the place, i.e. that it is/was the tacit or explicit moral culture in the organisation or team to deceive, cook the books, take short cuts, short-change vulnerable customers, and so on so as to meet revenue and profit targets, beat competitors, get bonuses, and keep the job (and thus make family/region/nation proud, send the kids to good schools, save for the future and old age, look after extended family, etc.).
Morals don’t necessarily mean or imply pro-social practice (i.e. a practice that fosters the flourishing of others, is honest etc.). As human history and research shows, there are operational, actually-existing, on-the-ground morals in particular social settings that prescribe or advance that it is acceptable, right, good, and necessary to defraud (or intimidate, threaten, evict, exploit, enslave, etc.) and thus harm another human being or social group, for particular reasons.
That said, let’s look at this alternative definition or take on morals in more detail then: Morals, including morals on the ground, as expressed in actual practice, can be understood as being in many ways about how we treat one another (for instance in the economy) and how we deal with matters of (in)justice, (un)fairnesss, (dis)honesty/authenticity, solidarity, etc. in this context. Morals are about what is regarded as acceptable or unacceptable, as right/wrong, good/bad, proper/improper, legitimate/illegitimate, or praiseworthy/blameworthy. As you can perhaps sense already, in society, in a local market place, in a factory or in an office there are all sorts of views about what constitutes acceptable practice, what or who is moral and immoral, and so on. And you can bet that the ruling classes (the powerful, the dominant, the oppressors and exploiters) in any place have a somewhat different view regarding what is right, good, proper and acceptable than the subaltern classes (the oppressed, exploited, humiliated, beaten-up people). In other words, what different social actors regard as proper or acceptable depends on the actor’s power, position in society and economy, experiences in and perspective on life and society, and so on. All this is far more open to people’s views and interpretations – hence diverse, variable and changing – than the many voices in public debates want us to believe.
One of the shortest and cleanest formulations of this aspect is one by Monika Keller: moral norms are “standards of interaction concerning others’ welfare”. In this phrasing of what morals are, the emphasis is on how we treat each other (and thus affect the lives of those involved), and what is regarded as normal or acceptable in this regard. Using this angle, the pro-social element (being altruistic, solidaristic etc.) is not a necessary part of the understanding of “morals” anymore. The morals in place could be: your welfare doesn’t matter (too much; or not as much as our welfare anyway), because of x (you are…; we are…; the situation…), hence, we (are justified to) treat you in a particular way (exploit, defraud, torture, kill etc.). Morals are thus also about what are acceptable levels of interpersonal or social harm in various settings, from the battlefields in business to those in wars. With this analytical starting point, one can now begin to search for, analyse, and understand (as well as critique) morals – and moral orders, cultures, climates and economies more broadly – that underpin – i.e. render (sufficiently) acceptable, proper, right, normal, necessary – exploitation, fraud, intimidation, humiliation, violence and trafficking in the economy, or the practice of leaving people who seek refuge/survival/a better life in Europe to drown in the Mediterranean. The analytical and political question then is: what are respective moral climates and moral codes, and what/who (re-) produces them, and why?
That said, from an analytical perspective we can now relate for instance fraud to morals, i.e. to standards of interaction concerning fellow human beings (and their lives and well-being, and related interests) in a specific time-place context. This “standard”, for at least some actors in their respective social settings, could be that under condition x, it is okay, necessary, proper, right, or good to defraud another human being, social group or class, because of z. Or, in case of corruption-infested road construction projects, the standard of those directly or indirectly advancing the deal could be something in the direction of: it’s okay to get some good money (for purpose x, y, z), at the expense of future victims of road accidents due to the resulting poor roads (because part of the money meant for building material etc. was siphoned off). And this shared notion, understanding, norm or “standard” – this action justification – is of course a social phenomenon, i.e. is socially constituted: (re)produced over time by something and someone (beyond the individual fraudster, or group of fraudsters), including global, national and local politics, political economy, religion, you name it. Remember, norms (including moral norms) are “socially constituted action justifications”.
So, the point is to recognise that whatever the social practice in the economy, there is some sort of moral grammar – a notion of how to treat others, what is regarded as acceptable/unacceptable – underpinning it. And these views, understandings and justifications – how to treat others in economic sites ranging from agricultural fields to markets, factories, bank branches, domestic homes and so on – do not fall from the sky but are a product of society, including its history, class and power structure, and its mode of production, as well as, for instance, the global political economy that impacts this society.
We have now arrived at an analytical point where we can shift gear: instead of mainly thinking about whose morals are right and wrong (from whatever political, philosophical standpoint), or what is moral/immoral, other questions to grapple with emerge: what are these specific morals in specific settings that bring about a certain social practice (that conventional analysis declares as immoral, inhumane etc.) and where do these morals come from, what/who (re)produces them, what has it to do with politics and capitalism, and so on. And: how do morals change over time, and why?
