Note from a resentful and sequestered journalist:
It’s a real downer to be so perpetually right about this man all the time. Years ago, on a cruel Wednesday in November, the morning after Trump ‘won’, I had a brief conversation via Facebook with a family member.
He stated: “What a disaster.”
To which I replied, “No, the disaster is yet to hit us.”
What a f***ing drag to be correct. The rally took place six months ago, for all I know, the VIRUS could have been banging around the corridors of that ugly squat Milwaukee structure already. At the time, it was one of the darkest eight hour periods of my life, a look into the other side only to find out that it was even worse than my ‘good liberal’ sensibilities could have fathomed.
At the time of writing, I thought, perhaps I’ve gone too far with this one, crossing the Rubicon of objectivity. It turns out, no one quite went far enough in putting this man back into his place, and because of it all wishes of him slithering away seem a distant hope.
The Trump supporter, the ones that attend such rallies and wear big middle fingers that read ‘HERE HILLARY!’, the ones who’d show up to a rally in the depths of a frozen January, seemed as though they’d follow the man of the long ties over a cliff if he’d merely pointed that way. There was something strange hanging in the air that day, like the feeling that the other shoe was about to drop, and do so squarely onto the bridge of one’s nose.
Sixth months later, the country lays tattered and beaten, split asunder by denial and modern political ineptitude swirled in with the Trump ethic’s engrained cruelty. It was certain then that this was going to be an absolute emotional suck of a presidential campaign – one that would drag the country backwards in some inexplicable way yet to be revealed. Turns out, it was every way imaginable, even some from a nightmare. The US now sits at the end of the barrel of one man’s ego, stuck in quarantine from the scourge of COVID-19, still arguing about masks for f***’s sake, the highest death tolls globally by far and Disney World throwing open its doors to keep the shareholders smiling via Zoom.
I thought at the time, watching that audience and their fervor, Trump would surely win the election. I no longer think that, but it might not matter. The damage was done a long time ago, it just took a germ, a knee in a man’s neck and decades of malignant systemic bullshit swirling together to prove it out.
It turns out some dumbness is terminal after all, but everyone was too worried about the “good of the country” to listen.
MILWAUKEE, January, 2020.
F*** Your Feelings: Donald Trump 2020. Indeed. A truer sentiment couldn’t have been more reflected in the teeming mass of humanity that writhed back and forth between segmented caution tape lines in the January deep freeze of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Now, such heinous slogans were made for opportunity; it was $20 (CASH ONLY!) and printed onto T-shirts, flying off a folded table as fast as wind-chapped hands could clamour for them.
It was the first thing that I saw as I came bounding out of Major Goolsby’s Bar and Grill. I’d ventured into it to use the toilet (to avoid the horrors of portable loos used by thousands of waiting Trump supporters, many of whom had camped out on an overnight drunk in the line). On my way to the exit, I bumped into a table with six sorority age women, all silently eating Authentic Tennessee honey BBQ chicken wings and staring off idly into space; one of them wore a sign draped around her neck that said: First Time Voter, All Time Republican. None of them even looked up as the table rocked violently.
There were some 5,000 people out in the line, even this early, some two hours before the doors were set to open. I was wearing Republican “cosplay”, a green polo shirt, pressed khakis and a backwards Milwaukee Brewers’ baseball cap (an effort to make me look like a good and decent suburban conservative). These items, along with my winter-pasty Irish whiteness would serve me well; I could slide right in with these people and blend in, as long as I didn’t say something tolerant and flag myself.
Within seconds of diving into the midst of the queue, flasks came zipping from hidden pockets; whiskey and vodka flowed out in bright red half litre frat-boy “solo cups”. This was it, the centre of the universe for those yearning for the long-dead America that President Ronald Reagan destroyed in the 80s and then took credit for inventing; this was a carnival for depressed suburban accountant dads, their well-coiffed wives and an assortment of Northern US weirdos (like rednecks, but with strange heavily-nasal accents), ones that looked as though they’d simply hopped out of deer-hunting season and hustled fixing carburetors to scrape together just enough gas money to get to the Tuesday day-drinking. All around me, people were pounding back booze like the end was nigh, and with the helicopters swirling back and forth overhead, I couldn’t say it seemed they were far off base.
Red. It was all I saw. Not just the colour, but also the blinding feeling of it. Guys were hyped, this was their guy, a rock star idol straight out of the late 1980s, throwing a free festival for them. Simply everyone had on some kind of apparel. They’d all bought in and thrown down cash on this shameless shill; paying a billionaire to sport his likeness.
Scarves, hats, stars and stripes, camouflage MAGA jackets, signs, lewd buttons, T-shirts (several of them) that read in bold letters: Hillary Sucks, but Monica BLOWS.
That’s what it was, although I realised it too late: I didn’t match the crowd. For one hundred metres in any direction, everyone was branded and I wasn’t.
People were slapping each other on the back. They were at ease here. They could really let loose and say how they really felt about jobs, Mexicans, the prospect of “war with those towel-heads in that sand-pit Iran”, and their own collective victimisation. They were able to breathe out and send out FOX News talking points along with every liquor-tinged breath.
A fifty-five year old goateed man, while pulling a canned beer (the fifth I’d seen, but judging by his slur, the thirteenth of the day) from a cooler, saw this lack of conformity and my long hair and started in: “Man, I bet one of those liberals is going to raise their dumb f***ing head and say something. They always have to talk about their stupid feelings.”
People were slapping each other on the back. They were at ease here. They could really let loose and say how they really felt about jobs, Mexicans, the prospect of “war with those towel-heads in that sand-pit Iran”, and their own collective victimisation. They were able to breathe out and send out FOX News talking points along with every liquor-tinged breath.
I grinned a shit-eating grin and shot back, “I bet it’ll be a whole bunch of them.”
He lifted his shades and glared at me, beers and years of boredom behind his eyes. “You’re not one of them, are you?”
I had a vision of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, when people who don’t match up with the aliens are pointed and shrieked at by gaping horrific mouths. I looked back at him stone-faced. “My man, I’m a Christian soul, but you couldn’t pay me to pray for that bitch Hillary.”
He glared back, reading my face for a long moment before smiling slightly and tilting his Bud Light: Lime beer.
There was a lot of fear in this crowd; it was almost palpable. Several attendees made comments about having to “come out” as Trump supporters to family, friends, and co-workers. They all gave stories of heavy alienation. I’d had similar conversations with young and gay kids from the Deep South state of Georgia – tales of shunning and fearing disownment.
Perhaps this wasn’t quite the audience for an impassioned discussion on historical disenfranchisement of minorities; to this line, they were the marginalised. It was obvious that they finally felt listened to, they all seemed to have the same giddy expression of a secondary school student who just found out that she had a date to the dance.
The irony was thoroughly lost on all of these Trump supporters, however, as they failed to realise that victimisation isn’t equal. It is clear from the crowd that a chief principle of a Trump crowd is playing to that ugly “woe-is-me” part of the lizard brain. In Trumpville, you really did get a raw deal all your life; you sad-sap white-male-of-the-first-world-making-60K-USD-a-year you.
Not only this, but it was probably a Honduran who delivered that shitty bargain up hot and steaming while stealing your jobs while you kept going to work every day.
Life, for some, just isn’t fair.
Dear God, these well-fed victims were all drinking like it was pre-prom and it was all downhill from here in life. I watched five middle-aged women in matching navy blue TRUMP 2020 shirts shotgun beers and then immediately throw the cans to the ground, only to pass a bottle of Fleischman’s: Wisconsin’s Number 1 Vodka! around in a circle; polishing it off in a mere two laps.
The scene outside was, to put it mildly, deeply strange. It was the same kind of weirdness that one would encounter heading into a rock-metal concert in the deep American South – shit always gets heavy in the event’s parking lot; it is where the broke get loaded and the swag hustlers push their wares.
Now the feeling echoed eerily similar. Seven songs played in a sort of ramshackle list, but not in any rational order – songs by Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kid Rock would play twice in four tracks, followed by Elton John (not with permission to play his music) and, most jarringly, the Village People’s Macho Man, a famous gay anthem of the 70s.
Such musical eclecticism led to tableaus playing out before me; such as watching two pot-bellied, white-goateed men wearing matching ‘hristians for Trump! T-shirts, dancing and smiling with each other whilst holding hands in a sort of circular country jig.
I should have brought a flask myself, especially as I saw a young girl with an Iranians for Trump sign pose for selfies with overtly fascinated war-mongers in the line.
The music was split through every thirteen minutes or so by a pre-recorded public announcement. A woman with a voice similar in tone to Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale would suddenly exclaim:
“Hi and Welcome to this patriotic campaign rally to re-elect Donald Trump, featuring your Commander-in-Chief, Donald J. Trump! We thank you for coming out to show your patriotism and your pride. Donald Trump cares about your First Amendment Rights….almost as much as he cares about your Second Amendment Rights! But there are some people who want to take advantage of Donald Trump’s patriotism by interrupting his speech during the rally! If you see protesters, don’t get violent, just hold up your complementary Trump signs and yell TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP! The police will be around to collect them shortly! Thank you and Keep America Great!”
A nearby bystander muttered, “The Iranians are smart man, they knew we’d have blown them into a sandbox, just like those f***ing terrorists in Iraq.”
Jesus, this was going to be a long several hours out here, and the temperature was starting to drop. The wind picking up and sucking through the office blocks along the Milwaukee River, before swooping downwards to smack us.
Any faithful Midwesterner will tell you that the winters here are an atrocity, enough to make you curse your ancestors. Anyone you catch outside enjoying themselves in such foul climate is to be avoided, as they are probably up to no good. The bitter cold brings out the bitterness in people, a sentiment that was now being leaned into heavily.
Towards the front of the line, assorted hired security heavies were yelling, “WHATEVER YOU HAVE TO EAT, DISPOSE OF IT NOW! THERE ARE NO HANDWARMERS ALLOWED. THROW THEM AWAY NOW!” Soccer moms began to heft back entire sachets of wine; Skinny Girl Margaritas, martinis in water bottles, whatever their acrylic nails could reach.
The dirtiness was astounding towards the end of the queue; garbage cans overflowed three-fold their capacity and it was clear that many had brought chairs with the full intention of abandoning them. Folded camping chairs lay in piles, covered with soon-to-rot picnic platters of mysterious orange cheeses with Wisconsin-Made! processed beef summer sausage. Glass was everywhere, smashed into near dust on the ground. I had a terrible vision of being knocked to the ground by an overzealous ca -mechanic sporting a MAG’ Hat, crushed under feet pounding towards seeing their false idol spit foul-smelling lies through a loudspeaker.
Now was not the time for such thoughts; it was time to smile and nod. Agree tacitly, scream inwardly: individual thought is strongly frowned upon in such crowds.
Three hours in and I finally made it to the door, a great inward wind tunnel sucking us all into its void towards several polo shirt-wearing ex-military types guarding a metal detector.
Now, when I’d heard of this spectacle guised as a legitimate political campaign rally, I acted quickly, signing up for a ticket online and spelling all of my details out with precision. If I were to subject myself to this Trumpian f***ery, I planned on coming correct and not being turned back rudely at the door.
I had assumed that security would be bordering on a prison camp, a Kafkaesque mess of purity-by-campaign-slogan hat. I’d scrubbed my pockets of all potential liberalisms and half-suspected to be found out for malicious statements I’d made about the “administration” in mid-2017 while drunk on White Cap in Nairobi.
Instead, there was no check – I was simply whisked through and searched thoroughly, pushed along further down the tunnel, like they needed the numbers and were filling the seats with any hapless idiot dumb enough to cut back on their hourly wages long enough to attend.
It played into the sudden rush of realisation as to just how disjointed and chaotic the whole thing was. Just like that, I was in, surrounded by cowboy hats and camo, although I noticed that all talk of “open carry” and “2nd Amendment Liberty” was quickly discarded in the name of the safety of The Republican Party.
There was a strong sense of unity in the Panther Arena, a bizarre squat throwback to 1960s’ mid-size- market indoor coliseums; a beautiful modern facade outside, but once in, a droll concrete oval, with little character, only awkward scarlet TRUMP! posters to dot the walls.
