The 2021 presidential and parliamentary elections in Uganda were the subject of intense public debate and widely covered in the local and international media. The discussions and reports were dominated by a number of major themes: the imprisonment of opposition presidential candidates and members of their support teams; disappearances and killings; the use of tear gas and live bullets by state agencies to “contain” the politically engaged public; state attacks on journalists and NGOs, and control of social media spaces; the role of state agencies such as the police, the army and the electoral commission in helping the incumbent, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni—Uganda’s President of over 30 years—secure another contested victory at the ballot box; the electoral influence of ‘”foreigners” who cooperate with opposition politicians and NGOs to “destabilise” the country, support domestic terrorism, advance the homosexuality agenda, etc.; and, of course, the prospects of election rigging and subsequent protest, violence and uprising.
Days before the elections on January 14th, key partners of the Ugandan government such as the United Nations, the United States and the European Union (as well as various domestic and global organisations) expressed concerns regarding the heavy-handedness of the state and the human rights violations committed in the run-up to the election and appealed to the Ugandan authorities to respect human rights, ensure electoral fairness, and investigate the alleged cases of state brutality. The elections indeed exacerbated pre-existing trends in the country towards state authoritarianism, the militarisation of society and repression of political dissent. This of course raises a core question: what is the causal and political implication of these influential global actors, including the international financial institutions and many other development agencies, in this state of affairs, including the violence of the Ugandan state? And what can we conclude from the election dynamics about the state of the liberal project—including promoting democracy—in Uganda?
First, an observation about the prevailing debate. To date a significant part of the commentaries regarding the election and its characteristics focuses on Museveni and regards his ambitions for life presidency as a major if not the key reason for the election crisis and the mayhem to which the media has devoted numerous pages and hours of reporting, roundtable discussions and expert interviews. No matter how analytically useful this focus might be, disproportionate attention is, in our view, paid to the role of Museveni and his agency as the explanans of the key characteristics of the developments in the country since 1986 when Museveni took power after years of armed struggle against the government of the day.
It is against this background that we argue here (as we did in the introduction and conclusion to a collection about neoliberal Uganda we recently edited) that Museveni is not an explanans but rather an explanandum, and this calls for an analysis of national and transnational class alliances and global, national and local neoliberal forces. The last thirty years of Ugandan politics cannot be explained as something that emerges primarily and ultimately from Museveni as a politician and as a “case”. Internalist characterisations of the drivers of social, political and economic transformation have contributed to a concealing of the inter-linkages of the international matrix of power structures and capital accumulation. Instead, part of Museveni’s hegemony has been reinforced by “foreign” influences and interests that have fuelled the neoliberal project co-existing with endogenous social and power structures.
Here, we place the Ugandan elections in the context of a wider process of post-1986 social transformation: the locking in of neoliberal capitalism in the country and the social engineering of Uganda as a market society. This process implicates not just Museveni and his inner circle but a far wider and more illustrious range of actors with their respective agendas, including, actors like the UN, the EU and the US, long-term core partners of the Museveni government and the liberal project in the country.
This dimension of the election phenomenon is often underestimated in comments by academics and commentators. Such analyses also typically spare the donor community when they explore the drivers of the state violence and suppression of the past months. In other words, such accounts tend to not adequately analyse the implication of these foreign actors in the making of a violent election, state and presidency, and in the current state of Ugandan politics generally. Rather, a common position in this genre of writings is that donors are a constraining factor when it comes to state violence, that they help to ensure that the Museveni state does not go “too hard” on its opponents (and on the population more generally). Kristof Titeca and Anna Reuss, for example, write in a piece titled “How Museveni mastered violence to win elections in Uganda”:
“An essential part of the NRM’s . . . strategies is that they are relentless but rarely too extreme. Museveni has learnt this after seeing the response to more overtly repressive measures. The regime’s relative restraint also avoids overly riling international donors. Given Uganda’s reputation as a beacon of stability and its contributions to regional peacekeeping missions, Western diplomats are typically reluctant to express more than mild criticism of Museveni’s government. They only do so in cases which are big enough to warrant attention from western audiences, such as the anti-gay bill. The arrests of Besigye and Bobi Wine in 2018 similarly surpassed that threshold. As a result of these experiences, the Museveni regime has become a master in using an arsenal of measures which are limited in time and intensity but whose message is clear enough. It exerts continued pressure in a way that makes opposition leaders’ lives difficult but without escalating into major events.”
We do not have space to unpack this position but would question what is said here regarding agency and causality in matters of state violence and repression. Also problematic are the exhortations from commentators such as Rita Abrahamsen and Gerald Bareebe for donors to now reconsider their relation with the NRM government and to let their concerns for human rights violations and for democracy be followed by more decisive actions. A problem with this kind of analysis is that it tends to regard violence as epiphenomenal rather than inscribed in the structural operation of the world capitalist system, and ignores the ways in which violence plays out in the everyday politics in different, often hidden, forms and at different levels (from local to transnational).
Symptomatically, such analyses do not sufficiently take into account that a core phenomenon at play here is imperialism, that these western states that are asked by analysts to learn from their past ‘mistakes’, reconsider their politics, and stand up for human rights, ordinary people, democracy, justice, fairness and peace are imperialist (and highly militaristic) states often in competition for resources, markets and spheres of influence. So, any such political demand made to the US or the EU for example is a demand made to empires, to the leading military and political-economic powers in the world.
All this requires an analytical acknowledgement of the politics (including violence) of empire, imperialism, imperialist states, and global capitalism, and of the deeper structures of economic and political interests (beyond the often referred to ‘security’ or ‘stability’) in the day-to-day operations of ‘the system’. The call to action made to western powers in this newly declared “test case” is thus politically disingenuous (and analytically questionable), especially in the light of the fact that international financial and development agencies, western governments and bilateral donors have been active players in forging transnational class alliances and shaping the contours of the emerging state-donors-capital political complex in Uganda in the last three decades.
Our position in this ongoing debate about donors in Uganda and Africa more generally is instead more in line with analysts such as Kalundi Serumaga, Yusuf Serunkuma, Mary Serumaga, Helen Epstein, A.K. Kaiza, Bernard Tabaire, Allan Tacca, Chris Dolan or Adam Branch who have analysed “donors” as enablers of state violence and/or the other “social ills” that often get mentioned in national and international commentaries on Museveni’s Uganda. Their respective pieces on the Ugandan government and state take into account the “larger picture” of (post-)colonialism, imperialism and the global political economy. Kalundi Serumaga’s latest big-picture pieces for example are titled as follows: “Murder as Order”, “Democracy for Some Mere Management for Others” and “Uganda’s Democracy-free Election”; the latter echoing Thandika Mkandawire’s term “choiceless democracies”, coined more than 20 years ago.
We move on then in our own analysis that derives from our research in Uganda, and our work as editors of a recent collective analysis titled Uganda: The Dynamics of Neoliberal Transformation. To start with, contemporary Uganda is analytically one of the most telling cases of the complex entanglements between neoliberal capitalism, the democratisation agenda and imperialism in Africa. The country is one of the planet’s most globally propped up, most invested in and symbolically one of the most important cases of global liberalism and liberal interventionism and the respective social engineering. Globally praised as an African success story and heavily backed by international financial institutions, development agencies and bilateral donors, the country has become the exemplar of economic and political reform for those who espouse a neoliberal model of development.
The neoliberal policies and the resulting restructuring of the country have been accompanied by narratives of progress, prosperity, and modernisation and have been justified in the name of development. Uganda is a major exemplar of the dominant if dubious trope of “Africa Rising”, of liberation-movements-in-government, of liberal democracy in Africa, of Bill Clinton’s “new generation of African leaders” (also called the “new breed”), of aid and development, and of neoliberal capitalism in Africa, i.e. the comprehensive (yet contested) neoliberal transformation of the economic, political, social, ecological and cultural structures in a post-colonial, aid-dependent, under-developed, agrarian country in a geopolitically important region of the world.
Thus, when Kampala goes up in flames—as it did a few weeks in November 2019 when protests broke out on the streets after the imprisonment of by far the most popular opposition presidential candidate, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, aka Bobi Wine (his stage name)—a model, an exemplar, burns. In this incident, dozens of people lost their lives when state agencies quelled what the president later called plans by the opposition to organise a Libya-style “insurrection’”. “Pacification” (in this case of Kampala) is back (or rather remains) on the agenda, with Maj. Gen. Paul Okech—who has gained extensive experience in managing urban conflict in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu (thus nicknamed “the Lion of Mogadishu”)—newly appointed to the position of Deputy Inspector General of Police.
The country is one of the planet’s most globally propped up, most invested in and symbolically one of the most important cases of global liberalism and liberal interventionism
Uganda’s 2021 elections were hence another showdown in a country that is often displayed by the establishment, both global and local, as a showcase for the project of neoliberal social reordering. In this electoral campaign, state violence and repression of dissent, then, did not signal the failure but rather the very operations and realities on the ground of the model of authoritarian neoliberalism: using state power and coercion to establish functioning markets and advance the core political-economic interests and preferred social order of the ruling actors. The encounter of state coercion and authoritarian forms of rule with the ideas of free markets (and private enterprise) is not accidental in liberal economic theory. As one of the pioneers of (neo)liberalism, Friedrich von Hayek, once argued: “Personally I prefer a liberal dictator to democratic government lacking liberalism.” In this sense, human, civic and other political rights in today’s Uganda (as elsewhere in the world) are being sacrificed on the altar of neoliberalisation.
Neoliberalisation refers to the process of systematic and substantial transformation of the Ugandan state, economy, and culture into a “market society”, i.e. a society characterised by marketisation of social relations, a general empowerment and hegemony of capital (especially of large private corporations), and the corresponding restructuring of people’s subjectivities, relationships and everyday practices so as to make all realms of society operate market-like. Neoliberalism—as a project, discourse and ideology—is at its core about creating such a fully-fledged market society, which operates above all in the interest of capital by conflating it with the public interest.
To follow the dynamics in pre-election Uganda then means to observe and come to terms with the character and impact of this restructuring and with the actual operations of this market society, and relatedly, the operations of global capitalism/political economy, the dynamics of Western and Eastern imperialism, the interactions of local and national power structures and the dynamics with international political-economic structures and patterns, and the inherently conflictual and contradictory processes of capitalist societal transformation including class formation, consolidation and struggle.
It means to come to terms with the evolving capitalist social order in all its complexity, tension, and socially regressive, unsustainable and harmful character. And it means to witness the intense discourses, commentaries, spins and silences of the ruling classes and key members of the “international community” that include some of the most powerful international organisations and agencies in the development industry (World Bank, IMF, USAID, and so on).
The election is thus an exemplar (or “thriller”, “showdown”) par excellence of international politics, global political economy, and international development, all at the same time. Crucially, the election campaign narratives of government success and failure, of Museveni as a dictator vs. visionary, of a country that has progressed from 1986 and is on the road to prosperity for all vs a country that is in deep crisis and back to “square one” politically is not new at all and nor is the state violence. Instead, these bifurcated discourses and the state violence are long-standing key features of the making and operation of neoliberal Uganda.
The events of the run up to the 2021 elections have questioned and destabilised the decades-long ideational and discursive hegemony of powerful international and national reform designers, implementers and supporters about Uganda as a success story. This hegemony—or cognitive intervention and restriction of the powerful—has produced and defended a severe ideological and analytical containment and impoverishment concerning key societal themes. We thus critique and challenge what Ngugi Wa Thiong’o calls, with reference to European colonialism in Africa, the mental domination we witness surrounding Uganda-as-a-case; a domination that is so characteristic of the neoliberal social order across the contemporary “free world”: “Economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control.”
The encounter of state coercion and authoritarian forms of rule with the ideas of free markets (and private enterprise) is not accidental in liberal economic theory
As thinkers from Luxemburg to Orwell noted, contesting the “truth” of the ruling classes, pronouncing what is going on and offering alternatives to establishment accounts of “reality” (and thereby “history”), is a crucial political act. In 2020 pre-election and COVID Uganda, donors/UN/aid agencies stood as close to government as one can imagine, running plenty of joint report-launching, forward-planning and partnership-announcing events. Contesting the existing dominant set of data, interpretations, languages, policy demands and actor alliances—especially when the establishment chatter, celebration and cheers is at its loudest—is thus most paramount. So, let us delve deeper…
As we explain in the introduction to our edited collection, the dynamics of transformation in neoliberal Uganda are interpreted through two diverging, hard–to-reconcile narratives which persist in global and national debates alike. The first narrative frames Uganda as a success story and a development/reform model for international development agencies such as the World Bank (which has a parallel in a major part of the country’s academic scholarship that for decades was characterised by a celebratory tone about the country’s overall development path). This is the narrative of a Uganda emerging from years-long civil war in the late 1980s, and within a few years becoming an international success story.
