“Never dress a deep wound superficially.” – Somali proverb
A recent article by The Elephant’s senior writer Dauti Kahura suggests that one of the main reasons why a sizeable number of Kikuyus are going to vote for William Ruto in 2022 is that they are afraid that if they don’t – and especially if he loses or is forced out of the election race – Ruto will unleash terror on Kikuyus living in the Rift Valley, the kind of terror that Kikuyus in the region experienced when hundreds of them were killed and hundreds of thousands of them were displaced after the disputed 2007 election.
“It is the Kikuyu electorate that finds itself torn between the devil and the deep blue sea,” wrote Kahura. “Whatever option it takes, it will not be an easy choice because Ruto has presented the Kikuyus with the greatest dilemma. If they do not support Ruto, is there a risk that the violence of 2007/8 will be repeated?”
One Kikuyu lady told Kahura that she will definitely be voting for Ruto come 2022 because he was part of the deal that Uhuru Kenyatta made when the duo joined forces. In that sense, Kikuyus owe Ruto a political debt. “We entered into a pact with the Kalenjin people, that they would help our son capture power and protect our people in the Rift. In return, we would also lend our support to their son after Uhuru’s terms ended. It would now be disingenuous for the Kikuyu people to renege on that promise . . . it actually would be dangerous. I have relatives in the Rift and I can tell you they are not sitting pretty.”
For those who are neither Kikuyu nor Kalenjin, this rationale sounds like pure and simple blackmail: “If you vote for me, I won’t kill you.” The horror of this thinking cannot be overstated. If this blackmailing tool is what Kalenjins (read Ruto) are going to be using to win the next election, then we are in a very bad place indeed. It not only mocks our democratic right to live wherever we choose but also entrenches a mindset that views Kenya as belonging to only two tribes – the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin – whose agendas we have to accept regardless of whether they are against our own interests. And we must honour every deal they make with each other to stay in power.
If this blackmailing tool is what Kalenjins (read Ruto) are going to be using to win the next election, then we are in a very bad place indeed
It seems like a strange logic, but one that has become normalised in Kenya since 2013. Although many analysts insist that the UhuRuto victory was simply a mathematical probability, in that it united two of Kenya’s largest ethnic groups into one formidable voting bloc, thereby outnumbering the opposition, many also believe that the alliance was a pact based on the threat of violence. In addition, by declaring the election as a “referendum against the ICC [International Criminal Court]”, Uhuru and Ruto managed to galvanise two communities whose elites have held onto power since independence.
How did we get here?
It all started when Justice Philip Waki handed over the secret list of names of the suspected perpetrators of the 2007/8 post-election violence to the African Union’s envoy Kofi Annan in 2009. Kenya had the option to form a local tribunal within a year, but failed to do so. At that time, Raila Odinga, who was then the Prime Minister, had campaigned for the formation of such a tribunal, if for no other reason than that it would end speculation about the identity of the perpetrators.
When the ICC went ahead to charge the so-called Ocampo Six, including Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, with crimes against humanity, Kalonzo Musyoka, who was then the Vice President, travelled to New York to try and convince the United Nations Security Council to defer the cases, ostensibly because “the ICC process has the potential to affect Kenya’s fragile stability”.
The whole episode was filled with intrigues and innuendos. Luis Moreno Ocampo’s threat that he would “make an example of Kenya” sounded childish, vindictive and selective. As I have commented before, why did the ICC not go after Mwai Kibaki, who was in charge of the security forces that unleashed much of the 2007/2008 terror and Raila Odinga, who was the leader of the party to which William Ruto belonged, and who did nothing to stop the violence?
Annan’s decision to hand over the secret list of names of the perpetrators to the ICC’s Chief Prosecutor was probably made in good faith but had the net effect of shrouding the ICC cases in ambiguity and secrecy. This ambiguity was exploited by Uhuru and Ruto, whose 2013 election campaign was pegged on the claim that they had been “fixed” and scapegoated by the likes of Raila and others who were using the ICC to get rid of their political rivals.
In the end, the ICC ended up delivering the presidency to Uhuru and Ruto. If the court had not relentlessly pursued the Kenyan cases (and bungled them), and if, as many believe, the election had not been rigged or manipulated by the likes of Cambridge Analytica, there would be no Jubilee government in place today. The ICC cases, therefore, had the unintended consequence of galvanising a nation against it.
