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Speak of Me as I Am: Ethiopia, Native Identities and the National Question in Africa

21 min read. Does a country create a people, or do a people create a country? KALUNDI SERUMAGA responds to Mahmood Mamdani’s recent analysis on the political situation in Ethiopia.

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Speak of Me as I Am: Ethiopia, Native Identities and the National Question in Africa
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The Westphalian principles, rooted in the 1648 Treaties signed in the European region of that name, have been monstrously mis-applied when it comes to the African continent, yet they established modern international relations, particularly the inviolability of borders and non-interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign states.

The default position of a certain generation and class of African nationalist, is to cleave unto the “new” nation born at Independence, as the only legitimate basis upon which African progress can be conceived and built. Everything else, especially that dreaded category, ‘ethnicity’ is cast as a diversion and dangerous distraction.

This is the tone that runs through Ugandan Professor Mahmoud Mamdani’s one thousand-word opinion piece: The Trouble With Ethiopia’s Ethnic Federalism, published on 3rd January for the New York Times by (and patriotically reproduced in Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper), bearing a total of fifty-four iterations of the word ‘ethnic’.

The default position of a certain generation and class of African nationalist, is to cleave unto the “new” nation born at Independence, as the only legitimate basis upon which African progress can be conceived and built.

At Independence, the Westphalia protocols were conferred on to the former colonial contraptions. The results were economic stagnation and political repression. For over five decades, these new nations have been the focus of intellectual and political agitation among Africa’s thinkers. When, after all that rumination and fulmination, our thinkers still get things horribly back to front, we all get stuck at a crossroads.

Mamdani’s essay comes as our current Exhibit A in this long history of intellectual malfunction. Current Prime Minister, the youthful Abiy Ahmed is faced with a many-sided series of demands from a deeply frustrated population. Many of these relate directly to the lack of an economic growth model that palpably raises living standards. Others reach further back to the age-old question of land ownership and reform. Naturally, the demand for greater civic rights to speech and assembly come as a prerequisite. One feature common to these demands is the tendency for the Ethiopians to speak through, and/or on behalf of the various constitutionally recognised native identities within the country. Some may have even formed militias for this purpose.

Mamdani’s essay comes as our current Exhibit A in this long history of intellectual malfunction.

Mamdani engages with this to make an analysis not just of the Ethiopian crisis itself, but of the question of what he terms “ethnicity” which, he sees as the issue – or more accurately, the ‘problem’ – permanently bedevilling African politics. “Fears of Ethiopia suffering Africa’s next interethnic conflict are growing,” he warns.

Prime Minister Abiy has been quick to concede much, and roll out as many reforms as he can. Most notably, he has ended the two-decade stand-off with his northern neighbour, Eritrea.

Mamdani engages with this to make an analysis not just of the Ethiopian crisis itself, but of the question of what he terms “ethnicity” which, he sees as the issue – or more accurately, the ‘problem’ – permanently bedevilling African politics.

This may not be enough, Mamdani tells us. The real problem, as he sees it, is the introduction of ethnicity into Ethiopian governance, and its central position in the Ethiopian constitution. This, Professor Mamdani says, was done by former Prime Minister, the late Meles Zenawi, who served as the de facto Ethiopian strongman from 1991 to 2012. Mamdani describes this as an attempt to replicate a similar strategy of ethnic organization that, in his view, was introduced to Africa as part of the colonial method of governing:

“In most of Africa, ethnicity was politicized when the British turned the ethnic group into a unit of local administration, which they termed ‘indirect rule.’ Every bit of the colony came to be defined as an ethnic homeland, where an ethnic authority enforced an ethnically defined customary law that conferred privileges on those deemed indigenous at the expense of non-indigenous minorities.”

This analysis fails to stop itself there, which would have been bad enough.

“The move,” continues the Professor, “was a response to a perennial colonial problem: racial privilege for whites mobilized those excluded as a racialized non-white majority. By creating an additional layer of privilege, this time ethnic, indirect rule fragmented the racially conscious majority into so many ethnic minorities, in every part of the country setting ethnic majorities against ethnic minorities.”

Describing native homelands as a “fiction”, the Professor goes on to say that while such ethnic labelling and selective privileging may have served the colonial purpose, it had the effect of first, “dividing a racially conscious African population” and second, turning them into people who saw themselves as “tribes” first and foremost.

Thus, he concludes, “Wherever this system continued after independence, national belonging gave way to tribal identity as the real meaning of citizenship.”

Having thus problematized the “ethnic” thing, Mamdani goes on to imply that there may be no peace to come in Ethiopia unless the issue is excised from the Ethiopian body politic in particular, and Africa in general.

These words have many meanings, none of them good for Africans, at least.

First, this is the same thing as saying that before European arrived in Africa, “ethnic” identities were not politicized, and neither were they units of administration. Taken to its logical conclusion, this is to say that there were no ‘politics’ in precolonial Africa, and neither were there forms of administration.

Having thus problematized the “ethnic” thing, Mamdani goes on to imply that there may be no peace to come in Ethiopia unless the issue is excised from the Ethiopian body politic in particular, and Africa in general.

Africans seem to have been roaming the continent as a cohort of an undefined but also homogenous mass, with wholly insignificant identities, which were only solemnised, formalized, and bestowed with political meaning with the arrival of a European power amongst them.

Second, it also implies that only the European had the skill to animate these identities, without them tearing the (therefore necessary) European-planted state apart.

Third, that the tragedy of modern Africa began when the European withdrew his controlling hand. Left to their own devices, the identities he had created, mutated into a Frankenstein’s monster of tribal strife.

Fourth, that there is such a thing as ‘national identity’ that sprung to life fully formed at independence, a good by-product of the European-planted state, and that it is African ‘tribalism’ that destroys it. In other words, European-invented African tribalism spoils the one good thing (nationalism) that Europe brought to Africa.

Finally, that belonging to the European-planted nation in Africa is the only viable means of an African citizenship. But if the British were pre-occupied with “ethnicizing”, and the resultant people’s feelings and loyalties were exclusively ethnic, where then does “national belonging” come from at independence?

The entire analysis of the crisis is a crisis in itself: of naming, histories, theories and practice. It is intellectually disingenuous and patronising, and goes beyond the usual linguistic demotion and belittling one usually encounters from many an expert on Africa.

Naming

Why are 34 million Oromo in Ethiopia an ‘ethnicity’, and 5.77 million Danes a ‘nation’?

Why are the three great wars that shaped modern Europe (Franco-Prussian, the 1914-18 and 1939-1945 great wars), not conceptualized as ethnic conflicts?

Mamdani’s entire analysis of the crisis is a crisis in itself: of naming, histories, theories and practice. It is intellectually disingenuous and patronising, and goes beyond the usual linguistic demotion and belittling one usually encounters from many an expert on Africa.

Why are there only a handful of contemporary states in Africa whose names bear a relation to the identity of people actually living there. Everyplace else is a reference to a commodity, or an explorer’s navigational landmarks.

This frankly malevolent labelling offers the space for the linguistic demotion of entire peoples. To wit: 34 million Oromo, seven million Baganda, 43 million Igbo, 10 million Zulu will always remain ‘ethnicities’ and ‘tribes’ to be chaperoned by ‘whiteness’. 5.77 million Danes, 5.5 million Finns, and just 300,000 Icelanders can be called ‘nations’, complete with their own states with seats at the UN.

Some of these states were only formed less than two centuries ago (Italy: 1861, Germany: 1815, Belgium: 1830), while some of those ‘tribes’, and most critically for the argument, their governing institutions had already been created.