With this sort of take on morals, one can now understand better, and claim scientifically, that a particular set of morals (whether as an analyst one likes them or not) are actually present in the cases that much of public debate and commentators declare as immoral, amoral, or inhumane: from the cases of fraud, greed, exploitation, humiliation and intimidation in our high-stakes economies (where people relate and interact in order to make a living, survive, keep the job, ensure the bonus, escape poverty, get wealthy, strike riches etc.) to a capitalist economy, culture and society as a whole.
Of course, philosophers of war have for long run the line of argument that under specific conditions, for particular reasons (to protect/advance one’s country, king, god, etc.), it is good, necessary, legitimate, proper, or just to kill another human being, to kill (or imprison, torture etc.) others by the hundreds or thousands i.e. to harm others, to lower their welfare levels, to limit their flourishing. If war was one context and site where some scholars could construct an argument about the morals of harming others (aka, Just War) – which was of course not just a desk-based argument but somewhat reflected aspects of the historical situation on the ground where this war-is-moral was one of the existent morals at the time (arguably advanced, then as now, especially by rulers, and profiteers of war) – then the morals-of-harming-others analysis can be extended to other social sites, contexts and actor groups i.e. beyond war, soldiers, generals (or nowadays drone operators), enemies in the battlefield and so on.
Then there is an open analytical pathway, i.e. hope that the scholarly oddity – that we hardly study, let alone gather qualitative data on the morals that underpin the entire spectrum of human action (from so-called “good” to “bad” actions), across history – could be addressed, and perhaps amended over time. The oddity that there is so little theory and data on the moral underpinnings of a lot of social practices that humans in the millions and billions have very consistently, for a very long time, shown and opted for in their engagement with each other when matters of livelihood, poverty, survival, wealth, power, prestige, status, privilege, career and so on are on the line: these humans have deceived, exploited, intimidated, bought-off, bullied, defrauded, killed (with ever more effective weaponry), as well as conquered, colonised, enslaved, burned-the-place, and eradicated alternative, resisting, non-compliant cultures. Given the size, significance and importance of the phenomena of concern, it is odd that the (e.g. qualitative) data set about these aspects of the macro and micro moral climates, worlds and milieus of earning a living, of profit-making, of striking riches, of accumulation, of outcompeting others, you name it, is so astonishingly small.
Anyway, once one can hold this analytical point (regarding such a take on morals), one can engage with more unconventional analyses in order to learn something about the entire spectrum of moral orders and morals of human beings. For example, some scientists have explored moral systems and moral subjectivities related to “bad stuff” and “bad actors” outside the economy: cases here range from the mentioned soldiers and generals in war, to mass murders, terrorists, neighbours-as-killers in heightened social conflicts (in Rwanda, for example), Nazis and Nazi Germany, and so on. And some scholars have looked at the “moral worlds” of state institutions too, including police, courts, prison, social services, and mental health facilities, i.e. what some would regard as “bad” actors and practices. But this literature – especially the former that explores morals that prescribe significantly (and routinely) harming others – is generally not used in the scholarship, let alone in our public debates, about the moral order and dynamics in a capitalist economy and society.
Many positions in our public debates about morals in contemporary society are, in my view, so sterile, so stuck, so analytically flat, because they do not allow us to talk about, and thus understand, the social constitution, including the politics, of these sorts of morals: the morals of the small and large “wrong-doers”, such as the fraudulent (and/or “greedy”) bankers, insurers, industrialists, traders, speculators, tycoons, doctors, lawyers, or politicians, and the moral climate in the organisations and sectors they work and operate in. The debates, as outlined earlier, mostly say: immorality (or, out-of-hand greed, self-interest etc.) is the issue and problem at hand – and this can be cured by more morals, including an injecting of more morals into capitalist corporations and sectors. This closes off any engagement and debate with what is in my view the real issue: morals (of treating others, of making money etc., including deceiving, defrauding, taking advantage of, exploiting, and harming others) and moral order in a society shaped by capitalism.
Many positions in our public debates about morals in contemporary society are, in my view, so sterile, so stuck, so analytically flat, because they do not allow us to talk about, and thus understand, the social constitution, including the politics, of these sorts of morals: the morals of the small and large “wrong-doers”, such as the fraudulent (and/or “greedy”) bankers, insurers, industrialists, traders, doctors, lawyers, or politicians, and the moral climate in the organisations and sectors they work and operate in.
One more important point: morals – notions of what is acceptable, legitimate, normal, okay or necessary practice – are (i) political i.e. shaped by political and political-economic context, and thus matters of power and conflict, and (ii) co-constituted in a social process by a variety of social actors with different – and often competing and conflicting – moral views and priorities, and of course different and competing economic and political interests. There are always power structures and processes as well as social conflicts (regarding what is right/wrong, acceptable/unacceptable, legit/illegitimate) that underpin any dominant moral order, or specific aspects of that order. As an example: the absence of an effective minimum wage for decades now is a key characteristic of the moral order in neoliberal Uganda, backed, at the minimum, by a range of powerful actors and their moral views and priorities regarding right, good and acceptable and related political and economic interests.