Every 60 feet, tables with the exact same gaudy merchandise were placed. That same ugly feeling that used to come around when I’d been whisked around to curio shops in Kenya washed over me: that some faceless puppet master was pulling the strings, fleecing money out of pockets looking for an “authentic experience”.
I found a seat to the stage left of the podium, some twenty metres away. I wedged myself between middle-aged conspiracy theorists and pondered my options. Who could I kick aside if someone yelled “GAY!” in the middle of this throng and caused a fear-driven stampede? The 60 year old singing I’m Proud to be an American! off-key while ogling the blonde FOX News anchor standing at the crowd fence down towards the floor seemed a prime target to trample over.
“God damn, would you look at her, she’s got the tits of an angel!” the singer was whispering in my ear. He was the kind of awkward older Midwestern man you never want to be spiraled downwards into a conversational hole with, “She’s fair and balanced alright. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”
I suddenly had the bad image of tens of thousands of once-decent Middle Americans being seduced by electric sex and overt racism over the entire eight-year run time of the Bush administration. I swallowed a grimace and leaned back towards him. “I heard that Roger Ailes (the now deceased CEO of FOX News) willed them to her.”
He looked back at me, slightly perturbed. It was a gentle reminder that this was not the crowd for sarcasm.
And what was this crowd exactly? Down on the floor seemed to be the most “out there”; the veritable roadie of the Trump supporter, the parking lot people. From my perch, I could see conspiracy theories in print, awkward hats, and oh, so many atrocious haircuts.
Every 60 feet, tables with the exact same gaudy merchandise were placed. That same ugly feeling that used to come around when I’d been whisked around to curio shops in Kenya washed over me: that some faceless puppet master was pulling the strings, fleecing money out of pockets looking for an “authentic experience”.
Collude This, Bitch! The letters were in glitter and framed a middle finger on a T-shirt; complements abounded to the wearer.
I sat in that sweaty seat, mainlining coffee as various campaign hangers-on came around and repeatedly asked me to volunteer, which I claimed I already had outside of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. A couple seemed to doubt this, but I just shrugged and went back to pretending to enjoy the music. In this crowd, ignorance is woke.
Speaking of which, why this music? It was a major theme from the entire proceeding. Why are they playing this right now? It wasn’t just that the artists being played had expressly told the Trump campaign to f*** off under threat of litigation, it was the odd mix of it. Nessun Dorma was followed by REMs’ Everybody Hurts, followed again by Proud to be an American. The music rang out as though an American-idol obsessed 13 year old had made a mixtape; there was no thematic tie at all; the music rambled the same way Trump did. Was the audience being subconsciously primed for a stream of continual disjointed thoughts?
Paul McCartney had just began singing the refrain to The Beatles’ Hey Jude when the music suddenly cut out, the recording coming to a screeching halt, leaving a brief void of silence and nervous laughter, only for the concert speakers hanging from the ceiling, at a volume that could only be described as apocalyptic, to blare forth the opening chords of Lionel Richie’s Hello badly shaking the molded plastic seats down to the screws.
It is an odd thing to watch 9,300 adults simultaneously sing a song of youthful alienated and lonesome heartbreak, all whilst wearing identical hats.
And the arena kept filling up. Early on, as I sat idly in my seat, clasping a Trump sign that an overzealous young Republican had thrust rudely into my hands, I smirked and thought of Trump’s repeated crowd size claims; the ones that made it seem he had an underlying issue with how big things are…
Now, however, the room continued to engorge, with people seemingly streaming in from God knows where, many piss drunk already.
“Hello? Is it me you’re looking for?”
My ears ringing, I made my way back out for another cup of drastically overpriced coffee, poured by a mostly black concession stand staff that seemed absolutely dead set on avoiding making eye contact with any Trump supporting patrons.
Who could possibly be intimidated by a man with seven AR-15 rifle pins on his skull-and-bones T-shirt? It is his God-given right after all, just as long as the guns don’t get into the hands of the minorities. There were a great many fashion statements seemingly derived exclusively from intimidation, a lot of awkward male posturing, a great many uncouth phallic references, both intentional and not.
It is an odd thing to watch 9,300 adults simultaneously sing a song of youthful alienated and lonesome heartbreak, all whilst wearing identical hats.
The majority of the Republican leadership in Wisconsin is, above all, boring as an insurance salesman’s pitch during a heatwave. They meander through talking points, drone on about “fiscal responsibility” and yammer endlessly about “how every life is sacred” before “praying for the troops” who are “keeping us safe” in whatever military conflict has 100x the non-American casualties this week.
This is standard Bush-era, post-9/11 fare.
As such, these typical right wing tools seemed dreadfully out of place following the Trump campaign managers who came out to pounding 70s rock anthems before throwing T-shirts into the crowd at a high velocity and condemning the soul of the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, to burn in hell for eternity.
Everyone in the crowd sensed it; this was the state-fair/semi-professional stock car race/fireworks accident turned sentient and rampaging its way to the stage: the anticipation was now so thick that with each bland nothingness let forth from one of these faceless suits at the podium, the tension steadily built.
It was as if Wrestlemania was here and everyone wanted to be splattered by blood. This was no space for a PG rating.
“Hurry the hell up,” I heard the creepy old man next to me mutter as Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson said some boring thing about bombing Iran if they didn’t “respect agreements”.
Yes, indeed, just ignore all serious things by those who can make such decisions and get to the main event. Politics isn’t political to this crowd. This is only entertainment.
After Vice President Mike Pence took the stage, briefly unbuttoned his jaw and let loose an incredibly boring vision of the world ending for 22 minutes, it was time for it.
Feet stomped and jaws clenched. Elvis was in the building. Then, as Michael Jackson’s Beat It got cut and switched over to a blaring rendition of Proud to be an American, Donald Trump himself awkwardly popped out into view from behind a curtain, emerging to his comfort zone, announced by a lisping voice booming through the PA system.
He tottered around for some minutes, gesticulating wildly while the 10,000-strong crowd went somewhere well beyond ape-shit in pandemonium.
“F*** YEAH DONALD!” a man in a bright orange hunter vest screamed out from behind me, his voice cracking as if pre-pubescent. The crowd swayed back and forth, chanting “U-S-A!” in a unified boom, surging up and forward, staring at this strange-looking man now standing at the pulpit.
It has been ridiculed in the media, but it can’t be understated just how strange this man’s posture truly is. As he launched into his self-congratulations at nearly causing a regional war in the Middle East, I couldn’t stop staring at his hips; they sat there as though they were displaced, somehow his torso shifted forward above them, requiring a stand and microphone for him to lean into, as if he wasn’t truly whole unless screaming obscenities about minorities to his converted faithful.
After brief introductions, one of the most surreal six minutes of any speech ever came flowing with such stunning speed. I was flabbergasted. With one breath, the press was cursed as “corrupt, evil, liars”. With the next, Iran was threatened with obliteration without subtlety.
The masses in the cheap seats were with him all the way.
Americans, by and large, have an ugly tinge of entitled jingoism to their conversational abilities and global view; and sometimes we just can’t help ourselves but lean into these instincts, especially when drunk and encouraged.
Many within this weird country look down openly on people from other cultures. They talk about Africa as though it is a monolith made of people below their station. As they clamoured for a fascist leader who was openly lying to them, admitting it, then asking them to clap for the falsehoods, I took a mental note of just how “superior” American Democracy really was.
“You tell them Trump!” In came the harangues and chorus of agreement. From somewhere above, faint voices began to ring out, their words unclear, their message of protest practically crystal. Two girls, probably come down from some bastion of liberal tendencies at the University, revealed smuggled T-shirts and unfurled a cloth banner that read something to the affect of NO TO WAR!
The crowd universally booed and hissed them with vicious intent. Fists waved, middle fingers straightened. Trump waved his hands about like some sort of deeply disturbed conductor, before rebuking the girls to “go home to mommy!”
“He sure knows how to tell those pussies off, huh?” The same dirty old man was trying to engage me again, now breathing seemingly directly into my eardrum.
Knowing Americans, this same schmuck sitting next to me will probably print up six or seven of Trump’s lamest threats, print them onto T-shirts and later be convicted of tax fraud when he launders prescription drug money through selling them on eBay. He’ll then be pardoned by the administration via a midnight tweet storm. The world turns onward.
The crowd was stomping their feet; sin turned Pentacostal while led by their preacher. The first thirty minutes or so could be viewed as a sort of unhinged Greatest Hits album, like watching a fading rock star, propped up on just enough speed to bang out his most well-known chords. Trump struck out at all the classic notes:
“Bomb Iran? Just playing (or are we?).”
“How great is the military? Great, but only because they respect me, oh, how they respect me.”
“Aren’t Mexicans coming up from the south to surely rape your elderly first grade teacher and beat her poodle to death with a sack full of meth and drug profits? Almost definitely, but I alone can stop it. BECAUSE OF THE WALL.”
“Police are great aren’t they? It’s surely a shame that the inner cities don’t respect them enough.”
“Democrats are a vile sack of evil, trying to convict me and get me out of the White House, but don’t they know any better? I’ll never leave. Just kidding, or am I?”
“Nasty Nancy Pelosi is trying to convict me in this horrible, ugly, witch-hunt; which I openly admit guilt to, but that’s okay because I said so.”
With this last statement, the masses roared their approval. Signs were held aloft; chants of “FOUR MORE YEARS” began in earnest, only to be soon drowned out with chants of “LOCK HER UP!” aimed at the Democratic Speaker of the House.
Three rows down and to the left, a rotund woman was wearing a jean jacket with the words “DON’T IMPEACH!” sequined onto the back. She turned towards me slightly, and wiped a tear away from her eyes. There was broad grin on her face. Could this be the best day of her life? For some reason, I thought of some dull-eyed American I’d met in a Nairobi bar back in 2013, asking me why Kenyans were so blind in their political loyalty to oligarchs who couldn’t care less if they died.
With that, as his speech rose and fell, with that awkward cadence of his, he took pause, within which a bearded hipster launched an emphatic “F*** YOU!’ from the mid-tier of the bleachers, only to be pushed slightly, and have cardboard TRUMP signs shoved into his chin. Two tired-eyed cops come and collect him by either elbow, pulling him out as he dragged his VANS sneakers along the polished concrete.
As the police were duck-walking him out, presumably to throw him headlong into a soiled snowbank, Trump paraded several of the top Wisconsin right wing establishment onto the stage; each were yanked back and forth with an extended and aggressive handshake, as though they were show dogs being broken in by their overzealous owner.
Three rows down and to the left, a rotund woman was wearing a jean jacket with the words “DON’T IMPEACH!” sequined onto the back. She turned towards me slightly, and wiped a tear away from her eyes. There was broad grin on her face. Could this be the best day of her life?
Show of dominance. That’s what it was. I’d seen it before, when lions fight, the king has to put the lesser males in their place.
This was pure animalism in politics. Superiority had to be shown, teeth had to be bared and someone had to show the neck. The enemy had to be pointed out and shouted down. There can be no dissent in such circles – and within America, the dominant tend to have gun racks on their trucks.
While the first 30 minutes of the 87 minutes were utter lunacy, it was trackable insanity, the kind that you expect to see during a monster truck rally, a rodeo, a semi-professional wrestling title bout or a ladder match during a hailstorm in Florida. Utterly bonkers, but not unexpected.
Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the left turns during the middle section of the speech. The political “monster truck” that is Donald J. Trump went off script and was the campaign rally equivalent of watching a giant machine of metal and air-brushed flame patterns veer off into the crowd. There was simply no predicting where Trump’s verbal tirades would take us next.
I tried to keep track. I swear I did. I was regrettably entirely sober, wide awake, and pumped full of the adrenaline that can only come with the temptation of taking off my shoe and throwing it at Mike Pence to find out if he was in fact a mere hologram.
Trump shouted it into the microphone and let the words hang out in space, the crowd screaming, his orange tanned hands held up into the air.
“It’s terrible. The water comes down from the north, into California, but Gavin Newsom, that horrible governor, he takes the water. He doesn’t know what to do with the water. He sends the water out into the ocean!”