Unfortunately, the social and economic cost of the UhuRuto political union has been unacceptably high. Kalenjin and Kikuyu politicians interpreted the truce between the two communities as a licence for theft and impunity. Members of the Jubilee government have been implicated in a looting spree of public coffers of a magnitude that has not been witnessed since the Moi years. Some would argue that the looting today is unprecedented, and has even surpassed that of the Moi era – a position that is supported by data coming out of the Auditor General’s office.
The lesson we might learn from this saga is that if political reconciliation between two groups results in the political and economic exclusion of other groups, there is no guarantee that electoral or other types of violence will not remain an option for the disenfranchised – with or without the ICC. The article by Kahura also suggests that the pact between the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin is built on a fragile foundation that can easily be destabilised by the threat of future violence.
The ICC cases against Uhuru and Ruto collapsed due to lack of sufficient evidence. It is entirely possible that key witnesses were intimidated, killed or silenced in other ways. However, Kenyans also know that the perpetrators of the violence are still walking freely in Nairobi, Naivasha, Nakuru, Eldoret, Kisumu and other places. Men who gang-raped grandmothers and chopped of their neighbours’ hands have not been arrested or charged with any crime, nor have they been ostracised by their communities.
Nor did Kenya establish Rwanda-style “Gacaca” courts to bring about reconciliation among aggrieved parties. The wounds of 2007/2008 have thus not yet healed. If true, the claim by William Ruto during a recent interview on NTV that the ICC case against him is being revived by his opponents to finish him will not heal these wounds either as many communities, not just the Kikuyu, also lost loved ones during that dark period. It would be naïve to believe that the ICC will deliver justice to the post-election violence victims because Ruto is now back in the dock.
The original sin
However, Kenyans’ wounds run deeper than the 2007/2008 trauma. These wounds can only heal if processes are put in place and serious efforts are made to address the structural and systemic causes of violence and greed in our society.
Structural and systemic violence has been part of Kenya’s DNA since before independence, and has often manifested itself in the forced eviction or displacement of people from their land. British colonialism in Kenya was in essence a violent land grab.
The first large-scale post-independence land grab began during the first few years of Jomo Kenyatta’s presidency when a resettlement scheme was implemented to “buy back” one million acres of land from white settlers in order to resettle displaced (mostly Kikuyu) Kenyans. Kenyatta had argued then that since the British colonialists and white settlers had taken land away from indigenous African communities, they were obliged to fund a large-scale settlement programme – using long-term loans with easy repayment conditions – to provide land to the landless.
It would be naïve to believe that the ICC will deliver justice to the post-election violence victims because Ruto is now back in the dock
However, a group led by Oginga Odinga, Bildad Kaggia and Paul Ngei opposed the buying of land for resettlement; they argued that Africans could not buy back land that was originally theirs, a contention that did not go down well with Kenyatta because “there were no free things and that land was not free, but must be purchased”. Kenyatta’s position mirrored that of the outgoing British colonial administration that made it clear that “African settlers could not get free land but were expected to either purchase it directly with their money or borrow the loan that was to be repaid to the British government”.
This first betrayal would be followed by many others. As the scheme operated on a “willing-seller-willing-buyer” basis, hundreds of thousands of people, particularly in the coast and Rift Valley regions, remained landless.
Interestingly, the scheme also offered loans to Africans who were not landless. In this group fell a select group of people who had been loyal to the colonial administration – the so-called homeguards – who gobbled up prime land in Central Kenya and the Rift Valley. Among this group were provincial commissioners, ministers, permanent secretaries and others within Kenyatta’s inner circle who would go on to become Kenya’s new ruling elite.
According to the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC), “rich businessmen and businesswomen, rich and powerful politicians who were loyal to the colonial administration, managed to acquire thousands of acres at the expense of the poor and the landless.” Hence, “instead of redressing land-related injustices perpetrated by the colonialists on Africans, the resettlement process created a privileged class of African elites, leaving those who had suffered land alienation either on tiny unproductive pieces of land or landless.”
These alienated “lesser Kikuyus”, particularly those residing in the Rift Valley, have remained vulnerable to violence perpetrated by other ethnic groups as well as by their own ethnic group. (Recall the politically-instigated “ethnic cleansing” in the Rift Valley in the 1990s during the Moi regime and the shoot-to-kill-Mungiki order given by the late John Michuki in 2007.)