Most public analysts that I read or listened to in our media over the years never really bothered to deeply analyse this collective nature of our actually existing morals in the economy. For instance, what are the societal processes and structures – and interplay of actors – that produce fraudulent bankers and fraud-invested banks? Crucially, economic activity takes place in an uneven landscape of power and resources in which social actors contest and negotiate over the boundaries of acceptable action. In other words, the moral order, the moral climate in the economy, or in specific sectors (say, maize production and trade in Kenya) is deeply shaped by politics and the political economy. What turns out to be the dominant practice, the dominant norm – i.e. the way things are done – is thus a “function” of power, or more specifically, of power structures and relations in a capitalist society. That basic insight makes the phenomenon and analysis of moral order so political; again, something most public commentators don’t recognise or make much of. So next time you are “shocked” about the practices and “immorality” of tycoons, bankers or managers, check out what their morals are and what they have to do with power.
To close the discussion of this point: according to theoretical and empirical scholarship, the current variant of capitalism, neoliberalism, is associated with or puts emphasis on morals that endorse matters, such as self-interest, individualism (with a focus on individual choice, gain and material success), personal enjoyment and achievement, self-actualisation, a focus on transactions and money, wealth accumulation, consumption, opportunism, cunning, low other-regard and empathy, low regard for the common good, and so on. Does some of this sound familiar when you look at your society, your town, your community? Of course, there is more to neoliberal moral order and neoliberal moral economy than I can outline here but these are some of the issues to start with.
Those who study and emphasise pro-social morals are not wrong, but they only tell a part of the story of the morals of human beings and human society. The economy (or polity for that matter) of your country is full of and overflowing with morals (not all “good” ones, I give you that, but morals still), with millions of actors with morals and moral compasses; even the notorious, hard core fraudster has a compass, a particularly skewed one perhaps but a compass it still is. Try to go through everyday reality and observe fellow human beings and their practices through this lens for a day or two. You might find it insightful.
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Northern Kenya Comes in from the Cold: A New Dawn for Kenyan Democracy?
Marginalised in the colonial era and ignored after independence, northern Kenya has experienced significant change over the past decade. But will the new trend endure?
The development projects that have been initiated in northern Kenya over the past decade are indicative of the promise of a new democratic ethos in the country. The various “flagship” projects — roads, an airport, infrastructure… — formally break the link with northern Kenya’s heritage of a past of deliberate marginalization.
These changes are attributed to the revival of a robust human rights programming, advocacy and implementation at regional and national level; the 2010 constitution, transitional justice mechanisms (the national cohesion and re-integration process and the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission processes); Sessional Paper No. 10 of 2012; Vision 2030; a changing understanding of the value of land and other forms of productivity; and the strong advocacy work of northern Kenya’s civil society and allied pro-democracy reformers of the last two decades.
In northern Kenya the space for democratic engagement and respect for human rights was constricted from the word go.
New narratives are emerging in which socio-economic and governance prospects for northern Kenya are clothed in positive practical experiences. Northern Kenya is not only poised to rightfully partake in its democratic share but also to impact Kenya’s democratic profile in a substantive manner. But will these new trends endure?
The colonial Northern Frontier District
The future of northern Kenya was inauspicious from the start: Kenya became a British protectorate in 1890 and a crown colony in 1920. In the intervening period, the British struggled to create a buffer territory between the Italians and Ethiopians on the one side and the settled southern territory on the other. The move was prompted by rivalries between Italian Somaliland, the Abyssinian Empire and the British East Africa Protectorate. The rivalry was caused, in particular, by Abyssinia’s worrisome expansion southwards that started in 1895. The Northern Frontier District (NFD) ended up being the buffer zone. The NFD comprised that swath of territory comprising of upper eastern region, north-eastern region and the northern Rift Valley.
The NFD was declared a “closed district” to Kenyans from the south, who required special permits to visit. This resulted in the perception by the locals that they were not part of the “Building Kenya “project.
Between 1941 and 1950, with the exception of French Somaliland, all Somali territories were administered by the British. With the fall of Italian forces in 1941, the British could now expand their economic and political policies across all Somali territories and the Bevin Plan to unify all Somali territories under Britain was adopted. This inspired Somalis to seriously begin to consider the idea of a Pan-Somali nation.
Having been determined by the British to be a “wasteland” from which “no resources” could be extracted, it followed that, in the view of the colonialists, the territory warranted little investment being nothing but a financial drain. In the 1920s, the most the colonial authorities could get out of the drylands of northern Kenya was the livestock (30 cattle and 50 sheep) that the communities paid every year as tribute. However, it soon emerged that the Somali community was defaulting, putting a strain between the locals and the authorities.
The NFD was declared a “closed district” to Kenyans from the south, who required special permits to visit.