“The Ocean! The Pacific Ocean! Imagine that. And the fish, oh the fish, they don’t know what to do with it! Is it good water? We know, but they don’t care!”
“AND THE DISHES! Oh God, the dishes. You do the dishes once. It’s not enough. The dishwashers aren’t strong because they’re taking the water. You have to put them through one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten times! And the light bulbs! They’re toxic! You have to unscrew them? You have to unscrew them. And walk them into the dump and put them down?! Who will do that?! So we’re going to give you the water back. Through the sinks, through the showers, and through the other thing! The toilets! You’re getting the water back! And I will be the one to give it back to you!”
There was no hiding it; my jaw was agape. I truly had no idea what he was talking about. It was then, and only then, that I was really afraid during the entire ugly proceeding. I realised that not only is this man a bigot and all the rest, but there might actually be an element of true mental derangement within him, an element that his multitude of supporters embrace wholeheartedly, without remorse. This man, rambling about sinks and light bulbs within millimetres of a full-blown war with Iran, a conflict with a people that he was truly incapable of reasoning with. They were brown after all.
“F*** THOSE LIGHTBULBS!” The cry came from a bearded man, now beet-red in the face, flanked on either side by his teenage sons who stared at him, beaming.
Trump rambled onwards; all the while without any care, utterly gauche, to the extent it was damn near respectable. One thing was clear: that Trump was a total master of his craft, however bizarre and atrocious his craft might be.
As he went into his bombastic closing remarks, the thousands stayed with him, beat for beat, rising and falling, laughing on cue, cheering and booing with utter abandon – like the finale flourish of a fireworks display.
An ill-fated Bernie Bro pulled out a “Bernie Sanders for President 2020” sign. Trump looked down at him from the stage and the crowd pounced, viciously pulling at him, jostling him back and forth.
“HIT HIM!” A woman’s voice from somewhere close to me.
Two heavies came from the back down onto the floor, closing in on this long-haired liberal getting shoved back and forth; a cork in the storm.
Despite their tattoos and Bill Goldberg haircuts; I ignorantly thought to myself, “At least security is here and will save him.”
But they grabbed him all the harder, ripping his sign downwards, tearing at it and pushing him out the back. How dare he have the audacity to support someone other than the great leader?
Trump peaked into crescendo, rambling on about the inevitability of winning this year and that the best people, the chosen people, the tough people were on his side. They would take no other result; and the scrum down on the floor bellowed their support. This wasn’t politics, it was a death roll, and the grip was tightening.
The Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want began to play, and with much more glad-handing, waving, and awkward displays of faux-nationalistic pride, he was gone, little more than a thin wisp of a hair plug dissapearing behind a curtain.
It was then, and only then, that I was really afraid during the entire ugly proceeding. I realised that not only is this man a bigot and all the rest, but there might actually be an element of true mental derangement within him, an element that his multitude of supporters embrace wholeheartedly, without remorse.
The spell held over the crowd, but started to dissipate. We began to file out, shuffling bashfully towards the exits, as if we were all leaving some truly horrific live sex show in Mtwapa. In such circumstances, don’t make eye contact.
There were several black Trump supporters amongst the crowd, and more than a dozen people caught their eye, giving a little fist pump of “unity”. The underlying sentiment was to return to their cohort and tell them, “No, no, I swear there were black people there who support Trump too! See he can’t be racist! It is a lie spun by liberal geeks, worried about their feelings!”
“HEY YOU!” A frat-boy was screaming into my face, thrusting his pointer finger. He looked animated, and surely, this would be the end of me. I had gone too far out on a limb here, and now I was to be “outed”.
He was motioning to my hat, which sported the insignia of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball club. Without smiling, he gave me a thumbs up and walked sullenly away. I started to cut around people as I traversed the crowd towards the exit. I felt as though my welcome was overstayed and now it was mostly certainly past the hour of bouncing.
The cold was a shock to the system, like waking up suddenly after a long night of drinking. I found myself looking for my wallet several times, wondering, “Where was I?”
A feeling of unease had come over me, especially looking about at the grinning faces streaming past me as I paused to stuff the TRUMP 2020! sign deep into my sleeve. It was the same sense one would have waking up after a night out next to someone that you know you shouldn’t have called.
It was a kind of toxic satisfaction, exhilaration definitely, happiness of a sort – but all pervaded by a destitute hanging melancholy, of witnessing something truly bizarre, only to realise that you have to meander back to your schlubby life and under-sized apartment.
Could the people around me know just how wrong-headed almost everything that just happened had been? Looking around, I couldn’t see it; they’d bought into all of this a long time ago and had cast their lot.
“They’d bought in because he simply refuses to give in the way they did.” It struck me, to Trump supporters, he really was some kind of magical maverick, condemning the norm and doing it “his way”; the tax code and civility couldn’t stop him. “It doesn’t matter if our guy does it as long as he wins.”
A beating of drums suddenly struck up, the bass thumping dull within my chest. Streaming out into the cold, we were careening towards it, as the zip-tied metal-grate fences surrounded on all other sides kept us walled in.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a city known for terminal dumbness at all levels of authority figures, had made another gangbusters decision: to line up six token cops in riot gear and let the exiting Trump contingent of thousands file straight into the waiting protesters; for Trump can go nowhere without an audience. I must admit, that while inside, I’d forgotten about them entirely; now it was unavoidable.
“YOU’RE A F***ING EMBARASSMENT!” One middle-aged white female Trump supporter screamed into the face of a young Latina girl, probably 16 years old, banging a cow bell while chanting, “NO FASCIST USA!”
I’d had enough, I tucked the sign in deep and crossed over the line. As I did, a cup full of ice came flying in and went over the shoulder of an old white-haired hippy man who was banging a tambourine slightly off-beat. The ice scattered on the concrete at our feet.
Megaphones and drums split the night and the wind howled around us. Some in the crowd held glow sticks, which, when mixed with the reddish tinge of police tail lights, gave the entire tableau a hue of a football riot about to break loose.
Shit, it was a Tuesday in January, in bitter cold Wisconsin. The campaign hadn’t even really cracked off yet. The scene looked to spin downwards, liquored up left versus just-incited right. And in all of this, it was clear, despite it all, the man in the over-sized suits was certain to win again.
There are no consequences for such men in history. They will continue to ensure their victory because they know a dark truth that their foes never could grasp: that politics is just a game of monopoly, and if you’re not cheating, then you’re just not trying.
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Taking Stock of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights Forty Years On
In celebrating this 40th birthday of the African Charter, it is worthwhile to adequately appreciate the context and the historical background of the African Charter.
The month of June 2021 marks the 40 years anniversary of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Charter). The African Charter was adopted during the 18th ordinary session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) on 27 June 1981 in Nairobi, Kenya. On 28 June 2021, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the body established to oversee the implementation of the African Charter, convened a high-level event to take stock of the four decades journey of the African Charter.
The African Charter occupies a historical, political and symbolic significance at par with such similar instruments as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On the one hand, it affirms, as part of the continental legal architecture, the pan-Africanism conviction that fundamental rights and freedoms should apply to all human beings. On the other hand, the African Charter printed those rights issues distilled from the continent’s experience of oppression and unfreedom into the tapestry of internationally recognized fundamental rights and freedoms.
In celebrating this 40th birthday of the African Charter, it is worthwhile to adequately appreciate the context and the historical background of the African Charter. Here, as in other areas of life in contemporary Africa, history matters. It does so profoundly as it co-constitutes our present context. A doctrinal approach to the catalogue of rights, freedoms and duties articulated in the Charter offers us only a very limited understanding of both their meaning and content and significantly their political, socio-economic and international importance vis-à-vis contemporary challenges of respect for and protection of human and peoples’ rights.
Historical and politico-legal significance of the African Charter
So why the African Charter? Why its adoption by the OAU in June 1981? These are questions for which there is no single answer but are worthy of serious investigations and study. I therefore would not wish to go into details. I would rather limit myself to noting briefly some of the fundamental conditions that led to the adoption of the African Charter.
In one way, the African Charter represents an exercise of African agency in defining the essence and meaning of the rights that give full expression to Africa’s long struggle and aspirations for dignity, freedom, equality and justice. The articulation of the African Charter made up for not only the lack of representation of the peoples of the continent in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) but also for the failure in the UDHR to recognize foreign rule or colonial domination as the antithesis of human rights and hence manifestation of a lack of recognition of the inherent dignity and equal worth of people under colonial rule or foreign domination. Unlike the UDHR, which in its Article 2 proclaims the application of the rights in the Declaration irrespective of the status of a peoples as a subject of colonial rule, for peoples on the continent there could be no human rights without freedom from colonial rule or foreign domination. It is worth recalling that in Africa’s political history as far back as the 1919 Pan African Congress and the works of the foremost thought leaders including Frantz Fanon, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Kwame Nkrumah colonial rule and foreign domination were treated as negation of human rights.
Accordingly, the African Charter addresses itself to both colonial rule/foreign domination and the oppression of people in the hands of independent governments.
Second, the African Charter was also a response to, as one historical study on the political background of the African Charter put it, ‘the shame and embarrassment’ that some African leaders felt about the activities of some governments, in particular those of Amin, Bokassa and Nguema. This is best illustrated by what the Chairperson of the OAU President Tolbert said in 1979 in his opening address to the AOU summit – ‘the principle of non-interference had become ‘an excuse for our silence over inhuman actions committed by Africans against Africans…The provisions concerning human rights must be made explicit.’ That this shame and embarrassment was a factor behind the OAU decision for the elaboration of a ‘Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ was buttressed by the late Adem Kojo, then the Secretary-General of the OAU. He said the African Charter ‘came about as the result of the ordeals which certain African peoples had suffered at the hands of their governments.’ Accordingly, the African Charter addresses itself to both colonial rule/foreign domination and the oppression of people in the hands of independent governments.
At this point, it is worth recalling that a similar experience in the 1990s led the continent to the adoption under the AU Constitutive Act of the paradigmatically novel principle of intervention in cases of grave circumstances under Article 4 (h). The parallel becomes apparent from President Mandela’s speech during the 1994 OAU summit in Tunis where he expressed this sense of ‘shame and embarrassment’ when he said ‘Rwanda stands out as a stern and severe rebuke to all of us for having failed to address Africa’s security problems. As a result of that, a terrible slaughter of the innocent has taken place and is taking place in front of our very eyes.’
These historical references make it clear that the African Charter is the first legal instrument to pierce the veil of sovereignty that excluded any scrutiny of how independent African states treated people under their jurisdiction. In doing so, the African Charter served as the legal predecessor to and laid the foundation for Article 4(h) of the Constitutive Act, hence as the foundation for the principle of non-indifference.
One of the drafters of the African Charter, The Gambian jurist Hassan Jallow thus remarked in his book The Law of the African (Banjul) Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights ‘the very notion of creating machinery for the promotion and protection of human rights was itself nothing less than revolutionary in a continent where and at a time when the African states were ultra-jealous of their national sovereignty even and brooked no interference in what they regarded as their internal affairs.’
The African Charter also affirms that human rights are not simply an embodiment of abstraction from an ideal theory about the human. Importantly, they are products of specific historical experiences and civilizations. In this sense, at one level the African Charter is an illustration of the late Christof Heyns theory of the struggle approach to human rights. Viewed from this perspective, the African Charter is in part an exercise to articulate catalogue of rights geared towards the conditions of oppression that historically robbed the peoples of the continent of their humanity as Africans and continue to impede their access to full measure of fundamental rights and freedoms. The African Charter thus gives recognition to the need to ‘eliminate colonialism, neo-colonialism, apartheid, Zionism, and to dismantle aggressive foreign military bases and all forms of discrimination, particularly those based on race, ethnic group, color, sex, language, religion or political opinion’.
The African Charter represents an exercise of African agency in defining the essence and meaning of the rights that give full expression to Africa’s long struggle and aspirations for dignity, freedom, equality and justice
At another level, the Charter echoes the opening remarks of President Leopold Sedar Senghor at the first expert meeting for the drafting of the Charter in Dakar in 1979, where he counselled the experts to draw inspiration from and keep constantly in mind ‘our beautiful and positive traditions and civilization’ and ‘the real needs of Africa.’ The result of this has been not only the articulation of duties of individuals by the Charter premised on the Ubuntu philosophy of coexistence and harmony between the individual and the society, but also the recognition of the inseparability and interdependence of civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights.
