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

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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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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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Will Ruto Resist the Temptation to Marginalize Civil Society?

William Ruto’s administration has an opportunity to distinguish itself from its predecessor as a defender of civil society’s independent role.  

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Will Ruto Resist the Temptation to Marginalize Civil Society?
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When scholars speak of “civil society”, they usually mean all organized groupings of people that are neither part of government nor part of business. Sometimes media groups are also included. Using this definition, Kenya’s civil society sector is rich and diverse. It ranges from neighbourhood chamas, to churches and mosques, to international NGOs with billion-shilling budgets. Yet it is the highly focused governance and democracy-promoting civil society organizations (CSOs) that usually have the most prominent voices in Kenya. Around the world, the 1990s heralded an “opening” of space for such organizations, but that space eventually began to close. Kenya is no exception to this experience.

There has also grown some confusion in the country about the role that civil society ought to play. In the 1990s, CSOs were perceived by wananchi as primarily interested in fairness, accountability, and human rights—not political power—as they pushed to make Kenya a democracy. But as the new millennium has unfolded, prominent CSO leaders have increasingly been seen as “taking sides” in the political arena, whether in supporting the International Criminal Court indictments and the challenge to the 2022 presidential results, or in themselves running for political office. Although most NGOs and community-based organizations remain apolitical, these changes can make CSOs in general appear to be less united with wananchi as a whole. And this leaves CSOs in a more precarious position.

With the new William Ruto administration, the country now sits at a possible inflection point. Will Ruto follow in the footsteps of his immediate predecessor, Uhuru Kenyatta, in threatening to close the space for CSOs, or might he take an approach similar to Mwai Kibaki, under whose leadership vocal Kenyan civil society largely thrived?

As a candidate, Ruto ran as a proponent of accountability. If he wishes to continue in the same vein as president, he will facilitate Kenyan civil society and free media. Doing so will not only help to guarantee his legacy among Kenyans, it will also help to retain Nairobi as a regional leader and an employment hub for the large Eastern Africa and Horn development sector. And it could bring more politicians with a CSO background to his side.

Here, we present a brief history of the space allowed for civil society over the past sixty-plus years and under the three previous administrations, followed by a discussion of possible trajectories for Ruto and their potential outcomes.

Kenya’s rich history of civil society since before independence

Kenya has had a reputation for being home to a strong civil society sector—arguably the strongest in East Africa. This reputation stems from the long-standing culture of harambee, which encourages people to work together to better the community. The sector has also grown in part out of the country’s religious communities. But it has also grown from the decolonization movements that included educational institutions, trade unions, and ethnic associations, among others fighting for self-rule.

Kenya’s CSOs are diverse, yet they all share at least one thing in common: the space in which they can operate is determined by government regulation—and sometimes by a government’s whims. During colonial times, space was exceedingly limited. The colonial government restricted education and assembly in order to maintain its illegitimate power. During the Jomo Kenyatta administration, local community based organizations and harambee groups were granted more space, but also something of a responsibility to provide self-help solutions.

Closed space: repression and resilience under Moi

For more than two decades, civil society was tightly controlled by the Daniel arap Moi administration. After the 1982 coup attempt, Moi learned to carefully monitor society for potential sources of alternative power, including from nongovernmental organizations and the media.

Given flat economic growth and increasing calls for economic liberalization and budget downsizing from powerful Western donors, however, Moi also recognized the benefits of some types of civil society actors. He recognized that they could provide social services like healthcare, education, and sanitation services where the state could not.

Moi skilfully developed regulations that allowed such apolitical service-provision organizations to offer needed services, while maintaining the ability to take credit for their work. At the same time, the creation of the governmental NGO Board in 1989 gave his administration an organizational authority to shut down or intimidate democracy, human rights, and governance organizations that he perceived as threatening him politically, while the NGO Act, passed in 1990, provided the legal justification. Media was similarly repressed while harambee organizations, meant to be an avenue for self-help, became politicized tools for support and mobilization.

Moi skilfully developed regulations that allowed such apolitical service-provision organizations to offer needed services, while maintaining the ability to take credit for their work.

Yet individual proponents of opening up the civic space, like Wangari Maathai, Oginga Odinga, and Kenneth Matiba, could not be fully deterred. Under Moi, they were largely based in professional organizations like the Law Society of Kenya, religious ones, like the National Council of Churches of Kenya, national movements like Greenbelt, or banned political parties like FORD. From these havens, they pushed for political opening and democracy for Kenyans.

And, importantly, they attracted popular support from wananchi wanting to live without fear of government. Activists and Kenyans together sought basic political and civic rights.