Social services were essentially non-existent. There were no hospitals built in the early years of colonial rule. Education lagged behind as there was no school in the province until 1946 when the first one was opened in Isiolo. In any case, to Muslim communities, schools were deemed to be the proselytizing agents of Christianity. Even the Christian missions were not permitted in the NFD since the British feared they would generate aspirations in the locals that that they would not be able to fulfil. Quranic schools could be found in every home where a Maalim taught the Quran and the hadiths (Prophet Mohammed’s teachings). There was only one provincial hospital which was located in Isiolo whose one doctor would make visits to the districts. A few trunk roads had started being built in the 20s that linked major towns like Wajir and Garissa.
The reality was obviously different in the south of the colony. On reaching Isiolo, a community member travelling south would declare that “they had reached Kenya. This was a matter of them being conscious of the fact of their difference and understanding that their loyalty would be questioned by what they called the “down Kenya” authorities on account of their irredentist aspirations.
By the 1920s northern Kenya had already been relegated to a future full of arbitrary pre- and post-independence policy-making, and unaccountable bureaucracies with their attendant misuse of power. The link between governance and civil society participation was a mirage. Apart from having to contend with unjust legal systems, the residents of northern Kenya did not participate in decision-making. NFD was essentially characterized by almost nothing else other than gross socio-economic, cultural and political marginalisation. It was clear to all that the region was not to be a welcome and integral part of the new Kenyan “nation-building project”. As long as NFD residents paid their taxes and conflict among them did not arise, they were left to their own devices.
State of emergency
The British held a referendum in 1962 with the objective of seeking to find out if northern Kenya residents preferred territorial unity with the young Somali nation to the north or with the future republic of Kenya. Residents overwhelmingly voted to secede and join Somalia. Jomo Kenyatta’s response was unequivocal: “Not an inch of Kenya” would be taken way. A four-year guerrilla war ensued involving sections of northern Kenya residents. It is reported that by the time the Shifta (Amharic for bandit) war technically ended in November 1967, nearly 2,000 people had been killed.
On reaching Isiolo, a community member travelling south would declare that “they had reached Kenya.
The Kenyan government declared a state of emergency on 28 December 1963, barely a fortnight after Kenya became independent. This marked a turning point in the relationship between the Kenyan government and north-eastern Kenya. The declaration of the state of emergency had been prompted by the formation of an alliance between the Gabra, Borana, Rendille and Somali pastoralist communities that was expressed in the form of a political party called the Northern Kenya Progressive Peoples Party (NPPP) which, since 1960 had become the vanguard for agitating for the secession of the region from Kenya. Perceived to have been the main agitators for secession, suspicion regarding the political views and citizenship of Kenyan Somalis has endured.
Social exclusion and marginalization
In northern Kenya the space for democratic engagement and respect for human rights was constricted from the word go. The colonial authorities had little time to foster inter-community harmony, instead forcing these communities to submit to the status quo. Statehood as an idea was in this case bereft of intercommunity coherence. The colonial authorities proceeded to allocate development resources to what were perceived as “high potential” areas that would provide good returns on investment because they had adequate water and fertile soils. This essentially consigned the so-called “arid lands” to social, economic and political marginalization and infrastructure development and other basic services were to be denied to the perceived “non-productive regions” for many decades to come. This is how northern Kenya — from Turkana and Pokot in the north-west to Mandera and Wajir — came to represent the perfect case of historically marginalized societies in Kenya.
Since the region was primarily governed from a security point of view, conversations around basic needs were barely allowed. It is for this reason that Hannah Whitaker argues that while scholarship predominantly and conveniently cites Somali nationalism and the influence of the external Somali state as the main driving factor for the Somali movement to secede, little is said of the internal socio-economic grievances that the northern Kenya residents then held. These long-standing grievances remain pertinent to this day. As Dominic Burbidge equally notes, the concerns of the communities in the north “include land access for cattle grazing, availability of water points and access to markets”. He adds that cattle rustling in the north during the colonial period was caused by poorly regulated borders with Somalia.
What is surprising is that successive post-independent governments have adopted the colonizer’s attitudes and approaches towards the region, including the divide-and-rule strategies that were frequently employed by the colonial authorities. This has come at great expense to Kenya’s nation-building project and to the livelihoods, freedoms and democratic rights of the residents of northern Kenya.
The multidimensional nature of the marginalization of the north has been documented in its social, political and economic aspects. Being both the cause and effect of marginalization, poverty cuts across such factors as gender, geography, and ethnic groups, among others. A case study of social exclusion and marginalization, the region has suffered exclusion from development projects and basic services that would ordinarily be availed to other regions or ethnic groups. Economic and social marginalization has prevented the residents of this region from accessing basic services, and has denied them income opportunities and even access to jobs. The extent to which various other Kenyan regions have been resourced and developed over the years can be gleaned from the glaring disparities reflected in GPD records. For instance, for decades before the democratic transition that brought Mwai Kibaki to power, nearly 45 per cent of the nation’s employment was based in only 15 towns. This exacerbated the ethno-regional profiles of political and economic discrimination.