In terms of ‘the real needs of Africa’, the African Charter accorded a prime place of honor to peoples’ rights on par with human rights as vividly captured in the title of the African Charter. In so doing, President Senghor pointed out, ‘We simply meant …to show our attachment to…rights which have a particular importance in our situation of a developing country.’ Elaborating further, he pointed out, ‘[w]e wanted to lay emphasis on the right to development and the other rights which need the solidarity of our states to be fully met: the right to peace and security, the right to a healthy environment, the right to participate in the equitable share of the common heritage of mankind, the right to enjoy a fair international economic order and, finally, the right to natural wealth and resources.’
While much of its promises have been honored by breach rather than compliance, the African Charter thus broke new ground in both the politico-legal evolution of the continent and international legal recognition of fundamental rights and freedoms. At the global level, it contributed to the enrichment of the international corpus of human rights. It did so both by giving equal legal status to civil and political rights on the one hand and economic and social rights on the other hand and by enshrining the collective rights of peoples and the duties of individuals.
Contemporary status and significance of the African Charter
Today, the African Charter enjoys not only a status of customary international law but also that of being akin to the basic law of the continent. It is not simply one of the few OAU/AU treaties with universal ratification. It is perhaps the only human rights instrument that is widely cited not only in large number of continental legal and policy documents but also at sub-regional and national levels. The African Charter also inspired the adoption of various human rights and democracy and governance norms within the OAU and its successor the African Union in the 1990s and since. Along with other human rights instruments it inspired, the African Charter continues to serve as source of inspiration in the elaboration of national bills of rights and various laws giving effect to specific human rights.
The African regional human rights system that the African Charter established also contributed to the recognition of the legitimacy of the works of civil society organizations, human rights defenders, political opposition and the media, despite the increasing assault to which they have in recent years been subjected. Accordingly, the African Commission has accorded institutional recognition by extending observer status to large number of non-governmental organizations working in the field of human rights pursuant to Article 45 (1)(c) of the African Charter.
The African Charter is not simply a historically grounded human rights treaty that speaks to both the generality of human rights issues and the human and peoples’ rights issues in Africa emanating from our specific historical experiences and socio-economic and political conditions. It is also a living document. As such, it operates to respond to the human and peoples’ rights issues also of the present and the future.
Article 45 (1) (b) tasks the African Commission ‘to formulate and lay down principles and rules aimed at solving legal problems relating to human and peoples’ rights and fundamental freedoms.’ Additionally, in mandating the African Charter to apply the rights and duties in the Charter to specific cases that may be referred to the Commission by States or ‘other communications’, the Charter recognises the need for its constant interpretation and application to make the rights and duties in the charter responsive to both the specific cases and the evolving needs of Africa. In commanding the African Commission under Article 60 to draw inspiration from international law on human and peoples’ rights, the Charter affirms its interconnectedness with international human rights. In doing so, the Charter also opens its provisions to be enriched through cross-fertilization. Based on Articles 45 (1) (b), 47, 55 and 60 of the African Charter, the jurisprudence of the African Commission and since 2006 the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, have clarified some of the gray areas in the African Charter and the ‘claw back clauses’ attached to some of the rights in the Charter, which inspired the most criticism against the Charter in the early years of the Charter’s life.
The African Charter is unique in combining its particularistic and internationalist features in other symbiotic ways as well. Thus, in articulating duties of individuals as embodying one of its distinguishing features, it states in Article 27 (1) that individuals owe duties, among others, to the international community.
The trinity of Africa’s burdens and the African Charter
Like other human rights treaties, the main target of the African Charter is the state. The experience of the grievous human rights violations to which Africans in independent states have been subjected to before and since the adoption of the Charter, as is evident from ongoing unconscionable atrocities in some of the conflict settings, make it evident why the misuse and abuse of the authority of the state has to be the center of gravity for the African Charter as it is for other human rights instruments.
In the European experience, it was the totalitarianism to which the state is disposed and the threat this posed both to the rights and freedoms of individuals and to peace and security that inspired the development of a system of human rights. However, for the African Charter the authoritarian impulses of the state is only one (but never the only) source of threat to human rights and fundamental freedoms.
As I observed in the opening statement for the 28th extra-ordinary session and further highlighted below, indeed authoritarian rule and the bad governance and repression arising from it represents the first of the trinity of burdens militating against the rights and dignity of the peoples of Africa. The second of the trinity of burdens is the burden of history (arising from slavery, colonial subjugation and apartheid). That the burden of history constitutes an important area of preoccupation as a source of unfreedom for the African Charter can be gathered both from the preamble and the substantive text of the African Charter.
A doctrinal approach to the catalogue of rights, freedoms and duties articulated in the Charter offers us only a very limited understanding of both their meaning and content and significantly their political, socio-economic and international importance vis-à-vis contemporary challenges of respect for and protection of human and peoples’ rights
In the landmark case, SERAC v. Nigeria, our Commission, thus remarked that the origin of some of the provisions of the African Charter, in the particular instance Article 21, is to be traced to ‘colonialism, during which the human and material resources of Africa were largely exploited for the benefit of outside powers, creating tragedy for Africans themselves, depriving them of their birthright and alienating them from the land.’ On how this experience affects present day Africa, the Commission stated that the ‘aftermath of colonial exploitation has left Africa’s precious resources and people still vulnerable to foreign misappropriation.’
As pointed out above, in the African experience, the historically grounded normative foundation for human and peoples’ rights has been the absence and deprivation of self-governing statehood to the peoples of Africa. The structural weaknesses and flaws that characterizes the post-colonial African state is a manifestation of this burden of history. As Adom Getachew highlighted, in her landmark study Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-determination, this inherited burden makes ‘new and weak postcolonial states vulnerable to arbitrary interventions and encroachments at the hands of larger, more powerful states as well as private actors,’ thereby severely inhibiting their capacity for shouldering their responsibilities to meet the human rights needs of the peoples of the continent.
The third of the trinity of burdens is thus the power architecture of the international system that operates to deny Africa from getting its fair share from international economic relationship. In stating in the preamble that the peoples of Africa ‘are still struggling for their dignity and genuine independence,’ the African Charter is expressing its recognition of the adverse impact not only of the past but also the burden Africa bears from the unjust power arrangement of the international system. It thus affirmed that ‘it is henceforth essential to pay particular attention to development …and that the satisfaction of economic, social and cultural rights is a guarantee for the enjoyment of civil and political rights.’ These preambular statements and the substantive rights, in particular collective rights of peoples, expand the conception of injustice undermining the full enjoyment of human rights to encompass the ways in which the international system frustrates the rights of peoples to freely determine their economic and social development according to the policy they have freely chosen as envisaged in Article 20 of the African Charter.
Today as we mark the 40th year anniversary of the African Charter, there is nothing more than the COVID19 vaccine injustice that vividly illustrates how this skewed power architecture of the international system brings peoples in Africa to an existential crisis.
The third wave of COVID19 pandemic is gathering pace, with more devastating impact than previous waves. It claims the lives of increasing number of peoples including the highly limited skilled health care workers due to lack of access to the COVID19 vaccine and deals a serious blow to the economies of the continent. African countries, like others in the global South, are witnessing that their concerns – that the protection given to pharmaceutical companies under the treaty on intellectual property rights will prevent them from protecting the right to health of their citizens – is being born by events. Together with major European countries, pharmaceutical companies are blocking the temporary waiver of the application of patent protection to COVID19 vaccines, key for making the generic production of these vaccines on the continent for ending the current artificial scarcity. As Strive Masiyiwa, chief of AU’s vaccination acquisition task team pointed out, Africa’s inability to access the vaccine is ‘a product of the deliberate global architecture of unfairness.’
No. We are not all together on this. Africa, we are on our own. Again. In the 1990s with civil wars and the implosion and collapse of states ravaging parts of Africa, the continent was left on its own. In the apt description of the late former Secretary-General of the UN Kofi Annan, Africa was left ‘to fend for itself’. As in the past, Africa rose to this challenge. The OAU transformed into the AU. In pursuit of fending for itself, Africa put in place institutions and processes for resolving conflicts, anchored on the Protocol to the Constitutive Act Establishing the Peace and Security Council.
In the face of the existential crisis facing Africa from the COVID19 vaccine injustice today we have to ask the difficult questions including – what leadership and policy failures have led Africa to be exposed to this existential threat? Will today’s leaders rise to this challenge, as earlier leaders did, by creating the conditions for building the requisite strategic infrastructures for protecting the health people so that Africa will never again face the injustice of denial of access to medical supplies including vaccines, born out of the skewed power structure of the international system?
The generation marking the 40th anniversary of the African Charter, betraying its mission?
The 40th anniversary is an occasion for thanks giving for those who bequeathed us this fine African Charter. I wish in particular to pay homage to first the distinguished Senegalese Jurist Judge Keba Mabaye who, more than any other, played the role of being on the one hand a strategist and campaigner for securing the buy in within the OAU of the idea of the African Charter and on the other hand the lead drafter of the African Charter.
I also equally wish to extend our profound gratitude to President Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal and President Dawada Jawara of The Gambia for initiating the resolution for the adoption of the African Charter and for providing the guidance and support for the drafting of the African Charter. It is worth noting that Senghor’s opening address to the first expert meeting for the drafting of the African Charter served not only as the terms of reference but also as the intellectual guide for elaborating the contents of the Charter.
Our deep gratitude also goes to the then Secretary-General of the OAU Adem Kojo who threw his full weight behind the implementation of OAU Decision 115(XVI) mandating the drafting and worked tirelessly for its adoption.
The generation of Mbaye, Senghor and Kojo discovered its mission and fulfilled it. We owe today’s celebration of the 40 years birthday of our Charter to this.
For the generation celebrating the 40 years of Our Charter, have we discovered our mission? Will we fulfil it, or betray it?
As to the mission of this generation, to which we are all a part, I am sure you agree with me that it lies in rendering the rights and freedoms of the African Charter meaningful in the lives of the masses of our peoples. Will we fulfill this mission by overcoming the challenge of implementation of the African Charter and by confronting the human rights challenges of our time namely – the deadly democratic governance deficit, widespread poverty and deepening inequality, pervasive gender oppression, the rising insecurity and violence and the climate emergency?
All the indications are that, we are on course for betraying this mission.
‘How else can we explain the fact that in 2021 as in the 1990s we have the conditions forcing ‘millions of our people, including women and children, into a drifting life as refugees and internally displaced persons, deprived of their means of livelihood, human dignity and hope’?
Second, the African Charter was also a response to, as one historical study on the political background of the African Charter put it, ‘the shame and embarrassment’ that some African leaders felt about the activities of some governments, in particular those of Amin, Bokassa and Nguema
How else can we explain 29 million people and counting being displaced and forced to flee their country unless states are failing to shoulder their responsibilities under the African Charter?
How can this be possible unless those entrusted with managing the affairs of our societies are betraying the trust of the public in pursuit of their own narrow self-interest thereby perpetuating the vicious cycle of misgovernance and authoritarianism?
It cannot be that we continue to have millions of our brothers and sisters forcibly displaced in states with even the most basic attributes of statehood, in societies with responsible leadership and in a continent with effectively functioning institutions.
It is indeed an indictment on all of us that we have sisters and brothers who expressed their thanks to the COVID19 virus for being provided with water, a basic necessity to which they have been denied access by leadership and policy failure of our governments. How is it that while the resources of the continent are fueling the development of other parts of the world, we are not able to provide even for the most basic necessities of life for the masses of our people? How is it that the leaders entrusted with the management of our affairs indulge in the embezzlement of resources that are meant for securing health workers and the public from the COVID19 pandemic?
What more represents the betrayal of the mission of this generation for translating the African Charter into reality than the way the Charter is observed by being routinely breached through not only the closing of the civic space, the assault on civil society, human rights defenders and the media but also the indiscriminate attacks against civilians and the display of complete lack of regard to the sanctity of human life in the various conflict settings on our continent and the attendant total impunity?
