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Will Kenya’s Vision 2030 Megaprojects Bring the North in From the Cold?

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The proposed megaprojects have shifted the focus of conflict to disputes over land and boundaries, an emotive issue that reinforces the deep-rooted sentiments of regional exclusion and inequality.

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Will Kenya’s Vision 2030 Megaprojects Bring the North in From the Cold?

Northern Kenya is the embodiment of the precariousness of a post-colonial nation-state. Both the colonial and the post-independence governments neglected the region, leaving it completely underdeveloped compared to the rest of Kenya, a situation American writer Negley Farson described “as one half of Kenya, about which the other half knows nothing and seems to care even less [about].”

The colonialists referred to the inhabitants as “the hostile tribes” and as the relationship between the rest of Kenya and the north became fraught, the region attempted to secede immediately after Kenya’s independence, a step that set the tone for the way the area was governed post-independence — closed and ignored.

Independent Kenya adopted the methods of the colonial administration and continued to enact restrictive legislation. Where the colonial administration had passed The Outlying District Ordinance of 1902 and The Special District Ordinance of 1934, the Jomo Kenyatta administration passed the Preservation of Public Security Act of 1964, hot on the heels of the Shifta War. In 1970, the government passed the Indemnity Act that applied to North-Eastern Province (Garissa, Wajir and Mandera) and Isiolo, Marsabit, Tana River and Lamu Districts. The Act immunised the government against any claims for compensation for human rights abuses committed between the 25th of December 1963 and the 1st of December 1967.

The securitisation of the region led to egregious human rights violations by state security agencies. Massacres were committed in Wagalla (Wajir), Malka Mari (Mandera) and Daaba (Isiolo), and people and livestock were confined to restricted areas as part of the strategy to counter the Shifta insurgency. Today, high poverty levels among the Waso Borana are attributed to these events, with communities narrating that any livestock found outside the designated areas was either killed or confiscated and taken away by the military.

Thousands of families escaped to Somalia, only returning in the early 1990s and settling in lower Garbatulla in Isiolo County. To date, some of these people have no Kenyan identification documents, which are vital for access to services such as opening a bank account, MPESA (mobile money) transactions, admission to tertiary education, and travel from rural villages to Isiolo town.

The securitisation of the region led to egregious human rights violations by state security agencies.

Government policy changed with the adoption of Sessional Paper No. 8 of 2012 on the National Policy for the Sustainable Development of Northern Kenya and other Arid Lands, which aims to address development imbalances, reduce poverty, manage violent conflict and ethnic strife, address climate challenges and make investments in the livestock markets sector among others.

Vision 2030

Isiolo County is referred to as the gateway to northern Kenya. Situated about 285Km from Nairobi, this once sleepy and dusty county now finds itself at the centre of Kenya’s development plans. In effect, the government has placed Isiolo at the heart of Kenya’s Vision 2030,  the country’s new development blueprint for transforming Kenya into “a newly industrialised, “middle-income country providing a high quality of life for all its citizens” by the year 2030.

Vision 2030 is perhaps an antidote to Sessional Paper no. 10 of 1965 on African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya. This first post-independence development plan created a dichotomy of low potential and high potential regions, a logic that placed northern Kenya in the low potential region, with the result that it received little in the form of investment from the government.

The key pillars of Vision 2030 are mega-infrastructure projects, some of which are national and some of which are regional and involve Isiolo County. The county has been selected to host one of the three resort cities planned for northern Kenya and destined to become industrial, economic and tourist hubs. The other two cities will be in Lamu and Turkana. Other flagship projects are the proposed multi-billion-shilling Crocodile Jaw dam on Ewaso Ng’iro River on the Laikipia-Isiolo border, which is facing stiff resistance from the local communities and environmentalists due to fears that it will negatively affect over 3.5 million people and wildlife downstream.  Other already completed projects are the Isiolo International Airport and the Isiolo-Moyale highway.

Emerging conflicts

Isiolo’s strategic location makes it a regional transport hub linking northern Kenya to the rest of Kenya and to Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia through the multi-billion-shilling Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport (LAPSSET) corridor.

While these developments will undoubtedly spur Isiolo’s growth, they risk causing more conflict unless judiciously executed; the region already experiences ethnic strife, cattle rustling, cross-border conflict, land and boundary conflicts between Isiolo and the neighbouring counties of Meru, Garissa and Wajir, and there is a new simmering boundary tension with Marsabit and Laikipia counties.

The benefits expected to accrue from these investments have heightened tensions between Isiolo and the neighbouring Garissa and Meru counties, with each county laying claim to a road or an area. The likelihood of border conflict is therefore high with the planned construction of the US$750 million (KSh81 billion) Horn of Africa Gateway Development Project (HOAGD) — formerly the Northern-Eastern Transport Improvement Project (NETIP) — which is set to begin this year. Once completed, the road will link Isiolo to Garissa, Wajir and Mandera.

In his report LAPSSET The history and politics of an eastern African megaproject, Adrian J. Browne argues that Kenya’s optimism about the LAPSSET project is based on “conservative feasibility statistics”. According to him, large-scale infrastructure projects “could inject between 2% and 3% of GDP into the [Kenyan] economy” and even yield higher growth rates of between 8 and 10 per cent of GDP when fully operational. Such growth would be a game-changer and could transition Kenya into a middle-income country.