When Kenyatta died in 1978, there was a fear that his successor, President Daniel arap Moi, would reverse the Kenyatta-era land-related and other injustices by targeting Kikuyu elites who had benefitted from Kenyatta’s patronage. This fear, however, was unfounded – not only did Moi follow in Kenyatta’s footsteps by grabbing land for himself, he also entrenched a patronage network that mostly benefitted members of his own ethnic group, the Kalenjin.
Structural and systemic violence has been part of Kenya’s DNA since before independence, and has often manifested itself in the forced eviction or displacement of people from their land
Having experienced violence during the Moi regime, and having suffered under Kikuyu leadership (not even Mwai Kibaki could protect the Kikuyus in the Rift during the post-election violence of 2007/8) why would these Kikuyus now trust Moi’s protégé William Ruto and a (former?) Uhuru ally to protect them?
And if indeed, as Kahura notes, the choice is between the “devil and the deep blue sea”, why choose someone whose reputation is tainted with corruption and other misdeeds, including Youth for Kanu 92 shenanigans, not to mention crimes against humanity? Ruto is known to be a scheming and vindictive politician, a man who has the capacity to crush anyone opposed to him. Do we need someone with such a Machiavellian temperament at the helm?
As for Raila, after the famous “handshake” between him and Uhuru, even some of his most ardent supporters are questioning whether he ran an opportunistic and cynical campaign as leader of the opposition and whether his main objective has always been to gain political power, not to fight for the rights of ordinary Kenyans. Many Kenyans are still recovering from his about-turn after being sworn in as the “People’s President” on 30 January 2018 at a rally attended by thousands, and after so many lives had been lost unnecessarily, including that of Baby Pendo.
Listening to the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) rally in Mombasa on 25 January this year, one got the impression that none of the politicians present at the rally had any political ambitions, that Kenya was now one big happy family where everyone was expected to get along and think about the country first.
Politicians present at the rally, including Raila and his lieutenant James Orengo, urged wananchi not to think too much about the 2022 elections but to focus on nation-building. The rhetoric had an eerie resemblance to the “accept and move on” mantra of the Jubilee government when it took power in 2013. It was a hoodwinking exercise that made people believe that every single politician on the podium that day was not preparing a war chest with which to retain their seats in the next polls.
What was also omitted was the fact that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) remains as inept and as corrupt as it was during the 2013 and 2017 elections, and that what worries Kenyans is whether they can trust this electoral body to conduct a free and fair election in 2022.
The endorsement of BBI by Kipchumba Murkomen, a diehard Ruto supporter, also suggested that the BBI was a national project that had nothing to do with personal ambition. The cooption of Ruto’s allies into the BBI fold could be just a survival tactic (or perhaps a form of deception?) to ensure that they do not miss out on the “eating”. As development consultant Jerotich Seii so aptly put it on Twitter, “The slices of the 2022 Succession Pie just got a little thinner because Tanga Tanga has brought itself firmly into the mix.”
Kilifi governor Amason Kingi emphasised that historical land injustices in the coast region must be addressed by the BBI, but there was no mention of the post-election violence victims, many of whom are still displaced, nor of the fact that the government of Mwai Kibaki spent millions of shillings on the TJRC whose recommendations on historical and other injustices have yet to be implemented.
The BBI is being sold to us as a project that in one fell swoop will wipe out all the evils in our society, including tribalism. But as other commentators have noted, if the Ndung’u Land Commission’s report and the TJRC report could not bring about radical reforms in Kenya, what hope is there that the BBI will? There is simply no political will to bring about reforms, particularly on land, because too many rich and powerful people will be adversely affected.
Between the devil and the deep blue sea, the only option in this case would be to choose neither. For the sake of Kenya, both Raila and Ruto should step aside and let someone who has a clean governance record vie for the top leadership in 2022. This would make the Uhuru succession politics less toxic and less polarised.
This leader’s top priorities would be to steer the country out of the deep economic morass that the Jubilee administration headed by Uhuru Kenytatta has got us into and to slay the twin dragons of corruption and tribalism that have bedevilled this country since independence. Hopefully, he or she will also be committed to implementing the myriad recommendations that have come out of the umpteen reports and commissions that aimed to make Kenya a more just and inclusive country.
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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.
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.
Philosophy for the People
For philosophy to be relevant in Africa, it must democratize and address contemporary social problems.
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.
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.
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.
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