What is more to show how the leaders of the continent are failing the public than the deepening sense of despair that is pushing our people, particularly the youth, to embark on the perilous journey across the Sahara for crossing the Mediterranean Sea despite the death of no less than 20,000 migrants in only five years on this sea?
It is indeed a betrayal of epic proportions that our societies could not assure women and girls a life free from violence so much so that there is no place, from home to the work place and even places of worship, where they can feel safe and free from violence. How else can we explain the fact that sexual and gender-based violence have become the other pandemic within the COVID19 pandemic in nearly all our societies?
BBI, Jubilee Orphans and Raila Diehards
They say Uhuru lied to them. They say Raila has been played. Disillusioned, dispossessed, disaffected, the youth, Kenya’s largest voting constituency, are wary of the handshake.
Four years ago, David Njenga graduated from University of Nairobi (UoN) with an upper second-class honour’s degree in biochemistry. A year to the August 2018 presidential elections, his mother reminded him that electing Uhuru Kenyatta for a second term represented his best chance of getting a job. Apolitical and not one to argue with his mother, he cast his vote for President Uhuru. Four years on, he has yet to find employment.
Ambitious, intelligent and optimistic, Njenga’s hopes of getting a job, any job, are fading fast. From his class of 103 students, only five have found steady work, and many of his former classmates are engaged all manner of hustles – the latest politically twisted jargon for one’s means of eking out a living. Njenga told me that the five that had found work had powerful connections in President Uhuru’s Jubilee government.
“One of them is a pastor’s daughter whose father is one of the evangelical pastors who attends the national annual prayer breakfast with President Uhuru,” said Njenga. “The pastor’s daughter is my friend. I used to help her with her class assignments and writing term papers, so occasionally she will call me to have lunch.”
Njenga’s background is a world apart from that of his friend, the pastor’s daughter, but she befriended him at Chiromo campus because of his big brains; symbiotic relationship is the best way to describe their platonic friendship – he wrote her schoolwork and she regularly bailed him out financially. “C’est la vie,” said the 25-year-old Njenga. “She’s the one who got a job and I’m still writing assignments and term papers for rich students.”
I asked Njenga about the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), a document that, if implemented, is supposed to ameliorate the lives and prospects of his peers. “Have you read the report?” He gave me a blank stare, the kind of stare that says, “You even have the temerity to ask me that question?” “Should I be reading a political document or researching about my students’ homework? If my parents had powerful connections, I’d not be suffering like this. That’s all what matters in today’s Kenya. My degree counts for nothing, I might as well have ended up being a plumber.”
Njenga was among the students who graduated top of their class, but even hoping to get a job in the corporate sector has become a flight of fancy. “It is the same as in the government – you must know people.” Njenga said the situation got worse with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. “Many companies have used coronavirus as an excuse to sack their employees. How then do you go to ask for a job when people are being laid off? We’re on our own and all what Uhuru is interested in, is how to succeed himself and safeguard his family’s empire and political interests post-2022.”
He gave me a blank stare, the kind of stare that says, “You even have the temerity to ask me that question?
Still living in his mother’s house — “I never imagined I’d still be staying with my mother, four years after campus.” — Njenga said none of his former campus mates cared about BBI: “They’ve not read it, some really don’t know what it’s all about, I mean even as students, we couldn’t find time to read stuff on our degrees. Can you imagine me finding time to read an obsequious document? For what?” But the real issue, I gathered from Njenga, wasn’t even finding time to read the BBI; it was the disdain that he and his former campus mates had for President Uhuru and his government, their disconnect with the political processes in the country, their lack of interest in how government is run or ought to be run.
“What can Uhuru claim to have done for the country, for the young people in the eight years he has been president?” posed Njenga. “I’m worse off than when I entered campus, the country is reeling in utter corruption, the economy is tumbling down, people now steal openly from the government and he has no idea how to fix anything. The youth’s biggest problem is the economy. We don’t care about anything else. The president said he knows how much is stolen from the state coffers every day, yet he doesn’t know what to do about it. Why is he the president then?”
Njenga said he voted for Uhuru because his mother asked him to. “I was just doing my duty and of course, it was a tribal thing.” The biggest problem with the youth, reckoned Njenga, is that they will vote for you tribally, if they have to, but if you won’t fix the economy, they will have no time for you. “This is where the Kenyan youth is right now with Uhuru’s incompetent government. Many of them contemplate migrating daily, to seek greener pastures wherever they will find them.”
Mwangi Waithera, 29, is just like Njenga — he voted for Uhuru because his beloved mother told him to. “I don’t care about politics, I wasn’t going to vote because politics is not my thing, but my mother repeatedly reminded me, even on the material day, that I should vote for the president.” A mitumba (second-hand clothes) seller with assorted customers — civil servants, lawyers, college students, among others — he has seen his business dwindle since 2017 when President Uhuru was voted in for a second term. He has listened to his customers, usually men of his generation, come to grumble in his tiny downtown shop.
“Do you know our salaries now come late?” laments one of Mwangi’s client, a civil servant. “Nobody cares about this BBI nonsense in the ministry offices,” he said. “Uhuru can afford to pay hundreds of millions of shillings to some so-called consultants to write a useless document called BBI, but our meagre salaries are being delayed up to the 10th of the following month?” The civil servant told Mwangi that his colleagues scoff at the report and have no time for President Uhuru. “He is the most colourless president Kenya has ever had. He is not respected among the younger cadre of the public officers, even worse among the older civil servants.”
Njenga said he voted for Uhuru because his mother asked him to.
One of Mwangi’s customers, a lawyer, showed up one evening as we were talking in his small shop. Barely 30, Denis voted for President Uhuru twice. “That’s how much I believed in him. I couldn’t stand anybody criticising him. I couldn’t countenance Raila being the President, so I made sure I voted again on October 26. I wasn’t going to let down my parents on this. They had warned us children on how we should vote.” said Denis, adding, “My parents told all four of us children that the greatest disaster that would ever befall this country was allowing Raila to be president. ‘I know some of you have liberal ideas’ said my father. The liberal ideas remark was a stab at my brother, who had voiced his disenchantment with President Uhuru’s first term performance.”
Then the “handshake” happened and his parents baulked. The children often meet for dinner at their parents’ home, a middle-class couple from Kiambu County. “During one of those dinner meetings, my ‘dissenting’ brother asked my parents, ‘so what is going on?’” The bubble had bust — the economy was tanking and the handshake with the devil had taken place. “For once my parents didn’t seem so sure and my younger brother looked like he could have been right after all,” said Denis.
But Denis’s parents knew things were going south when their firstborn lawyer son started struggling. He postponed his wedding. He was increasingly going back to his parents to borrow money. “I’d so much expectations, I did a few ‘stupid’ things with some of my cash. I knew good times were coming, so I didn’t worry, we’d re-elected Uhuru and I believed big legal work was beckoning.” Denis said that today some of his lawyer colleagues are doing so badly they literally chase for work that pays as little as KSh3000.
Denis is so angry with President Uhuru, he told me, that he “is done with voting. It’s a complete waste of time and energy. I’m also very angry with my parents for misleading us, only that I can’t pick it up with them. But my bold brother did, especially on their berating of Raila. ‘Please dad, explain to us why Raila is suddenly now a darling of Uhuru?’ My parents looked abashed. ‘Uhuru has been such a huge disappointment’ is all they could muster to tell us over dinner.”
As a lawyer, Denis told me he had taken the trouble to read the BBI document. “It is a document meant to entrench President Uhuru’s powers. Some of my colleagues and I easily saw through it. By the way, I know some of the lawyers who participated in its writing. For them, it’s all about making hay while the sun shines. They were paid handsomely – any lawyer likes to make real good money quickly.”
Denis’s declaration that he will never voting again has become a standard response among the youth I interviewed; they vowed that they would not expend their energies engaging in a predetermined outcome again. “I voted for the first and possibly the last time,” said Njenga. “Everybody knows what happened during the elections, the refusal to open the servers, even my mother knows the games that were played, but we can’t discuss that. Her vote has since shifted to Ruto.”
I asked Mwangi whether he had read the BBI document. “I’m a busy person and my work doesn’t allow me to engage in meaningless ventures,” he said dismissively. “I hear we may have to vote for it in a referendum. On that day, I’ll stay at home if I can’t open my shop, and that’s what I’ll do in 2022, during the elections.” Mwangi said he would never again wake up early to please both his mother and Uhuru. “I’ve learned my lesson, I’ve no time for politics, let me concentrate on my life and business.”
Denis told me President Uhuru was keen on a referendum “so that he can extend his term. I’ve become the wiser. At the dinner meetings, I’ve become bold like my brother. My parents are no longer as enthusiastic about Uhuru as they were before. They are completely miffed with him. They cannot explain, leave alone understand, how Raila is now supposed to be the darling of the Kikuyu people. My parents form part of the generation that took the Gatundu oath of never ceding state power to Luos.”
The graduate touts
Allan Kinuthia is, just like Njenga, a UoN graduate. Kinuthia graduated from Kabete campus in 2019 with an agricultural economics degree but he is a matatu tout. He started touting when he was a student “because I needed to raise some money for myself. Then it was a hobby and a hustle.” He voted for Uhuru and Jubilee in 2017. “I did it because that’s how my family voted. I voted on tribal basis, I couldn’t care less. If it worked for my family, why couldn’t it work for me?” Three and half years later, the truth of the matter is that it isn’t working for the family, much less for him. “There was this expectation by my family that, by the time I was graduating, I’d get a job – what with having voted for Uhuru and I having an economics degree,” said Kinuthia. “So even as I touted, I knew it was just a matter of time. I looked forward to a salaried job.”
“I’ve written countless job applications and I’ve given up,” said Kinuthia. “Jobs are there for those who are well-connected, not for people like me.” So far, none of those who were in his class has found a job. “As people trained to be professionals, it is important to get a job, practice what you learned in college, even as Kenyans keep on telling us students that we should think outside the box, meaning we shouldn’t always think of getting a salaried job.”
A happy-go-lucky, jolly fellow, Kinuthia tells me that the other touts are always taunting him; here’s a university graduate who is facing the reality of life outside the cosy world of college. “What do you think of BBI?” I asked him. Have you read the report? “No and I don’t have the time to,” he replied. So, how will you know whether it’s good for you or not? “You think I’m touting because I’m having fun? Uhuru is a failure. I studied economics; we’re where we are because of his incompetence. After taking the country down, Uhuru is busy crafting how to remain in power. That’s what BBI is all about.”
When not touting, Kinuthia is an online writer. “One time, I met a fellow student at UoN, who saw me touting in Kikuyu town. He asked me, ‘do you tout all the time? I can open an online writing account for you. Would you like to write and earn some decent cash?’ I took the deep end, learned the ropes and I’m doing it. My friends I was with in college don’t know or care about BBI, just like I don’t want to know about it. To many young people, Kenyan politics is b***s*** Instead of addressing the massive theft, BBI document is apparently advocating for more executive seats.”
Noisy and every inch the tout, Jimmy Kanogo is actually an entrepreneurship graduate from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture & Technology (JKUAT). Until you engage him, it is impossible to tell he has ever stepped inside a lecture hall. “But it is what it is”, said Jimmy. After graduating in 2018, he quickly realised there were no jobs for graduates. “Those days are long gone, even medical students are nowadays not assured of getting a job.”
“Jobs are there for those who are well-connected, not for people like me.”
“Have you acquainted yourself with the BBI report,” I asked him. “Don’t get me started,” Jimmy said. “What is BBI? My elder brother graduated from university in 2016, he has yet to get a job. How does BBI contribute to the GDP in our house? My parents thought that once they sent us to university and we graduated, we’d be a relief to them. We thought so too, but look at where we are,” moaned Jimmy.
It was the same story repeated in many Kikuyu homesteads: vote for Uhuru, he will straighten the path for you young guys, their parents told them. “And of course, we listened,” said Jimmy. “He lied to our parents, he lied to all of us, they are so angry they keep on cursing and vowing revenge. My mother can’t believe I’m indeed a tout, that after going to university I’ve been reduced to the level of the ne’er-do-wells, whom she always sees hanging around matatu stops and who she has utter disdain for.”
