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Derelict Shards & The Roaming of Colonial Phantoms

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Online keynote address given at the International Conference: Colonialism as Shared History. Past, Present, Future, 7–9 October 2020, Berlin. Organized by Ulrike Lindner, Bettina Brockmeyer, Rebekka Habermas, Gerda Henkel Foundation and the German Federal Foreign Office.

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Derelict Shards & The Roaming of Colonial Phantoms
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Thank you for such a generous introduction. Honorable Minister, Michelle Müntefering, Professor Drs Rebekka Habermas, Bettina Brockmeye, Ulrike Lindne, ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon from my side of the world. Nicole Gonsior, Katharina Klaus, Simone Baumstark thank you for all your support. To the panellists, audience, some of whom are friends signing in, a big hello. I trust that you are all holding up well in these surreal days.

A quick apology:

My presentations are usually companioned by dramatic visuals, mostly collated from the public library that is the World Wide Web. Copyright issues associated with this session; means I have to forego the visual evidence.

When Professor Dr. Rebekka Habermas contacted me to inquire whether I would be interested in offering a keynote, I reminded her that I am a person of artistic persuasion, not an academic. “That’s what we desire.” She replied. I asked if she was aware that I do not have a single politically correct bone in my body.” She said, “Good.” “I eat sacred cows.’ I pleaded. She implied, “Guten Appetit.”

So here we are.

Derelict Shards: …

An opening quotation by the late Swedish author, Sven Lindqvist, who for me represents those rare human beings who do the hard work of refining and engaging a sense of their moral consciousness and conscience, however disordering that can be, in his extraordinary work,  “Exterminate All the Brutes”: One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide, in the first paragraph, he observes: “You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.”

I concur.

So this is a very preliminary incursion into what I trust will later become for this initiative, among other possibilities, an investigative, excavatory processes. Some figurative bodies might be exhumed in the process of this brief telling, and raise a stink. I don’t apologise. In this offering, Aime Cesaire and Frantz Fanon make technical appearances, as do other thinkers. Fanon and Cesaire are reminders that the road maps already exist. It is the will to change ourselves through implementing their prophetic imperatives that has been absent.

Also.

About Africa.

For this presentation, do hold its giant and complex pluralities in mind. I refer to the whole of Africa, the pluriversality of it, its essential diversities: there is no subbing of the Sahara in my Africa. Its territoriality extends beyond the seas., its tentacles touch every space that exists in the world.

And, although I am Nairobi and Kenya born, bred, formed and identified, the Occident has and does inform and influence me; this is an intrinsic part of the multiplicities I contain, I live my paradoxes with ease. Note that, yes, I do treat history as one of the paint palettes for my work. However, I prefer and relish the older, deeper and longer histories of the interstices of my people. As brutish as the fairly recent encounter of Africa with the Occident had been, as soul-damaging as it still is, that encounter, in the scheme of things, comparatively speaking, is but a small, viciously irritating, admittedly wildly dramatic phrase with a semicolon in the long, long, long trajectory of the book of African existence. If now it dominates so much of our historical conversations it is because it was an existential wound-creating encounter with structures, systems, ways of thought that penetrate our lives to this moment. It is, however, not the single point upon which our entire African lives pivot. Furthermore, the stories of our encounters with you are myriad, diverse and dispersed; it is not a monolithic tale. The common factor is ‘The Occident’ as metaphor, symbol, wound; as existential threat; as a diversity of forced tragic and horrific experiences, of direct encounter and brutal confrontation with wave after wave of an excess of the unexpected, unimagined, unmitigated evil occasioned by acts of war; and this invasion and its intent was war, and a war that despite the best of the myriad efforts of a people unused to encountering another people able and willing to betray both human hospitality and their word, a people willing to commit random acts of genocide…this is a war our people lost to the Occident totally.

You.

Sie.

It is this ‘you’ that this reflection and initiative first ought to attend to. I think… Before we can arrive at a ‘we’, we must exhaust the accusative, ‘you’, ‘Sie’, not directed at the individual, but to a particular and historical cultural position, idea and consciousness and its world-making choices. The German Colonial idea is fed by, formed by, fuelled by the grander Occidental colonial imperative. The collectivised cultural will that worked as a gang to enforce and sustain the evil genius that was colonial matrix.

Shared is an interesting word in English. Still, whatever is intended by it, we first must prioritise attending to the ‘us’, in community and later in the collective before we can even arrive at a shareable ‘We’. Also, because the colonialism catastrophe did not unfold in isolation, the ‘we’ encompasses other non-African and non-European worlds, who I hope are enjoined in this project, if not the conference.

Now.