Why has the ethno-federalization of Great Britain itself, not been seen as such, and as a recipe for conflict?

This, in fact, is the real ‘fiction’, and it has led to decades of instability. But just because Westphalia does not see them, does not mean the African nations don’t exist. The denial of their existence is in fact, an act of violence.

This is what led a thus exiled Buganda’s Kabaka Edward Muteesa II to write: “I have never been able to pin down precisely the difference between a tribe and a nation and see why one is thought to be so despicable and the other so admired.”

Many modern Africans, especially those whose identity is a product of the European imposition of contemporary African states, have a vested interest in making a bogeyman out of native African identity. The starting point of this enterprise is to invite the African to agree to see our own identities as a liability to African progress, by labelling them “ethnic”.

When “ethnic” conflicts do flare up, those natives who have refused to jump on to this bandwagon are subjected to a big “I told you so”, as Mamdani’s essay now seeks to do.

Many modern Africans, especially those whose identity is a product of the European imposition of contemporary African states, have a vested interest in making a bogeyman out of native African identity.

This was the position of the OAU member states, and many African political parties, including those in opposition to their increasingly repressive post-Independence governments.

But Ethiopia presents a huge problem for Professor Mamdani’s theory of the colonial roots of “ethnicity”, since its history falls outside the usual African pattern of a direct experience of European colonialism.

Since his initial assertion when introducing the issue of ‘ethnicity’, was that it was a result of European labelling leading to a “divide and rule” situation, Mamdani is then faced with the difficulty of explaining where those particular Ethiopian ‘ethnicities’ spring from if there were no Europeans creating them. Unless, to develop his assertion of homelands being a ‘fiction’, he thinks Ethiopia’s various nationalities are fictional too?

Ethiopia presents a huge problem for Professor Mamdani’s theory of the colonial roots of “ethnicity”, since its history falls outside the usual African pattern of a direct experience of European colonialism

He covers up this logical gap by pre-empting a proper discussion of that history. Then changing tack, he suggests that the presence of “ethnic” problems in Ethiopia, despite the country’s lack of a European colonial history actually shows that “ethnicity” is somehow a congenital defect in the body politic of all Africa.

“The country today resembles a quintessential African system marked by ethnic mobilization for ethnic gains.”

Of course the correct answer to all the above questions is that Africa’s Africans had their ‘ethnic’ identities well known and in place long before the arrival of any European explorer or conqueror. And these were not anodyne proto-identities, but actual political institutions and methods of organization and governance. But this is an inconvenient truth, because then it forces the proper naming of these alleged ‘ethnicities’: nations.

All told, deploying notions of “ethnicity” and “tribe” is a tactic to corral Africans into primordial nomenclatures, thereby avoiding a recognition of their pre-colonial formations as nations. It serves to fetishize the colonial project as the godsend device to rescue the African ethnic strife and predestined mayhem.

But if the 34 million Oromo are an ethnicity, then so are the 5.77 million Danes. More so for our situation so are the English, Scots and Welsh who field national teams during the World Cup and the Commonwealth games. We need consistency, people must be spoken of as they are.

Deploying notions of “ethnicity” and “tribe” is a tactic to corral Africans into primordial nomenclatures, thereby avoiding a recognition of their pre-colonial formations as nations.

Naturally, the emergent Independence-era African middle class was more than happy to go along with this erasure, in what Basil Davidson called an attempt at “the complete flattening of the ethnic landscape”, and even fine-tuned it. Where some concessions had been made to the existence of the old nations, these were quickly, often violently, dispensed with.

In British Africa, the politics of trying to dispense with this reality is what dominated virtually all the politics of pre-independence constitutional negotiations. The question informed even the political alliances that emerged at independence.

In Zambia it required a special constitutional pact between the new head of state, Kenneth Kaunda and the ruling council of the Barotse people – they have recently sought to repudiate it and return to their pre-colonial status.

Ghana’s Asante kings were against the British handing power to Nkrumah’s government. They argued that since they had ceded power to the British via treaty, then the departure of the British meant a termination of those treaties. Logically, therefore, that power should be re-invested in the ones it had been taken from under treaty.

In Kenya, the Maasai and the Coastal peoples used the same argument during the decolonisation conferences at Lancaster House. Significantly, the Somali rejected inclusion in the independence Kenyan state, insisting that they wanted to be integrated into independent Somalia. Unable to resolve the ‘Three Questions’ the Foreign and Colonial Office cynically kicked them into the not-very-long grass for the incoming leadership to deal with. The Mombasa Republican Council of today draws its political legitimacy from the updated colonial-era Witu Agreement of 1906, signed between their ancestors and the independence government.

Histories

To understand the current situation in Ethiopia, one must face up to the challenge of properly understanding any part of Africa, a continent so taxonomised and anthropologised by white thinking that it is barely recognizable on paper to its indigenous inhabitants.

It is a two-stage challenge. First: to understand Ethiopia’s history. To do that, one must first recognise and accept the possibilities of an African history not shaped, defined and animated by European imperatives. Africans, like all people, have been making their own history. And like people elsewhere, this has as much narration of the good as it does the bad.

To understand the current situation in Ethiopia, one must face up to the challenge of properly understanding any part of Africa, a continent so taxonomised and anthropologised by white thinking that it is barely recognizable on paper to its indigenous inhabitants.

Ethiopia’s crisis is a consequence of a century-old unravelling of the empire built by Emperor Menelik II (1889-1904).

As his title implies, this was not a nation, but an Empire: a territory consisting of many nations, brought into his ambit by one means or another.

Menelik’s motives and method can, and should be debated, but the fact is that Europe met its match in the Ethiopian Highlands, and were forced to leave Menelik to it.

Ethiopia’s crisis is a consequence of a century-old unravelling of the empire built by Emperor Menelik II (1889-1904).

Yes. Africans also produce momentous historical events. It is not an exclusive trait of white people.

We must get into the habit of discussing our own non-European driven history as a real thing with real meanings. Just as we may talk about the continuing long-term effects of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the European Balkan region, so can we talk about how the demise of Menelik’s empire continues to impact on the greater Horn region.

If that sounds far-fetched, bear in mind that since Menelik’s passing 120 years ago, Ethiopia has had only six substantive rulers: Zewditu/Selassie, Mengistu, Zenawi, Dessalegn and now Abiy.

On his passing, Menelik left a region covering more than three times the area he inherited. Prince Tafari, upon eventually inheriting the throne as Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930 simply sought to consolidate it.

In his 2002 biography: Notes from the Hyena’s Belly: An Ethiopian Boyhood, the Ethiopian author Nega Mezlekia tells the story of him and his family, as one of many Amhara families that migrate to Jijiiga, a region in the far east of Ethiopia during the reign of Emperor Selassie. This was part of a government programme of Amhara settlement to many parts of the Ethiopian countryside. Jijiiga is home to ethnic Somalis. Amhara expansion, one of several factors, eventually provokes an armed revolt. Ironically, the author in his youth joined the insurgents.

Emperor Selassie can be said to have made some errors, but the context is critical: his reign spanned a period that saw immense changes in global politics, and social ideas.

Consider his life and times:

He witnessed the two great inter-European wars, the fall of its empires (Italian, German, Ottoman, Japanese) and the end of direct European occupation of Africa. He suffered two European invasions of his realm, and lived in exile. He was a regent during the Bolshevic Revolution in 1917, and saw the emergence of the Soviet Union as a world superpower and the Cold War that followed. He may have been one of only a handful of world leaders to have been a member of both the United Nations, and the League of Nations that preceded it.