This “New Uganda” narrative praises the post-1986 policy reforms which have stimulated economic growth, with sustained GDP growth and foreign direct investment attraction matched by steady progress in poverty reduction and gender empowerment. Central to this narrative is the leadership of a president who is a progressive moderniser, acting with the interest of the nation at heart. In short, Uganda has never been better. Such accounts parade “impressive”, “successful”, and “admirable” achievements in social, political and economic spheres. Very powerful actors promote this narrative year in, year out: from the World Bank, the IMF and the country’s various international and bilateral donors, to influential international and domestic scholars and analysts, and the Ugandan government and establishment.
The same actors have produced a plethora of official statistics and econometric studies that supposedly provide evidence of this stated steady progress. A prime example of this celebratory narrative about the new Uganda as an astonishing exemplar of reform success is the Kampala speech of the IMF Managing Director, Christine Lagarde, in January 2017, “Becoming the Champion: Uganda’s Development Challenge”, which states:
“This gathering provides an opportunity to congratulate Uganda for its impressive economic achievements and to speak about the possibilities of the future. I do not normally begin my speeches with statistics, but today will be an exception. That is because the numbers tell us a great deal: Uganda has experienced a threefold increase in per capita GDP over the past generation. And you have reduced extreme poverty to one-third of the population. This made Uganda one of the countries that has more than achieved the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty by 2015. This is an African success story.” (Lagarde 2017, emphasis in original.)
Couched in orthodox neoliberal language, the “New Uganda” narrative pushed by the IMF is consistent with its “Africa rising” narrative of economic optimism, which mirrors the enthusiastic rhetoric of the African Renaissance narrative led by former South African president Thabo Mbeki in the early 2000s. Accelerated economic development spurred a renewed optimism among economists who predicted a luminous 21st century for African economies. The argument is that China’s and India’s demands for African raw materials, following the extraction-centric export-oriented route that raised GDP levels in the 2000s represents the best option for Africa to grow wealthy.
Lagarde made her visit just months after the highly controversial 2016 political elections that were—just like the 2020/21 version—accompanied by repression against sections of the opposition and critics of the government (as well as accusations of substantial and outright vote rigging). The outcome of the 2016 elections further deepened the government’s legitimacy crisis (which has intensified ever since). Nevertheless, donors remained strong advocates of the project of ultra-capitalist Uganda and its principle implementing agency, the government. The 2018 Labour Day speech of the UN Resident Coordinator in Uganda, Rosa Malango, is another exemplar here. As the speech, titled “Revitalize local government system to build public spirit for service”, outlines: “Uganda is widely recognized for producing a wide range of excellent policies on social, economic and development issues”
And indeed, while there is data and analyses available that support some of the mainstream narratives of a successful (and socially beneficial) post-1986 transformation, there is also plenty of evidence of a prolonged and multifaceted situation of crisis generated by a particular version of severe capitalist restructuring, or neoliberal reforms, of a crisis that severely questions the success narrative. This leads us to discuss the second narrative, “Uganda in crisis”, which has been articulated by “people on the street”, sections of the political opposition, and some segments of the media and non-governmental organisations. This narrative captures the extent of multi-faceted political, social, cultural and economic crises due to the prevalence of a patrimonial mode of rule supported by the president’s ruling group. This formation uses state power to advance private economic interests and functions through a far-reaching business and political network, which includes the President’s extended family, political allies and foreign investors.
To denounce the self-seeking attitude prevalent in the ruling party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), Ugandan street politics have mockingly renamed it the “National Robbery Movement”. The state has come to be associated with increasing political repression, a decline in public services and generalised economic insecurity. Public debates refer to “mafias”, a “mafia state”, a “vampire state”, a country occupied, controlled and exploited by a tiny “clique” of powerful domestic actors and their foreign allies. Uganda has experienced recurring food shortages and chronic indebtedness, and an explosive social crisis characterised by increased inequality, widespread violence and increased criminality.
The idiosyncrasies between these two competing discourses—which are a reflection of different social constituencies, political complexes and economic interests—were already manifest before the beginning of the 2021 election campaign with a mix of economic depression, systemic corruption, widening inequalities and poverty going hand-in-hand with growing state repression of dissenting voices in the midst of mushrooming, diverse and localised social struggles.
Two events signify these emerging sets of contradictions. First, the detention and torture in August 2018 of the popular “ghetto” musician-turned-politician Bobi Wine, the NUP (National Unity Platform) presidential candidate and main opponent to the US-backed military rule of Museveni, embodying in the eye of a significant section of the public opinion the aspirations and imaginaries of the masses of youthful voters aiming to dethrone the dictator and, second, the imprisonment of Museveni’s vocal critic, feminist scholar and activist Stella Nyanzi, in the same year. Symbolically speaking, they represent respectively two cases of repression of political alternatives and intellectuals, pointing to the increasingly authoritarian character of Museveni’s regime which, finding itself under a serious crisis of legitimacy, responds with the major weapon it masters, the inherited violence of the colonial state.
Challenged by the explosion of a series of popular mobilisations and protests, and inundated by public controversies (such as those around the constitutional revision of the presidential mandate, the alleged involvement of the president and his foreign minister Sam Kutesa in a case of international corruption with Chinese businessman Chi Ping Patrick Ho, who reportedly gave them a US$1million bribe in an attempt to gain oil concessions on behalf of the giant Chinese company, CEFC Energy Company Limited) the Ugandan state has responded with a growing militarisation of its politics by framing existing political formations as a threat to national security and the country’s road to progress.
This “securitisation” of the debate about the political future of the country has allowed the state to shift the terrain of struggle from questions of social justice, emancipation, and the construction of political alternatives towards issues of patriotism, national security and sovereignty, and political stability.
Notably, the increasing cases of kidnappings, disappearances of civilians and extra-judicial killings, and the systematic repression of the mobilisation and organisation campaigns of other political forces, have mostly been condoned by Western governments, bilateral donors and international financial institutions, pointing to the selective use of the doctrine of democracy and human rights and its use as an imperial weapon against non-compliant countries in the Global South.
The use of political violence in 2020/21 is thus not epiphenomenal, nor is it solely linked to the political turbulence caused by the election campaign. It is rather that, without it, the very existence of the regime would be jeopardised. Its constant deployment, in a mix of coercion and consent, is meant to secure the maintenance and reproduction of the social block in power. It is the same violence the regime unleashed against recalcitrant rural populations resisting state-orchestrated land enclosures and other contentious state-led donor-funded development projects such as, for example, the agro-industrial sugar complex in Amuru district in the Acholi region. The project has for years been supported by the government but has been met with prolonged opposition from local dwellers who perceive it as a threat to their land-based livelihoods.
The state has come to be associated with increasing political repression, a decline in public services and generalised economic insecurity
Against this wider background, and in order to facilitate debate about the causes of the election violence and other key election characteristics, we offer some analytical points in the remainder of this text which help us to map and interpret the key symptoms of Uganda’s neoliberal authoritarianism. These short 10 points emerged from our collective analysis of the character of neoliberal Uganda and are the condensation of the data and findings of the 19 substantial chapters written by over 20 scholars from across disciplines. They outline key features of the neoliberalisation of Uganda over the last three decades. The analysis helps to understand and conceptualise the state violence and bias in the run-up to the election not as outlier, not as failure of government to do x, y, z, but as the-model-in-operation of how power is reproduced and political-economic agendas and interests defended and advanced by the ruling classes (and their foreign backers) in neoliberal-capitalist societies.
At its most fundamental, day-to-day politics—election mode or not—is about power, i.e. the use (not abuse!) of power. Politics in semi-liberal capitalist settings is no exception to that rule. The question then is what the election violence tells us about power structures, relations and dynamics and the prevailing political-economic interests and priorities. It is here where most human rights-based analyses fall short. With our 10-point characteristics, we want to intensify the debate about the elections along three lines in particular: capitalism; aid and development; foreign control and influence and the respective power alliances between foreign and domestic actors (i.e. the role of foreign, particularly western/western-dominated actors, and their domestic partners/establishment actors).
First, neoliberal restructuring emerges as an all-encompassing process. Neoliberalisation is a hetero-directed process, one that diffuses from multiple poles of power, discourse, interest and wealth. As such, it is not simply exogenous to, or imposed on Uganda. Rather it is articulated with—and metabolised within—society and politics, at many interconnected levels.
Second, neoliberalisation was a joint exercise of power by way of an alliance of resourceful foreign and domestic actors, and across various power dimensions. The power alliance—with members including, among others, donors, international organisations (IOs), large firms and government—rolled out its agenda of reform in various ways over vulnerable populations and cemented a particular architecture of structural (of capital for example) and behavioural power and institutionalised and bureaucratised forms of discipline in the state and the economy. Domestic elites often helped advance, rather than stand against the interests of foreign economic actors.
Third, economic growth has become the centre of gravity of political activity and the key indicator of political success at the expense of other societal considerations including social justice, emancipation, equality, political and civic freedoms and human rights. The maximisation of private profits imposed itself as the dominant principle that informed policy-making. Some time back, in a tweet following a meeting with EU diplomats, Museveni wrote: “It’s okay to talk of human and other rights but growth of the economy should be the first right to emphasize”.
Fourth, Uganda is a striking example of authoritarian neoliberalism, in which coercive state practices and administrative and judicial state apparatuses contain oppositional forces, limiting the challenge to neoliberal policies. Sector restructuring through privatisations and liberalisations was often executed in a rushed and uncompromising way, with ample use of authoritarianism and state violence. Often, there was little concern for environmental and economic sustainability in policy-making, and the magnitude of the harmful repercussions of restructuring for large sections of the population. In this context, the state capitalised on foreign donors and investors, allied with particular domestic societal groups and established its hegemony by promoting the image of a government led by a benevolent, well-meaning, trustworthy power, and generally moralised the neoliberal project. IFIs and other foreign actors of the international development sector directly and indirectly enabled the build-up of a powerful and oppressive security apparatus, and more generally, the state’s coercive and violent practices of power, over many years.
Challenged by the explosion of a series of popular mobilisations and protests, the Ugandan state has responded with a growing militarisation of its politics
There are various ways in which these actors are implicated, directly and indirectly, in the growth of corruption, authoritarianism and militarisation, and in a more explicit turn towards crony/rentier capitalism. The oppression of sections of the population by the state is thus in-fact an oppression of the historical state-donors-capital bloc, i.e. the particular “congruence of material interests, institutions and ideologies, or broadly, an alliance of different class forces politically organised around a set of hegemonic ideas that gave strategic direction and coherence to its constitutive elements” (Gill 2002: 58). In the case of Uganda, the formation of this power bloc developed through a series of national and transnational political networks and discourses which converged around a certain vision and form of organisation of society.
This bloc also put in place and advanced a particular neoliberal capitalist form of structural violence. Violence has been an intrinsic component of the neoliberal project, rather than its antithesis. Like in other neoliberal societies, the escalation of violence has taken multidimensional forms—military, disciplinary, economic, political, cultural, verbal. State policies (especially those that hit the poor) have unleashed systemic violence and corresponding widespread and cruel social harm. Territorial militarisation and securitisation is one of these forms of neoliberal violence. The militarisation of whole villages and districts to curb dissent and protest—for instance, against large-scale land acquisitions and related displacing dynamics—has been a constant feature of post-1986 Uganda. The emerging oil and mining sectors are also driving this agenda further.
Fifth, there exist notable similarities and continuities between the neoliberal and colonial development projects, especially with regard to access and control of key natural resources and the accelerating extractive logic of capitalism. Uganda is undergoing a deep structural transformation, not so much into the much coveted “middle income country” that populates the imaginary of many, but rather into an extractive and authoritarian enclave where foreign interests are tackling land, water, oil, forestry and conservation areas as sinks for resource extraction. A colonial matrix of dispossession and domination persists in the neoliberal period through structures of power that link state-corporate actors, comprador bourgeois classes and racialised social groups and classes within states reproducing neo-colonial structures of inequality and projects of subjugation through development projects, market violence, land theft, looting of natural resources, exploitation and cultural assault.