Opening space: CSOs in the Kibaki administration

When Mwai Kibaki came to power in 2002, he brought with him many allies from civil society. Kibaki’s regime not only hired many CSO leaders like Maina Kiai, Willy Mutunga, Kivutha Kibwana, and John Githongo into government, but also deliberately worked more openly with those who stayed in the third sector. Many thought Kibaki’s technocratic background allowed him to adopt a hands-off approach.

These strong relationships soured somewhat when Githongo was run out of the country in 2005. And tensions grew after the 2008 post-election violence, when some governance, human rights, and media leaders were harassed or restricted, and even murdered.

Yet Kibaki signed the Public Benefit Organization (PBO) Act of 2013 into law before leaving office. The progressive law, which aims to ensure transparency and accountability for organizations in Kenya, has been lauded by civil society advocates, but is yet to be operationalized nearly a decade later.

Further, beyond civil society leaders moving into administrative offices, during Kibaki’s time some civil society leaders began to seek their own political ambitions as well. New research shows that NGO work can act as a pipeline to politics for potential candidates by placing them in politics-adjacent roles and providing them with deep community connections and relevant expertise. Civic activism can align well with opposition politics. This trend of CSO activists making the leap into politics could erode a focus on human rights and the collective good. In seeking political advancement—especially in a country where MPs are among the highest paid in the world—former activists-turned-politicians may muddy the waters of civil society, blurring the line between governance and accountability.

Contracting space: Uhuru warns CSOs

The start of the Uhuru Kenyatta administration in March 2013 was in many ways overshadowed by the indictment in the preceding months of both Uhuru and his deputy, Ruto, at the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity in relation to the violence that followed the 2007 elections. Although service-providing civil society organizations were largely unaffected, and most NGOs stayed out of the conversation, many prominent governance and human rights organization leaders supported the ICC investigations. They petitioned for the courts to bar Uhuru and Ruto’s candidacy on account of the indictments and demanded that the trials move forward even after the two were in office. They focused on the worrying “culture of impunity” in the wake of the 2008 post-election violence.

This trend of CSO activists making the leap into politics could erode a focus on human rights and the collective good.

This had caused tension even before the 2013 election. Uhuru’s rhetoric troubled many CSOs as he supported calls for limits on foreign funding of NGOs. Public support for restrictions on NGO funding rose in some quarters as Uhuru supporters suggested that civil society had evolved into an “evil society.”

In the coming years, the space grew more hostile. Uhuru made sharp statements threatening to defund NGOs and restrict foreign worker permits. His administration also stridently refused to implement the PBO Act of 2013, even when ordered to do so by the High Court.

The administration was even willing to use the NGO Board, which the PBO Act abolishes, for political purposes. It sent harassing letters from the Board in an attempt to silence human rights and governance NGOs that had spoken out against Chris Msando’s brutal murder in the lead-up to the 2017 election.

These challenges were compounded by the government’s support of a controversial media bill which would have forced journalists to reveal their sources and, unsurprisingly, drew immediate protests. These efforts to restrict free expression led to reports that Kenya was experiencing significant free speech backsliding,

Yet these setbacks for civil society occurred as Kenyan legal institutions grew stronger. The courts’ empowerment culminated in the Supreme Court’s historic ruling on the 2017 election, annulling Uhuru’s win and requiring that the election be rerun. This dramatic democratic showing buoyed the CSO sector, reassuring governance groups that they were not operating alone, but rather had powerful allies on the march toward a stronger democracy. In so doing, however, did these prominent governance organizations increasingly politicize themselves?

New space: greater autonomy and accountability on the horizon?

The future prospects for Kenyan civil society now depend a great deal on how Ruto decides to lead. We see a unique opportunity for this new administration to distinguish itself from its predecessor as a defender of civil society’s independent role. In so doing, he may thwart further politicization of the sector.

Will President Ruto follow Candidate Ruto’s roadmap? While campaigning, Ruto worked hard to separate himself from prior administrations. He presented himself as an “outsider” candidate, immune to dynasty politics. His opposition to the Building Bridges Initiative suggested wariness of the strongman politics of years past and signalled an openness to robust government accountability, a point he has made at home and abroad.

Candidate Ruto appeared to extend a hand to civil society groups, in contrast to Uhuru’s contentious engagement with the sector. He promised that they would be free to operate without government interference. He explicitly invited them to hold the Kenya Kwanza government to account, referring to the sector as a key accountability mechanism, essential for good governance.