It was the practice since colonial times for Kenyans from the south to be appointed to head the provincial administration and the security forces up in north. Local leaders with a better appreciation of the local dynamics were left out of key decision-making processes. Those with a little education could be appointed chiefs and sub-chiefs but were more often named to even less prominent positions. The state preferred to consult its external allies for assistance whenever it was confronted with an issue. Notable appointments of northern Kenyans emerged after the failed 1982 coup. The coup prompted the then president Daniel arap Moi to begin to systematically build alliances with marginalized communities such as the Maasai and Somali. Hussein Maalim Mohamed was appointed Minister of State in 1983. His brother Mahmoud Mohamed was named Chief of General staff in 1985.
Old narratives and alternative narratives
A critical impediment to realizing a democratic and equitable governance and development system in northern Kenya has had to do with lingering misconceptions by the policy makers, media and other development actors about pastoralists, their culture and livelihoods. These misunderstandings often dovetailed with neo-classical economics that linked exclusion and social inequality to perceived individual or group character flaws, or strengths, or culture. Certain groups, for instance, would be socially excluded based on what the dominant interests felt were their own faults.
It was the practice since colonial times for Kenyans from the south to be appointed to head the provincial administration and the security forces up in north.
The centuries-old practices and way of life of pastoralists contribute to food security stabilization in the drylands ecology and provide them with adaptive skills to confront a variable climate. Yet policy makers do not see this. Instead, they hold that it is a “backward, wasteful and irrational livelihood” that occurs in “fragile, degraded and unproductive ecosystems that simply generates trouble to non-pastoralists”. Edward Oyugi explains that the 2010 constitution provided for devolution as a policy instrument, broadly and vaguely intended to reign in runaway marginalization and the social exclusion of different actors of the Kenya society on the basis of such factors as ethnicity, region, gender, negation, urban versus rural and class and other identity forms. This was specially to assist us move away from the neoclassical thinking where we blamed or celebrated others based on non-functional attributes. Thus the need to stop thinking about the industrious-crafty Kikuyu, the happy-go-lucky coastal, the pleasure-loving Luo, the culturally backward Maasai, the obedient Kamba, etc.
Pastoralists have always been portrayed as permanently embroiled in conflicts when they are not victims of droughts. Depicted as largely lacking agency, their own adaptive capacity is rarely acknowledged.
Agitation for democratic reforms and social inclusion
During the constitutional reform processes, Kenyans agitated for the removal of the centralized political system, strongly rooting for a decentralised system to take its place. Kenyans fervently called for the equitable representation of all regions in national government. Pastoralists from the north joined other communities that had missed out on any significant and representative appointments to national government offices. An example of the inequitable allocation of national government positions can be gleaned from Jomo Kenyatta’s presidency during which 28.5 per cent of cabinet ministers were Kikuyu. During the presidency of Daniel Arap Moi the percentage of Kikuyus in the cabinet dropped to just about 4 per cent while that of the Kalenjin rose sharply to 22 per cent. In addition, in the 70s, 37.5 per cent of permanent secretaries were from the Kikuyu community while 8.3 per cent were from the Kalenjin community. In 2001 the percentage of permanent secretaries from the Kikuyu community dropped to 8.7 per cent while that of the Kalenjin rose to 34.8 percent. This was again reversed when Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, ascended to the presidency in 2001.
Changes in policy, law, rights programming and practice
Essentially, the democratizing project in Kenya and elsewhere was hugely aided by the strongly revived human rights programming, advocacy and activism that was experienced in Africa from 1990’s onwards. It was from this human rights language that a raft of regional and national legislations and policy frameworks were promulgated from the year 2001 onwards. This set the pace for the categorical recognition of the economic, social and cultural rights of pastoralists and other minorities. Significantly, most of these legal and policy instruments which came to benefit pastoralists and other minorities were as a result of this robust human rights re-awakening across Africa. This human rights revival was largely driven by the newly formed continental structures such as New African Partnership for Development (NEPAD — which came to represent a new vision for Africa’s development). During this period, all states within the African continent had become parties to international human rights conventions. In the years after 2001, states were obligated to respect the principles and objectives of NEPAD. Critical to some of these principles were the primacy of international human rights law which essentially provides that that legal obligations deriving from international human rights law have primacy over any other obligation. States were therefore under obligation to ensure that all their commitments — economic, financial, and commercial programmes — were aligned with international human rights law. Moreover, NEPAD established accessible, transparent and effective mechanisms to assess the exercise of responsibility, be it at the national level or at the level of the institution. These commitments were to be assessed through the procedures of the African Peer Review Mechanisms.