Neoliberalisation is a hetero-directed process, one that diffuses from multiple poles of power, discourse, interest and wealth
Sixth, neoliberalisation has advanced inequalities between classes and exacerbated social injustice. Many neoliberal interventions had a pro-powerful—rather than a pro-poor character. Systemic elite bias and elite capture of development projects turned these into tools to advance the process of class formation, consolidating the power of dominant classes. Neoliberalism increased the power of a range of domestic actors, especially but not only elite actors. Major foreign economic actors benefited in significant ways. The presence of foreign capital was backed by various ideological devices, including “foreigners as investors” and “business interest equals public interest” ideologies. Over the years, Museveni’s rhetoric has been consistent and insistent on the role of foreign investors in his vision for the country. Symptomatic of neoliberal Uganda is an acceleration of “jobless” economic growth, whereby much of the investment take place in the extractive and financial sectors, with little or no linkages to local economies, and with wealth captured by a plethora of actors with little societal redistribution. As such, the making of the new market society has gone hand in hand with increasing resource inequalities, as uneven access to natural resources paved the way for capital accumulation in the hands of a few. The escalation of inequality and class divisions is inherently linked to neoliberal restructuring.
Seventh, neoliberal policies have produced socially regressive effects for the most vulnerable parts of the population. The financial demands and pressures on the subaltern classes to just survive and recover from ill-health are extraordinary. Health and education reforms resulted in a social crisis for significant sections of the poor, threatening their life chances and advancing inequality and class divisions. Further, the multiple and interacting crises produced by neoliberal restructuring are often addressed by more neoliberal reform which brings rather little advancement. The version of neoliberalism observed in Uganda is in key aspects arguably more extreme, crass and unequal than elsewhere. Neoliberal reason has become embedded in society and it is by now a habit of thought, a cognitive frame that shapes the way people see themselves, others, and the social world, and consequently the ways in which they act in that context.
Eighth, neoliberal discourses—from good governance to empowerment—provided a positive, sanitising spin to the brutal exercise of power and restructuring that has locked-in a capitalist social order and its societal hierarchy based on increased inequality and a permanent social crisis. Neoliberal ideology provided a message of win-win, progressive change, hope and optimism, a “human” face, a technical, natural flavour to a process that produced substantial regressions and crises. This resulted in the depoliticisation and sterilisation of debates about development and change.
Donor-led development narratives and ideologies systematically concealed the class interests behind the neoliberal reforms. Narratives of liberalisation, free markets, empowerment and competition among free individuals thus tended to conceal the substantial concentration of wealth, monopolistic tendencies and resulting profit levels, and the coercive and conflictive character of the neoliberal economy. Reform programmes that promised a better governed, efficient, orderly, clean, accountable, humane, pro-people polity and economy, i.e. a harmonious social order, thereby engendered a society shaped (and scarred) by heightened violence, criminality, opaqueness, conflict, and social harm.
Neoliberal reason has become embedded in society and it is by now a habit of thought, a cognitive frame that shapes the way people see themselves
Ninth, the process of neoliberalising Uganda has occurred in continuity with key aspects of the colonial project, substantially contested on the ground by those who have most suffered its nefarious social, political and ecological implications. Protests have taken different forms and contributed to shaping important alliances with other social constituents which carved up a new political space by challenging the implementation of neoliberal development projects. A myriad of social struggles is taking place around key areas of societal transformation. Social media has become a protest platform which the state constantly strives to restrict in order to control dissent and criticism of state action. These dynamics have at times helped opposition parties to win seats, and forced the state to respond by alternating its iron hand – political violence – with its soft hand – consent seeking.
Tenth, the exclusion, inequality, violence, precarity and crises that large sections of the subaltern classes face are thus not caused by a “malfunctioning” market, or a “deviated” capitalist trajectory. Rather, the opposite is true: it is precisely the functioning of neoliberal restructuring and institutions that causes widespread social, political and economic crises. The Ugandan situation is part and parcel of institutionalised crass capitalism globaxlly. There is no way out of these crises unless the key pillars of neoliberal order are questioned, and inroads towards a significant de-neoliberalisation of the country are made. We do not see this happening in the near future, as the neoliberal restructuring is now well embedded, i.e. Ugandans face an “instituted neoliberalism” (McMichael 2017: 336). This institutionalised character of neoliberalism applies to the regional and the global levels too, where it produces a wide array of “material and epistemic demands” (ibid) that will push for further restructuring.
To conclude, the mainstream ideology claiming that more private sector development will produce a future that is, as Museveni put it in a tweet in 2017, “easy to handle”, is a fallacy (“If economy grows, costs go down, private investors are attracted and the future becomes easy to handle.”, 10.05.2017). Current in-crisis countries elsewhere, for instance Mexico, were once celebrated success stories of neoliberal restructuring; they are now telling case studies of the open-ended regressive possibilities of this model of society. Uganda, and neoliberal Africa, might well face a further “mexicisation” in some aspects of societal order. The key processes and practices underpinning social transformations in the country are not unique to Uganda. Several African countries have in many ways undertaken similar paths of political, social, economic, and cultural transformation. Yet the spectacular changes that have occurred in Uganda in the last thirty years reveal the potential trajectories of transformation upon which other African countries could embark in the near future (or that are already underway). The prevalence of extractive and enclave economies, the hegemony of the state-donors-capital block, and the expanding marketisation of society, represent the common denominator for many African countries. As all this unfolds, watch out for the crisis-related spin, explanations, narratives and discourses of the powerful, particularly how the problems and contradictions of capitalist social order and rule are theorised, discussed, and explained (away). This task of explaining the ‘unexplainable’ – to (re-)construct for example explanations concerning state violence, to express shock and concern about violence while at the same time advancing or hiding it – can be regarded as part of what Kalundi Serumaga termed the “common boss problem”. The conflicting and changing (and much debated) statements in the last days of the EU and other western actors about the quality of the elections (and EU statements about respective misreporting) give a glimpse into the ‘dilemmas’ and ‘difficulties’ of executing this task.
Social media has become a protest platform which the state constantly strives to restrict in order to control dissent and criticism of state action
Finally then, whatever the spins of the powerful, the neoliberal hegemonic development model in Uganda, which has produced widening inequalities, growing concentration of control of resources, rising levels of poverty and widespread marginalization, has not gone uncontested. Despite elections having taken place in the midst of state sponsored violence, they have been characterised by tremendously high levels of popular mobilisation and political participation. Indeed, the growing political ferment in the country, which precedes the electoral period, is the result of the growing political support gained by Bobi Wine, ‘ghetto’ musician-turned-politician, founder of People’s Power movement and leading figure of the political scenario in the country. Embodying the aspirations of millions of disenfranchised youth (the overwhelming majority of Ugandans are under 25 years), Wine has been able to mobilize masses across the country, reawakening the political imagination, forging alliance with other forces in the opposition, and becoming a major threat to the existence of the regime.
In this sense, the acute violence we have witnessed in coincidence with elections is a response to a broader set of social mobilisations which have mounted a series of political challenge to neoliberal authoritarianism. In this short piece: “The West helped cripple Ugandan democracy”, Wine points to the long-term involvement of external forces in Ugandan’s political affairs, and the role of donors and western governments in hindering the overthrow of the neoliberal order. He highlights the antagonism between authoritarian neoliberalism and the free political agency of millions of Ugandans. His political challenge is thus arguably not only against the oppression of the Museveni government but against key aspects of the very operation of imperialism and global capitalism (and the continuation of neoliberalism in the country). In these moments of political contestation and upheavals Amiclar Cabral’s revolutionary teaching, ‘tell no lies, claim no easy victories” becomes actual. Yesterday, as today, it is paramount to uncover the causes of people’s misery, in order to build a social order that can truly serve, advance and protect people’s lives and aspirations.
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Taking Stock of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights Forty Years On
In celebrating this 40th birthday of the African Charter, it is worthwhile to adequately appreciate the context and the historical background of the African Charter.
The month of June 2021 marks the 40 years anniversary of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Charter). The African Charter was adopted during the 18th ordinary session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) on 27 June 1981 in Nairobi, Kenya. On 28 June 2021, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the body established to oversee the implementation of the African Charter, convened a high-level event to take stock of the four decades journey of the African Charter.
The African Charter occupies a historical, political and symbolic significance at par with such similar instruments as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On the one hand, it affirms, as part of the continental legal architecture, the pan-Africanism conviction that fundamental rights and freedoms should apply to all human beings. On the other hand, the African Charter printed those rights issues distilled from the continent’s experience of oppression and unfreedom into the tapestry of internationally recognized fundamental rights and freedoms.
In celebrating this 40th birthday of the African Charter, it is worthwhile to adequately appreciate the context and the historical background of the African Charter. Here, as in other areas of life in contemporary Africa, history matters. It does so profoundly as it co-constitutes our present context. A doctrinal approach to the catalogue of rights, freedoms and duties articulated in the Charter offers us only a very limited understanding of both their meaning and content and significantly their political, socio-economic and international importance vis-à-vis contemporary challenges of respect for and protection of human and peoples’ rights.
Historical and politico-legal significance of the African Charter
So why the African Charter? Why its adoption by the OAU in June 1981? These are questions for which there is no single answer but are worthy of serious investigations and study. I therefore would not wish to go into details. I would rather limit myself to noting briefly some of the fundamental conditions that led to the adoption of the African Charter.
In one way, the African Charter represents an exercise of African agency in defining the essence and meaning of the rights that give full expression to Africa’s long struggle and aspirations for dignity, freedom, equality and justice. The articulation of the African Charter made up for not only the lack of representation of the peoples of the continent in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) but also for the failure in the UDHR to recognize foreign rule or colonial domination as the antithesis of human rights and hence manifestation of a lack of recognition of the inherent dignity and equal worth of people under colonial rule or foreign domination. Unlike the UDHR, which in its Article 2 proclaims the application of the rights in the Declaration irrespective of the status of a peoples as a subject of colonial rule, for peoples on the continent there could be no human rights without freedom from colonial rule or foreign domination. It is worth recalling that in Africa’s political history as far back as the 1919 Pan African Congress and the works of the foremost thought leaders including Frantz Fanon, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Kwame Nkrumah colonial rule and foreign domination were treated as negation of human rights.
Accordingly, the African Charter addresses itself to both colonial rule/foreign domination and the oppression of people in the hands of independent governments.
Second, the African Charter was also a response to, as one historical study on the political background of the African Charter put it, ‘the shame and embarrassment’ that some African leaders felt about the activities of some governments, in particular those of Amin, Bokassa and Nguema. This is best illustrated by what the Chairperson of the OAU President Tolbert said in 1979 in his opening address to the AOU summit – ‘the principle of non-interference had become ‘an excuse for our silence over inhuman actions committed by Africans against Africans…The provisions concerning human rights must be made explicit.’ That this shame and embarrassment was a factor behind the OAU decision for the elaboration of a ‘Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ was buttressed by the late Adem Kojo, then the Secretary-General of the OAU. He said the African Charter ‘came about as the result of the ordeals which certain African peoples had suffered at the hands of their governments.’ Accordingly, the African Charter addresses itself to both colonial rule/foreign domination and the oppression of people in the hands of independent governments.
At this point, it is worth recalling that a similar experience in the 1990s led the continent to the adoption under the AU Constitutive Act of the paradigmatically novel principle of intervention in cases of grave circumstances under Article 4 (h). The parallel becomes apparent from President Mandela’s speech during the 1994 OAU summit in Tunis where he expressed this sense of ‘shame and embarrassment’ when he said ‘Rwanda stands out as a stern and severe rebuke to all of us for having failed to address Africa’s security problems. As a result of that, a terrible slaughter of the innocent has taken place and is taking place in front of our very eyes.’
These historical references make it clear that the African Charter is the first legal instrument to pierce the veil of sovereignty that excluded any scrutiny of how independent African states treated people under their jurisdiction. In doing so, the African Charter served as the legal predecessor to and laid the foundation for Article 4(h) of the Constitutive Act, hence as the foundation for the principle of non-indifference.
One of the drafters of the African Charter, The Gambian jurist Hassan Jallow thus remarked in his book The Law of the African (Banjul) Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights ‘the very notion of creating machinery for the promotion and protection of human rights was itself nothing less than revolutionary in a continent where and at a time when the African states were ultra-jealous of their national sovereignty even and brooked no interference in what they regarded as their internal affairs.’