This sweep of history also had its impact on the Ethiopian peoples. One response was a growing demand for social, economic and political reform, including loosening the bonds of Selassie’s empire.

By the time of the 1975 coup against him, the world was a fundamentally different one than the one he had met when he took the throne. He was, in fact, so “old school” that his captors were taken aback when he calmly informed them that he had no personal income or savings to look after himself.

He took a hard line on Eritrea, which had settled into an uneasy federation, provoking a war of secession; continued Amhara settler expansion into Oromo and elsewhere; and he failed to manage Tigrayan nationalism, rooted partly in their dynastic loss of the imperial throne to that of Menelik’s Shewa kingdom. Critically, he did not effectively address agrarian land reform, one of the roots of the country’s political and agricultural crises.

So, to sum up Emperor Selassie: ultimately, he neither succeeds to fully consolidate his empire, nor does he re-order the empire’s boundaries and strictures, which he had inherited in a fundamentally different era. He found himself fighting the more conservative elements of his aristocracy opposed to his reforms; the modernist republicans concerned that he was not reforming fast enough; and the increasingly radical nationalists in the regions demanding self-determination.

Enter Colonel Mengistu, something of a zealot, but who, for all his violent tendencies, was more of the “social reform” persuasion, and sympathetic to the “land to the tiller” demands of the early radical youth movements. Having overthrown a monarch, he saw himself in the image of the Soviet Union’s Communist party in Russia which had deposed the Russian King Tsar Nicholas II. His task, as he saw it, was to create a socialist state.

However, Mengistu had basically taken over the same state that Selassie inherited and he was still wedded to it. His modernist concept of history and the world prevented him from understanding that he was dealing with a home-grown imperial history, and that he was in effect therefore, running an empire.

This blinds him to the “nationalities question”, and only intensifies the agitations among the various indigenous nations trapped in his now secular empire.

So, he basically tries to kill everybody opposed to him.

This is the reality Mamdani fails to see, and mistakenly calls Mengistu’s state a ‘unified republic’; interestingly, he does not offer any of the gruesome details of how Mengistu ‘instituted’ this so-called unification. The only places where Ethiopia was unified and a republic was in Mengistu’s mind (and in his armory). What the various territories wanted was recognition of their separate identities, and an unchallenged say over the land of their ancestors.

Mengistu’s response was to raise even higher the levels of violence needed to keep these rebellions in check, simultaneously fighting Tigrayan, Eritrean, Somali and Oromo insurgencies.

Theory and practice.

Ideologically, the leaderships of the Ethiopian insurgencies were taken over by persons claiming to be as Marxist as Lenin was. Eventually, all the belligerents, including the regime, claimed to be Marxist organisations, yet they were in conflict with each other. What intensified the crisis was the conflicting understandings of what Marxist practice should therefore be, in their context. It was at this point that a number of left-ideological debates came into play, and where a lot of left-ideologues lost their way.

Marxist theory, which mobilized millions of people worldwide, and its practical implications, should be examined with some care. History on this point is necessary.

These nationalist struggles based their arguments on the Leninist principle of “The Right of Small Nations to Self-Determination”, which had been partially applied in the Soviet Union from its formation in 1917. After Lenin’s death in 1924, his successor, Josef Stalin, found less time for it, and, in the face of sustained Western European aggression seemed to see it as a liability to the security of the revolution.

The 1975 coup that brought Mengistu to power (or, more accurately, the coup that Mengistu then subsequently violently hijacked) was a response to widespread unrest, particularly among youth and student movements. This led to a number of practical problems on the ground, in relation to ideology.

At the heart of both the Dergue and the later Tigrayan movements was the issue of land reform. Mamdani does note that the initial upheavals of the 1970s were driven by this, but then fails to make the correct links.

For the vast majority of Africans, especially back then, land is not just a place to live, but also a place of work. To be without land is to be without a secure job. Subsistence peasant agriculture is back-breaking, often precarious, and not financially lucrative. It is also – and many progressives fail to recognize this – autonomous. To a very great extent, the subsistence peasant is not dependent on the state or the global economy. If anything, those entities depend on the farmer whose austere lifestyle acts as a hidden subsidy in providing the market with cheaply-grown food at no investment risk to the consumer or the state. Clearly, one thing that can transform and undergird this existence is sensible reforms to the way the farmer secures tenure of the land they work.

But what happens when land rights encounter cultural rights based on land? A “homeland” is certainly not the “fiction” of Mamdani’s assertion. It hosts the identity and worldview of the people that occupy it. It holds their sacred sites, and places marking their cultural consciousness. More so, that culture underpins their ability to keep producing autonomously. To suggest that it does not exist or does not matter, actually shows a complete failure to grasp who black African people are and how they live, and think. It is a fundamentally anti-African statement implying, as it does, that black Africans do not have an internal intellectual and spiritual logic, developed indigenously, and augmented by physical spaces and objects within them, that informs a worldview. Africans, the suggestion is, are inherently transposable, as they are not tied to any thing or any place.

The captains of the old transatlantic slave ships could not have theorized it better.

Coming from someone who lives in Africa, this is a bit surprising. Coming from a professor heading an institute within one of Africa’s new universities, designed to bolster the colonial state’s mission of deracinating the African, perhaps less so.

However, the current crisis in Ethiopia is very real, and failure to finally resolve it holds huge implications for the entire region. That is precisely why a correct analysis is needed. Not a comfortable one rooted in essentially racist tropes.

The allegedly ‘ethnic demands’ were demands for a different type of guarantee to land rights than those being promoted by Mengistu. For example, would an Amhara family like Nega Mezlekia’s, originally settled by Emperor Selassie in Jijiiga, have a legally equal claim to land against the ethnic Somali communities native to the area, just because they now happen to be the ‘tillers’ there? Would there be a hierarchy of claims? In any event, who should decide? A central authority in Addis Ababa, or a federated unit representing the historic native community?

There are no easy answers. But the regime’s (and other ‘progressives’) complete refusal to even consider the issue, is what led to the conclusion that for there to be justice in Ethiopia, the issue of native nationalities, and their land-based cultural rights, would have to be physically resolved first. In short, it became clear that the land reform question could not be effectively addressed without also addressing the underlying question of productive cultural identities and the historical land claims that arise from that.

This was particularly sharp in those areas of the country –such as Oromo and Tigray- that are dominated by pastoralist communities. Historically, much of Africa’s land grabs have taken place against pastoralist communities, the great city of Nairobi being a prime example.

This is the basis of the ‘ethnic’ movements that have so perturbed Professor Mamdani. It was, in fact, a debate of the Left, and not some right-wing atavist distraction.

So, the great irony is that Ethiopia, home to that great bastion of mis-applied Westphalian thinking, the Organisation of African Unity, becomes ground zero for the great unresolved National Question as it applies to Independent Africa: what is an African nation, and is it the same thing as a given African state (or, more accurately, a state located in Africa)?

The armed struggle began in Eritrea, after Selassie’s unilateral abrogation of the federal arrangement. The original fighting group, called the Eritrean Liberation Front was soon violently displaced from the field by a more radical Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front of Isias Afwerki, espousing those aspects of Leninism and Maoism that enabled it to mobilise a broad front of all classes affected by the feeling of Occupation.

The rebels’ demands were clear: a federation of Ethiopia or separation from it; control of their own lands, and an equal recognition of cultures.