Understanding the existing human rights normative frameworks and their legal obligations by states for the purposes of advocating for government compliance became a requirement for the marginalized groups in northern Kenya and other parts of the country. This came in handy whenever they needed to engage in strategic litigation at various junctures in their efforts to seek redress for the violation of their economic, social, cultural and development rights. A number of communities that lodged complaints with the regional human rights mechanisms received precedent-setting decisions.
Pastoralists have always been portrayed as permanently embroiled in conflicts when they are not victims of droughts.
In the Endorois case against the Government of Kenya, the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights elaborated the scope of the right to development. Article 22 of the African Charter states that all peoples have the economic, social and cultural right to development. The 2010 constitution seeks to strengthen national unity through building diversity as a crucial object of devolution. By recognizing the rights of collective identities, it vindicates the significance of self-governance and improved participation in decision-making as rights of communities. To this extent, it categorically identifies pastoralists as a collective identity whether nomadic or a “settled community that because of its relative geographical location has experienced only marginal participation in the integrated social, and economic life of Kenya as a whole”. The constitution further extends opportunities for redress for the marginalization and social exclusion that pastoralists and any other minority groups may have experienced when it makes provisions for affirmative action programmes in matters relating to representation in governance and in other areas related to education, access to health, employment, infrastructure and water.
Fortunes of Kenya’s first democratic transition
The 2002 democratic transition in Kenya under President Mwai Kibaki, and the attendant transitional mechanisms following the 2007 post-election violence had transformative policy ramifications for the future of northern Kenya. The transition provided hope and impetus for pastoralists and other minorities to advocate for their rights. In effect, policies directed at combating the social exclusion of certain groups began to be designed and implemented. These policies were couched in a language that saw social exclusion and inequality as not being merely a function of the operation of ideological choices, systems or structural conditions but as unjustifiable human rights violations under many human rights conventions. In the main, they emphasized recognition of the principle of non-discrimination and equality as fundamental elements of international human rights law which meant that states could not engage in the mischief of justifying less development for some groups or regions for whatever reason as has been the case previously. The principle of indivisibility of all human rights reinforced this position, clarifying the universality, indivisibility, and interdependent nature of rights. The preamble of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, notes:
“Civil and political rights cannot be dissociated from economic, social and cultural rights in their conception as well as universality and the satisfaction of economic social and cultural rights is a guarantee for the enjoyment of civil and political rights”.
The African Union Policy Framework on Pastoralism (2010) set the stage not only for the recognition of pastoralism but also for the inclusion in the constitutional and legal texts of states. The enactment and implementation of the National Policy for the Sustainable Development of Northern Kenya and Other Arid Lands (Sessional Paper No 12), as endorsed by the cabinet in 2012, followed suit and reversed the provisions of Sessional Paper No.10 of 1965 that had entrenched discrimination in resource allocation based on perceived “high potential”, those associated with crop agriculture, to the detriment of the drylands where pastoralists reside. It is this 2012 Sessional Paper that comprehensively laid the ground for a series of flagship projects that were to be implemented in northern Kenya as part of the Vision 2030 development strategy.
When a team of 50 men and women embarked on a 510-kilometre walk to campaign for the tarmacking of the Isiolo-Moyale Road on 7th November 2004, few thought that one day their dream would be realized. Northern Kenya is not only poised to rightfully partake in its democratic share but also to impact Kenya’s democratic profile in a substantive manner. But will these new trends endure? Only Kenyan citizens on the one hand — and not just the people of northern Kenya — and the state institutions, on the other, can guarantee that.
This publication was funded/co-funded by the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of The Elephant and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.
Reimagining Futures of Agriculture and Bioeconomy
A recent workshop brought together scholars, agricultural practitioners, and activists. Stefan Ouma, Eugen Pissarskoi, Kerstin Schopp and Leiyo Singo summarise some insights from a vital discussion from the degrowth and the critical agrarian studies communities discussing visions of agriculture which do not rely on growing productivity.
The transformation of the fossil-fuel based economies to a “bioeconomy” – an economy whose raw materials come mainly from renewable sources – as envisioned in the early industrialized societies of the Global North will make biomass the bottleneck resource of the 21st century. Visions of bioeconomy and agriculture which dominate debates both in the Global South and the Global North share the belief that the best means to alleviate the resulting challenges consists in increasing agricultural productivity. Critical agrarian studies scholars and activists have often flagged the negative impacts of capitalist visions of bioeconomy and agriculture, calling into questions the dominant and often capital-driven paradigms that seek to envision and implement particular agricultural futures. Interventions on roape.net and in the journal have powerfully contributed to those debates.