The African Charter also affirms that human rights are not simply an embodiment of abstraction from an ideal theory about the human. Importantly, they are products of specific historical experiences and civilizations. In this sense, at one level the African Charter is an illustration of the late Christof Heyns theory of the struggle approach to human rights. Viewed from this perspective, the African Charter is in part an exercise to articulate catalogue of rights geared towards the conditions of oppression that historically robbed the peoples of the continent of their humanity as Africans and continue to impede their access to full measure of fundamental rights and freedoms. The African Charter thus gives recognition to the need to ‘eliminate colonialism, neo-colonialism, apartheid, Zionism, and to dismantle aggressive foreign military bases and all forms of discrimination, particularly those based on race, ethnic group, color, sex, language, religion or political opinion’.
The African Charter represents an exercise of African agency in defining the essence and meaning of the rights that give full expression to Africa’s long struggle and aspirations for dignity, freedom, equality and justice
At another level, the Charter echoes the opening remarks of President Leopold Sedar Senghor at the first expert meeting for the drafting of the Charter in Dakar in 1979, where he counselled the experts to draw inspiration from and keep constantly in mind ‘our beautiful and positive traditions and civilization’ and ‘the real needs of Africa.’ The result of this has been not only the articulation of duties of individuals by the Charter premised on the Ubuntu philosophy of coexistence and harmony between the individual and the society, but also the recognition of the inseparability and interdependence of civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights.
In terms of ‘the real needs of Africa’, the African Charter accorded a prime place of honor to peoples’ rights on par with human rights as vividly captured in the title of the African Charter. In so doing, President Senghor pointed out, ‘We simply meant …to show our attachment to…rights which have a particular importance in our situation of a developing country.’ Elaborating further, he pointed out, ‘[w]e wanted to lay emphasis on the right to development and the other rights which need the solidarity of our states to be fully met: the right to peace and security, the right to a healthy environment, the right to participate in the equitable share of the common heritage of mankind, the right to enjoy a fair international economic order and, finally, the right to natural wealth and resources.’
While much of its promises have been honored by breach rather than compliance, the African Charter thus broke new ground in both the politico-legal evolution of the continent and international legal recognition of fundamental rights and freedoms. At the global level, it contributed to the enrichment of the international corpus of human rights. It did so both by giving equal legal status to civil and political rights on the one hand and economic and social rights on the other hand and by enshrining the collective rights of peoples and the duties of individuals.
Contemporary status and significance of the African Charter
Today, the African Charter enjoys not only a status of customary international law but also that of being akin to the basic law of the continent. It is not simply one of the few OAU/AU treaties with universal ratification. It is perhaps the only human rights instrument that is widely cited not only in large number of continental legal and policy documents but also at sub-regional and national levels. The African Charter also inspired the adoption of various human rights and democracy and governance norms within the OAU and its successor the African Union in the 1990s and since. Along with other human rights instruments it inspired, the African Charter continues to serve as source of inspiration in the elaboration of national bills of rights and various laws giving effect to specific human rights.
The African regional human rights system that the African Charter established also contributed to the recognition of the legitimacy of the works of civil society organizations, human rights defenders, political opposition and the media, despite the increasing assault to which they have in recent years been subjected. Accordingly, the African Commission has accorded institutional recognition by extending observer status to large number of non-governmental organizations working in the field of human rights pursuant to Article 45 (1)(c) of the African Charter.
The African Charter is not simply a historically grounded human rights treaty that speaks to both the generality of human rights issues and the human and peoples’ rights issues in Africa emanating from our specific historical experiences and socio-economic and political conditions. It is also a living document. As such, it operates to respond to the human and peoples’ rights issues also of the present and the future.
Article 45 (1) (b) tasks the African Commission ‘to formulate and lay down principles and rules aimed at solving legal problems relating to human and peoples’ rights and fundamental freedoms.’ Additionally, in mandating the African Charter to apply the rights and duties in the Charter to specific cases that may be referred to the Commission by States or ‘other communications’, the Charter recognises the need for its constant interpretation and application to make the rights and duties in the charter responsive to both the specific cases and the evolving needs of Africa. In commanding the African Commission under Article 60 to draw inspiration from international law on human and peoples’ rights, the Charter affirms its interconnectedness with international human rights. In doing so, the Charter also opens its provisions to be enriched through cross-fertilization. Based on Articles 45 (1) (b), 47, 55 and 60 of the African Charter, the jurisprudence of the African Commission and since 2006 the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, have clarified some of the gray areas in the African Charter and the ‘claw back clauses’ attached to some of the rights in the Charter, which inspired the most criticism against the Charter in the early years of the Charter’s life.
The African Charter is unique in combining its particularistic and internationalist features in other symbiotic ways as well. Thus, in articulating duties of individuals as embodying one of its distinguishing features, it states in Article 27 (1) that individuals owe duties, among others, to the international community.
The trinity of Africa’s burdens and the African Charter
Like other human rights treaties, the main target of the African Charter is the state. The experience of the grievous human rights violations to which Africans in independent states have been subjected to before and since the adoption of the Charter, as is evident from ongoing unconscionable atrocities in some of the conflict settings, make it evident why the misuse and abuse of the authority of the state has to be the center of gravity for the African Charter as it is for other human rights instruments.
In the European experience, it was the totalitarianism to which the state is disposed and the threat this posed both to the rights and freedoms of individuals and to peace and security that inspired the development of a system of human rights. However, for the African Charter the authoritarian impulses of the state is only one (but never the only) source of threat to human rights and fundamental freedoms.
As I observed in the opening statement for the 28th extra-ordinary session and further highlighted below, indeed authoritarian rule and the bad governance and repression arising from it represents the first of the trinity of burdens militating against the rights and dignity of the peoples of Africa. The second of the trinity of burdens is the burden of history (arising from slavery, colonial subjugation and apartheid). That the burden of history constitutes an important area of preoccupation as a source of unfreedom for the African Charter can be gathered both from the preamble and the substantive text of the African Charter.
A doctrinal approach to the catalogue of rights, freedoms and duties articulated in the Charter offers us only a very limited understanding of both their meaning and content and significantly their political, socio-economic and international importance vis-à-vis contemporary challenges of respect for and protection of human and peoples’ rights
In the landmark case, SERAC v. Nigeria, our Commission, thus remarked that the origin of some of the provisions of the African Charter, in the particular instance Article 21, is to be traced to ‘colonialism, during which the human and material resources of Africa were largely exploited for the benefit of outside powers, creating tragedy for Africans themselves, depriving them of their birthright and alienating them from the land.’ On how this experience affects present day Africa, the Commission stated that the ‘aftermath of colonial exploitation has left Africa’s precious resources and people still vulnerable to foreign misappropriation.’
As pointed out above, in the African experience, the historically grounded normative foundation for human and peoples’ rights has been the absence and deprivation of self-governing statehood to the peoples of Africa. The structural weaknesses and flaws that characterizes the post-colonial African state is a manifestation of this burden of history. As Adom Getachew highlighted, in her landmark study Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-determination, this inherited burden makes ‘new and weak postcolonial states vulnerable to arbitrary interventions and encroachments at the hands of larger, more powerful states as well as private actors,’ thereby severely inhibiting their capacity for shouldering their responsibilities to meet the human rights needs of the peoples of the continent.
The third of the trinity of burdens is thus the power architecture of the international system that operates to deny Africa from getting its fair share from international economic relationship. In stating in the preamble that the peoples of Africa ‘are still struggling for their dignity and genuine independence,’ the African Charter is expressing its recognition of the adverse impact not only of the past but also the burden Africa bears from the unjust power arrangement of the international system. It thus affirmed that ‘it is henceforth essential to pay particular attention to development …and that the satisfaction of economic, social and cultural rights is a guarantee for the enjoyment of civil and political rights.’ These preambular statements and the substantive rights, in particular collective rights of peoples, expand the conception of injustice undermining the full enjoyment of human rights to encompass the ways in which the international system frustrates the rights of peoples to freely determine their economic and social development according to the policy they have freely chosen as envisaged in Article 20 of the African Charter.
Today as we mark the 40th year anniversary of the African Charter, there is nothing more than the COVID19 vaccine injustice that vividly illustrates how this skewed power architecture of the international system brings peoples in Africa to an existential crisis.
The third wave of COVID19 pandemic is gathering pace, with more devastating impact than previous waves. It claims the lives of increasing number of peoples including the highly limited skilled health care workers due to lack of access to the COVID19 vaccine and deals a serious blow to the economies of the continent. African countries, like others in the global South, are witnessing that their concerns – that the protection given to pharmaceutical companies under the treaty on intellectual property rights will prevent them from protecting the right to health of their citizens – is being born by events. Together with major European countries, pharmaceutical companies are blocking the temporary waiver of the application of patent protection to COVID19 vaccines, key for making the generic production of these vaccines on the continent for ending the current artificial scarcity. As Strive Masiyiwa, chief of AU’s vaccination acquisition task team pointed out, Africa’s inability to access the vaccine is ‘a product of the deliberate global architecture of unfairness.’
No. We are not all together on this. Africa, we are on our own. Again. In the 1990s with civil wars and the implosion and collapse of states ravaging parts of Africa, the continent was left on its own. In the apt description of the late former Secretary-General of the UN Kofi Annan, Africa was left ‘to fend for itself’. As in the past, Africa rose to this challenge. The OAU transformed into the AU. In pursuit of fending for itself, Africa put in place institutions and processes for resolving conflicts, anchored on the Protocol to the Constitutive Act Establishing the Peace and Security Council.
In the face of the existential crisis facing Africa from the COVID19 vaccine injustice today we have to ask the difficult questions including – what leadership and policy failures have led Africa to be exposed to this existential threat? Will today’s leaders rise to this challenge, as earlier leaders did, by creating the conditions for building the requisite strategic infrastructures for protecting the health people so that Africa will never again face the injustice of denial of access to medical supplies including vaccines, born out of the skewed power structure of the international system?
The generation marking the 40th anniversary of the African Charter, betraying its mission?
The 40th anniversary is an occasion for thanks giving for those who bequeathed us this fine African Charter. I wish in particular to pay homage to first the distinguished Senegalese Jurist Judge Keba Mabaye who, more than any other, played the role of being on the one hand a strategist and campaigner for securing the buy in within the OAU of the idea of the African Charter and on the other hand the lead drafter of the African Charter.
I also equally wish to extend our profound gratitude to President Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal and President Dawada Jawara of The Gambia for initiating the resolution for the adoption of the African Charter and for providing the guidance and support for the drafting of the African Charter. It is worth noting that Senghor’s opening address to the first expert meeting for the drafting of the African Charter served not only as the terms of reference but also as the intellectual guide for elaborating the contents of the Charter.
Our deep gratitude also goes to the then Secretary-General of the OAU Adem Kojo who threw his full weight behind the implementation of OAU Decision 115(XVI) mandating the drafting and worked tirelessly for its adoption.
The generation of Mbaye, Senghor and Kojo discovered its mission and fulfilled it. We owe today’s celebration of the 40 years birthday of our Charter to this.
For the generation celebrating the 40 years of Our Charter, have we discovered our mission? Will we fulfil it, or betray it?
As to the mission of this generation, to which we are all a part, I am sure you agree with me that it lies in rendering the rights and freedoms of the African Charter meaningful in the lives of the masses of our peoples. Will we fulfill this mission by overcoming the challenge of implementation of the African Charter and by confronting the human rights challenges of our time namely – the deadly democratic governance deficit, widespread poverty and deepening inequality, pervasive gender oppression, the rising insecurity and violence and the climate emergency?
All the indications are that, we are on course for betraying this mission.
‘How else can we explain the fact that in 2021 as in the 1990s we have the conditions forcing ‘millions of our people, including women and children, into a drifting life as refugees and internally displaced persons, deprived of their means of livelihood, human dignity and hope’?
Second, the African Charter was also a response to, as one historical study on the political background of the African Charter put it, ‘the shame and embarrassment’ that some African leaders felt about the activities of some governments, in particular those of Amin, Bokassa and Nguema
How else can we explain 29 million people and counting being displaced and forced to flee their country unless states are failing to shoulder their responsibilities under the African Charter?
How can this be possible unless those entrusted with managing the affairs of our societies are betraying the trust of the public in pursuit of their own narrow self-interest thereby perpetuating the vicious cycle of misgovernance and authoritarianism?