For his part, Mengistu, now fighting five separate militant groups, including a very militant hard-line the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front based in urban Ethiopia, placed all his faith in military might. He ended up building the largest armed force in Sub-Saharan Africa (if not Africa as a whole) of some half- a million soldiers, and being heavily dependent on the Soviet Union, which saw him as a vital foothold in Africa, for war materiel and other supplies. He also received military support from Cuba. It again may not be widely known that at the height of the fighting, these different forces which had grown in to wholesale armies, were fighting some of the largest engagements (including tank battles) since the 1939-1945 European inter-ethnic conflict called the Second World War.

The fight progressively turned in favour of the rebels. With Mengistu’s main arms supplier, the Soviet Union, finally capitulating against the US in the Superpower contest in 1989, his forces were routed and he was driven from the capital in 1991.

The Eritrean armed struggle started in 1961, the Tigrayan one in 1975 and Oromo’s in 1973. All end with Mengistu’s fall.

If Mamdani genuinely believes these nationalities are just “ethnicities”, and that Ethiopia is now running the risk of hosting “Africa’s next inter-ethnic conflict”, then this history shows that Ethiopia has in fact already had the “next inter-ethnic” conflict. Mamdani’s fears, this is to say, are 30 or 40 years late.

To sum up Mengistu: he seized power in response to a severe political crisis, and then, misreading his position, sought to impose his concept of “socialism” on the various peoples still caught in the net of Menelik’s Empire state. This led to a situation of mounting violence, in which he saw just about everyone as an enemy to be physically crushed. His regime eventually succumbed to the overwhelming resistance.

Enter Meles Zenawi, who came out of that generation of student activists who took up the nationalities and land reform demands during the time of the Emperor. To many of them, Mengistu’s high-handedness in dealing with the matter was a disappointment. Tigrayans today do not easily recall that when Meles led the the youth to start the war, they sought refuge in Eritrea, and were nurtured and trained there by Isias Afwerki’s EPLF forces already at war against the Ethiopian state.

The issue of identity does not therefore mean that Africans are perennially and illogically at each others throats in some kind of primordial frenzy. They do politics, and are fully capable of defining their interests and maintaining relations, or breaking them off, as needs may dictate.

Zenawi (to an extent like Daniel Ortega on the other side of the world, and even Yoweri Museveni, in his own way), found himself in charge of a state now encountering a new, neo-liberal global world order being enforced by the only super power left standing. Like Selassie, the circumstances around them had changed greatly from when they had begun their political journeys.

Far from simply “introducing” a federal constitution whose “ethnic” nature Mamdani is problematizing, Zenawi’s regime was finally having the Ethiopian state recognise the long-standing historical realities that had emerged from decades of political and armed struggle.

To reduce the product of all that sweeping history to a notion of “fictions”, is a dangerous over-simplification.

In this quest for erasure, Mamdani applies the same misleading thinking backwards by calling the 1994 Ethiopian constitution a “Sovietificaton” of Ethiopia. The Russian nationalities were no more an invention of Lenin than the Ethiopian ones are of Meles Zenawi’s creation. The various units that made up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were based on nationalities long in place before the 1917 communist revolution took place there. The responsible thing to do, as a starting point, was acknowledge that fact, which the communists did (and Stalin to a greater extent than Lenin before him).

Yes, Meles was a dictator. And yes, the constitution is based on indigenous nations. That does not automatically suggest causality: Meles Zenawi did not “turn Ethiopia to ‘ethnic’ federalism”. Its long history did.

In fact, events show that Zenawi and the dominant faction he governed with, were no longer in support of the “rights of small nations” by the time they took power.

With the exception of holding the pre-agreed referendum on Eritrean independence (he may have had little choice in the matter: friends in Addis used to like to tell the story of how Meles’ own stepmother, who happens to be Eritrean, and who raised him, left him in his official Addis residence to go and vote for independence in Eritrea, then returned after), he fails to implement the spirit and the letter of the new arrangements that were based on principles forged in the course of the long war.

The best example is found in the very incident that sparked the current uprising: if the regime knew that – as Mamdani points out – the 1994 federal constitution guaranteed the nationalities concerned authority over their land, why then did it try to expand the boundaries of the Federal capital Addis further into Oromo territory over the objections of people there?

In other words, the problem in Ethiopia is the exact opposite of what Professor Mamdani sees. It is not the “ethnic” constitution at fault; it is the failure by the Zenawi regime to genuinely implement it, by negating the spirit of the idea in private, while pretending to uphold it in public.

In particular, Zenawi’s “Woyane” regime repeated Mengistu’s mistake of trying to hold on to Menelik’s state. Critically, he too failed to address the historic issue of land reform that began the whole shake-up of Ethiopia with the student protests against the Emperor. In practice, land is still the property of the state, to be handed out for “developmental” purposes, upholding the Mengistu mentality, but now in the context of global neo-liberalism.

“Derg and [the TPLF] took a very similar approach to the land question. Which is why, three decades after TPLF comes to power, they have still been unable to do land reform, abandoned agrarian reform and ironically, put rural Ethiopian land on the international auction. Something like four million acres of rural farmland, mostly in southern Ethiopia has been leased out to foreign investors since the mid-2000s, ” observes journalist Parselelo Kantai, who frequents the country.

Power comes with its temptations, and a state machine comes with its own institutional imperatives. It would appear that once a group finds itself in control of the apparatus of an empire such as Menelik’s, they become very reluctant to abandon its workings. Perhaps it is only the armed forces in Portugal, having overthrown their autocratic Caetano regime in 1974, that ever went on to immediately dismantle their empire and allow the conquered to go free.

The politics of the armed coalition coming together and finally driving Mengistu out may well have been the moment for this change in attitude to begin, not least because the Meles’ TPLF was by far the militarily dominant faction of the alliance.

To sum up Meles Zenawi: he evolved into what many ‘revolutionaries” became after the Cold War era: a technocratic autocrat placing his hopes in a neo-liberal approach to solving the country’s deep economic problems through a “developmentalist” strategy. He quite literally burned himself out hoping that, by bringing rapid infrastructural development, he could perhaps outpace the historical political claims, and thus render them redundant.

This essentially meant a new form of what Mengistu and Selassie had done before him: overlook people’s ancestral claims to this or that, and simply see the whole landmass as a site for “development” projects, no matter who they may displace or inconvenience.

But “any notion of ‘progress’ or ‘modernization’ that does not start from a peoples’ culture is tantamount to genocide.” the late Professor Dan Nabudere warned us.

Meles Zenawi sought to hold on to the very imperial state he had once fought. His unwillingness to fully honour the terms of the broad alliance of all the fighting groups, and instead consolidated his armed group to take factional control of the whole state and set the course for new upheavals. His sudden death became the opening for these issues to spill out into the streets.

His immediate successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, soon found that the kind of extreme state violence that had served Zenawi, and Mengistu before him, and Selassie before them both, no longer worked, forcing Deslaegn to resign in failure.

Abiy Ahmed must finally deal with these realities. Ultimately, any attempt to do politics based on the imperatives of the Menelik-created state was, and is, going to come up against the fact that this state actually started life as an empire. If the history of Ethiopia has shown one thing, it is that this approach has always provoked rebellions.

Ethiopia, one could say, is back to the pre-war situation it was in just before Mengistu’s coup.

The problem is conceptual; the same one that confronted Selassie and Mengistu: are we running a nation, or a homegrown empire made up of several? 

Mr Abiy Ahmed would be wise not to go down that path.