This paper went through two major revisions, and I use these to set out a context: The first version prepared for, was it May, offered a point of view that called for a forensic historical reckoning to help stay an inevitable coming explosion of rage. That became moot when fault lines were created by the grotesque public lynching of the human being, Mr. George Floyd, and rumblings started all over the world. History intervening. A second revision was inspired by the world-scape created by the ongoing visitation of the Coronavirus. I was startled by the discombobulations and public health disorders of societies that have behaved for the last eighty years as if they were exempt and excused from the vagaries of human suffering, that have treated the sufferings of others in the world, like nations of Africa, as an intrinsic flaw in their nature. Around that time, I also happened upon a commentary on the June 2017[1] World Bank Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility and the ‘pandemic bonds’ they had floated. The investor nations include the European Union, the USA of course, and Japan. The bonds were oversubscribed. These bunch were betting heavily on reaping profits out of pandemic-caused mass deaths, primarily in Africa and possibly in Asia. These bonds were to, “transfer pandemic risks in low-income countries to the financial markets”. Put simply, here was the commodification of anticipated suffering, the instrumentalization of anguish for profit. The human scavengers then proceeded to package their macabre money grubbing, and obscene feeding frenzy as philanthropy. My visceral disgust focused this presentation. It is now an Aetiological enquiry. There is an urgent human need to interrogate a 400-year old cultural mindset. How does a dynamic culture get to lose grip of the basics of being human? How does this culture come to justify and then amplify its dependency on its predation of other humans? Is there any precedent for a culture seeing itself, and intentionally undertaking a long-history probing of its cultural conscience and collective soul? In the pandemic bond subscription story I found a perfect condensation of the essential character of the European imperialism and colonisation project.

Colonialism as shared history? At this stage of things, a rephrasing of the theme will probably be sought. You see, when a psychopath enters a family’s home and proceeds to rape, rob, eviscerate and murder them, and then settles in, takes over the family pets, the premises, the lands. Starts growing grapes and mines the gold he finds there, and then becomes extremely wealthy in the process, marries a well-brought up delicate lily from his home town, becomes a source of wisdom and starts to host the finest of classical music soirées, builds a reputation as an impressive family patriarch and, later his statue is raised in his home town on the day he establishes an endowment for scholarships in the humanities …now… no matter what, the brutalised, displaced, victimised family upon whose annihilation the psychopath has built an impressive life, that wounded family, if any do survive, cannot engage the atrocity that decimated their relationship with existence as something of a ‘shared experience’. The original inhumanity, the violation of an intrinsic and basic covenant of human relationality, the desecration of human dignity and decency forbid it. With very few exceptions—I can’t think of any—the forced entry of Europe into our worlds linger long as a horror story of brutishness, cruelty, violence, predation and inhumanity, no matter what shining edifices have been built atop the grievous wounds.

But what else might a descendant-beneficiary of a history of heinous crime do when confronted with the reality of this, finds a spark of horror within themselves and is afflicted by a need to make peace? A suggestion: enter naked into the worlds of the shadowed memories and knowing. Undertake to collect and collate memory from out of the crime scenes; approach with reverence the weight of tragic knowing that descendants bear. Listen. Witness. Attend to the truth (Capital ‘T’). Strive for a language for the experiencing. Translate this into heartfelt human grief. Speak it out to another. Acknowledge. Be heard. Endeavour to repair. There are no expiry dates for acts of human reparation, and hope that somehow, somewhere, sometime (it cannot be hurried, demanded) the ‘F’ word—Forgiveness—gently enters the threshold of engagement.

Aime Césaire:

“no one colonizes innocently, …”a nation which colonizes, a civilization which justifies colonization – and therefore force – is already a sick civilization”.

I worry that unless a wilful effort is made to dig around the historical roots of the genesis of what becomes the colonial enterprise—I mean the human mindset and sequence of experiences and thought and cultural compromises that converged to make it unfold in the anti-human way that it did, yet another long season of good minds round and round a dry watering hole will unfold. There are important questions waiting for all of us at the roots. I need to understand, for example, as a human being perplexed by the depth and intensity of evil, who, will billions of others, still lives out colonialism’s resonances and discontents–what was in the European cultural psyche that turned such an excess of its migrating population into sociopaths, psychopaths, and serial killers operating in the world? This was abnormal by any historical standard. Why did it happen to Europe in particular, in the way that it did? Knowing the codes of life, hiding the intrinsic sadism under the veneer of Judeo-Christianity with its ‘Thou shalt not kill-Thou shalt not covet-Love thy neighbour as thyself’ tenets, in confronting the other, the stranger, why was there such a wholesale failure of faith as life and action? Future research processes, probably by combined teams of forensic pathologists, anthropologists and psychoanalysts might uncover some of the reasons for this aberration, which then proceeded, mostly through a hitherto unexperienced will to violence, will to annihilate masses, will to genocide, to turn its derangements into laws of and for the world.

By the way, I use the metonym ‘Occident’ to refer to the ideological space from which the originators and architects of the catastrophe that becomes colonialism emerge for the sake of aetiology and the tomb-poking process that is this presentation.

Oh yes, about those pandemic bonds…Good news. Fortunately for humanity, the winds of fate do sometimes blow fairly. Covid-19, that equal opportunity existential threat has caused the would-be-vampires to join the rest of humanity in reflecting on the meaning of human vulnerability and mass suffering; of dealing with uncertainty and making peace with the unknown. The papers on which the bonds are printed are bulkier and more valuable than the anticipated returns on investment. And this year, the World Bank ditched its second offering.

Colonialism as Shared History. Past, Present, Future? There is a one-word answer to the implied question: What we share most because of colonialism is that Greek word, trauma. But what to do with it when that trauma is a multi-prism, multi-form distinct-character presence? Lay these out, I guess. Listen, at the core of the tragedy of colonialism is the sadness of wilful destruction of the gift and treasure of the intimacy of humanity, of what-could-have-been-had-we-met-differently-and-humanly. Our greatest shared loss occasioned by a violent and hubristic encounter was each other. We lost each other. ‘Derelict Shards’ the title references jutting, sharp and pointy bits that still pierce our ease with one another. These phantom shrapnel from the fallout of our fatal encountering in this ghost-making project, not aided by a faux-innocence and deliberate amnesia that sweeps our many restless dead, the terrible deeds done to secure advantages (yours and ours) under so many metaphorical carpets.