It cannot be that we continue to have millions of our brothers and sisters forcibly displaced in states with even the most basic attributes of statehood, in societies with responsible leadership and in a continent with effectively functioning institutions.
It is indeed an indictment on all of us that we have sisters and brothers who expressed their thanks to the COVID19 virus for being provided with water, a basic necessity to which they have been denied access by leadership and policy failure of our governments. How is it that while the resources of the continent are fueling the development of other parts of the world, we are not able to provide even for the most basic necessities of life for the masses of our people? How is it that the leaders entrusted with the management of our affairs indulge in the embezzlement of resources that are meant for securing health workers and the public from the COVID19 pandemic?
What more represents the betrayal of the mission of this generation for translating the African Charter into reality than the way the Charter is observed by being routinely breached through not only the closing of the civic space, the assault on civil society, human rights defenders and the media but also the indiscriminate attacks against civilians and the display of complete lack of regard to the sanctity of human life in the various conflict settings on our continent and the attendant total impunity?
What is more to show how the leaders of the continent are failing the public than the deepening sense of despair that is pushing our people, particularly the youth, to embark on the perilous journey across the Sahara for crossing the Mediterranean Sea despite the death of no less than 20,000 migrants in only five years on this sea?
It is indeed a betrayal of epic proportions that our societies could not assure women and girls a life free from violence so much so that there is no place, from home to the work place and even places of worship, where they can feel safe and free from violence. How else can we explain the fact that sexual and gender-based violence have become the other pandemic within the COVID19 pandemic in nearly all our societies?
BBI, Jubilee Orphans and Raila Diehards
They say Uhuru lied to them. They say Raila has been played. Disillusioned, dispossessed, disaffected, the youth, Kenya’s largest voting constituency, are wary of the handshake.
Four years ago, David Njenga graduated from University of Nairobi (UoN) with an upper second-class honour’s degree in biochemistry. A year to the August 2018 presidential elections, his mother reminded him that electing Uhuru Kenyatta for a second term represented his best chance of getting a job. Apolitical and not one to argue with his mother, he cast his vote for President Uhuru. Four years on, he has yet to find employment.
Ambitious, intelligent and optimistic, Njenga’s hopes of getting a job, any job, are fading fast. From his class of 103 students, only five have found steady work, and many of his former classmates are engaged all manner of hustles – the latest politically twisted jargon for one’s means of eking out a living. Njenga told me that the five that had found work had powerful connections in President Uhuru’s Jubilee government.
“One of them is a pastor’s daughter whose father is one of the evangelical pastors who attends the national annual prayer breakfast with President Uhuru,” said Njenga. “The pastor’s daughter is my friend. I used to help her with her class assignments and writing term papers, so occasionally she will call me to have lunch.”
Njenga’s background is a world apart from that of his friend, the pastor’s daughter, but she befriended him at Chiromo campus because of his big brains; symbiotic relationship is the best way to describe their platonic friendship – he wrote her schoolwork and she regularly bailed him out financially. “C’est la vie,” said the 25-year-old Njenga. “She’s the one who got a job and I’m still writing assignments and term papers for rich students.”
I asked Njenga about the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), a document that, if implemented, is supposed to ameliorate the lives and prospects of his peers. “Have you read the report?” He gave me a blank stare, the kind of stare that says, “You even have the temerity to ask me that question?” “Should I be reading a political document or researching about my students’ homework? If my parents had powerful connections, I’d not be suffering like this. That’s all what matters in today’s Kenya. My degree counts for nothing, I might as well have ended up being a plumber.”
Njenga was among the students who graduated top of their class, but even hoping to get a job in the corporate sector has become a flight of fancy. “It is the same as in the government – you must know people.” Njenga said the situation got worse with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. “Many companies have used coronavirus as an excuse to sack their employees. How then do you go to ask for a job when people are being laid off? We’re on our own and all what Uhuru is interested in, is how to succeed himself and safeguard his family’s empire and political interests post-2022.”
He gave me a blank stare, the kind of stare that says, “You even have the temerity to ask me that question?
Still living in his mother’s house — “I never imagined I’d still be staying with my mother, four years after campus.” — Njenga said none of his former campus mates cared about BBI: “They’ve not read it, some really don’t know what it’s all about, I mean even as students, we couldn’t find time to read stuff on our degrees. Can you imagine me finding time to read an obsequious document? For what?” But the real issue, I gathered from Njenga, wasn’t even finding time to read the BBI; it was the disdain that he and his former campus mates had for President Uhuru and his government, their disconnect with the political processes in the country, their lack of interest in how government is run or ought to be run.
“What can Uhuru claim to have done for the country, for the young people in the eight years he has been president?” posed Njenga. “I’m worse off than when I entered campus, the country is reeling in utter corruption, the economy is tumbling down, people now steal openly from the government and he has no idea how to fix anything. The youth’s biggest problem is the economy. We don’t care about anything else. The president said he knows how much is stolen from the state coffers every day, yet he doesn’t know what to do about it. Why is he the president then?”
Njenga said he voted for Uhuru because his mother asked him to. “I was just doing my duty and of course, it was a tribal thing.” The biggest problem with the youth, reckoned Njenga, is that they will vote for you tribally, if they have to, but if you won’t fix the economy, they will have no time for you. “This is where the Kenyan youth is right now with Uhuru’s incompetent government. Many of them contemplate migrating daily, to seek greener pastures wherever they will find them.”
Mwangi Waithera, 29, is just like Njenga — he voted for Uhuru because his beloved mother told him to. “I don’t care about politics, I wasn’t going to vote because politics is not my thing, but my mother repeatedly reminded me, even on the material day, that I should vote for the president.” A mitumba (second-hand clothes) seller with assorted customers — civil servants, lawyers, college students, among others — he has seen his business dwindle since 2017 when President Uhuru was voted in for a second term. He has listened to his customers, usually men of his generation, come to grumble in his tiny downtown shop.
“Do you know our salaries now come late?” laments one of Mwangi’s client, a civil servant. “Nobody cares about this BBI nonsense in the ministry offices,” he said. “Uhuru can afford to pay hundreds of millions of shillings to some so-called consultants to write a useless document called BBI, but our meagre salaries are being delayed up to the 10th of the following month?” The civil servant told Mwangi that his colleagues scoff at the report and have no time for President Uhuru. “He is the most colourless president Kenya has ever had. He is not respected among the younger cadre of the public officers, even worse among the older civil servants.”
Njenga said he voted for Uhuru because his mother asked him to.
One of Mwangi’s customers, a lawyer, showed up one evening as we were talking in his small shop. Barely 30, Denis voted for President Uhuru twice. “That’s how much I believed in him. I couldn’t stand anybody criticising him. I couldn’t countenance Raila being the President, so I made sure I voted again on October 26. I wasn’t going to let down my parents on this. They had warned us children on how we should vote.” said Denis, adding, “My parents told all four of us children that the greatest disaster that would ever befall this country was allowing Raila to be president. ‘I know some of you have liberal ideas’ said my father. The liberal ideas remark was a stab at my brother, who had voiced his disenchantment with President Uhuru’s first term performance.”
Then the “handshake” happened and his parents baulked. The children often meet for dinner at their parents’ home, a middle-class couple from Kiambu County. “During one of those dinner meetings, my ‘dissenting’ brother asked my parents, ‘so what is going on?’” The bubble had bust — the economy was tanking and the handshake with the devil had taken place. “For once my parents didn’t seem so sure and my younger brother looked like he could have been right after all,” said Denis.
But Denis’s parents knew things were going south when their firstborn lawyer son started struggling. He postponed his wedding. He was increasingly going back to his parents to borrow money. “I’d so much expectations, I did a few ‘stupid’ things with some of my cash. I knew good times were coming, so I didn’t worry, we’d re-elected Uhuru and I believed big legal work was beckoning.” Denis said that today some of his lawyer colleagues are doing so badly they literally chase for work that pays as little as KSh3000.
Denis is so angry with President Uhuru, he told me, that he “is done with voting. It’s a complete waste of time and energy. I’m also very angry with my parents for misleading us, only that I can’t pick it up with them. But my bold brother did, especially on their berating of Raila. ‘Please dad, explain to us why Raila is suddenly now a darling of Uhuru?’ My parents looked abashed. ‘Uhuru has been such a huge disappointment’ is all they could muster to tell us over dinner.”
As a lawyer, Denis told me he had taken the trouble to read the BBI document. “It is a document meant to entrench President Uhuru’s powers. Some of my colleagues and I easily saw through it. By the way, I know some of the lawyers who participated in its writing. For them, it’s all about making hay while the sun shines. They were paid handsomely – any lawyer likes to make real good money quickly.”
Denis’s declaration that he will never voting again has become a standard response among the youth I interviewed; they vowed that they would not expend their energies engaging in a predetermined outcome again. “I voted for the first and possibly the last time,” said Njenga. “Everybody knows what happened during the elections, the refusal to open the servers, even my mother knows the games that were played, but we can’t discuss that. Her vote has since shifted to Ruto.”
I asked Mwangi whether he had read the BBI document. “I’m a busy person and my work doesn’t allow me to engage in meaningless ventures,” he said dismissively. “I hear we may have to vote for it in a referendum. On that day, I’ll stay at home if I can’t open my shop, and that’s what I’ll do in 2022, during the elections.” Mwangi said he would never again wake up early to please both his mother and Uhuru. “I’ve learned my lesson, I’ve no time for politics, let me concentrate on my life and business.”
Denis told me President Uhuru was keen on a referendum “so that he can extend his term. I’ve become the wiser. At the dinner meetings, I’ve become bold like my brother. My parents are no longer as enthusiastic about Uhuru as they were before. They are completely miffed with him. They cannot explain, leave alone understand, how Raila is now supposed to be the darling of the Kikuyu people. My parents form part of the generation that took the Gatundu oath of never ceding state power to Luos.”
The graduate touts
Allan Kinuthia is, just like Njenga, a UoN graduate. Kinuthia graduated from Kabete campus in 2019 with an agricultural economics degree but he is a matatu tout. He started touting when he was a student “because I needed to raise some money for myself. Then it was a hobby and a hustle.” He voted for Uhuru and Jubilee in 2017. “I did it because that’s how my family voted. I voted on tribal basis, I couldn’t care less. If it worked for my family, why couldn’t it work for me?” Three and half years later, the truth of the matter is that it isn’t working for the family, much less for him. “There was this expectation by my family that, by the time I was graduating, I’d get a job – what with having voted for Uhuru and I having an economics degree,” said Kinuthia. “So even as I touted, I knew it was just a matter of time. I looked forward to a salaried job.”
“I’ve written countless job applications and I’ve given up,” said Kinuthia. “Jobs are there for those who are well-connected, not for people like me.” So far, none of those who were in his class has found a job. “As people trained to be professionals, it is important to get a job, practice what you learned in college, even as Kenyans keep on telling us students that we should think outside the box, meaning we shouldn’t always think of getting a salaried job.”
A happy-go-lucky, jolly fellow, Kinuthia tells me that the other touts are always taunting him; here’s a university graduate who is facing the reality of life outside the cosy world of college. “What do you think of BBI?” I asked him. Have you read the report? “No and I don’t have the time to,” he replied. So, how will you know whether it’s good for you or not? “You think I’m touting because I’m having fun? Uhuru is a failure. I studied economics; we’re where we are because of his incompetence. After taking the country down, Uhuru is busy crafting how to remain in power. That’s what BBI is all about.”
When not touting, Kinuthia is an online writer. “One time, I met a fellow student at UoN, who saw me touting in Kikuyu town. He asked me, ‘do you tout all the time? I can open an online writing account for you. Would you like to write and earn some decent cash?’ I took the deep end, learned the ropes and I’m doing it. My friends I was with in college don’t know or care about BBI, just like I don’t want to know about it. To many young people, Kenyan politics is b***s*** Instead of addressing the massive theft, BBI document is apparently advocating for more executive seats.”
Noisy and every inch the tout, Jimmy Kanogo is actually an entrepreneurship graduate from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture & Technology (JKUAT). Until you engage him, it is impossible to tell he has ever stepped inside a lecture hall. “But it is what it is”, said Jimmy. After graduating in 2018, he quickly realised there were no jobs for graduates. “Those days are long gone, even medical students are nowadays not assured of getting a job.”
“Jobs are there for those who are well-connected, not for people like me.”