His challenge is to dismantle the remnants of Meles’ personal military apparatus, genuinely re-orient the country back to its federal constitutional ethos, begin to address the land tenure question, and quickly, before the political grievances – and the economic challenges underlying them – completely boil over.

As the world becomes less secure and with fewer overlords, there will be more and more examples of Africa’s invisible nations asserting themselves to manage control of their resources.

Dismissing them as “ethnic” is simply laying a foundation to justify violence against them.

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Kalundi Serumaga is a social and political commentator based in Kampala.

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Elite Feuds: Are the SGR Protesters in Mombasa Pawns in a Larger Battle for Control of Port Services?

5 min read. The evidence suggests that the protestors in Mombasa are actually crying for the scraps of what was already a broken system that benefitted the elite few. If the protests against the directive to transport all cargo on the SGR are successful (an unlikely outcome), this will result in the protection of businesses that have long enjoyed near-monopoly advantages at the expense of the wider public interest in Mombasa.

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Elite Feuds: Are the Sgr Protesters in Mombasa Pawns in a Larger Battle for Control of Port Services?
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Protests in Mombasa against a directive that all cargo passing through the Port of Mombasa should be transported via the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), and cleared at the Inland Container Depot (ICD) in Nairobi, have continued despite a meeting between the political leadership of Mombasa County and the national government where – the public was told – the directive had been suspended. At the heart of the debacle, of course, lies the question of the high cost that was involved in building the SGR, and the fact that since it was launched in January 2018, the SGR freight service has not been able to compete favourably with trucks plying the Mombasa-Nairobi highway.

The protestors have argued that they are protecting jobs. A study commissioned by the County Government of Mombasa has shown that 2, 987 employees working in Mombasa for Container Freight Stations (CFSs), fuel stations, and as truck drivers have already been laid off since the SGR began its freight operations, and that over 8,000 more jobs are under threat following the directive. Granted, the fear of economic exclusion and the loss of jobs is bound to be a politically explosive issue anywhere in Kenya. But could the protestors in Mombasa be gullible participants in a larger battle between entrenched business interests for private control of cargo storage facilities? The evidence suggests that the protestors in Mombasa are actually crying for the scraps of what was already a broken system that benefitted the elite few.

It is notable that the leading protagonists in the SGR drama, and the politics surrounding the establishment of inland storage facilities at Nairobi and Naivasha – especially before the March 9 handshake – were President Uhuru Kenyatta and the County Governor of Mombasa, Hassan Joho, a powerful businessman with interests in freight stations at the Coast.

Both Kenyatta and Joho are members of families that own huge tracts of land in the country. The Kenyatta family is known to own massive acreage up-country, especially in the Central highlands and in Naivasha, and modestly less along the Coast, where Arab, Indian and some Swahili families (the Johos consider themselves Swahili) have dominated land ownership since long before Kenya’s independence.

Could the protestors in Mombasa be gullible participants in a larger battle between entrenched business interests for private control of cargo storage facilities?

History is replete with examples of struggles over the location, and therefore the control of commerce and collection of rent for port storage all over the world. With the expansion of its capacity in recent years the Port of Mombasa has become increasingly important to powerful economic players with control over land, and with influence over the country’s politics. In fact, the nexus between political influence, land ownership and port business became clearer when services at the port almost ground to a halt in 2008 following the post-election violence that broke out that year.

Business interests

Due to lack of container storage space, ships were forced to queue out at sea for indefinite periods of time while importers paid high ship delay surcharges. In fact, matters got so bad – cargo entering Mombasa could take up to 10 days to clear – that the then Managing Director, Abdallah Mwaruwa, was sacked two years into his appointment. It was in this context that a group of private investors proposed to the Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) that they provide storage units in order to ease the burden on the container terminal. Soon thereafter, Container Freight Stations (CFSs) – managed privately but licensed as sites for customs clearance by the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) – rapidly spread in and around Mombasa.

There are now more than 20 CFSs scattered throughout the town around which operates a ring of local powerbrokers and owners of extensive and commercially viable pieces of land in and around Mombasa. The CFSs have persisted and multiplied with the expansion of the port itself but ironically, they are threatened by the expansion in port infrastructure, in particular the SGR and its inland dry ports.

The nexus between political influence, land ownership and port business became clearer when services at the port almost ground to a halt in 2008 following the post-election violence that broke out that year.

From their inception, CFSs have been a source of aggravation for importers, shipping lines and the residents of Mombasa. The decentralisation of customs clearance to these facilities has caused problems of oversight, with accusations of corruption, including malpractice and smuggling. Many CFSs are also known for their incompetence, mishandling of cargo, overloading and fraudulent documentation. Containers have been damaged and cargo has disappeared. Clearing is deliberately delayed in order to extract higher fees from importers, which increases consumer prices.

Since 2012, powerful players, including major shipping lines and the governments of Uganda and Rwanda, have successfully lobbied to circumvent the facilities altogether, removing themselves from the CFS conversation long before the SGR was launched. In this way, some goods bound for Uganda are cheaper than those destined for Kenya. Less powerful importers have continued to operate at the mercy of CFSs whose owners have accrued greater profits, even as the cost of clearing cargo at the port has increased.

For Mombasa residents, CFSs have increased congestion, as cargo is moved around twice – from the port to the CFS, and then again out of the CFS to final destinations – worsening traffic, causing accidents and damaging roads.

Joining the handshake system

The threat that the SGR and its inland container depots posed to the CFSs in Mombasa was clear even before the SGR began its operations. The tussle between Uhuru Kenyatta and Hassan Joho between 2013 and 2017, while touching on various issues around the fate of devolution, was, in reality, deeply personal. To transfer cargo handling to Nairobi, and then to Naivasha, is to not only transfer the problems that CFSs have caused in Mombasa to other towns, but it is also to provide ample business opportunities to other large landowners there – members of families such as the Kenyattas – moving it away from the hands of families such as the Johos. This was a major contribution to Joho’s opposition to Jubilee before the 2018 handshake.

Amid claims that the SGR is threatening the Coast economy, companies associated with Hassan Joho and Mohammed Jaffer – both key financiers of Raila Odinga’s campaign for the presidency since at least 2007– are reported to have acquired lucrative deals with the SGR and the ICD in Nairobi under unclear circumstances; if you can’t beat the system, do business with it!

The tussle between Uhuru Kenyatta and Hassan Joho, while touching on various issues around the fate of devolution, was, in reality, deeply personal.

In sum, if the protests against the directive to transport all cargo on the SGR are successful (an unlikely outcome), this will result in the protection of businesses that have long enjoyed near-monopoly advantages at the expense of the wider public interest in Mombasa.

On the other hand, the state is likely to respond – as it did – with more violence, as such protests threaten entrenched business interests with influence on public policy that are located away from the Coast.

My argument is that the “protection” of CFS businesses in Mombasa from the noose of the SGR will not go a long way in fixing the economic problems afflicting the county in particular, and the Coast region in general.

Someone should impress it upon the protestors that scraps from a broken system benefitting the elite few will not end the region’s long-felt sense of exclusion.

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From Game Changer to Railway to Nowhere: The Rise and Fall of Lunatic Line 2.0

8 min read. It goes without saying that the recently commissioned 120-kilometre Nairobi-Naivasha extension of the new railway line ending at Suswa is an economic puzzle, as the bulk of the cargo that comes through the port of Mombasa is either destined for Nairobi, or is in transit to Uganda and beyond. It is a misguided “if we build they will come” scheme since Suswa offers none of the advantages associated with a viable location for an industrial park.