‘Shared colonialism’? So which of the thresholds of our discontent do we cross into first? Epistemic, Economic, Theological, Scientific, Conceptual, Ontological, Philosophical, Historical, Industrial, Economic, Linguistic, Cultural, Militaristic, Technological, Artistic, Scientific, Biological, Civilizational, Imaginational, Aesthetic, Teleological, Psychological, Typological, Natural? Pathological? There is tangible historical evidence to go with each of these and other unmentioned categories.

You wanted a speech. I have none to give. If a type is required for this presentation, then call it a dirge, or an introit for a requiem, or a literary autopsy. A dirge is a call for introspection for both dirge-singer, bereaved family, community and the deceased, whose life, most African cultures understand, is a continuum. The dead must still account for the meaning of their choices, their existence, and the effects their lives had on others. There is a witness. The dirge is a site and space of, among other things, argument, audit and debate. The dirge is a site of witness, and also outpouring and acknowledgment of pain and sorrow. But when there is pain, there is paradoxically, still life; there is hope. And oh yes, after the dirge has detailed the things that needs to be shouted out, the dirge singer is at once forgiven and is not held accountable for things said. (I am indemnifying myself. ) The dirge becomes an outlet for the release of sad ghosts that would lurk restless, for the sorrow that might consume, for the deceased that died afraid their lives, loves and meaning would be forgotten.

A different point: I treasure the word ‘autopsy’[2], in its etymological and aetiological sense, as a method of inquiry and investigations. Autopsy: see for yourself in naked, unvarnished truth the innards of what is before us in a prosaic and philosophical quest. For colonialism’s form-changing, euphemism-dolling phantoms, I wish to offer a ruthless autopsy service.

This presentation unfolds in both a literal, digital and metaphorical Berlin: a city one cherishes, yet a city that is also in itself an unsecured multi-level crime scene of historical proportions. I heard a tentatively hopeful question behind the provocative conference title. Here is my position: it is still premature to ask it. You see, we have not yet even evolved a philosophy or grammar for the reconciling of our rattling skeletons, those dread phantoms and sometimes frolicking ghosts that roam the carnage of the devastated landscapes of tragically generated pasts that leach into the present with a lack of acknowledgment, with excessive noise, with ceaseless conceptualising and abstraction, and with which we collude to do nothing, and through this do-nothingness suffocating the life and keeping sealed the doors of hope for a robust, living, human future between us.

Back to aetiology.

Sie.

You.

The Occident.

Not just Germany.

As with many shape changers founded on ether, the Occidental notion always reshapes and reforms itself. Where are we now? The Five Eyes Alliance? The North, The West, Developed, First World, Nirvana? What is your presently trending metonym? Anyway, the idea of the Occident, was given a dogmatic imprimatur through the June 7, 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas and the associated Papal Bull that launched the alleged Age of Discovery. Didn’t anyone think to interrogate such a ridiculous demarcation of worlds? No?

Ok, let us leap across centuries.

Timeline: Berlin, (Nov. 15, 1884-Feb. 26, 1885):

A summit of the leadership of the world’s thieves, protagonists of the Age of Discovery, plus a few others, gathered ostensibly to resolve the Occidental Invader-created questions connected with the Congo River basin in Central Africa, but in actuality to apportion to themselves pieces of a grand old continent withal its cultures, kingdoms, nations, peoples. They will create borders between villages, assert territorial possession by means of a long, mostly asymmetrical war, flying the twin trojan-horse fig leaves of a civilising mission, and the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, neither of which they believe in. In this event, the real human motive: avarice, lust, obsession, wealth, power is kept concealed. Every gross intention is made to sound like philanthropy and humanitarianism, and is published as such over the objections a few good humans. Has this template ever changed? Soon after, murderous European hordes, mandated by their home nations, will fan out across an ancient continent looting, burning cities to the ground, committing mass murders, erasing humans; raping, spreading thirteen different diseases (ranging from dengue fever to syphilis; measles to the plague), rewriting histories so that, years later an apparently educated French president, Sarkozy, will stand in what had been a trans-oceanic, transmodern trading centre systematically distorted by his earlier compatriots, and confidently state that Africa had no history to speak of until… the European. [3]

Derelict shards:

There are a trillion ‘pieces’ of ‘Colonialisms’ scattered across our worlds, transcending borders and time and space. Your museums, collections, libraries filled with looted artwork, power objects, documents that bear testimony to the egregiousness of your ancestors acts, the intrinsic evil of the catastrophe of our sustained meeting. How come Mr Sarkozy education does not allow him to connect the Senegalese high-value looted art work, the elaborate cultural items, the human body parts in French stolen-good clearing houses (museums and collections) with the young people he addresses in the city where his earlier compatriots had enacted those crimes? Such an unreflective conscience, such a moral void even if it can deliver poetic twaddle with an intensity of super-confidence that is shocked when questioned. Do you ever wonder what psychological processes allows one culture to project an emptiness upon an older, grander, continent and all its people while transporting, and hoarding the bounty of that civilisations to its cities? I ask: what psychic force gives confidence to a European to affirm the sobriquet of cannibal to another’s when it is to Europe that the ripped-up body parts of our numerous dead, the murdered, are transported, are kept, are fetishized, are stored and are even debated over? You Germany, with your shrines and reflections on the devastation of the Shoah, that there is to this moment a dispute about what to do with stolen, appropriated, desecrated human remains, the horrific evidence of the Occident’s inability to come to terms with its own ghastly conscience, its will to murder, its compromise with intrinsic and moral evil. But for how long, my dears? That this depth and scope of unadulterated evil does not seize the national conscience says all that needs to be said, not only about our fundamental disconnect, but the fact that the site where the most difficult work is to be undertaken is in that space of re-humanisation. So, dear Germany, how often have you asked yourself what it means to be human? And having explored that thoroughly, what is your reply to the sibling question: what does the humanity of the other mean for me?

Let me now take this dirge an octave higher.  

For your culture and peoples, what you call ‘colonialism’ was your obscene worship of the Golden Calf, the actioning of your dedication to Mammon to which you gave over your essence and souls in exchange for others’ power, wealth and control, at the expense of a reverence for human existence, and a recognition of the rights of nature. You! You suffocated your own humanity, plunging the earth into grief, tragedy, anguish, sorrow. And you still refuse to reckon with that reality, with your disease distribution, your bewildering necrophilia, to which you are still so attached. You compound your murderousness with an amazing (in a bad sense) inability to agree to let the stolen dead home.

Who are you?

You tell us.

It means your own interrogation of your historo-cultural conscience; but would you dare to undertake this most challenging of tasks, this ‘examen’?

Let’s try this:

Open the crypts today, exhume the graves and put out the formaldehyde bottles where you have stored the bodies and body parts of our desecrated dead, and invite a pathologist to generate a report; that is also an historical document, isn’t it? You cohabit with colonialism quite unbothered, don’t you? The Occident: Why are my ancestors bodies and body parts still mouldering in your museums, those elegant shrines to that gesture to the thieving spirits of your ancestors? Why are you still struggling with respectfully returning the stolen deceased home?

Talk to us.

Is it that you secretly believe that by keeping them you are able to retain a powerful and magical hold over our lives? Are these your vibranium? But seriously, how will we ever bridge the fissure of the daily airbrushed Occidental conscience regarding Africa’s humanity? Will you dare to name the bones of our people you still have in your museums, collections and store-rooms? And while you are at that, shut down your awful zoos: these loathsome legacies of, and evidence of the extent to which your acquisitive savagery extended itself to nature. Must you possess what belongs to others even at the expense of a right to thrive in life? Sharing colonialism? Look well; somewhere in Europe there is an East African Savannah Giraffe named Gretel shivering in an enclosure, a cage, in a winter cold that is most alien to her species. Her role is to satiate ravenous gazes of those who need to feel that they possess her, have access to her essence. But friends, what sort of collective cultural insanity tolerates this sort of sickness, renders it ‘normal’, a signifier of ‘progress’, a mark of ‘civilisation’?

Colonialism, you wonder?

But my dears, it is only a plane ride away.

You have great choices: Australia, Canada, United States of America, Brazil, and New Zealand: cool destinations. Northern Ireland—yes, that too. There are quite a few islands to choose from: Chagos, St. Helena, Reunion, Mayotte, Lampedusa, the Malvinas. Are those places too far from home?

Easy: Your Museums, University store rooms, so many private collection; archived materials, even libraries. Permit me to remind you of a most excellent, oft overlooked site: The grand old banks with mandates that originated in the Colonial feeding frenzy. Their records. Photographs, their listings. And their networks. The Auction houses too. And how could we neglect all the chartered companies? All the imperialistic nations of Europe had plenty of these, including the play-innocent strangely amnesiac Scandinavians. Chartered Companies: mandated beneficiaries of a long, long season of murder, plunder and brigandage. Many of these chartered companies evolved into the myriad companies, with new names; companies you uphold even today as beacons of great light on a benighted world.

The purpose of the colonial project was singular:

Seize wealth and profit by all means necessary, even genocide. And your people did so with extraordinary success. Nothing says ‘shared’ as does African goods building European economies for 400 years. But now…in a cold, business sense, in the interest of sharing proceeds, as part of a new historical mandate, if you are serious, let us share research, collect records and set up an independent forensic accounting project for every one of these ex-chartered companies and their affiliates. There is a Mount Everest of debt to the African continent that that has not ever been repaid, let alone referred to; it includes royalties in commodities illegally benefitted from for over 400 years. These include coffee, diamonds, gold, and uranium. Human labour, taxes. This is just a start. I suggest that in consideration of infrastructure laid, and some compassion (to cushion the shock to the delusional system), perhaps the interest should be calculated over the outstanding debt rather than the full and original amounts and benefits generated from profits made out of African stolen resources. And please, let nobody confuse this settling of outstanding accounts with reparations. Reparations is a completely separate conversation. In this strict accounting process, the acts of violent plunder, the paid militia, the manufactured wars, the human trafficking and slave-making, the genocide mandates these brutish trading companies supported by the state, institutions, and the security apparatus are not factored in. (These can be dealt with in a separate tribunal.) The despicable modus operandi continues to this day in places like the DRC, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and Bolivia. The Occident: Is this really what fulfilling the imperatives of living your highest human ideal looks like? Is this what your culture defines as meaningful existence?