“Have you acquainted yourself with the BBI report,” I asked him. “Don’t get me started,” Jimmy said. “What is BBI? My elder brother graduated from university in 2016, he has yet to get a job. How does BBI contribute to the GDP in our house? My parents thought that once they sent us to university and we graduated, we’d be a relief to them. We thought so too, but look at where we are,” moaned Jimmy.
It was the same story repeated in many Kikuyu homesteads: vote for Uhuru, he will straighten the path for you young guys, their parents told them. “And of course, we listened,” said Jimmy. “He lied to our parents, he lied to all of us, they are so angry they keep on cursing and vowing revenge. My mother can’t believe I’m indeed a tout, that after going to university I’ve been reduced to the level of the ne’er-do-wells, whom she always sees hanging around matatu stops and who she has utter disdain for.”
Jimmy said he struggled to read long essays throughout his university studies, “so you’ve to be nuts to expect me to read a document that has no relevance to my life. To fix the economy, you need a report? To curb massive looting, you need a report? To provide youths with jobs, you write a report? What is it that Uhuru wants?” His questions are rhetorical questions but it is obvious that the drafters of the BBI document have lost Jimmy and his peers.
“It’s been a long time since I saw my parents quarrelling, now they seem to quarrel so often,” said Jimmy. “My father cannot believe the money he leaves weekly for my mother is finished so quickly. ‘What’s these you are buying?’ he angrily asks her. Life has become triple difficult and it’s not a pleasant thing to see your folks quarrelling over cash. It isn’t that my mother is overspending or buying things she has not been asked to. But I also understand where my father is coming from.”
Jimmy isn’t interested in BBI, in Kenyan politics, in elections, in referendums. “My survival is my utmost interest. Let Uhuru do whatever he wants to do with power, but one thing is guaranteed – I’m never trooping to a voting booth again.” Jimmy said he wasn’t even really expecting to be employed per se, “but I’d hoped that by the time I was leaving university, the country’s economic climate would be such that it would allow for creativity and imagination for some of us to set up shop.”
Peter Chege is the opposite of Jimmy: slight of build, quiet, reflective, speaking only when spoken to. A UoN graduate, it is difficult to believe he touts, yet he does. “What options did I have?” he asks. Peter graduated in 2019 with a degree in sociology. The following year COVID-19 struck. Peter is from a poor peasant background and this meant that he had to quickly decide what to do with his life post-university. “My parents had struggled to put me through university; they were, in a manner of speaking, through with me.”
So he came down to Limuru, where he had friends among the manambas (conductors) and matatu drivers. They took him under their wing and taught him the ropes. “Can you imagine the people who inducted me into the industry are guys who left school either at primary level or at most secondary school?” When I asked him what BBI means to him, he said, “It means nothing, I don’t know what it is. I hear people talk about it. I keep away from such discussions. I don’t want to be upset and left with a foul taste in my mouth.”
Until you engage him, it is impossible to tell he has ever stepped inside a lecture hall.
Peter told me that his friends at the matatu stop taunt him: “Peter, please tell us, what’s the use of a university education? The drivers, manambas and fellow touts are the ones who like discussing BBI. So they ask me, ‘Peter, you’re the one who’s educated amongst us here; can you explain this document for us? If Peter is the most educated among us, and he isn’t interested in the report, why should we be interested?’” Peter and his matatu friends are agreed on one thing: none has read the report, and they will never read it, but they know one thing for sure: “BBI is about power arrangements and dynamics by the political elites that want to hold onto it, even as they organise us for 2022. It has got nothing to do with us. It is a route being mapped by Uhuru and his cabal to retain power.”
Apologists for Uhuru
“Raila has been played,” said Victor Oluoch, “but you know what? We can’t say it loud; this is supposed to be an ethnic project, so no Luo should be heard badmouthing it. But there’s a discomforting disquiet around the issue; all’s not well on the home front. We welcomed the handshake and its appendage the BBI in 2018, but three years down the line, we are not sure any more.” Victor, a 33-year-old IT specialist, said the handshake had stopped the killing of Luo youth by the state security apparatus and rescued the community from being used by all and sundry as the bogeyman of opposition politics.
“Opposition politics in this country [is] anathema: you’re anti-development, anti-state, anti-communal cohesion. The Luo community were branded all these and it reaches a point where you say, ‘Ok guys, somebody else can carry the cross,’” said Victor. “So we welcomed the handshake and its relative the BBI. We were also quietly told that BBI would bring development to Luoland and we said hoorah, why not? The many years of fighting the state had denied the region development.”
Development is a loaded word; it can mean many things. “But whatever it meant, we the Luo people needed it,” pointed out Victor. “Therefore, it was very odious to hear Raila say the other day that the developments that have apparently been taking place in Nyanza counties, courtesy of the handshake, were after all not meant to be a favour, but a countrywide thing. I didn’t understand where that came from, but certainly, it is not the only misgiving that some of us now have with BBI.”
On 7 June 2021, Raila was quoted as having said, “None of the projects launched or mentioned during the Madaraka period are owned by or meant to serve Kisumu alone. They are meant to, and will serve the entire Kenya.”
The ongoing development projects in the Nyanza region are something that BBI supporters in the region are pointing to as a positive. Ojijo Orido said to me that, over and above everything else, BBI was good because it had brought development to Nyanza. “Factories are being opened up, roads are being built, the port is being resuscitated, the railway line is alive once again, the airport is being expanded . . . development is now being shipped to Nyanza more than everywhere else in the country. We Luos have benefited from BBI and that’s why we support it.”
“But was that the real agenda of the handshake and its aftermath the BBI?” asks Victor. “I’ve taken the trouble to read the document. Nothing could be further from this proposition. Instead, the report, which has mutated a couple of times, proposes other things.” The issue of an additional 70 constituencies, for example, is very troubling, said Victor. “How is it that Nairobi and Mt Kenya region end up with more than 33 new constituencies, while the entire Nyanza region gets less than 4 extra seats? Is this not gerrymandering?”
Victor said the handshake had stopped the killing of Luo youth by the state security apparatus.
According to the BBI proposal, the extra constituencies will be distributed as follows: Nairobi 16, Kiambu 6, Nakuru 5, Meru 2, Embu 1, Kirinyaga 1, Murang’a 1 and Laikipia 1. In contrast, Homa Bay has been allocated 2 seats, Siaya 1 and Kisumu 1. The rest of the new seats are to be distributed across the rest of the country.
Yet Victor told me that among the Luo people this disturbing question is not supposed to be raised. Why? “Oh, you know, I’ve heard it being whispered in Raila’s inner sanctum that mzee has been promised the big one, so it’s imprudent to bring up the offending question. So, what’s BBI really about? Is it about “favoured” development, which Raila is now denying? Was it about ensuring the Luo youth are not gunned down? Is it about being promised the ‘big one’?”
Woe unto the Luo people if BBI doesn’t succeed, warns Victor. “Because it will mean the Luo youth could again be fodder for the police, development will be stopped forthwith and the promise of the ‘big one’ will vanish just like that. Is that how we should be conducting our national politics?”
“It is unfortunate the Luo people have become the biggest apologists for President Uhuru’s incompetent government,” said Ken Owiti. “We behave as if the indiscriminate killings of our people didn’t occur in 2017. We’ve forgotten all the violence that was visited upon the Luo people, prior to the repeat presidential elections on October 26, 2017. We have all forgotten the Baby Pendo incident. We can’t continue to live in the past, some of my folks say, but what does the future hold? The future of the Luo people is pegged on Raila cosying up to the system and being promised the presidency. That’s all.”
Ken showed me a video clip of Orido, a journalist, waxing poetic about President Uhuru’s development record. In the clip, Orido cites Outer Ring Road as an example of the strides President Uhuru has made in developing Kenya. “Is that all what Orido can talk about? Outer Ring Road is a project started under President Kibaki. Development is not a favour to Kenyans; it’s their right because the money borrowed to build and expand these roads is used in their name. But anything to prove you’re a BBI and a Raila cohort.”
The self-flagellation of the Luo people during President Uhuru’s visits to Kisumu has been a trifle embarrassing, said two Boda Boda riders. “What point have we been trying to convey? That we’ve forgotten the brutal violence that took place in Kibera and Kondele not too long ago? That we’re now loyal followers of President Uhuru and his inept government? That we’re a pragmatic, forward-looking people? That we should forgive and forget? Just like that? No questions asked?” The boda boda riders said that among a section of the Luo people, the force of reason seems to have been trumped by reason by force. “If you raise these critical questions, Raila’s adamant followers threaten you with violence, ‘you must be a Ruto supporter – are you a Luo? Who are you to question Raila? BBI is Raila and Raila is ours’.”
Raila’s magnetism among the Luo people is waning, especially among the younger generation, said Otieno Magak. “His politics has ceased to be spellbinding and the handshake didn’t help matters. You can’t question BBI. To question BBI is to question Raila. You can’t ask how supporting BBI, wholly, unquestioningly, will translate into determining the price of sugar in your house. You must support it because Raila has said so. If you prod, nasty epithets are thrown at you. You’re deemed a traitor to the cause, you can be physically attacked.”
Woe unto the Luo people if BBI doesn’t succeed.
The Luo people are being corralled into supporting BBI because this could be the “bullet”, pointed out Magak. “How many ‘one bullets’ can one possibly have? How many times can you promise a political tsunami? The younger generation of Raila supporters are saying ‘we’ve done our civic duty. We’ve lent our unwavering loyalty to him and his political cause, but there comes a time when we must think about our own future and our own future cannot be tied to an aging opposition doyen.’”
Magak said to me that indeed there is a quiet movement sweeping across the Luo nation, of the millennial and generation Z that is keen on charting their own political path away from BBI, away from Raila’s stranglehold, away from the politics of patronage. “Raila has really fought hard, no one can take that away from him, even his greatest detractors concede the man has been resilient, even as he has been cheated out of victory several times. But BBI is a con game which, if it backfires, will have much wider ramifications on a community that has never sat well with status quo politics.”
As BBI proponents and antagonists square it up in court, engaging in legalese and subterfuge, Kenya’s largest voting constituency, the youth — disillusioned, dispossessed, disaffected — have given the report a wide berth.
The 2 June 2021 decision of the seven-judge bench to issue their ruling on 20 August 2021 doesn’t augur well for BBI said Magak. “Whichever way you may want to look at it, at the end of the day, one party seems to have been lied to all throughout. It is significant to note that immediately after the judges gave their date, after the final submissions, the IEBC chair reiterated, soon after, that the general elections will be held on 9 August 2021. It is not for nothing that Wafula Chebukati found it prudent to remind Kenyans at this juncture that the election calendar is on course. But don’t take my word for it.”
This article is part of The Elephant BBI Judgement Series done in collaboration with Heinrich Böll Stiftung (HBF), Dialogue and Civic Spaces Programme. Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the HBF.
Return to the Land of Jilali: Reflections From Kenya’s Northern Frontier
As the rest of us figure out how to cope with the long-term changes now overtaking the biosphere, the world’s most resilient survivors will play an influential role in the collective response.
The locusts appeared near the barrier to the Lake Turkana Wind Farm. They did not form a massed cloud and they did not appear to be that interested in feeding on the semi-desert vegetation. But they were everywhere, a diffuse scattering of red juveniles that gave the sky a slightly speckled cast over the next five kilometres of road.
Desert locusts were one of the obsessions of colonial administrative officers, many of whom sought to preserve the Northern Frontier District in its natural state to protect its ancient communities and abundant wildlife. The preoccupation with the region’s eco-cultural integrity was predicated on two basic assumptions: 1) if allowed, local herders would degrade the range beyond repair through overgrazing; and, 2) should the vast region be treated like the rest of the colony, outsiders would flood in and corrupt the cultural ecology of the region’s ennobled nomads.
An assortment of explorers, wanderers, and opportunists had crisscrossed the northern region during the latter decades of the 19th century. Ivory hunters brought up the rear, followed by Kamba and Somali competitors in search of the region’s last untapped population of tuskers. By the turn of the century the Rendille and Borana had also become involved in the trade, albeit reluctantly.
The paternalism of British colonial administrators serving in remote areas was in part response to the unrestrained mercantilism of their freelancing European predecessors, but it also reflected their recognition of the local communities’ expressed desire to maintain their way of life.