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From Game Changer to Railway to Nowhere: The Rise and Fall of Lunatic Line 2.0
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Two weeks ago, Uhuru Kenyatta commissioned the 120-kilometre Nairobi-Naivasha extension of the new railway line commonly referred to as Phase 2A. Phase 1, which runs from Mombasa to Nairobi, was completed and launched with great fanfare in 2017. Not so this time round. On the day of the launch, a local daily headlined its story thus: “Uhuru to launch expensive SGR [Standard Gauge Railway] train to ‘nowhere.’” The “nowhere” caught on, with one international media house carrying the headline, “The railroad to nowhere China built has opened in Kenya” and another, “Kenya struggles to manage debt for railway to nowhere.”

The “nowhere” refers to Duka Moja (literally meaning “one shop”), a sleepy trading centre on the Maai Mahiu-Narok road where the railway line comes to an abrupt end. Duka Moja lies about 20 kilometres beyond the last train station at Suswa, a slightly busier cattle market about five kilometres down the highway turn-off at Maai Mahiu. There is little to take commuters there, unless one is a cattle trader. Naivasha town, which would be the destination for commuters, is a good 30 kilometres by road from the train station at Suswa but only an hour and a half’s drive from Nairobi. There being no station at Duka Moja means that the stretch will lie unused until “Phase 2B” is built—if it ever is.

The entire Phase 2A extension is an economic puzzle. The bulk of the cargo that comes through the port of Mombasa is either destined for Nairobi, or is in transit to Uganda and beyond. In 2018, the port handled 21.8 million metric tonnes of dry cargo of which 9.6 million tonnes—44 per cent—was transit cargo. This suggests only two logical destinations for rail freight: Nairobi and Malaba. After offloading in Nairobi, the only other logical line for rail freight is one that serves transit cargo, terminating at Kisumu or Malaba as the case may be.

In October 2018, we were informed that the financing agreement for Phase 2B, the 250-kilometre stretch from Naivasha to Kisumu, would be signed at the margins of the China-Africa Summit (FOCAC). Upon his return, Cabinet Secretary for Transport James Macharia informed the country that the Chinese authorities had asked for a feasibility study “of the whole project”. He was quick to add that he was confident that they would be able to produce one in no time, since they now had data from the Mombasa-Nairobi line which had by then been in operation for close to a year. There are two observations to be made here. Firstly, it is the Chinese who have been running the railway, and it is they, and not the government, who have the data on its operations. Secondly, CS Macharia implies that no feasibility study had been undertaken. This is not quite true. There exists a feasibility study for the Mombasa-Nairobi line carried out by the contractor, China Road and Bridge Company. The economic evaluation—which takes up 17 pages of the 143-page document—is the shoddiest thing of its kind that I have seen.

In April this year, the Kenyan delegation left for Beijing amid much fanfare, again anticipating that they would sign the financing of Phase 2B at the margins of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Summit. This time China dropped the bombshell; the project would not be financed. The government had not been paying attention. A couple of weeks prior, China’s Ministry of Finance had released a document titled Debt Sustainability Framework for Participating Countries of the Belt and Road Initiative. It was posted on their website, and was the theme of China’s Finance Minister’s speech at that BRI summit. The long and short of it was that the era of chequebook diplomacy was over. China was bringing sovereign risk assessment on board. More interestingly, China had not formulated its own framework, stating in the document that it was adopting the IMF/World Bank Debt Sustainability Framework for Low Income Countries. Evidently, the administration had missed that memo.

Once the financing fell through, a hastily conceived “Plan B” proposing to revamp the old meter gauge line and integrate it with the new railway was unveiled. The initial announcement indicated that the revamped line would terminate in Kisumu at a cost of Sh40 billion ($400 million). Within days, this plan was abandoned in favour of another routing terminating at Malaba on the Kenya-Uganda border. It was to be a public-private partnership (PPP) project costing Sh20 billion ($200 million). The latest on these “Plan Bs” is that the Chinese contractor’s quotation far exceeds the government’s preliminary estimates.

In April this year, the Kenyan delegation left for Beijing amid much fanfare, again anticipating they would sign the financing of Phase 2B at the margins of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Summit. This time China dropped the bombshell; the project would not be financed.

From the outset, the public has been led to believe that the SGR train has a freight capacity of more than 22 million metric tonnes. This column has challenged the operational feasibility of carrying this much freight on a single-track railway line, particularly one that is also used by passenger trains. A paper prepared for the Kenya Railways Board by the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA), a government policy think-tank, puts the actual operational capacity at 9.75 million metric tonnes. These cargo capacity numbers imply that the railway is capable of carrying only transit or domestic cargo but not both (in 2018 the port handled 9.6 million tonnes of transit cargo).

If the extension to Naivasha is to be of any use, it stands to reason that the railway should prioritise transit cargo. And if transit cargo can utilise all of the railway’s capacity, why then is the government hell-bent on forcing Nairobi-bound freight onto the railway? In order for it to comply with the terms of financing entered into with the lender, the Exim Bank of China, is the readily apparent reason. The loan is secured with an agreement referred to as “take or pay” which obliges Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) to deliver to the railway enough freight to service the debt, failing which KPA will cover the revenue deficit from its own sources.

According to a schedule attached to the agreement, the freight required to service the loans averages 5 million tonnes a year, equivalent to five trains a day between 2020 and 2029 when repayment of the first two loans for the Mombasa-Nairobi section will be completed. The freight comes down to two million tonnes a year thereafter, equivalent to two trains a day until 2034, the completion date for the second loan. A third loan, which financed Phase 2A, does not feature in the agreement as it had not been negotiated, but it is possible that the agreement was revised to factor it in.

Whatever the case, the contract is moot; the revenue streams are calculated at a tariff of $0.12 (Sh12) per km/tonne, which works out to $870 (Sh87,000) per 20-foot container of up to 15 tonnes from Mombasa to Nairobi, compared to the $500 that the railway is currently charging which translates to a rate of $0.069 per km/tonne. Even at this cost the railway cannot compete with trucking because of additional handling charges and “last mile” transport from the railway depot to the owners’ premises which, according to a government report, increase rail freight costs to US$1,420 (Ksh.142,000) compared to a total trucking cost of $850 (Sh85,000). If we use the current rate of $500 to calculate the freight required to pay the loan, KPA needs to deliver 10.4 million tonnes a year, which is more than the 9.75 million tonnes operational capacity given in the KIPPRA report.

On the ground, things are different. According to data published by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, the railway earned Sh4 billion from 2.9 million tonnes of freight last year, a rate of Sh2.91 per km/tonne. In the first two months of this year, it earned Sh959 million from 662,000 tonnes, a slight improvement in revenue yield to Sh2.99 per km/ton. Either way, the actual revenue per km/tonne is still just a quarter of the rate used to calculate the loan repayments. As this column has maintained from the outset, there was never a likelihood that the railway was going to pay its way. The debt was always going to be paid by the taxpayer. It is difficult to fathom why the government and the Chinese lender bothered with this shoddy securitisation charade for debt that has an implicit sovereign guarantee anyway.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch, the “railway to nowhere” epithet seems to have stung Uhuru Kenyatta: “Let me tell you. Mai Mahiu… Suswa is not nowhere. This is Kenya. And let me tell you. Whether you like it or not, once I am done with my work and go home, after 20 years when I come back here, Maai Mahiu and Suswa will be more developed than Nairobi.”