You do love to gently insert and tout ‘Development Aid’ as the panacea, the conscience salve, your holy grail—(the poverty and pity economy is a lucrative one, as the pandemic bonds suggest)—but I trust that you know that we know that you your debt to us is far, far more than those couple of coins you toss our way. We are aware that at least 65% of the resources, probably more, from our continent sustain your economies. Colonialism as continuity: does the persistence of this set up, the trade structures rigged entirely in your favour still make any sense to you? Why must a system with roots in that catastrophe that we call colonialism still persist and undergirds what we call ‘economy’ today? It is likely the failure lies fully with us, not you. Evil never yields the advantages it has secured for itself. If we are to trust in the shared intent to repair historical wrongs, are you suggesting that you are prepared to endure what assessing and unravelling the economic matrices would entail? Are you yourselves prepared for what you will lose? I am not necessarily concerned about Occidental angst, as much as I am about having our people sucked into another energy-drinking, seasonal thought laundering machine that will, at its best, yield an excess of hot air.

By the way, I should have asked this earlier: What do you want of us now? What is your agenda this time? Our experience of you is that your interests in Africa have never been without a motive that is only for your benefit. So tell us upfront what you want and what is in this for us. Whatever your answer keep in mind that between us lies a chasm filled with irresolution, of unexpressed sorrow, of systematic erasures; of denial, contempt, and gaslighting aided by willed amnesia, propaganda, rebranding, theorising and appropriation.

Anyway, as we autopsy colonialism what must we effect to gain deep insight into the cultural imperative that was even able to transform human beings into commodities, and hold nature ransom? What pathology infected the Occidental so that it could do this to the earth, wounding it so abysmally? We understand that Europe has had a terribly long history with the slaughter of its own people; the reason for the ghastly Westphalian principle of sovereignty exported worldwide stems from needing to end the thirty-year war, with its over 8 million dead. But what fed this ease with human slaughter so that this becomes an abiding feature of the Occidental hegemony? To explore this theme we would need to call in theologians and theologian-exorcists to work with researchers, for by asking it we understand that we enter into the realm of seeking to understand the mystery of existential evil.

It is true there are only a few states that might have been historically been exempted from experiencing some form of colonisation. The occupation and domination of another’s territory and their physical, imaginative, historical and cultural life seems to be a human habit. Regarding European colonisation though, in my experience, there is often times a certain shudder of secret pleasure at the memory of having once dominated others, a nostalgia and even longing for a time of imagined imperial glory. What many of the Occidentals I encounter find almost impossible to engage with, are the probable sites of shared (de)humanisation, their particular stories of victimisation by others. The Swedes I have met quickly gloss over the history of ancestors turned into serfs in their own country, who were forced into building St Petersburg in horrid geographical conditions, and were mostly worked to death doing so. Now then, as a site of mutual inquiry, of gathering insight of the affect, might the German consider the season it refers to, when it does, as the ‘Occupation by Allies’ as a possible space and place of a profound cultural and human woundedness and humiliation that would find resonances with the colonial experiences of others? I am an outsider—so I am probably bumbling into a volcanic sore point as a bull in a ceramics shop. I mention this, because in my brief sojourns here, I have been struck by the telling absences, the familiar silences, the recognition of the species of ghosts, and the complexity of unease in speaking about this time. Perhaps this has as much to do with why such an occupation took place in a country that was also spliced. Nevertheless, the gaps are interesting: the absences and silences in historical telling and literature. The meanings of occupation and amputation. Displacement within your own home. Of losing worlds. Of living under the insult of mediocrities that lord it over you, and as they do so they inform you how this is for your own benefit. To dare to speak, even of the meaning, affect, sense of this experience in a truthful way, is it not possible? Understand this, such a dangerous (in a good way) space of engagement would help subvert an expectation of an engagement that still strongly preferred, for all manner of reasons including power dynamics, to read Africa as the pitiable perpetual victim, helpless scapegoat upon which so much horror has been visited, to permit the perpetrator(s), now undergoing political repentance, to adorn themselves with the sackcloth of restorer, administrator and deliverer of just balance and goodwill to the once again passive African recipients.

Please don’t do that.

It is debilitating.

Listen, the power of the African space as a listener to the histories of the Occidental, especially its acknowledged miseries, is viable if our mutual goal is towards the re-humanisation of peoples. There are immense possibilities in juxtaposing similar experiences to arrive at a common human jargon of lived and embodied histories. Uncomfortable? Good. You see, if we are to break into the heart where our exchange becomes meaningful, transformative and future-making, then we have to stand metaphorically and historically naked before each other. We traverse a tenebrous nightscape. To survive it, knowledge, order, fearlessness and truth are weapons to seek and wield. Let’s drop the airs, the layers, the sophistry and associated bullshit from the get-go. A visceral, courageous, even messy human engagement is what a new kind of history of us requires.

Oh!

I remembered something else.

My dear Germany, just what the hell was that reparation offer you recently made to Namibia after so many years of negotiations?[4] On top of that you even toss your ‘safe word’ development aid into the mix. Have you gone totally mad? Such obliviousness and mediocre engagement from you, Germany? The Nama and Herero endure a horrible invasion, put up a spirited fight to secure their existence; suffer a gruesome genocide for their efforts, lose their country, their world-view, their self-knowing, and imagined futures because of your choices. A good number of your descendants, your German Diaspora in Africa, live as Namibians in Namibia to this day, and that offer is what you come up with?