Many of these interventions have had a focus on Africa or the Global South more generally. But what are the visions of agriculture of those who are not in a position of political or economic power both in the Global North and the Global South? Does there exist a shared vision among them? Also, many of these interventions in one way or another are against ‘modern’ forms of agriculture, which often implies being against the industrial productivity paradigm that underpins capital-driven agricultural futures. While this paradigm has a long history, going back to the work of 18th century philosopher John Locke, and resurfacing during both colonial and post-colonial attempts to ‘modernize’ African agriculture (as Andrew Coulson shows here), it is often not clear what role ‘productivity’ would play in alternative visions of agriculture. What would make an agriculture without productivity growth attractive to small producers such as smallholder farmers and livestock keepers? Do indigenous communities and the degrowth movement (which lately has received more attention by critical agrarian studies scholars, see here and here) have their own conception of productivity or an own attitude to it? Given the recent calls that we need a deeper dialogue between degrowth and decoloniality scholars, how could decolonized conceptions of productivity capture more space in public debates and policy circles? These questions foregrounded the reflections and conversations of the workshop aptly named: Beyond Productivity: Reimagining Futures of Agriculture and Bioeconomy, held as a digital event on 8 October, 2021.
The workshop drew about 40 scholars, agricultural practitioners and policy activists from different countries including Germany, Ghana, France, India, South Africa, Tanzania, United Kingdom, and the United States. We deliberately wanted to span boundaries and gather diversely positioned scholars and activists, many of whom would normally not share the same space. This diversity, we believe, influenced the contributions and deliberations during the workshop. Of course, the theme of the workshop itself – the role of productivity for a radically sustainable agriculture and bioeconomy – constitutes a puzzle. There are contradictory attitudes towards it, even within more critical academic circles, as well as among grassroots movements representing peasant farmers and livestock keepers.
In the following, we present some insights from the discussions about this “productivity puzzle”. A lengthier documentation of the workshop’s debates can be found here.
Part 1: Role of Productivity in Agricultural Visions
The first session brought together visions of agricultural practices, which do not strive for further increase in land or labour productivity. The contributions were made by Henryk Alff and Michael Spies (Eberswalde University for Applied Sciences), Theodora Pius and Lina Andrew (Mtandao wa Vikundi vya Wakulima Wadogo Tanzania (MVIWATA), member of La Via Campesina), Christina Mfanga (Tanzania Socialist Forum), Gaël Plumecocq (French National Institute for Agriculture, Food, and Environment Toulouse), Leiyo Singo (University of Bayreuth), Paula Gioia (Arbeitsgemeinschaft bäuerliche Landwirtschaft (AbL), Germany, member of La Via Campesina), Richard Mbunda (University of Dar es Salaam), and Divya Sharma (University of Sussex). The discussions took part in parallel breakout rooms addressing the differences and similarities of the visions presented in the session.
It is incontestable that a rise in productivity can improve people’s livelihoods. However, the established notions of “productivity” are strongly influenced by capitalist imperatives. They contribute to class differentiation and uneven capital accumulation in countries such as Tanzania as several participants pointed out. These notions of productivity have been exported to Africa.Meanwhile, the idea of productivist agriculture has become deeply entrenched in farmers’ own reasoning. Due to that, they consider productivity increases as a means to rising incomes which, in turn, they need since a growing number of needs cannot be satisfied without cash.
Most participants agreed that mainstream notions of productivity need to be adjusted by recognition of additional values, for instance, frugality (or simplicity) and the well-being of the future generations. Given that we already have reached a planetary state of climate breakdown, visions that do not envision productivity rise are deemed more realistic compared to what is formulated within the conventional productivity paradigm. Agro-ecology is an option to increase productivity in quality, not quantity. Qualitative productivity improvements rest on incorporating a wide range of social and ecological values and not merely economic ones. Additionally, legal, and political frameworks that are formulated in a deliberate, collective manner could help to develop a commonly shared vision of a future agriculture and the role of productivity in it.
Some participants mentioned that the allegation of low productivity is used to continue the alienation of farmers from their means of production (seeds/land) across Tanzania. It is used to help “modern seeds” penetrate rural areas. While it is true that many farmers, especially young ones, increasingly consider agriculture as a dead-end, agriculture has rather been made to be not rewarding. Additionally, the role of brokers at the interface between farmers and markets should be critically scrutinized.
Another key question is that of political power. How can other visions of agriculture become effective? Recent policy dynamics in Tanzania provide a vital example. Despite some of well-known shortcomings, the previous regime under late-President Joseph Pombe Magufuli shared certain visions with small-scale farmers, e.g., banning trials on genetically modified organisms. Magufuli also took away land from investors that had been obtained under questionable circumstances. The current regime, however, supports investors. “For the government, investors are business partners, but for the majority these are enemies, not development partners.”, argued Christina Mfanga.
The session ended with a paradox. While we can raise several critical points about the thrust for productivity, it can be patronizing to say that small-scale farmers don’t want productivity. If asked, many farmers would probably agree that anything reducing their workload is good. At the same time, this does not mean to go down the corporate road to productivity. Another question that emerged was: “Who are the people”? How do we account for social differentiation, and potentially differentiated interests, among the peasantry and livestock keepers?
Part 2: Towards Decolonization of Productivity?