Yet during the same period, Candidate Ruto’s team was accused of media harassment that threatened progress toward a more robust democratic space for all. Prominent CSOs called for an opening of civic space with an eleven-point list of demands. They noted that Civicus, a global alliance of civil society organizations, had rated Kenyan civil society as “obstructed” while Ruto was deputy president.

The future prospects for Kenyan civil society now depend a great deal on how Ruto decides to lead.

It remains unclear what hand Ruto may have had in marginalizing civil society during the Kenyatta administration. And he may still harbour a grudge against CSOs for their support of the ICC trials. Regardless, the relationship between his administration and CSOs is off to a rocky start, as it is well known that prominent civil society groups strongly supported Ruto’s opponent, Raila Odinga, in the August general election. After the election, leading civil society activist (and The Elephant founder) John Githongo, claimed to have evidence that the IEBC could have been hacked easily. Githongo’s affidavit, which the court ruled could amount to perjury, was a prominent part of the larger, unsuccessful, effort to overturn Ruto’s win.

Moreover, compared to past periods, activists such as Githongo and Boniface Mwangi have been more open about their partisan leanings, which may make it easier for citizens to discount their calls for reform. Even former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga has advocated that civil society actors form a political party, a move which would further muddy the waters. Through these explicitly political dabblings, and by betting on Odinga in the August poll, the civil society sector may have inadvertently undermined its future relationship with the Ruto government.

Nevertheless, as president, Ruto can choose whether to see civil society as a continued opponent or not. At least publicly, he has not moved to restrict the sector in retaliation, and has called for civil society and media to work hand in hand with government to amplify the voices of Africa globally with regard to climate change. Yet after more than two months of the Kenya Kwanza government, it is not clear that the administration is going to heed its own calls.

If the new administration can put aside its election-related differences with prominent civil society actors and submit to accountability meted out by CSOs, Ruto will find an undeniably effective way to prove the anti-dynasty politics for which he campaigned. This may prove fruitful if he plans to seek re-election in 2027. It could also endear him to Western allies, who have historically encouraged democracy.

Activists such as John Githongo and Boniface Mwangi have been more open about their partisan leanings, which may make it easier for citizens to discount their calls for reform.

Indeed, abstaining from undermining civil society freedoms while also choosing to embrace criticism from CSOs could distinguish Ruto’s leadership internationally. The West is facing challenges with declining democratic credibility both at home and abroad. The US and UK spoke out in support of the ICC cases, yet took a “business as usual” approach to relations with the Uhuru/Ruto administration. Western leaders also praised the 2017 elections before they were annulled by the Kenyan Supreme Court. If Ruto shuns the temptation to ignore the warnings of civil society, his administration could be a model on the international stage that would needle at older democracies that may be leaning away from accountability.

On an even more practical note, re-opening space for civil society could help Ruto fulfil his vow to reinvigorate the Kenyan economy. The international humanitarian and development sector comprises a nontrivial part of the economy. There are not only UN agencies based in Nairobi, but also around 12,000 active NGOs countrywide, who employ an estimated quarter of a million people. The sector brought in KSh185 billion in donations in the 2019/2020 financial year.

Abstaining from undermining civil society freedoms while also choosing to embrace criticism from CSOs could distinguish Ruto’s leadership internationally.

Research shows that development sector organizations like international NGOs tend to locate in democratic countries more than in authoritarian ones. Thus a welcoming environment for civil society could help to retain Nairobi as a leader and an employment hub of the large Eastern Africa and Horn development sector.

Ruto must decide which legacy to leave for the history books. Ultimately, his administration, like those of his predecessors, may find itself unable to resist the temptation to frustrate and marginalize civil society actors who opposed his presidency. If that happens, we expect the sector to grow ever more nimble, adapting to restricted space just as it has in the past.

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Philosophy for the People

For philosophy to be relevant in Africa, it must democratize and address contemporary social problems.

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Philosophy for the People
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In late September 2022, a consortium of universities hosted by the Universite’ Catholique d’Afrique Centrale in Yaounde, Cameroon held an “Ethicslab” to deliberate on the theme, “Justice, Democracy and Diversity.” The meeting brought together doctoral candidates in philosophy from Cameroon, Canada, Nigeria, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to be mentored by experts. Some of those experts included Dany Rondeau (Canada), Geert Demuijnck (France, based in the Netherlands), and Bernard Gagnon (Canada).

The driving force behind the event was Thierry Ngosso, a young Cameroonian philosopher based  at the University of St Gallen, Switzerland. Ngosso’s dream has been to deliver important philosophical lessons in a readily digestible way to younger African scholars while at the same time aiming for social transformation.