We have come to expect this gaslighting thinking outcome from the responsibility-denying, self-mythologising Anglo-Americans, or the perpetual-performance-of-innocence Swiss and Scandinavians, but not you, not a nation and people that has managed to keep a stern, clear gaze on its shadows and chasms. There is probably more behind the scenes than what we hear about, but what was made public suggests intense historical dissonance, a lack of depth reflection and genuine regret at the atrocities committed by known ancestors, and shockingly lazy thinking. What a missed opportunity.

But I also get it: There is an underlying terror that probably informs this insulting gesture. The full opening of that pandora’s box of reckoning would reveal the kind of skeletons that dismantle the slick veneers of imagined civilisation. To admit to and an intrinsic impulse to genocide, to necrophilia, to inhumanity would damage your carefully cultivated civilised Euro identities. Too late! The African space-scapes are a scrying mirror for Occidental culture: look in it. Do not get so entranced by your reflections there. That is not the point. A scrying mirror reveals the depths of soul. Pay attention instead. Try. For the sake of the next generation.

More on this topic.

I looked around for what other imperially offending nations had offered as gestures towards seeking to reconcile a heinous past: You are aware of ‘The Murayama Statement released by former Prime Minister of Japan Tomiichi Murayama on August 15, 1995: “On the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the War’s End”. Murayama apologised for, and named Japanese war and colonial crimes and atrocities, admitting to Japanese responsibility for the deaths of millions. Can this conference imagine such an engaged cultural reckoning with conscience?

By the way, no human desires another to wallow in guilt.

That is selfish.

Guilt will not magically change the past.

What is sought and desired by the afflicted is to be seen, heard, acknowledged, to be soothed, to be given a chance to face the offender. To hear the offender accuse himself of the fault is meaningful. Such courage might unleash a treasury of options that open doors to the imagination of a more forgiving future. Reckoning must be written on the body, then we can really begin to experience history as shared. But one does not hold ones breath. The Occident on its own volition seems incapable of the basics of such a gesture. Hubris. They are however likely to when the ascendant star-ship China locks into place and wishes to finally have a discussion with the descendants of the architects and perpetrators of their ‘Hundred Years of Humiliation’. Don’t hold it against us if at that time we ask China to squeeze from you our apology statement while they are in the process of collecting theirs.

Speaking of China, I note with mild amusement your chattering fluster about Africa’s tryst with the East. First, Chinese historiography is intricately connected with Africa’s older and recent pasts; this is a reactivation. Second, the attraction of China? A change of script is as good as a rest. And the BRI is compelling in its vision. Third, Our continent should also have bound its fate and future to the intentions and ambitions of Bandung I and II, and not pivoted westwards into a modern-era trap.

A brief digression: Just to make things clear; the type of speech I would make for an Africa initiated process would be different. There I would speak of turning within, of observing, re-strategising with a goal to winning this overlong war of worlds; to take a soul audit: and to admit to our own losses, to study the systemic failures of our historical cultural and structures against your onslaught, to note the terrible imaginal and epistemic disruptions, and at last give in to the grief over our millions and millions of stolen and dead, all those humans our ancestors were unable to protect, the nature that was ripped apart. And afterwards to focus on rediscovering a delirious love for ourselves and to make our nations the bounty that they are for our own. And to prioritise Asia, South America, the Middle East, Caribbean and Oceania. End of digression.

Another thing:

There are unseen rarely admitted to layers we will need to engage with in order to call in another kind of future history: How would scholars of the world today engage an Occidental culture that is seemingly committed to nihilistic moral disintegration, of what friend and scholar Dr. Wandia Njoya calls suicide-bombers tantrum-throwing that threatens humanity with annihilation if humanity cannot give it what it wants? Have any of your thinkers ever reflected on how and why the Occident entered that way of being in and with the world?

I have an untested hypothesis.

It is situated within and around the history of the European plague (pestilence) (from mid-1300 up to 1500) which came on the back of the Great Famine (1315-17). An existential terror that penetrates the bones of the cultural spirit, a continent almost annihilated, losing to 60-80% of its entire population. A ceaseless season of extensive trauma and the deepest suffering would thoroughly distort any human psyche, more so because this is an act of invasion and conquest of vast territories by rats and fleas that neither prayer nor monarch nor army could contain. Did Europe suffer a soul wound that unchecked, became a spiritual black hole? I have been struck by how much the plague references show up in your lexicon regarding Africa, although we had little to do with it: you were not as important as Asia and what you come to call the Middle East in our economic and trade networks. But I have been more and more fascinated by how much of your plague shadows are cast upon the black body, upon your imagination of blackness almost as if by doing so revenant keeps away from Europe. ‘The Black Death’, some of your people call it. In this might lie the clue as to the rather bizarre, archetypal, fetishist unreasoning responses received to questions of African agency, beingness or histories.