Kenyatta was alluding to the plans to set up industrial parks in that locality, some of which we are told will take advantage of the proximity to the geothermal power and steam resources in the region. This is another one of the administration’s misguided “if we build they will come” schemes. Before any further comment, it is worth remarking that Konza Technocity—which is also smack on the railway line—remains a field of dreams. The viability of locations for industrial parks is determined by their proximity to big markets, or raw materials, or labour. It is far from evident that Suswa offers any of these advantages. If we think about export processing for overseas markets, the most cost-effective location is at the coast. It does not make sense to transport raw materials hundreds of kilometres inland and the finished goods back to the port. This is one of the reasons why Athi River has struggled as an Export Processing Zone.

But even were Suswa a most inviting location for industrial parks, the Sh150 billion price tag is exorbitant. The first three berths of the Lamu Port—one of which has been completed—carry a price tag of $480 million. The cost of Phase 2A is enough to build another three (which would put Lamu port’s capacity on a par with Mombasa), plus a highway connecting Lamu to the interior; and you could throw in an airport together with all the housing and social amenities Lamu needs to become a viable port and industrial city.

There is reason to suspect that Mr. Kenyatta reacted in one of his uninhibited moments. The land at Suswa on which the railway terminates is part of an expansive holding—over 70,000 acres—known as Kedong Ranch. Owned by a company of the same name, Kedong Ranch Ltd, the land was expropriated from the Maasai community in the colonial era. Like many other holdings, it was not restituted to the community but instead became available for purchase under Jomo Kenyatta’s willing buyer-willing seller policy. In 1963, Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta had given an undertaking to the Lancaster House constitutional conference that “tribal land” would be “entrenched in the tribal authority” and it would not be possible for anyone to “take away land belonging to another tribe.” He reneged on this undertaking.

In the Kedong case, the principal beneficiary was Muhotetu Farmers Company, a land-buying entity from Nyeri (Muhotetu is an acronym for “Muhoya” and “Tetu”, both localities in Nyeri County), which until recently owned 40.66 per cent of Kedong Ranch Ltd, according to documents filed in one of several court cases involving the company. Other shareholders include Family Circle Investments—with 6.83 per cent—Jackson Angaine and Jeremiah Nyaga. Angaine and Nyaga were respectively Minister for Lands and Settlement and Minister for Education in Jomo Kenyatta’s first post-independence government. It would have been very unusual in those days for people like Angaine and Nyaga to partake of such largesse without there being a share for the Kenyatta family.

But even were Suswa a most inviting location for industrial parks, the Sh150 billion price tag is exorbitant. The first three berths of the Lamu Port carry a price tag of $480 million. The cost of Phase 2A is enough to build another three plus a highway connecting Lamu to the interior

Two years ago, Muhotetu Farmers Company’s shareholding was acquired by a company going by the name of Newell Holdings Ltd. for Sh2.1 billion in a transaction that some shareholders have challenged in court as highly irregular. They claim that the company did not hold a general meeting to approve the deal, and that shareholders were not offered the right of first refusal (pre-emptive rights) as required by law. Suspicion is heightened by the claim by some shareholders that they were credited with the proceeds of the sale well before the date of the transaction. The import of this is that Muhotetu Farmers Company shareholders will have been excluded from compensation for the railway line terminating on the land, and from benefitting from the appreciation of value that may accrue from the proposed industrial parks—if they ever take off. We need not go to the trouble of sleuthing to establish who the owners and/or beneficial interests of Newell Holdings are as we can confidently surmise that they are powerful people within the government.

Not too long ago we saw Uhuru Kenyatta personally propositioning the leaders of Uganda and South Sudan with land grants in Suswa to build dry docks for their countries. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, what else could it be but a duck?

As we say in Gĩkũyũ, ona ĩkĩhĩa mwene nĩ otaga (if a burning house cannot be salvaged, the owner might as well enjoy the warmth of the fire).

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Why Directive on SGR Cargo Could Kill Kenya’s Small Towns and Cities

9 min read. RASNA WARAH explains why the decision to force importers to use rail transport could retard urban growth along the Mombasa-Nairobi highway, entrenching Nairobi’s position as the nerve centre of economic activity in the country.

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Why Directive on SGR Cargo Could Kill Kenya’s Small Towns and Cities
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A recent study by the University of Nairobi’s School of Business says that Mombasa County has suffered economically due to the government’s decision to force importers to use the standard gauge railway (SGR) instead of road transport from the port of Mombasa. The study says that since the implementation of the government directive the county has lost Sh17.4 billion – equivalent to 8.4 per cent of its annual earnings – and 2,987 jobs.

The study further notes that towns along the Mombasa-Nairobi highway have also been adversely affected, as businesses that depended on trucking – such as small restaurants, lodgings and other services that depend on long-distance drivers – are having to shut down. (I will not go into the viability or non-viability of the SGR itself, as this topic has been ably tackled by others, including the economist David Ndii.)

What does this mean for the country’s future prospects? Well, for one, small towns along the Mombasa-Nairobi highway, such as Voi and Kibwezi, might experience depopulation, which will have negative economic and social consequences for them. (On the other hand, stops along the SGR route may also experience a boom, but that is something we can only speculate about at this stage.) It may also mean that inland dry ports and cargo terminals that are near Nairobi will further reinforce the position of the capital city and its environs as the nerve centre of economic activity – a phenomenon known as “urban primacy” – which does not augur well for devolution and balanced economic development.

The six-lane Nairobi-Mombasa highway envisioned by the government may also not solve these problems because if importers are still forced to use the SGR, the towns along its route will not benefit substantially because it is trucks, and not private motor vehicles, that usually drive small-scale trade in these towns. (It also seems counterproductive to build a superhighway along the same route as the SGR; if the government’s intention was to promote railway use, why build a bigger road alongside it?)

Urban primacy – the concentration of people, capital, revenue and industrial production in one city – is common in countries that are in the early stages of urban development. In most so-called developing countries, the capital city is typically where people and economic activities are concentrated. Some countries, like India, have commercial hubs like the port city of Mumbai that are not capital cities but that do generate a disproportionately large amount of the country’s GDP, but these are usually the exception rather than the rule.

However, “primate cities” can be bad for the national economy as a whole because they create imbalances in the distribution of resources and populations that can lead to uneven development and political tensions. Kenyans’ clamour for devolution was a response to the fact that the capital Nairobi and selected agriculturally productive regions benefitted the most from the country’s public resources while cities, towns and other regions in the rest of the country did not.

Even Mombasa, a city with a long history going back centuries, and a natural deep-water harbour, has been unable to compete with Nairobi when it comes to public investments. This explains why, despite the city being at least a thousand years old, Mombasa’s population has only grown to about one million, about a fifth of Nairobi’s population. Yet until about a century ago, Nairobi did not even exist; it is an “accidental city” that grew rapidly due to a variety of factors, including being designated the capital of Kenya.

Devolution was expected to change all that, but as the government’s policy on SGR cargo has shown, national governments can still undermine the economy of a region by placing or diverting resources elsewhere.

Little town blues

Unlike many Kenyans who have a rosy image of an idyllic rural or small-town life, with birds chirping, cows mooing and fresh air wafting in through the windows, and who believe that big cities are bad and full of vices, I am a die-hard urbanist who believes that the future lies in cities. Living in small-town Malindi has intensified my belief, not only because I do not get to enjoy the pleasures of urban living, like cinemas, street lighting and good restaurants, but also because I see a clear correlation between economic stagnation and an undiversified economy.