The study of philosophy in the continent is marked by all-too-familiar colonial linguistic and political divisions: the anglophone sector fastened to the thought of figures such as John Rawls and analytic philosophy, while francophone countries usually follow the dictates of continental philosophy. Ngosso thinks it is time to collapse these age-old colonial divisions. Also, philosophy seems removed from pressing issues, such as poverty. It can certainly be successfully re-energized by interrogating topics such as ethics and health, ethics and education, ethics and business, politics, the environment, and so on to broaden and deepen linkages between the discipline and urgent contemporary issues.

Nonetheless, philosophy has always been valued in Cameroon’s education system. As early as high school, students are introduced to the discipline. At postgraduate levels, there are various social media forums where students debate philosophical concerns of mutual interest. These debates are usually vibrant and engrossing.

Since its inception in 2019, the Ethicslab has been inviting two or three keynote speakers from disciplines such as sociology, political science and history to brainstorm about the intellectual concerns it seeks to tackle. The Ethicslab is concerned with issues of normativity and social change. Such an approach obviously grants philosophy an urgency, purpose and social transformational energy.

The Ethicslab is an intellectual experiment to identify the future stars of theoretical thought on the continent. During the 2022 edition of the event, quite a few promising upcoming scholars further etched their names;  Benjamin Olujohungbe (Nigeria), Charles Dine (Cameroon/Canada), Hammadou Yaya (Cameroon),  Opeyemi Gbadegesin (Nigeria), Elisanne Pellerin (Canada), Tatiana Nganti (Cameroon), Henri Gbadi Finimonga (DRC), Kakmeni Schaller (Cameroon), Eric Vernuy Suyru (Cameroon) and Ndedi Emma Maximine Ndjandjo (Cameroon). All these individuals are not only being trained in the rigors of theoretical reflection but also in the ethics of mutuality and reciprocity. Although they come from varied national, linguistic, and institutional backgrounds, the objective is to establish commonalities based on universally accepted cultural and human values.

Ultimately, Ngosso is interested in effecting meaningful social change in African communities through the study and use of philosophy. He plans to find funding for about ten doctoral students and thirty postdoctoral scholars in the discipline within the next five years. He also intends to shift the nodes of perception regarding the African continent from an ostensibly external locus to largely endogenous sources. To realize these grand aims, Ngosso has had to battle with numerous bureaucratic obstacles. The quest to change societies from within also entails transforming the traditional character and functions of academic institutions and establishments. This is no small task. What Ngosso has been able to do is wrest a degree of flexibility in how he operates within and amongst institutions. He is currently employed by the University of Maroua, Cameroon, holds an ongoing research fellowship at the University of St. Gallen, where he is based, and is a research associate of Universite’ Catholique d’Afrique Centrale. Within an African context, and perhaps any other setting in the world, such institutional flexibility and mobility are rare. But this is precisely the sort of liberty Ngosso requires in accomplishing his stated mission of social change.

Perhaps as part of ongoing efforts to demystify the study of philosophy, Ngosso arranged a trip to Kribi for all the participants of the 2022 Ethicslab. Kribi, a coastal town, is a perfect spot to unwind. Its coast is replete with tourist attractions such as the magisterial Lobe Falls, a pristine array of waterfalls nestled within Kribi beach. The Atlantic ocean is always enticingly open for a swim after intense brainstorming or away from the diurnal pressures of everyday life. There are also amazing seaside resorts and restaurants and the most delightful varieties of seafood to savor.

In 2024, Ngosso plans a grand event to mark the fifth anniversary of the Ethicslab. In this, he will have accomplished the entrenchment of modern philosophy in Africa, concomitant globalization of its multicultural potentials and tentacles, and finally, a re-configuration of the discipline for the myriad demands and expectations of the 21st century.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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War of the Worlds: Africa’s Next Great War

The international community’s limited attention span is laser-focused on jihadism in the Sahel and the imploding Horn of Africa. But interstate war is potentially brewing in the eastern DRC.

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War of the Worlds: Africa’s Next Great War
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It’s happening again. A Rwandan-backed rebel force threatens the Congolese provincial capital of Goma while foreign intervention is cobbled together to bail out the struggling Congolese army. Unlike the last two or three times this happened, the conflict faces the prospect of horrific escalation into interstate war. Rwandan and Kenyan troops are racing headfirst into a confrontation. As Kenya airlifts troops into the east under the flag of the East Africa Community (EAC), the Rwandan soldiers embedded within the M23 rebellion show no signs of backing down. These two African states, each claiming to have the most professional force in the region, will soon trade blows.