A Cesairean exhortation is to see and think history clearly, and another important word here, do so dangerously. We certainly need a way to put to rest what broils in our soils and souls, of the intimate losses that happen when one set of humans chose to break a covenant of dignity and decency with other humans, a psychic disruption that not only destroyed the codes of hospitality, but served to calcify the human heart. Whatever gifts and benefits our encountering produced will not be truthfully and wholly articulated before the seeping wound between us is addressed and dressed. The history we seek lies elsewhere; within the ruins and ghosts and sadness of what-could-have-been, inside the lives of descendant-survivors of Occidental depravity. Your ancestors seem to have deployed some preternatural forces that they let run amok: These need to be understood and confronted in order to be returned to the metaphorical bottle. They need to be named. Naming is also exorcism; and this we need between us.

Where else can we look for salvage? Inside older histories. You have somehow conveniently ‘misplaced’ the stories of your much older culture of encountering varieties of Africa; whether through the multi-century German veneration of the unmistakeably African Commander of a Roman Legion, the Christian (before Europe’s own embrace of Christianity) sainted St Maurice, who died in Aganum Switzerland, patron saint of the German Holy Roman Emperors, for whose lance, spurs and sword Henry the Fowler (919-936) ceded the Swiss canton of Aargau to an Abbey, whose items were part of the regalia used at coronations of Austro-Hungarian emperors until 1916 (yes, the twentieth century). There were three early popes from the Roman Africa Province, and Generals like Hannibal Barca, and Scipio Africanus. An ‘Age of (un) Enlightenment’ revisionism constructs and forces on the Occident an unbroken melanin-free European genealogy: Isn’t that daft, don’t you think? The pluralities and diversities of people in a society seemed to have been the norm there as it was elsewhere. Recognising this can lead us to the right and proper question: When and where did the break occur? Why? Who gained? And whose bright idea was it to prioritise pigment and then entrench the psychosis of racism? And why is there still a posse of zealots always disputing the evidence of historically multicultural, multiracial Europe?

Is the repair of the consequentially tragic (recent) past lost to us?

Of course not.

We are human imbued with an infinite imagination.

We can race into realms where ten thousand worldviews that survived the Occidental onslaught still exist to read the lingering memories there. Out of these might a new grammar of history emerge. Is there a kinder more human future for and of and between us? Probably, and most likely under and through the China-originated BRI, since you are a part of it too. We are likely to re-encounter one another again as Mandarin speakers.

But more seriously. Some thinkers-on-trial work is required. Is your culture willing to poke at your Charles Darwins, , John Lockes, Carl Linneaus, Imannuel Kants? Not forgetting that completer of philosophy too, the beloved Georg Hegel who boldly stated that ‘man as we find him in Africa has not progressed beyond his immediate existence.’ And we the non-existent, in a Hegelian sense, have had to live out the strong belief of the Occident in this capsule of condensed stupidity. Will you be stoical as our scholars saw the feet of your gurus and bring them down to their right and proper size? You seek to write a way into another future? Of this we are in agreement; but apart from panoptic-minded thinkers from across the disciplines, we shall need new words, fresh imaginings and imaging. We might also need to recover the old words which your ancestors and you blocked, mocked, derided. To this purpose, will you also allow representatives of the people your ancestors murdered, traumatised, and wounded to meet you in an amphitheatre where memory and history throb, where the rites of repair and reconciliation can be effected? Will you allow yourselves to be silent and listen, or drink bitter herbs and eat the things, the sacraments that lead to wholeness? Will you learn also for your own sake, and the sake of your descendants? You know what, we need gestures. We need an official armistice ceremony, probably in Berlin to close the conference that launched the war against our worlds. We also need to co-create a liturgy of shared grief, a way to reconcile our ancestors, these wandering ghosts. We need to find another phrase to replace the benign ‘colonialism’. I propose, The Horror? Mostly out of mischief. To return to Europe that damn Conradian gaze. We would be needed to ‘do’ history differently: a muscular approach that is transformative and restorative of lost humanity.

Playing with a few scenarios:

One:

I imagine a process created by and for a legion of excellent thinking-persons representing the disciplines, from all parts of the world, who swear allegiance and belonging to no nation, apart from the realms of History, Truth, Justice, Confession, Atonement and Reconciliation, who would oath themselves to the highest human values including integrity, courage, justice, truth, fearlessness, impartiality. They would re-open the records of the old imperial companies, and other private and commercial institutions with long colonial roots. They would audit the museums and collections. List the plundered assets of cultures and prepare a fee note. We are not talking about reparations yet. We mean the first order: the financial settling of outstanding historical accounts. Families and colonial company beneficiaries are known. The money trail is meticulous and the evidence lies in bank vaults, An audit and recovery of assets historical process becomes a necessity if historical truthfulness is to be reached, isn’t it? No one is demanding the trial of beneficiaries, although an apology and acknowledgment would be desirable as part of a reparative activity. They team would visit descendants, or host descendants: they would listen, archive, honour, witness, learn, record, collect, exhume, uncover, audit, analyse, reconstruct histories from communities. They would be film makers, story tellers, dancers, data specialists, biochemists, anthropologists, photographers, coders…those needed to think, create, hear, imagine. They would develop new questions. They would deliver accountability reports to the nations. 