Jimmy said he struggled to read long essays throughout his university studies, “so you’ve to be nuts to expect me to read a document that has no relevance to my life. To fix the economy, you need a report? To curb massive looting, you need a report? To provide youths with jobs, you write a report? What is it that Uhuru wants?” His questions are rhetorical questions but it is obvious that the drafters of the BBI document have lost Jimmy and his peers.
“It’s been a long time since I saw my parents quarrelling, now they seem to quarrel so often,” said Jimmy. “My father cannot believe the money he leaves weekly for my mother is finished so quickly. ‘What’s these you are buying?’ he angrily asks her. Life has become triple difficult and it’s not a pleasant thing to see your folks quarrelling over cash. It isn’t that my mother is overspending or buying things she has not been asked to. But I also understand where my father is coming from.”
Jimmy isn’t interested in BBI, in Kenyan politics, in elections, in referendums. “My survival is my utmost interest. Let Uhuru do whatever he wants to do with power, but one thing is guaranteed – I’m never trooping to a voting booth again.” Jimmy said he wasn’t even really expecting to be employed per se, “but I’d hoped that by the time I was leaving university, the country’s economic climate would be such that it would allow for creativity and imagination for some of us to set up shop.”
Peter Chege is the opposite of Jimmy: slight of build, quiet, reflective, speaking only when spoken to. A UoN graduate, it is difficult to believe he touts, yet he does. “What options did I have?” he asks. Peter graduated in 2019 with a degree in sociology. The following year COVID-19 struck. Peter is from a poor peasant background and this meant that he had to quickly decide what to do with his life post-university. “My parents had struggled to put me through university; they were, in a manner of speaking, through with me.”
So he came down to Limuru, where he had friends among the manambas (conductors) and matatu drivers. They took him under their wing and taught him the ropes. “Can you imagine the people who inducted me into the industry are guys who left school either at primary level or at most secondary school?” When I asked him what BBI means to him, he said, “It means nothing, I don’t know what it is. I hear people talk about it. I keep away from such discussions. I don’t want to be upset and left with a foul taste in my mouth.”
Until you engage him, it is impossible to tell he has ever stepped inside a lecture hall.
Peter told me that his friends at the matatu stop taunt him: “Peter, please tell us, what’s the use of a university education? The drivers, manambas and fellow touts are the ones who like discussing BBI. So they ask me, ‘Peter, you’re the one who’s educated amongst us here; can you explain this document for us? If Peter is the most educated among us, and he isn’t interested in the report, why should we be interested?’” Peter and his matatu friends are agreed on one thing: none has read the report, and they will never read it, but they know one thing for sure: “BBI is about power arrangements and dynamics by the political elites that want to hold onto it, even as they organise us for 2022. It has got nothing to do with us. It is a route being mapped by Uhuru and his cabal to retain power.”
Apologists for Uhuru
“Raila has been played,” said Victor Oluoch, “but you know what? We can’t say it loud; this is supposed to be an ethnic project, so no Luo should be heard badmouthing it. But there’s a discomforting disquiet around the issue; all’s not well on the home front. We welcomed the handshake and its appendage the BBI in 2018, but three years down the line, we are not sure any more.” Victor, a 33-year-old IT specialist, said the handshake had stopped the killing of Luo youth by the state security apparatus and rescued the community from being used by all and sundry as the bogeyman of opposition politics.
“Opposition politics in this country [is] anathema: you’re anti-development, anti-state, anti-communal cohesion. The Luo community were branded all these and it reaches a point where you say, ‘Ok guys, somebody else can carry the cross,’” said Victor. “So we welcomed the handshake and its relative the BBI. We were also quietly told that BBI would bring development to Luoland and we said hoorah, why not? The many years of fighting the state had denied the region development.”
Development is a loaded word; it can mean many things. “But whatever it meant, we the Luo people needed it,” pointed out Victor. “Therefore, it was very odious to hear Raila say the other day that the developments that have apparently been taking place in Nyanza counties, courtesy of the handshake, were after all not meant to be a favour, but a countrywide thing. I didn’t understand where that came from, but certainly, it is not the only misgiving that some of us now have with BBI.”
On 7 June 2021, Raila was quoted as having said, “None of the projects launched or mentioned during the Madaraka period are owned by or meant to serve Kisumu alone. They are meant to, and will serve the entire Kenya.”
The ongoing development projects in the Nyanza region are something that BBI supporters in the region are pointing to as a positive. Ojijo Orido said to me that, over and above everything else, BBI was good because it had brought development to Nyanza. “Factories are being opened up, roads are being built, the port is being resuscitated, the railway line is alive once again, the airport is being expanded . . . development is now being shipped to Nyanza more than everywhere else in the country. We Luos have benefited from BBI and that’s why we support it.”
“But was that the real agenda of the handshake and its aftermath the BBI?” asks Victor. “I’ve taken the trouble to read the document. Nothing could be further from this proposition. Instead, the report, which has mutated a couple of times, proposes other things.” The issue of an additional 70 constituencies, for example, is very troubling, said Victor. “How is it that Nairobi and Mt Kenya region end up with more than 33 new constituencies, while the entire Nyanza region gets less than 4 extra seats? Is this not gerrymandering?”
Victor said the handshake had stopped the killing of Luo youth by the state security apparatus.
According to the BBI proposal, the extra constituencies will be distributed as follows: Nairobi 16, Kiambu 6, Nakuru 5, Meru 2, Embu 1, Kirinyaga 1, Murang’a 1 and Laikipia 1. In contrast, Homa Bay has been allocated 2 seats, Siaya 1 and Kisumu 1. The rest of the new seats are to be distributed across the rest of the country.
Yet Victor told me that among the Luo people this disturbing question is not supposed to be raised. Why? “Oh, you know, I’ve heard it being whispered in Raila’s inner sanctum that mzee has been promised the big one, so it’s imprudent to bring up the offending question. So, what’s BBI really about? Is it about “favoured” development, which Raila is now denying? Was it about ensuring the Luo youth are not gunned down? Is it about being promised the ‘big one’?”
Woe unto the Luo people if BBI doesn’t succeed, warns Victor. “Because it will mean the Luo youth could again be fodder for the police, development will be stopped forthwith and the promise of the ‘big one’ will vanish just like that. Is that how we should be conducting our national politics?”
“It is unfortunate the Luo people have become the biggest apologists for President Uhuru’s incompetent government,” said Ken Owiti. “We behave as if the indiscriminate killings of our people didn’t occur in 2017. We’ve forgotten all the violence that was visited upon the Luo people, prior to the repeat presidential elections on October 26, 2017. We have all forgotten the Baby Pendo incident. We can’t continue to live in the past, some of my folks say, but what does the future hold? The future of the Luo people is pegged on Raila cosying up to the system and being promised the presidency. That’s all.”
Ken showed me a video clip of Orido, a journalist, waxing poetic about President Uhuru’s development record. In the clip, Orido cites Outer Ring Road as an example of the strides President Uhuru has made in developing Kenya. “Is that all what Orido can talk about? Outer Ring Road is a project started under President Kibaki. Development is not a favour to Kenyans; it’s their right because the money borrowed to build and expand these roads is used in their name. But anything to prove you’re a BBI and a Raila cohort.”
The self-flagellation of the Luo people during President Uhuru’s visits to Kisumu has been a trifle embarrassing, said two Boda Boda riders. “What point have we been trying to convey? That we’ve forgotten the brutal violence that took place in Kibera and Kondele not too long ago? That we’re now loyal followers of President Uhuru and his inept government? That we’re a pragmatic, forward-looking people? That we should forgive and forget? Just like that? No questions asked?” The boda boda riders said that among a section of the Luo people, the force of reason seems to have been trumped by reason by force. “If you raise these critical questions, Raila’s adamant followers threaten you with violence, ‘you must be a Ruto supporter – are you a Luo? Who are you to question Raila? BBI is Raila and Raila is ours’.”
Raila’s magnetism among the Luo people is waning, especially among the younger generation, said Otieno Magak. “His politics has ceased to be spellbinding and the handshake didn’t help matters. You can’t question BBI. To question BBI is to question Raila. You can’t ask how supporting BBI, wholly, unquestioningly, will translate into determining the price of sugar in your house. You must support it because Raila has said so. If you prod, nasty epithets are thrown at you. You’re deemed a traitor to the cause, you can be physically attacked.”
Woe unto the Luo people if BBI doesn’t succeed.
The Luo people are being corralled into supporting BBI because this could be the “bullet”, pointed out Magak. “How many ‘one bullets’ can one possibly have? How many times can you promise a political tsunami? The younger generation of Raila supporters are saying ‘we’ve done our civic duty. We’ve lent our unwavering loyalty to him and his political cause, but there comes a time when we must think about our own future and our own future cannot be tied to an aging opposition doyen.’”
Magak said to me that indeed there is a quiet movement sweeping across the Luo nation, of the millennial and generation Z that is keen on charting their own political path away from BBI, away from Raila’s stranglehold, away from the politics of patronage. “Raila has really fought hard, no one can take that away from him, even his greatest detractors concede the man has been resilient, even as he has been cheated out of victory several times. But BBI is a con game which, if it backfires, will have much wider ramifications on a community that has never sat well with status quo politics.”
As BBI proponents and antagonists square it up in court, engaging in legalese and subterfuge, Kenya’s largest voting constituency, the youth — disillusioned, dispossessed, disaffected — have given the report a wide berth.
The 2 June 2021 decision of the seven-judge bench to issue their ruling on 20 August 2021 doesn’t augur well for BBI said Magak. “Whichever way you may want to look at it, at the end of the day, one party seems to have been lied to all throughout. It is significant to note that immediately after the judges gave their date, after the final submissions, the IEBC chair reiterated, soon after, that the general elections will be held on 9 August 2021. It is not for nothing that Wafula Chebukati found it prudent to remind Kenyans at this juncture that the election calendar is on course. But don’t take my word for it.”
This article is part of The Elephant BBI Judgement Series done in collaboration with Heinrich Böll Stiftung (HBF), Dialogue and Civic Spaces Programme. Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the HBF.
Return to the Land of Jilali: Reflections From Kenya’s Northern Frontier
As the rest of us figure out how to cope with the long-term changes now overtaking the biosphere, the world’s most resilient survivors will play an influential role in the collective response.
The locusts appeared near the barrier to the Lake Turkana Wind Farm. They did not form a massed cloud and they did not appear to be that interested in feeding on the semi-desert vegetation. But they were everywhere, a diffuse scattering of red juveniles that gave the sky a slightly speckled cast over the next five kilometres of road.
Desert locusts were one of the obsessions of colonial administrative officers, many of whom sought to preserve the Northern Frontier District in its natural state to protect its ancient communities and abundant wildlife. The preoccupation with the region’s eco-cultural integrity was predicated on two basic assumptions: 1) if allowed, local herders would degrade the range beyond repair through overgrazing; and, 2) should the vast region be treated like the rest of the colony, outsiders would flood in and corrupt the cultural ecology of the region’s ennobled nomads.
An assortment of explorers, wanderers, and opportunists had crisscrossed the northern region during the latter decades of the 19th century. Ivory hunters brought up the rear, followed by Kamba and Somali competitors in search of the region’s last untapped population of tuskers. By the turn of the century the Rendille and Borana had also become involved in the trade, albeit reluctantly.
The paternalism of British colonial administrators serving in remote areas was in part response to the unrestrained mercantilism of their freelancing European predecessors, but it also reflected their recognition of the local communities’ expressed desire to maintain their way of life.
The local pastoralists didn’t mind the relative isolation in the beginning. They mainly wanted to be left alone in their vast, wide-open spaces. For the most part, the colonial administration respected this. But as Kenyan independence approached, isolation gave way to calls for secession.
The Kenyatta government’s sovereignty over the potentially turbulent northern rangelands started badly after the rejection recorded in the 1962 pre-independence referendum. The Shifta insurgency commenced under the shadow of emergency laws gazetted several weeks after Uhuru. This extended a state of occupation across a large swath of territory including Lamu and Tana River Districts. Shifta banditry followed.
It has been a long way coming back from this inflection point.