Nearly thirty years of complex, multilayered, and tragic war in the Great Lakes have led to this latest escalation. The eastern DRC never recovered from the deadly inferno that was “Africa’s great war,” a bitter conflict that drew in nine countries and killed as many as five million. While peace was declared in 2003, the embers of war continued to burn in the eastern DRC, where the war had injected violence into local politics. Local violence continues to blend with national- and regional-level politics. Rwanda, which has complex and often competitive relationships with Uganda and Burundi, has a history of repeatedly creating and supporting rebellions in Congo. While this current M23 rebellion has many Congolese members with genuine grievances, the force is historically constructed and supported by the Rwandan state. While it is unclear what exactly motivated this offensive, some point to Rwandan concerns over the growing influence of rival Uganda in the DRC. The relationship between Uganda and Rwanda is not straightforward, and there are reports that Ugandan elements have supported M23. The regional tensions at play here are unclear, as the Ugandan and Congolese states are not unitary actors. According to leaked UN reports, Rwanda is directly assisting this latest iteration of M23 with infantry, artillery, and logistics. It has easily beat back the Congolese regulars and their militia allies and downed UN and Congolese military aircraft.

In response to the escalation, the regional EAC has announced the deployment of a military force at the invitation of the DRC, its newest member. Kenya seems to have been the power player behind this intervention and has begun deploying its forces into the fight. The international community has slowly lost interest in the region, writing off the turbulence in the Great Lakes as an endemic low-intensity conflict, ignoring the possibility of an explosion. Some in Kenya, the regional economic powerhouse, dream of an East African unified market where a pacified region ensures that Kenyan goods are supplied to Congolese consumers. Rwanda believes that it can only be secure if it has influence in Eastern Congo, where various rebel forces opposing the Rwandan regime have sheltered. When that influence wanes, Rwanda backs a rebellion to ensure that its influence continues.

Whether you believe that Rwandan meddling and Kenyan-backed EAC intervention are valid responses to the insecurity on their western flanks, the current escalatory track is dangerous. No one is backing down until blood is spilled. Both sides seem to underestimate the other’s will and ability.

The new kid on the block, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi, demands a military solution and proclaims negotiations a failure. He is inviting foreign armies across the region into the country to bring him the peace he needs to salvage his falling popularity. All the while, the badly needed security sector reform remains stalled by the great Congolese patronage machine. Under the EAC regional force’s flag, Ugandan and Burundian forces are now in the DRC to pursue their own enemies on Congolese soil, raising the possibility of inciting countermobilization. The eastern Congolese conflict ecosystem often reacts to foreign bodies with a violent immune response that would further inflame the conflict.

The limited attention span that the international community reserves for Africa is laser-focused on jihadism in the Sahel and the imploding Horn of Africa. Former US National Security Council Africa lead Cameron Hudson pronounced on Twitter and to The Telegraph that the war in Tigray was “the new great war for Africa.” Unfortunately, the ashes of the last great war are being stoked yet again. Few players in the international game seem to realize the stakes.

The US did send its top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, to talk to both the Congolese and Rwandans. Blinken’s public statements were ripe with both-sidesisms and seemed to accept Rwandan behavior as a response to Congolese support to the genocidal Rwandan FDLR rebel group—a problematic assumption. The Congolese political elite, when being generous, complain that the US position is muddled and confused. This reasonable view is much less popular than theories that accuse the Americans of actively backing Rwandan president Kagame’s plots. Unfortunately, these conspiracy theories are grounded in real historical US blindness to—and occasional support for—destructive Rwandan interventionism in the late 1990s.

The apathetic international response to the crisis stands in marked contrast to the global response to the previous M23 rebellion nearly ten years ago, when the US publicly pressured Rwanda to withdraw support for the group. In 2013, a combination of the Southern African Development Community’s intervention under the UN flag, the rise of a capable Congolese army colonel, and US pressure led to successful negotiations with Rwanda and the defeat of M23. This time, attempts by the EAC to bring a diplomatic solution have failed thus far, and it seems that military pressure is the only effective tool the community can bring to bear.

This conflict is not doomed to descend into a larger interstate war, but the region as a whole will have to grapple with the consequences if it does. The international community must bring more diplomatic levers to bear, and the EAC must question the sweeping mandate of their current intervention. Regardless, the war is on an escalatory path, and the Congolese of North Kivu will suffer first as foreign forces battle over their home yet again.

Evan Nachtrieb graduated with an honors bachelor’s degree in political studies from Pitzer College last May, where he wrote his thesis on protest and insurgency trends south of the Sahara. He is currently in California.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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