Scenario two:

Are the under-40s represented here? Listen. Flee! Run! Tear away from the elders of another generation, figuratively and metaphorically. Physically too. On your way out, raid the libraries, and pick out the literature that they ignore. Distil these, and evolve a new grammar of action and thought system as you ruminate on the poetry and prophecies. Go beneath the surfaces and evolve a method to guide your original quest to restore humanity to wholeness. Exhume the graves the elders hide from you. Bring up the cold bones in vaults to the sun to be named and to be accounted for. Raid the museum storehouses. Re-write the texts on walls where the bounty from atrocities are on display. That which should not be displayed in the first place, send home. Take the canon and set it on aflame and see what endures. Dismantle the typologies, the boundaries and hedges that sustain a collective stupidity that is obsessed with dissipating truths. Write apology notes for assorted ancestors. Begin, at last, the real age of human discovery of the human and of the custodianship of the earth using the instruments of your time; technology, platforms, codes that confuse us. Judge us ruthlessly. Spare nobody. Doubt everything. Doubt me. Escape before you are seduced into inheriting the stench and weight of a billion ancient ghosts.

Third option: aka, the story-maker’s fantasy:

This scenario is inspired by the aptly named-for-this-moment novel, End of the Affair: Graham Greene has Maurice Bendrix, his protagonist, wrestle with a God that overwhelms everything he understands, a God that also seizes from him that which he loves the most, and he gets to understand that this God is after him: he writes his relinquishment of the fight as a final prayer:

“I wrote at the start that this was a record of hate, and walking there beside Henry towards the evening glass of beer, I found the one prayer that seemed to serve the winter mood; “O God, You’ve done enough. You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever.”

Standing here in the swirl of a long, long epoch of a toxic relationship with the Occident (its associates, its satellites, its proxies), I offer this prayer: not that you are God, although you have heretically appropriated that role for yourselves.

To the Occident:

You’ve done enough. You have plundered enough from us. You expect us to account for your inhumanity ad infinitum, to diagnose your pathologies and also deliver your absolution. We are weary and wary of you. The truth, unless you define it is alien to your mind, goodness unless you decree it is alien to your conscience, as for beauty—see what your money-grubbing, mammon-worshipping choices have made of our earth. And like the planet, we are weary and wary of you. We are tired of bleeding every time we meet you. You are exhausting. Often, whenever you open your mouths in reference to us, bile and venom pour out, maledictions saturated with saccharine, as if you are the odious scions of the Three Witches of Macbeth. You are soul-draining. You feed off violence. You tranquilise your corruption by turning them to laws that you then raise as sacrosanct. Your existential insecurity drives you to endlessly compare yourselves with others just to affirm that you are still at the summit of some fantastical pinnacle. Who cares? We are tired of your appetite for blood, your moral void, your soul loss, all those phantoms entrapped in your cold-glittering necropols. Gaslighting, absurdity and amnesia: your preferred methods of interpretating us. We are exhausted by your theatre of innocence, your primordial resentments. Our spirits need distance to process the effect of the four centuries of your hungry-angry frenzy. We have our own long outstanding appointment with grief; the ghosts in and of our history will not let us rest. It is time for us to attend to them. We have a date with our history: we must learn how earth’s wealthiest continent, cradle and crucible of human knowledge trade allowed itself to be bamboozled, bullied, weakened, possessed, and disordered by a vicious, delusional, bubonic-plague tormented race that arrived at cosmopolitanism so, so late in history, whose primal parochialism keeps it superstitious about pluralism and diversity. Your insanity, its tenacity do not matter to us anymore. With this in mind, apart from the basics of meet and greet, and the cool pragmatics of settling your 400-year old outstanding business debt to us…Please… Leave us alone. Just leave us alone. (Lasse uns… in Ruhe)

‘Derelict Shards: The Roamings of Colonial Phantoms’ by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. Copyright © 2020, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, used by permission of The Wylie Agency (UK) Limited. No changes shall be made to the Work without the written consent of Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor or her representative. No further use of this material in extended distribution, other media, or future editions shall be made without the express written consent of The Wylie Agency. All rights not expressly granted herein are hereby reserved and retained by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor.

[1] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-11/pandemic-bond-investors-brace-for-wipeout-as-coronavirus-spreads

https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/425m-in-world-bank-catastrophe-bonds-set-to-default-if-coronavirus-declared-a-pandemic-by-june

https://www.ft.com/content/70dd05ac-54d8-11ea-8841-482eed0038b1

https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/feb/28/world-banks-500m-coronavirus-push-too-late-for-poor-countries-experts-say

[2] autopsy (n.) 1650s, “an eye-witnessing, a seeing for oneself,” from Modern Latin autopsia, from Greek autopsia “a seeing with one’s own eyes,” from autos-“self” (see auto-) + opsis “a sight” (from PIE root *okw-“to see”). That is my attempt to extend the many meanings of autopsy, it was shipped into necropsy, which is still Ok. The idea of colonialism as an always morphing phantom that needs to be exorcised/autopsied, faced fearlessly. I like the dimensions of that word.

[3] The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history … They have never really launched themselves into the future. The African peasant only knew the eternal renewal of time, marked by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words. In this realm of fancy … there is neither room for human endeavour nor the idea of progress.” July 27, 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy. Speech at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/12/namibia-rejects-german-compensation-offer-over-colonial-violence

https://www.dw.com/en/namibia-germany-reparations/a-54535589

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Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor is a Kenyan writer and the author of the much-acclaimed novel Dust.

Long Reads

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.

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Taking Stock of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights Forty Years On
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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?

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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.

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BBI, Jubilee Orphans and Raila Diehards
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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.

Postscript

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.

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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.

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Return to the Land of Jilali: Reflections From Kenya’s Northern Frontier
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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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