Introducing the second round of the workshop, Stefan Ouma raised the linkage between productivity and coloniality, emphasizing that notions of productivity cannot be understood without considering the colonial experience. Colonial administrators already promoted modernisationist discourses on raising productivity among ‘backward’ African producers, a rhetoric that still shines through the contemporary productivity gospel. Endorsement of economic prerogatives such as efficiency, labour productivity, and the coupling of private property and the ideology of “improvement” have European origins and buttressed colonial expansion.
Two keynote addresses were presented by Julien-François Gerber and Emmanuel Sulle followed by the commentary by Wendy Wilson-Fall. Subsequently, participants discussed in three groups the following questions:
What would make an agriculture without productivity growth attractive to smallholder producers?
Some participants suggested focusing on the plurality of productivities instead of abandoning the notion of productivity at all. This plurality should integrate social and environmental forms of productivity, such as the freedom for smallholder farmers to decide which crops they cultivate when and which crop quality they want to achieve, which is an important issue for smallholder farmers.
Other participants, however, pointed out, that the established political-economic rules make an agriculture decoupled from productivity growth unattractive. It is unrealistic to make a beyond-productivity-agriculture attractive to a young generation within the existing economic systems. The macro-level is vital since the dominant economic framing of agriculture in politics and business makes agro-industrial notions of productivity (in the narrow sense) a prerequisite. As a consequence, these participants called for a paradigm shift towards a decommodification of agriculture. This decommodification will have implications on the decolonization of agriculture since the redistributive and alienating dimensions of capitalist markets are central issues for both political projects.
Do indigenous communities and the degrowth movement have an own conception of productivity or an own attitude to it? How does it look like?
In his plenary presentation, Julien-François Gerber pointed out that the degrowth movement stresses a plurality of values among which an agricultural system must balance: well-being, meaningful work, resilience to shocks, land and labour productivity among others. Land/labour productivity (and the resulting monetary income) constitute only a part of the valuable properties of agricultural systems.
This picture of a plurality of values which need to be adequately balanced actually represents the realities of indigenous farmers and pastoralists in sub-Sahara Africa and Latin America. These groups balance the productivity of ecosystems and non-human organisms (“livestock”) with the productivity of social bonds and relationships in a different manner than the industrial farmers in the Global North. The latter put more weight on the land and labour productivity and less weight on livestock’s well-being and intensity of social bonds.
A remarkable difference lies in the fact that while the degrowth vision is largely aspirational, the pastoralist economies of provisioning are an already existing reality. Their common point – the requirement of balance amid a plurality of values – is far from being recognized by the political mainstream in the Global South or North.
How could decolonized conceptions of productivity capture more space in public debates and policy circles?
Taking the case of Tanzania, a largely agrarian society, discussants acknowledged that the country’s politics are dominated by urban elites. Therefore, without a broader movement taking on the existing ruling class, nothing will change. Those working with grassroot movements pointed out that the “people are there, but funding is the issue”. Christina Mfanga came across a lot of struggles among farmers which are “extra-organizational” (outside of organized farmer groups and movements) and thus less visible. Most of the movements she mentioned are not donor dependent. The involvement of donor funds is often a setback for radical struggles.
Researchers need to get closer to the grassroots to learn about the real struggles of the poor. Richard Mbunda emphasized the need for research that is strongly grounded in decolonial conceptions of agriculture. Data is helping the proponents of hegemonic models of productivity to speak, so alternatives need data, too. We need to have a larger discussion about decolonizing productivity and associated research. We should turn the Global North-South axis upside down; “we” in the Global North can learn a lot from the Global South in terms of human-environment relations.
The debates at the workshop have demonstrated that there are similar objections raised against the dominant, capital-driven visions of agricultural futures (see here and here) and the bioeconomy (see here and here) by scholars and activists from different parts of the world. The dominant visions both in the Global North and the Global South endorse the goal of productivity growth. In light of mainstream economic theories, the socio-economic institutions established in the early industrialized societies of the Global North, and their values – which have been exported to other parts of the world- productivity growth seems to be an indispensable condition for a flourishing life.
However, as the workshop debates stated, there are grassroot movements in the Global North – which are small and politically unrepresented – who object to the pursuit of further increases in land or labour productivity and who search for socio-economic models which do not depend on growth of economic aggregates yet enables life to truly flourish. There are also communities in the Global South – often politically marginalized and currently in existential crisis such as the Maasai in Tanzania – which have preserved and still realize ways of life in which growth of productivity does not play a significant role.
As such, there is fertile ground for fruitful exchange and mutual learning between critical agrarian studies researchers and activists studying these marginalized communities and grassroot movements and activists striving for recognition of their values from the Global North and the Global South. Such an exchange should avoid the temptation to romanticize these communities and movements, taking their internal contradictions and struggles around cultural values and practices seriously, as Andrew Coulson reminded us in the aftermath of the workshop.
This article was first published by ROAPE.
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
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