Malindi has depended largely on tourism, which is sporadic and dwindling. Lack of investment in this town has ensured that it does not attract people with a variety of skills. There is no university or large industry here that brings in a wide range of professionals and skilled labour. So the town has remained a backwater with nothing much happening and which mainly attracts sex tourists.

Devolution was expected to change all that, but as the government’s policy on SGR cargo has shown, national governments can still undermine the economy of a region by placing or diverting resources elsewhere.

Downtown Malindi has resembled a cattle market for decades – the chaos of boda bodas, the lack of pavements and street lighting and zero urban planning have made the experience of going to the central business district extremely nerve-wracking. Malindi is what happens to urban areas when they are not planned, when there is little respect for the citizens inhabiting them, and when there is little incentive to make them more attractive and environmentally sustainable.

Malindi dulls the senses of the locals, and makes them cynical. They have come to believe that Malindi is – and will remain – a town with poor infrastructure, a crumbling paradise for them and their grandchildren. Those who manage to escape the town never come back. Promises of infrastructure development usually do not materialise, even with devolution. The lack of opportunities and amenities in this seaside town has also ensured that Malindi remains an economically and socially divided city with a small group of wealthy foreigners, a very large majority of poor people, and a tiny middle class.

There are many who believe that this is the nature of urbanisation – that cities and towns cannot be planned and that they grow spontaneously and haphazardly and quite often accidentally, and so urbanisation is a process that should be allowed to evolve naturally. While this may be true – most cities start out as small, disorganised villages – urban planning and management are what makes cities liveable. Imagine a city with no sewerage system, no public park, no bus stop, no paved roads, no street lighting and no public services. Would it even be worth living in such a city? What would be the point?

In the early 1990s especially, when a wave of liberalisation and privatisation was sweeping the world, United Nations- and World Bank-types advocated for market forces to determine the provision of basic services such as water. It was assumed that the private sector would step in when governments didn’t – or couldn’t – provide basic services and that this would lead to greater efficiency. The withdrawal of the state from service provision – a conditionality of the IMF-World Bank structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) – led to immense hardship in poor countries, especially in the areas of health and education. Urban decay became the norm as services collapsed or became unaffordable.

However, these believers in the free market forgot that there are some things that even the private sector cannot be trusted to handle well, such as deciding which sections of a city should be allocated to public parks and whether the city should have a sewerage system. On the contrary, given the profit motive of the private sector, it is more likely than not to view a piece of idle land as real estate that can make a profit rather than a space that should be reserved and preserved for the public good. Which explains why nearly all public parks in Nairobi have been grabbed by private developers and why the art deco-style bungalows in Nairobi’s Parklands area have almost all been demolished to pave way for ugly apartment blocks. No one tried to save these parks and houses by declaring them as part of Nairobi’s heritage. On the contrary, the authorities and powerful individuals colluded in their destruction.

The difference between a liveable city and one which is unliveable lies in how it views its citizens, its heritage and its environment. Planning is an essential part of this process. Urbanisation without good urban planning is simply urban growth.

Cities and socio-economic development  

Cities are the key to economic and social development. All over the developing world, indicators for health and education are better in urban than in rural areas, and Kenya is no exception. Kenyan urban populations tend to be healthier, more literate and wealthier than their rural counterparts. Agglomeration benefits and economies of scale brought about by populations concentrated in one area also make cities economically efficient.

The 2009 Kenya census shows that nearly one-third of the country’s population is now urban, but urbanisation levels are still way below those of other African countries. In fact, along with Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, Kenya has among the lowest urbanisation levels in the world. This has implications for the country’s economic prospects.

Even though urbanisation is shifting the locus of poverty to cities and to the informal settlements (slums) within them, rural poverty still remains a problem. While it is easier to ascertain the role of the formal economy in national development, the role of the informal urban economy is not so clear, but is nonetheless significant. Studies show that African cities are characterised by informality, both in housing and in economic activity. The informal economy accounts for as much as 40 per cent of GDP in African countries, and accounts for more than 60 per cent of urban employment in Africa. This “underground” or “invisible” economy is what keeps cities functioning, and should not be underestimated. It is what pushes rural folk to cities and quite often keeps them there for generations.

The difference between a liveable city and one which is unliveable is how it views its citizens, its heritage and its environment. Planning is an essential part of this process. Urbanisation without good urban planning is simply urban growth.

This does not mean that rural development and agriculture should be neglected. The World Bank’s Commission on Growth and Development makes a clear link between agricultural productivity and urbanisation; it emphasises that improved agricultural productivity complements, rather than hinders, urban growth. In fact, many towns in Kenya, such as Nakuru and Eldoret, grew because of agriculture. These farming towns have an agricultural base that sustains them and that creates other economic opportunities for people living in them.

I would, therefore, argue that Kenya remains poor because present and past governments have neglected the country’s urban areas, and failed to see the link between sustainable urbanisation, sound urban planning and economic development. The directive on SGR cargo is a clear example of this blindness.

Cities and devolution

The 1963 Local Government Act created 175 local authorities in Kenya that were financed partly by their own revenues. These local authorities were abolished under the new constitution. As required by Article 184 of the constitution, national legislation should provide for the governance and management of urban areas. The Urban Areas and Cities Act (Revised 2015 edition) does provide for a system of city and municipal boards and town committees that are charged with the task of adopting urban policies and strategies, including on service delivery and land use.

However, the population threshold set out by the Act is too high. The Act defines a city as one that has a population of more than 500,000, and currently only two cities (Nairobi and Mombasa) have attained this population level. It defines a town as one that has a population of between 70,000 and 249,000, which places only Kisumu, Nakuru, Eldoret and Kehancha (Migori County) in this category.

When it comes to declaring a territory a city, size should not matter. Geneva, for example, has a population of just 200,000 yet it is still considered a city and Switzerland’s capital Bern has a population of just 130,000. Yet these cities enjoy all the amenities of urban life.

The 2017 Amendment Bill seeks to reclassify urban areas as those that have populations of at least 50,000, which could see the creation of a lot more municipal boards across the country. However, the criteria for the creation of these boards are rather restrictive, and could serve as a deterrent, especially in poor and largely rural counties.

I would, therefore, argue that Kenya remains poor because the present and past governments have neglected the country’s urban areas, and failed to see the link between sustainable urbanisation, sound urban planning and economic development. The directive on SGR cargo is a clear example of this blindness.

One of the conditions for the creation of a city or municipal board is that the city or town must have the capacity to generate sufficient revenue to sustain its operations. This is difficult for many of the poorer counties that rely on the national government to carry out operations, including the building of roads that are not part of the national highway network. Another condition is to have the capacity to effectively and efficiently deliver services, which was a tall order even back when cities and towns in Kenya were managed by city councils and municipalities. Public-private partnerships in service delivery could be an option, but these options are likely to remain unaffordable for the majority.

One of the pitfalls of devolution is that urban areas may suffer under a system where devolved funds are used to cater mostly for rural populations in the counties, rather than to the needs of urban dwellers. While this is understandable given the marginalisation of several regions under the previous centralised system, neglecting urban areas may come to haunt counties in the future.

But what happened to Mombasa was completely avoidable. To deliberately undermine an economic activity that employed thousands of people is nothing but economic sabotage on the part of the central government. This decision is likely to impact Mombasa’s fortunes in profound ways.

I hope the city of Mombasa will not become the unfortunate casualty of a misguided government policy – based largely, I believe, on the realisation that SGR was a costly project that will most likely not pay for itself – that could have long-term and far-reaching effects not just on Mombasa but on the coastal region as a whole.

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