The local pastoralists didn’t mind the relative isolation in the beginning. They mainly wanted to be left alone in their vast, wide-open spaces. For the most part, the colonial administration respected this. But as Kenyan independence approached, isolation gave way to calls for secession.
The Kenyatta government’s sovereignty over the potentially turbulent northern rangelands started badly after the rejection recorded in the 1962 pre-independence referendum. The Shifta insurgency commenced under the shadow of emergency laws gazetted several weeks after Uhuru. This extended a state of occupation across a large swath of territory including Lamu and Tana River Districts. Shifta banditry followed.
It has been a long way coming back from this inflection point.
For ruling elites based in the region’s capitals, the rangelands mainly offered the hope of the hidden resources lurking underneath the surface. Governing the rangelands of the former NFD, the northern Rift Valley, and the North Eastern Province became a holding game—an exercise based on the probability that returns on the investment in controlled conflict management would materialise someday.
It took over five decades for the first manifestations of that pay-off to appear. It began with official recognition of the rangelands’ importance for the livestock sector’s commercial value articulated in a speech President Kibaki made after winning the 2002 elections. Prospecting for oil, natural gas, and wind power came next. This segued into the LAPSSET mega-project’s infrastructural wet dream for opening up the neglected region.
The Land of Jilali
None of this was on the radar as the new millennium approached. The La Niña drought that followed the deluge of the 1998 El Niño had restored the political ecology narrative dominating the rangelands since the colonial era. Desertification was back, and the primary culprit were the proto-modern nomads, with some help from capricious nature.
Two decades ago, I had crisscrossed the expanses of Marsabit without hearing any mention of Schistocerca gregaria, or nzige, to use the Swahili term for the locusts. Years of conversations across northern Kenya had not yielded a single mention of the scourge. But then again, the last outbreak was seventy years ago. At the time, I was part of a team of Kenya researchers based at Kenya’s National Arid Lands Research Centre investigating desertification and its potential mitigations.
In The Land of Jilali, an account of our field trips across the district, originally published in 2001, the spectre of deepening drought and famine followed us everywhere we went.
The essay featured multiple references to dark rockscapes, arboreal denudation, and the expanding discs of desertified land ringing the settlements. Permanent manyattas elsewhere displayed a similar pattern. The environmental crisis was undermining traditional livelihood strategies, fulfilling the prophecies Western scientists had promulgated after the Great Sahel drought of the mid-1970s.
This segued into the LAPSSET mega-project’s infrastructural wet dream for opening up the neglected region.
The conclusion to The Land of Jilali traced the problems to the economic stasis resulting from the decades of laissez-faire policy, widening the separation of the NFD from the highlands to the south.
Our verdict: the problem is not so much environmental degradation as lack of economic diversification. There are untapped resources in these remote regions, including nutrient-rich salt from the Chalbi, gum arabic, stunning landscapes for the high-end adventure tourist. But exploiting them has been constrained by a combination of poor infrastructure, restrictive laws, a lack of services, and the social prejudice engendered by separation. Isolation has bred war parties that roam the land with the unpredictability of rain-bearing clouds.
Now it is 2021 and I returned to retrace some of the steps recorded in the Land of Jilali narrative. The world has witnessed massive shifts and changes over the past two decades. At first glance, however, Marsabit appears to be insulated from many of the trends. The lowland range looked relatively unaltered, certainly less degraded than scientists like Hugh Lamprey had predicted back in 1976 when he claimed the Sahel was advancing at a rate of over five kilometres per year.
At that rate, the advancing semi-desert should have pushed beyond large areas of Kenya’s dryland agricultural fringe and even into the coast’s semi-arid hinterland. Lamprey’s warning came with a scenario of social collapse overtaking the unstable grasslands and fragile drylands due to surging population growth.
The northern rangelands played their part by recording the country’s highest birth rates over the last two decades. But everywhere we went the tree cover was improved, the pasture ok, and although the peripheries of settlements remain bare, the vegetation and tree cover within them has expanded.
Among other things, these trends validate the efforts of local civil society and the local environmental committees established by the Marsabit Development Programme at the turn of the millennium.
The areas adjacent to the recently tarmacked road that now connects the northern slopes of Mt. Kenya to Moyale on the Ethiopian border conveyed an impression of environmental stability. Highway towns like Archers Post, Merille, and Logologo are larger but look much the same except for the expanding band of small block houses spreading out into the bush behind them. The stacked sacks of charcoal along the roadside are gone.
These trends validate the efforts of local civil society and the local environmental committees established by the Marsabit Development Programme at the turn of the millennium.
Although such landscapes can be deceptive, the environmental stasis conveyed by these roadside settlements appeared to be in step with the fast-moving tropes of Kenya’s transition from an agrarian society, where the majority of the population is no longer directly dependent upon rainfall and vegetation.
The data accumulating over time would come to show that the state of vegetation and population growth is not necessarily congruent with long-term land change. But at the beginning of the 1980s, the negative trends documented by researchers working across the Sahel had the unchallenged certainty of Western science on their side.
The Age of IPAL
The Great Sahel famine of 1974-76 struck from the shores of the Atlantic to the Horn of Africa. The death and devastation wrought magnified the significance of the drought and portrayed the famine as the harbinger of a larger environmental crisis. The 1976 United Nations conference on desertification in Nairobi officially established environmental degradation as the leading issue threatening the planet.
It was science to the rescue. Externally conceived schemes to combat desertification, seen as a root cause of the increasing incidence of drought, dominated the response. Lamprey’s picture of a man getting ready to cut down a solitary tree stranded on a barren plain of dark rocks had made Marsabit an international exemplar of desertification, and the goat by the man’s side became the movement’s poster child.
Somalia, which portrayed itself as a pastoralist democracy, at that time, was the only country to adopt a homegrown response to the calamity. The government sought to exploit the shock by promoting an audacious shift from livestock to investment in marine fisheries. Its proactive efforts faced formidable headwinds. Two ambitious interventions to kick-start an industrial fishery from above were eventually overtaken by the internal dynamics of Syad Barre’s doomed government.
Some of the fiberglass boats from these projects turned up later in the hands of the vigilantes and pirates patrolling the country’s offshore waters.
In Kenya, the call to arms led to the establishment of the Integrated Project for Arid Lands in Marsabit. Initiated under the aegis of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme in 1977, IPAL was designed as a multi-disciplinary, human-focused project that improved on the design of the integrated project template of that period. Over the course of its three phases, the research compiled useful baseline data on vegetation change and climate patterns, livestock disease vectors, studies on the dynamics of traditional range management, and the sociology of Marsabit’s pastoralist communities.
Little changed on the ground in the interim. The rains had returned, and the new jobs IPAL created were welcome. The project’s facilities and research mandate were transferred to the Government of Kenya in 1984. Kenya’s National Arid Lands Research Centre in Marsabit came into existence as the stepchild of IPAL.
Now the ward of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), KARIMAR, as the Centre became known, continued to actively conduct field research, but the scientific output generated by the Centre’s researchers was compromised by the way the Institute worked. Because salaries, which were pegged to civil service pay scales, were low, the per diems for time spent in the field were high to compensate. KARIMAR staff spent a lot of time crisscrossing the landscape collecting data, much of which remained on the shelf.
At that rate, the advancing semi-desert should have pushed beyond large areas of Kenya’s dryland agricultural fringe and even into the coast’s semi-arid hinterland.
During my time at the Centre, its research focused on animal health, typologies of camel productivity based on indigenous technical knowledge, the ongoing problem of environmental degradation, assessment of optimal dosages of herbal livestock remedies, meat and milk preservation, and sociocultural changes in the area’s growing settlements.
Most of the data did not make its way into publications. But the Centre did operate strong outreach activities, sharing the research findings through periodic meetings with Marsabit’s lowland communities. This was a positive move away from the ivory tower knowledge model, even if the uptake of the technological prototypes on offer was not high.
KARIMAR outreach coincided with the surge in local associational life in the form of the Community Based Organisation and other variations on participatory development like the environmental and security committees. All of this contributed to the onset of a more auto-catalytic, or self-starting developmental phase. This was aided by the rise in education and the increasing movement of locals beyond district and national borders.
The small settlement of Ngurunit, situated at the base of the Ndoto Range, was originally a base for the region’s ancient hunter-gatherer community. It became one of the primary focal points for small-scale projects in vogue at that juncture, and the most noteworthy was the Salato Women’s Group.
Salato was a prime beneficiary of the donor support for gender-based projects at that time. It ran one of the several mini-dairies supported by KARIMAR, and was producing nyiri nyiri (a variation on dried meat jerky preserved in oil, traditionally made for ceremonial occasions like weddings) for local export. At its height Salato was operating a bakery, selling crafts, facilitating a camel restocking plan, and was racking up citations in the local press, and in developmental and academic publications.
But Salato, once the exemplar of local women’s entrepreneurial zeitgeist, was gone when we passed through Ngurunit. No one was interested in talking about it, as if its fate had always been common knowledge—there were always frictions among its leadership. Only the citations remained. The KARI research station was also kaput, which made me very sad.
The facility’s main veranda was one of those places in Kenya sanctified by the volume of fascinating and esoteric discussions it had absorbed over the past several decades. Those conversations about the region’s history, culture, politics, and economy were part of a vernacular narrative that, from a complex systems perspective, was often more revealing than the insights generated by the formal research.
The Age of LAPSSET
LAPSSET is the logical endpoint of the developmental trajectory that began with the 19th-century caravan trade that penetrated the most remote expanses of the eastern Africa interior. Traders fanned out across the basin spanning Malawi and Tanzania, northern Kenya the lowlands of Ethiopia, and the borderlands of southern Sudan in search of ivory, human captives, and other high-value commodities.
The name of the game was extraction, and the tales of treasure in the African interior percolating into Europe attracted western explorers. In the western Sahel, the locals set the terms for explorers attracted by the gold-clad city of Timbuctoo, as Mungo Park famously describes in his journal. The Scottish explorer was harassed, threatened, and detained in a pen with a pig by a Berber chieftain. He was so spooked after being released that by the time his boat finally approached the mythical city, the explorer sped by with all guns blazing.
Mungo Park met a watery death during the final leg of his journey down the Niger River; his journals were retrieved by his faithful guide, preserving his fascinating account for future generations. Many others perished crossing the Sahara or while trying to enter the interior from the West Africa coast, which became known as the White Man’s Grave.
Historically, the western Sahel had given rise to states that integrated herders and agro-pastoralists into the region’s cross-Sahara trade-driven economy. The Sahel zone remains integral to the politics and economy of the new countries created by the colonial disruption. The opposite pattern prevailed in the eastern Sahel, where populations were still on the move during the 19th century, and the region’s stateless pastoralists remained on the periphery after colonial intervention favoured the promotion of agricultural economies.
Somalia, which portrayed itself as a pastoralist democracy, at that time, was the only country to adopt a homegrown response to the calamity.
Explorers venturing into the interior of East Africa faced formidable changes, but less hostility from the natives. The combination of colonial separation and post-independence isolation that followed insured that exploitation through extraction would face minimal opposition when the time came.
The LAPSSET project and its elaborate grid of proposed roads, pipelines, airports, railroads, the new Lamu port at Magogoni, and “tourist” cities is a prime example. Designed to open up the region for capital penetration, the fantastic scheme hatched by the Kibaki government’s planners was never tabled for debate in Parliament, or formally introduced to communities on the ground. But the Lake Turkana Wind Power and two berths at the Magogoni Port are the only projects that have come to fruition so far.
Renewable energy is one industry that can actually mesh with the region’s pristine environment. The wind farm initially appeared to be the kind of project residents and proponents of rangeland development would approve of. The LTWP offered the hope that it would promote greater integration of the area’s inhabitants into the national economic grid. Instead, the outcome reinforced the skewed state-society power relations defining the last century of highland-lowland relations.
Sarima sits beneath the escarpment descending towards the lake. The corridor framed by Mt. Kulal to the north and the Ndoto Range in Samburu forms a powerful wind tunnel that inspired a Dutch expatriate to undertake a basic feasibility study. He established that the winds in this area, known in Rendille as Kurti Haafar or the Hill of the Winds, are stronger than anywhere in Europe.
The quasi-legal acquisition of the land lease from the Marsabit County Council in 2007 through political brokers and the convoluted implementation process proved to be a recipe for conflict and unrelenting contestation. What could have been a relatively non-intrusive and mutually beneficial investment based on an initial 40,000-hectare allocation in Sarima had become a private 150,000-hectare electricity plantation covering an important swath of Rendille dry season grazing reserve.