For ruling elites based in the region’s capitals, the rangelands mainly offered the hope of the hidden resources lurking underneath the surface. Governing the rangelands of the former NFD, the northern Rift Valley, and the North Eastern Province became a holding game—an exercise based on the probability that returns on the investment in controlled conflict management would materialise someday.
It took over five decades for the first manifestations of that pay-off to appear. It began with official recognition of the rangelands’ importance for the livestock sector’s commercial value articulated in a speech President Kibaki made after winning the 2002 elections. Prospecting for oil, natural gas, and wind power came next. This segued into the LAPSSET mega-project’s infrastructural wet dream for opening up the neglected region.
The Land of Jilali
None of this was on the radar as the new millennium approached. The La Niña drought that followed the deluge of the 1998 El Niño had restored the political ecology narrative dominating the rangelands since the colonial era. Desertification was back, and the primary culprit were the proto-modern nomads, with some help from capricious nature.
Two decades ago, I had crisscrossed the expanses of Marsabit without hearing any mention of Schistocerca gregaria, or nzige, to use the Swahili term for the locusts. Years of conversations across northern Kenya had not yielded a single mention of the scourge. But then again, the last outbreak was seventy years ago. At the time, I was part of a team of Kenya researchers based at Kenya’s National Arid Lands Research Centre investigating desertification and its potential mitigations.
In The Land of Jilali, an account of our field trips across the district, originally published in 2001, the spectre of deepening drought and famine followed us everywhere we went.
The essay featured multiple references to dark rockscapes, arboreal denudation, and the expanding discs of desertified land ringing the settlements. Permanent manyattas elsewhere displayed a similar pattern. The environmental crisis was undermining traditional livelihood strategies, fulfilling the prophecies Western scientists had promulgated after the Great Sahel drought of the mid-1970s.
This segued into the LAPSSET mega-project’s infrastructural wet dream for opening up the neglected region.
The conclusion to The Land of Jilali traced the problems to the economic stasis resulting from the decades of laissez-faire policy, widening the separation of the NFD from the highlands to the south.
Our verdict: the problem is not so much environmental degradation as lack of economic diversification. There are untapped resources in these remote regions, including nutrient-rich salt from the Chalbi, gum arabic, stunning landscapes for the high-end adventure tourist. But exploiting them has been constrained by a combination of poor infrastructure, restrictive laws, a lack of services, and the social prejudice engendered by separation. Isolation has bred war parties that roam the land with the unpredictability of rain-bearing clouds.
Now it is 2021 and I returned to retrace some of the steps recorded in the Land of Jilali narrative. The world has witnessed massive shifts and changes over the past two decades. At first glance, however, Marsabit appears to be insulated from many of the trends. The lowland range looked relatively unaltered, certainly less degraded than scientists like Hugh Lamprey had predicted back in 1976 when he claimed the Sahel was advancing at a rate of over five kilometres per year.
At that rate, the advancing semi-desert should have pushed beyond large areas of Kenya’s dryland agricultural fringe and even into the coast’s semi-arid hinterland. Lamprey’s warning came with a scenario of social collapse overtaking the unstable grasslands and fragile drylands due to surging population growth.
The northern rangelands played their part by recording the country’s highest birth rates over the last two decades. But everywhere we went the tree cover was improved, the pasture ok, and although the peripheries of settlements remain bare, the vegetation and tree cover within them has expanded.
Among other things, these trends validate the efforts of local civil society and the local environmental committees established by the Marsabit Development Programme at the turn of the millennium.
The areas adjacent to the recently tarmacked road that now connects the northern slopes of Mt. Kenya to Moyale on the Ethiopian border conveyed an impression of environmental stability. Highway towns like Archers Post, Merille, and Logologo are larger but look much the same except for the expanding band of small block houses spreading out into the bush behind them. The stacked sacks of charcoal along the roadside are gone.
These trends validate the efforts of local civil society and the local environmental committees established by the Marsabit Development Programme at the turn of the millennium.
Although such landscapes can be deceptive, the environmental stasis conveyed by these roadside settlements appeared to be in step with the fast-moving tropes of Kenya’s transition from an agrarian society, where the majority of the population is no longer directly dependent upon rainfall and vegetation.
The data accumulating over time would come to show that the state of vegetation and population growth is not necessarily congruent with long-term land change. But at the beginning of the 1980s, the negative trends documented by researchers working across the Sahel had the unchallenged certainty of Western science on their side.
The Age of IPAL
The Great Sahel famine of 1974-76 struck from the shores of the Atlantic to the Horn of Africa. The death and devastation wrought magnified the significance of the drought and portrayed the famine as the harbinger of a larger environmental crisis. The 1976 United Nations conference on desertification in Nairobi officially established environmental degradation as the leading issue threatening the planet.
It was science to the rescue. Externally conceived schemes to combat desertification, seen as a root cause of the increasing incidence of drought, dominated the response. Lamprey’s picture of a man getting ready to cut down a solitary tree stranded on a barren plain of dark rocks had made Marsabit an international exemplar of desertification, and the goat by the man’s side became the movement’s poster child.
Somalia, which portrayed itself as a pastoralist democracy, at that time, was the only country to adopt a homegrown response to the calamity. The government sought to exploit the shock by promoting an audacious shift from livestock to investment in marine fisheries. Its proactive efforts faced formidable headwinds. Two ambitious interventions to kick-start an industrial fishery from above were eventually overtaken by the internal dynamics of Syad Barre’s doomed government.
Some of the fiberglass boats from these projects turned up later in the hands of the vigilantes and pirates patrolling the country’s offshore waters.
In Kenya, the call to arms led to the establishment of the Integrated Project for Arid Lands in Marsabit. Initiated under the aegis of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme in 1977, IPAL was designed as a multi-disciplinary, human-focused project that improved on the design of the integrated project template of that period. Over the course of its three phases, the research compiled useful baseline data on vegetation change and climate patterns, livestock disease vectors, studies on the dynamics of traditional range management, and the sociology of Marsabit’s pastoralist communities.
Little changed on the ground in the interim. The rains had returned, and the new jobs IPAL created were welcome. The project’s facilities and research mandate were transferred to the Government of Kenya in 1984. Kenya’s National Arid Lands Research Centre in Marsabit came into existence as the stepchild of IPAL.
Now the ward of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), KARIMAR, as the Centre became known, continued to actively conduct field research, but the scientific output generated by the Centre’s researchers was compromised by the way the Institute worked. Because salaries, which were pegged to civil service pay scales, were low, the per diems for time spent in the field were high to compensate. KARIMAR staff spent a lot of time crisscrossing the landscape collecting data, much of which remained on the shelf.
At that rate, the advancing semi-desert should have pushed beyond large areas of Kenya’s dryland agricultural fringe and even into the coast’s semi-arid hinterland.
During my time at the Centre, its research focused on animal health, typologies of camel productivity based on indigenous technical knowledge, the ongoing problem of environmental degradation, assessment of optimal dosages of herbal livestock remedies, meat and milk preservation, and sociocultural changes in the area’s growing settlements.
Most of the data did not make its way into publications. But the Centre did operate strong outreach activities, sharing the research findings through periodic meetings with Marsabit’s lowland communities. This was a positive move away from the ivory tower knowledge model, even if the uptake of the technological prototypes on offer was not high.
KARIMAR outreach coincided with the surge in local associational life in the form of the Community Based Organisation and other variations on participatory development like the environmental and security committees. All of this contributed to the onset of a more auto-catalytic, or self-starting developmental phase. This was aided by the rise in education and the increasing movement of locals beyond district and national borders.
The small settlement of Ngurunit, situated at the base of the Ndoto Range, was originally a base for the region’s ancient hunter-gatherer community. It became one of the primary focal points for small-scale projects in vogue at that juncture, and the most noteworthy was the Salato Women’s Group.
Salato was a prime beneficiary of the donor support for gender-based projects at that time. It ran one of the several mini-dairies supported by KARIMAR, and was producing nyiri nyiri (a variation on dried meat jerky preserved in oil, traditionally made for ceremonial occasions like weddings) for local export. At its height Salato was operating a bakery, selling crafts, facilitating a camel restocking plan, and was racking up citations in the local press, and in developmental and academic publications.
But Salato, once the exemplar of local women’s entrepreneurial zeitgeist, was gone when we passed through Ngurunit. No one was interested in talking about it, as if its fate had always been common knowledge—there were always frictions among its leadership. Only the citations remained. The KARI research station was also kaput, which made me very sad.
The facility’s main veranda was one of those places in Kenya sanctified by the volume of fascinating and esoteric discussions it had absorbed over the past several decades. Those conversations about the region’s history, culture, politics, and economy were part of a vernacular narrative that, from a complex systems perspective, was often more revealing than the insights generated by the formal research.
The Age of LAPSSET
LAPSSET is the logical endpoint of the developmental trajectory that began with the 19th-century caravan trade that penetrated the most remote expanses of the eastern Africa interior. Traders fanned out across the basin spanning Malawi and Tanzania, northern Kenya the lowlands of Ethiopia, and the borderlands of southern Sudan in search of ivory, human captives, and other high-value commodities.
The name of the game was extraction, and the tales of treasure in the African interior percolating into Europe attracted western explorers. In the western Sahel, the locals set the terms for explorers attracted by the gold-clad city of Timbuctoo, as Mungo Park famously describes in his journal. The Scottish explorer was harassed, threatened, and detained in a pen with a pig by a Berber chieftain. He was so spooked after being released that by the time his boat finally approached the mythical city, the explorer sped by with all guns blazing.
Mungo Park met a watery death during the final leg of his journey down the Niger River; his journals were retrieved by his faithful guide, preserving his fascinating account for future generations. Many others perished crossing the Sahara or while trying to enter the interior from the West Africa coast, which became known as the White Man’s Grave.
Historically, the western Sahel had given rise to states that integrated herders and agro-pastoralists into the region’s cross-Sahara trade-driven economy. The Sahel zone remains integral to the politics and economy of the new countries created by the colonial disruption. The opposite pattern prevailed in the eastern Sahel, where populations were still on the move during the 19th century, and the region’s stateless pastoralists remained on the periphery after colonial intervention favoured the promotion of agricultural economies.
Somalia, which portrayed itself as a pastoralist democracy, at that time, was the only country to adopt a homegrown response to the calamity.
Explorers venturing into the interior of East Africa faced formidable changes, but less hostility from the natives. The combination of colonial separation and post-independence isolation that followed insured that exploitation through extraction would face minimal opposition when the time came.
The LAPSSET project and its elaborate grid of proposed roads, pipelines, airports, railroads, the new Lamu port at Magogoni, and “tourist” cities is a prime example. Designed to open up the region for capital penetration, the fantastic scheme hatched by the Kibaki government’s planners was never tabled for debate in Parliament, or formally introduced to communities on the ground. But the Lake Turkana Wind Power and two berths at the Magogoni Port are the only projects that have come to fruition so far.
Renewable energy is one industry that can actually mesh with the region’s pristine environment. The wind farm initially appeared to be the kind of project residents and proponents of rangeland development would approve of. The LTWP offered the hope that it would promote greater integration of the area’s inhabitants into the national economic grid. Instead, the outcome reinforced the skewed state-society power relations defining the last century of highland-lowland relations.
Sarima sits beneath the escarpment descending towards the lake. The corridor framed by Mt. Kulal to the north and the Ndoto Range in Samburu forms a powerful wind tunnel that inspired a Dutch expatriate to undertake a basic feasibility study. He established that the winds in this area, known in Rendille as Kurti Haafar or the Hill of the Winds, are stronger than anywhere in Europe.
The quasi-legal acquisition of the land lease from the Marsabit County Council in 2007 through political brokers and the convoluted implementation process proved to be a recipe for conflict and unrelenting contestation. What could have been a relatively non-intrusive and mutually beneficial investment based on an initial 40,000-hectare allocation in Sarima had become a private 150,000-hectare electricity plantation covering an important swath of Rendille dry season grazing reserve.