The environmental and social impact assessment was completed in 2009. The World Bank bailed on the project in 2012. This removed some of the more cumbersome hurdles to implementation, like the poor terms of the project’s power purchase with Kenya’s Ministry of Energy. The World Bank’s withdrawal also expedited financing for the consortium of private investors, who expected to have the 310-megawatt facility operational by 2014.
Africa’s largest wind farm was finally completed in 2017, but due to tendering scandals and the usual delays, it took the better part of two years to connect the wind turbines to the national grid. As predicted by the World Bank, the Kenya Treasury committed to pay the LTWP investors €127 million (KSh14.5 billion) for the unused electricity generated during this period, which inflated the cost of the project’s electricity for the Kenyan consumer.
LAPSSET is the logical endpoint of the developmental trajectory that began with the 19th-century caravan trade that penetrated the most remote expanses of the eastern Africa interior.
Projects that tick most of the developmental boxes tend to engender controversy in Kenya’s marginalized areas. The Turkana County government fought a protracted battle to increase their small share of the expected revenues from the oil found there. In Lamu, civil society advocates have been forced to fight for basic compensation in court for the land and livelihoods lost to the Magogoni port. Marsabit County received nothing in return and was denied access to the electricity that the Project Consortium’s application boasted will light up 2.5 million Kenya households.
A case brought by Rendille activists contesting the land allocation and petitioning for its reversion to community land upon expiration of the lease has been delayed, even after being accepted for review by Kenya’s Supreme Court. The encroachment of Turkana and the preferential hiring of Samburu for the 339 permanent jobs created by the project has, however, complicated the case predicated on the rights of all of Marsabit’s pastoralist communities.
The pastoralists’ lawyers argued that the allocation failed to follow the guidelines mandated in Kenya’s Trust Lands Act, and it represented an even more serious violation of the community land principles embedded in Kenya’s new Constitution.
For their part, the LTWP Consortium’s lawyers argued that the law grants communities the right to access communal grazing resources, but not formal ownership of the land. This blatant revisionism anchored their dismissal of any local claim to the benefits accruing from the utilisation of the wind passing over the land in question.
Such cynical ploys contribute to why citizens of Kenya B remain poor and the value of their production low by the standards of Kenya’s agricultural majority. But communities in the areas that first experienced Uhuru under the draconian emergency laws like the Special Districts Act are now awake and increasingly organised. They are also armed. None of this augurs well for the belated integration of these areas under the extraction and carbon-based investment model the Kenya government is promoting under its Vision 2030 blueprint.
Return to the Land of Jilali – Part Two
The View from the Lake, Then and Now
We approached Sarima on an overcast morning. The day before we had been warned of a clash between Samburu and Turkana. The incident claimed a boda boda rider transporting miraa and a Samburu moran, the victims adding to the growing body count resulting from an extended series of conflicts erupting across local ethnic fault lines. Upon approaching the edge of the project’s land we passed small groups of elders walking towards what was apparently a peace meeting being convened in a glade of acacia.
The configuration of the wind farm, unlike the lines and grids of similar projects elsewhere, consisted of clusters of the tall white towers scattered in an uneven pattern across the landscape. The blades of these giant pinwheels appear to spin at a lazy pace out of synch with the fiercely gusting wind.
The once rugged road has been paved up to the final stretch to the Lake, and the road following the shore to Loiyangalani has been improved. This made for a leisurely, two-hour drive to the town that has always struck me as one of Kenya’s most eclectic settlements.
When I first travelled this route for the first time in 1975, it took nine days traveling by public means and hitchhiking to make it to the lake. Two days were spent on buses and seven were spent hanging out with the locals on the side of the road in Baragoi and South Horr during the day. The traffic never exceeded five vehicles a day: the typical sample comprised of lorries, GK Land Rovers, and the occasional private vehicle which would speed raising a cloud of dust.
After three nights camping in a laaga on the edge of town, we got a lift to South Horr in a pick-up transporting goats. South Horr was at that time a small hamlet of some fifteen shops and storage structures set in a woody glade. Most of the Samburu herders carried semi-precious stone knotted in their shukas. We failed to see why they spent their days loitering along the road, until a German-speaking man stopped, methodically inspected the rocks with a special eyeglass, made a few purchases, and sped off after spurning our request for a lift.
It was at that point, on our fourth day in South Horr, that we decided to walk the final 90 kilometres to Loiyangalani. Local sources told us there is a 25km stretch of savanna woodland before entering the desert. So we hatched a plan to do half the walk at night, find a tree to rest under, and complete the remaining distance the next day when the sun was low.
The combination of colonial separation and post-independence isolation subsequently insured that exploitation through extraction would face minimal opposition when the time came.
We packed some sugar, tea leaves, posho, and purchased a small spear at a high price from a one of the rock-hunting Samburu morani. We should have employed him as a spear-carrier and guide instead, but we had no idea what was awaiting us ahead.
The next day, forty minutes before our planned departure, a European tour group stopped and told us they would make room in their Landcruiser if we did not mind being squeezed. We accepted this offer with great relief.
The vegetation thinned out after passing the Kurunga River, confirming the intel we had collected. The Sarima corridor was near-treeless at that time; it certainly was not the “lush plain” described in the LTWP literature, and the Turkana village that has been a magnet for inter-communal conflict since the project began did not exist. We disembarked further down the road so the car could negotiate the staircase, a series of terraces that for decades enabled vehicles to bump their way down this most difficult section of the escarpment.
It was five o’clock yet still incredibly hot. Fifteen minutes under the sun amidst this sea of rocks, the Jade Sea beckoning in the distance, was enough to see us consume half of the water we were carrying. This point roughly marked the rest stop of our walk, and there was not a single tree with a canopy offering respite from the sun in sight. The rest of the route to Loiyangalani was even harsher, bereft of any sign of shade or habitation.
Like the fate of many of the meticulously planned expeditions passing through the region in the late 19th century, we would have survived the trek, but only barely. With this realisation came renewed respect for the long-time inhabitants who figured out how to survive and prosper in this stark and rugged land.
Now I was retracing these steps, forty-five years later. Acacia nilotica and seyal dotted the once barren lakeside. The lake had receded into the distance when I visited here during the turn-of-the-millennium La Niña drought. Despite the controversial commissioning of the three Gibe dams on the lake’s Omo River source in Ethiopia, the waters had now returned. The large informal settlement that had sprung up on the extended beachfront was gone; the only reminder of the lakeside suburb was a partially submerged bar and restaurant.
An initial 40,000-hectare allocation in Sarima had become a private 150,000-hectare plantation covering an important swath of Rendille dry season grazing reserve.
Some things only change slowly: I took a picture of a small raft of doum palm trunks, the archetypal vessel the El Molo use to fish these turbulent and croc-infested waters. But Loiyangalani was otherwise vibrant, and undergoing a makeover.
The piles of rocks for sale on the lakeside approach were new. I used to see the sight of animals foraging on this denuded shoreline as confirmation of the desertification narrative—until closer inspection revealed that the rocks hide spikey shoots of grass shielded from the burning sun. Now the Turkana boys herding goats are diversifying their income by selecting stones with the right size and shape for constructing houses to sell to the new builders.
Loiyangalani now features facilities that provide reasonably priced accommodation and meals for the groups of down-country Kenyans who are now exploring the Marsabit lowland loop. Ngurunit and South Horr also have similar tourist bomas, enabling access to the remote vistas along a route that was formerly the province of low-budget travellers touring in mini-mog trucks. Many of the settlements are setting up mini-grids based on solar power, obviating the need to access the LTWP electricity. Off-grid technologies for harvesting the sun provide a low-cost alternative to the government-investor ‘owned’ wind.
The roads are better; I stood next to where the staircase used to be and watched a Toyota Vitz drive down to the Lake. Such examples of change offer hope that, after decades of media-framed perceptions of the north as a crisis-prone region, other Kenyans see the north for themselves and empathise with their neighbours’ quest for an equitable return from their land and natural resources.
The capital-intensive schemes favoured by the government’s economic planners are not the ticket for Land of Jilali development. Before leaving Loiyangalani, we learn that elders attending the peace meeting produced the foils from the box lunches provided to the security personnel at the site of the attack as evidence showing that LTWP guards were behind the raid two days before.
The Land of Jilali Revisited
This brings us to a revised verdict based on a long view of developments in the Land of Jilali.
The desertification thesis, which emerged out of the French occupation of the western Sahel, traces the blame to culturally conservative herders and management practices like the use of fire and overstocking. The Francophone desertification thesis was exported to the Horn of Africa following the great famine of the mid-1970s. Since then, scholars like Tor Benjminsen have exposed the combination of opportunism and flawed science used to delegitimise the adaptive and resilient practices of pastoralists developed over the centuries. His article on the subject documents how since the 1920s the myth has been revived during protracted droughts, only to fade away during the resumption of normal rainfall.
A contrasting case of extreme climate set the locust invasion in motion. Two cyclones in quick succession had pushed far beyond the normal range for such storms. This supercharged the expansion and reproduction of the locusts, the unusually high rainfall launching the jump from the insects’ southern Arabia breeding grounds while optimising conditions across the Horn of Africa for their spread.
Despite the controversial commissioning of the three Gibe dams on the Lake’s Omo River source in Ethiopia, the waters had returned.
The media duly repeated claims that the locusts represented an existential danger to the Horn of Africa, threatening millions of producers with starvation. Documentation of the devastation to agricultural and pasture resources has been less forthcoming. This tallies with reports from sources in affected areas, who verified the appearance of swarms, but claimed the damage to crops and pasture was minimal.
Did we once again fail to fully comprehend a non-linear ecological event?
The 2020 locusts appear to be recyclers who fed off the excess vegetation generated by the heavy rains, while providing a temporary source of protein for birds and wildlife and local communities who convert the insects into a healthy version of fast food. The locusts are also a rich source of chemicals known as phytosterols that boost immunity and help prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer.
The response to combatting the locusts did provide a positive example of international cooperation, even though the use of insecticides was a greater threat to human health than the vegetation they consumed. The nzige invasion dovetailed with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which exposed the cupidity and corruption of the state-based cartels who exploited the international response to the virus for personal benefit.
The retrogressive behaviour of the region’s states comes with important implications for the Horn of Africa, which is entering a new phase of political economy after several decades of communal conflict, unencumbered market economy, and donor-supported democratisation. The expanded scope for global capital under this arrangement represents the latest challenge for the region’s pastoralists’ fight to own their future.
Explorers and military map makers’ accounts dominated the first phase of modernity in the north. Their descriptions of the region as Africa’s last remaining Garden of Eden dovetail with the Lake Turkana version of the Eve hypothesis. The environs where our earliest ancestors frolicked entered the twentieth century as a rangeland ghetto sustaining decades of socioeconomic malaise.
The capital-intensive schemes favoured by the government’s economic planners are not the ticket for Land of Jilali development.
The second, developmental phase of modernity was driven by Western science. Researchers amassed a large body of useful information, including the baseline data sets underpinning remote sensing and survey methodologies that now support the monthly reports on the frontier counties’ vegetation and human food security. Jilali is now a data-defined phenomenon. But they also failed to identify the critical dynamics operating on the human-environmental interface.
The new school of range ecology eventually rectified the biased assumptions responsible for the procession of failed drylands policy experiments. Recognition of the inherent uncertainty of such non-equilibrium environments went a long way towards rehabilitating the pastoralist’s opportunistic utilisation of ephemeral resources availed by the unpredictable climate. Strategies combining maximisation with resilience are common to the diverse plant, animal, and human populations who colonised the Horn of Africa’s arid and semi-arid lands.
This occurred under wetter conditions, when Mauretania still had swamps and giraffes roamed lower Egypt. Then they spent the last 800 years adapting to the increasingly drier environment.
Climate is the great driver of life on earth. Generations of environmental stability culminated in the European expansion. The societal operating system it imposed on the world has run its course, relegating a large portion of humanity to a precarious existence on a non-equilibrium planet. Humanity needs a new civilisational operating system.
We do not know how the world’s most resilient survivors will negotiate the current interlude of top-down capitalism. In the end, they will be the authors of this third phase of rangeland development now unfolding. I also expect that their indigenous sensibilities will play an influential role in the collective response as the rest of us figure out how to cope with the long-term changes now overtaking the biosphere.
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