The environmental and social impact assessment was completed in 2009. The World Bank bailed on the project in 2012. This removed some of the more cumbersome hurdles to implementation, like the poor terms of the project’s power purchase with Kenya’s Ministry of Energy. The World Bank’s withdrawal also expedited financing for the consortium of private investors, who expected to have the 310-megawatt facility operational by 2014.
Africa’s largest wind farm was finally completed in 2017, but due to tendering scandals and the usual delays, it took the better part of two years to connect the wind turbines to the national grid. As predicted by the World Bank, the Kenya Treasury committed to pay the LTWP investors €127 million (KSh14.5 billion) for the unused electricity generated during this period, which inflated the cost of the project’s electricity for the Kenyan consumer.
LAPSSET is the logical endpoint of the developmental trajectory that began with the 19th-century caravan trade that penetrated the most remote expanses of the eastern Africa interior.
Projects that tick most of the developmental boxes tend to engender controversy in Kenya’s marginalized areas. The Turkana County government fought a protracted battle to increase their small share of the expected revenues from the oil found there. In Lamu, civil society advocates have been forced to fight for basic compensation in court for the land and livelihoods lost to the Magogoni port. Marsabit County received nothing in return and was denied access to the electricity that the Project Consortium’s application boasted will light up 2.5 million Kenya households.
A case brought by Rendille activists contesting the land allocation and petitioning for its reversion to community land upon expiration of the lease has been delayed, even after being accepted for review by Kenya’s Supreme Court. The encroachment of Turkana and the preferential hiring of Samburu for the 339 permanent jobs created by the project has, however, complicated the case predicated on the rights of all of Marsabit’s pastoralist communities.
The pastoralists’ lawyers argued that the allocation failed to follow the guidelines mandated in Kenya’s Trust Lands Act, and it represented an even more serious violation of the community land principles embedded in Kenya’s new Constitution.
For their part, the LTWP Consortium’s lawyers argued that the law grants communities the right to access communal grazing resources, but not formal ownership of the land. This blatant revisionism anchored their dismissal of any local claim to the benefits accruing from the utilisation of the wind passing over the land in question.
Such cynical ploys contribute to why citizens of Kenya B remain poor and the value of their production low by the standards of Kenya’s agricultural majority. But communities in the areas that first experienced Uhuru under the draconian emergency laws like the Special Districts Act are now awake and increasingly organised. They are also armed. None of this augurs well for the belated integration of these areas under the extraction and carbon-based investment model the Kenya government is promoting under its Vision 2030 blueprint.
Return to the Land of Jilali – Part Two
The View from the Lake, Then and Now
We approached Sarima on an overcast morning. The day before we had been warned of a clash between Samburu and Turkana. The incident claimed a boda boda rider transporting miraa and a Samburu moran, the victims adding to the growing body count resulting from an extended series of conflicts erupting across local ethnic fault lines. Upon approaching the edge of the project’s land we passed small groups of elders walking towards what was apparently a peace meeting being convened in a glade of acacia.
The configuration of the wind farm, unlike the lines and grids of similar projects elsewhere, consisted of clusters of the tall white towers scattered in an uneven pattern across the landscape. The blades of these giant pinwheels appear to spin at a lazy pace out of synch with the fiercely gusting wind.
The once rugged road has been paved up to the final stretch to the Lake, and the road following the shore to Loiyangalani has been improved. This made for a leisurely, two-hour drive to the town that has always struck me as one of Kenya’s most eclectic settlements.
When I first travelled this route for the first time in 1975, it took nine days traveling by public means and hitchhiking to make it to the lake. Two days were spent on buses and seven were spent hanging out with the locals on the side of the road in Baragoi and South Horr during the day. The traffic never exceeded five vehicles a day: the typical sample comprised of lorries, GK Land Rovers, and the occasional private vehicle which would speed raising a cloud of dust.
After three nights camping in a laaga on the edge of town, we got a lift to South Horr in a pick-up transporting goats. South Horr was at that time a small hamlet of some fifteen shops and storage structures set in a woody glade. Most of the Samburu herders carried semi-precious stone knotted in their shukas. We failed to see why they spent their days loitering along the road, until a German-speaking man stopped, methodically inspected the rocks with a special eyeglass, made a few purchases, and sped off after spurning our request for a lift.
It was at that point, on our fourth day in South Horr, that we decided to walk the final 90 kilometres to Loiyangalani. Local sources told us there is a 25km stretch of savanna woodland before entering the desert. So we hatched a plan to do half the walk at night, find a tree to rest under, and complete the remaining distance the next day when the sun was low.
The combination of colonial separation and post-independence isolation subsequently insured that exploitation through extraction would face minimal opposition when the time came.
We packed some sugar, tea leaves, posho, and purchased a small spear at a high price from a one of the rock-hunting Samburu morani. We should have employed him as a spear-carrier and guide instead, but we had no idea what was awaiting us ahead.
The next day, forty minutes before our planned departure, a European tour group stopped and told us they would make room in their Landcruiser if we did not mind being squeezed. We accepted this offer with great relief.
The vegetation thinned out after passing the Kurunga River, confirming the intel we had collected. The Sarima corridor was near-treeless at that time; it certainly was not the “lush plain” described in the LTWP literature, and the Turkana village that has been a magnet for inter-communal conflict since the project began did not exist. We disembarked further down the road so the car could negotiate the staircase, a series of terraces that for decades enabled vehicles to bump their way down this most difficult section of the escarpment.
It was five o’clock yet still incredibly hot. Fifteen minutes under the sun amidst this sea of rocks, the Jade Sea beckoning in the distance, was enough to see us consume half of the water we were carrying. This point roughly marked the rest stop of our walk, and there was not a single tree with a canopy offering respite from the sun in sight. The rest of the route to Loiyangalani was even harsher, bereft of any sign of shade or habitation.
Like the fate of many of the meticulously planned expeditions passing through the region in the late 19th century, we would have survived the trek, but only barely. With this realisation came renewed respect for the long-time inhabitants who figured out how to survive and prosper in this stark and rugged land.
Now I was retracing these steps, forty-five years later. Acacia nilotica and seyal dotted the once barren lakeside. The lake had receded into the distance when I visited here during the turn-of-the-millennium La Niña drought. Despite the controversial commissioning of the three Gibe dams on the lake’s Omo River source in Ethiopia, the waters had now returned. The large informal settlement that had sprung up on the extended beachfront was gone; the only reminder of the lakeside suburb was a partially submerged bar and restaurant.
An initial 40,000-hectare allocation in Sarima had become a private 150,000-hectare plantation covering an important swath of Rendille dry season grazing reserve.
Some things only change slowly: I took a picture of a small raft of doum palm trunks, the archetypal vessel the El Molo use to fish these turbulent and croc-infested waters. But Loiyangalani was otherwise vibrant, and undergoing a makeover.
The piles of rocks for sale on the lakeside approach were new. I used to see the sight of animals foraging on this denuded shoreline as confirmation of the desertification narrative—until closer inspection revealed that the rocks hide spikey shoots of grass shielded from the burning sun. Now the Turkana boys herding goats are diversifying their income by selecting stones with the right size and shape for constructing houses to sell to the new builders.
Loiyangalani now features facilities that provide reasonably priced accommodation and meals for the groups of down-country Kenyans who are now exploring the Marsabit lowland loop. Ngurunit and South Horr also have similar tourist bomas, enabling access to the remote vistas along a route that was formerly the province of low-budget travellers touring in mini-mog trucks. Many of the settlements are setting up mini-grids based on solar power, obviating the need to access the LTWP electricity. Off-grid technologies for harvesting the sun provide a low-cost alternative to the government-investor ‘owned’ wind.
The roads are better; I stood next to where the staircase used to be and watched a Toyota Vitz drive down to the Lake. Such examples of change offer hope that, after decades of media-framed perceptions of the north as a crisis-prone region, other Kenyans see the north for themselves and empathise with their neighbours’ quest for an equitable return from their land and natural resources.
The capital-intensive schemes favoured by the government’s economic planners are not the ticket for Land of Jilali development. Before leaving Loiyangalani, we learn that elders attending the peace meeting produced the foils from the box lunches provided to the security personnel at the site of the attack as evidence showing that LTWP guards were behind the raid two days before.
The Land of Jilali Revisited
This brings us to a revised verdict based on a long view of developments in the Land of Jilali.
The desertification thesis, which emerged out of the French occupation of the western Sahel, traces the blame to culturally conservative herders and management practices like the use of fire and overstocking. The Francophone desertification thesis was exported to the Horn of Africa following the great famine of the mid-1970s. Since then, scholars like Tor Benjminsen have exposed the combination of opportunism and flawed science used to delegitimise the adaptive and resilient practices of pastoralists developed over the centuries. His article on the subject documents how since the 1920s the myth has been revived during protracted droughts, only to fade away during the resumption of normal rainfall.
A contrasting case of extreme climate set the locust invasion in motion. Two cyclones in quick succession had pushed far beyond the normal range for such storms. This supercharged the expansion and reproduction of the locusts, the unusually high rainfall launching the jump from the insects’ southern Arabia breeding grounds while optimising conditions across the Horn of Africa for their spread.
Despite the controversial commissioning of the three Gibe dams on the Lake’s Omo River source in Ethiopia, the waters had returned.
The media duly repeated claims that the locusts represented an existential danger to the Horn of Africa, threatening millions of producers with starvation. Documentation of the devastation to agricultural and pasture resources has been less forthcoming. This tallies with reports from sources in affected areas, who verified the appearance of swarms, but claimed the damage to crops and pasture was minimal.
Did we once again fail to fully comprehend a non-linear ecological event?
The 2020 locusts appear to be recyclers who fed off the excess vegetation generated by the heavy rains, while providing a temporary source of protein for birds and wildlife and local communities who convert the insects into a healthy version of fast food. The locusts are also a rich source of chemicals known as phytosterols that boost immunity and help prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer.
The response to combatting the locusts did provide a positive example of international cooperation, even though the use of insecticides was a greater threat to human health than the vegetation they consumed. The nzige invasion dovetailed with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which exposed the cupidity and corruption of the state-based cartels who exploited the international response to the virus for personal benefit.
The retrogressive behaviour of the region’s states comes with important implications for the Horn of Africa, which is entering a new phase of political economy after several decades of communal conflict, unencumbered market economy, and donor-supported democratisation. The expanded scope for global capital under this arrangement represents the latest challenge for the region’s pastoralists’ fight to own their future.
Explorers and military map makers’ accounts dominated the first phase of modernity in the north. Their descriptions of the region as Africa’s last remaining Garden of Eden dovetail with the Lake Turkana version of the Eve hypothesis. The environs where our earliest ancestors frolicked entered the twentieth century as a rangeland ghetto sustaining decades of socioeconomic malaise.
The capital-intensive schemes favoured by the government’s economic planners are not the ticket for Land of Jilali development.
The second, developmental phase of modernity was driven by Western science. Researchers amassed a large body of useful information, including the baseline data sets underpinning remote sensing and survey methodologies that now support the monthly reports on the frontier counties’ vegetation and human food security. Jilali is now a data-defined phenomenon. But they also failed to identify the critical dynamics operating on the human-environmental interface.
The new school of range ecology eventually rectified the biased assumptions responsible for the procession of failed drylands policy experiments. Recognition of the inherent uncertainty of such non-equilibrium environments went a long way towards rehabilitating the pastoralist’s opportunistic utilisation of ephemeral resources availed by the unpredictable climate. Strategies combining maximisation with resilience are common to the diverse plant, animal, and human populations who colonised the Horn of Africa’s arid and semi-arid lands.
This occurred under wetter conditions, when Mauretania still had swamps and giraffes roamed lower Egypt. Then they spent the last 800 years adapting to the increasingly drier environment.
Climate is the great driver of life on earth. Generations of environmental stability culminated in the European expansion. The societal operating system it imposed on the world has run its course, relegating a large portion of humanity to a precarious existence on a non-equilibrium planet. Humanity needs a new civilisational operating system.
We do not know how the world’s most resilient survivors will negotiate the current interlude of top-down capitalism. In the end, they will be the authors of this third phase of rangeland development now unfolding. I also expect that their indigenous sensibilities will play an influential role in the collective response as the rest of us figure out how to cope with the long-term changes now overtaking the biosphere.
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