However, these projects have a dual impact on the community. First, for the pastoral communities whose livelihoods depend on uninhibited mobility of livestock and humans, these projects will interfere with their migration corridors. Secondly, these projects are being undertaken on land that has been taken away from the pastoralist communities, in some cases, on land that pastoralists use for grazing in times of acute drought.

While these developments will undoubtedly spur Isiolo’s growth, they risk causing more conflict unless judiciously executed.

The 6,500 acres of land at Kipsing Gap —  sandwiched between Katim Hill and Ol Doinyo Degishu Hill — about 20 kilometres west of Isiolo town, is where the multi-billion-shilling resort city will be established. However, the Kipsing Corridor is the area the communities fall back on during periods of drought.

Speculative land buying in anticipation of the large-scale infrastructure projects could potentially displace the local people. Large-scale infrastructure projects are also the source of fierce contestation between the local communities and even spiteful remarks between the county’s political leaders, with each claiming a section of the area where they believe a project will be implemented. Isiolo leaders have also claimed that they have little or no information about the project.

Community wildlife conservation

The Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT)-led conservation model is a hotly and passionately debated issue in Isiolo. Supporters of wildlife conservation argue that conservancies attract tourism and create employment opportunities for community members, improve security, expand the livestock market, and preserve open green spaces to create world-class recreation facilities.

Those opposed to conservancies challenge the prominence given to wildlife over pastoralism, and express fears over bio-piracy and the loss of potential grazing land. They also cite the risk of increased conflict, and the replacement of traditional resource governance institutions such as Deedha with ineffective structures.

The influence of the conservation sector is so entrenched within the political leadership such that government officials from the criminal justice system to the interior ministry are appointed to the NRT board, a move that is designed to legitimise its operations. Noordin Haji, Kenya’s Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has been proposed to sit on the NRT board, which is also scouting for a representative from the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government.

Other individuals proposed to sit on the NRT board are Mbuvi Ngunze, the former CEO and Group Managing Director of Kenya Airways, Dr Betty Addero Radier, CEO, Kenya Tourism Board (KTB); Dr Julius Kipngetich, former Director and CEO, Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS); and Jarso Mokku, a respected Elder from Isiolo and the current CEO of Drylands Learning and Capacity Building Initiative (DLCI).

Mathew Brown, Managing Director the Nature Conservancy, Africa Division; Flora and Fauna International senior Director Joana Elliot; Mike Watson, CEO Lewa Wildlife Conservancy; and Kenya Forest Service, CEO Julius Kamau have also been Proposed to sit on the NRT board.

To entrench its existence further, the NRT is also suspected of having sponsored a “deformed” bill, the Isiolo County Community Conservancies Bill 2021, which was hurriedly formulated and adopted without public participation.

The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) was established in 1989 to conserve and manage wildlife. However, the NRT has grown in influence, outstripping the KWS through donor funding; the organisation has taken the lead in shaping Kenya’s wildlife conservation policies.

The NRT claims on its website to be a grassroots conservation outfit, building peace and conserving the natural environment. However, local communities in Isiolo blame the organisation for using the dreaded and well-trained 9-1 and 9-2 conservancy rangers to support Samburu raiders during inter-community conflict. An unpublished 2019 report produced by Waso Borana Professionals (WBP), Errant Natives and the Borana Council of Elders (BCE) provides details of documented gross human rights violations, unfulfilled promises, and compromised livelihoods due to loss of strategic water points and grazing lands.

Local communities in Isiolo blame the NRT for using the dreaded and well-trained 9-1 and 9-2 conservancy rangers to support Samburu raiders during inter-community conflict.

Deadly and violent conflict has been a feature of the region for decades, the feuding often driven by conflict over pasture and water and facilitated by easy access to Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW).

But the proposed mega-infrastructure projects have now shifted the focus of conflict to disputes over land and boundaries, an emotive issue that reinforces the deep-rooted sentiments of regional exclusion and inequality.

If Kenya is serious about its development ambitions, the government must walk the talk and redeem itself from the earlier missteps of Sessional Paper Number 10 of 1965, which relegated northern Kenya to the periphery.

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Guyo Haro is a natural resource and conflict expert.

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Hilary Ng’weno: Apostle of Press freedom and Pro-establishment Figure

Hilary Ng’weno was the founder of the respected Weekly Review which became the standard-bearer for political news reporting in Kenya and the region.

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Hilary Ng’weno: Apostle of Press freedom and Pro-establishment Figure

In the space of two months, Kenya has lost two of the better-known pioneering newspapermen in post-independent Kenya: Philip Ochieng and Hilary Ng’weno. They were contemporaries who died within weeks of each other aged 83. Both were archetypal print journalists – with a distinctive editorial style and intelligent and passionate about how they presented the news.

Both had a flair for the English language, both were pro-establishment journalists and both largely made their imprimatur during the one-party state of Daniel arap Moi. Both were stylish in their attires: one favoured Saville Row-type suits, the other preferred free-style dressing, almost informal, and spotted a scraggly beard that grew white with the years.

As talented print journalists, both were naturally inclined to the literary word – one even penned fiction, the other wrote a journalistic treatise, examining and locating the pitfalls of the Kenyan media scene in a specified time-span. Both cherished their private spaces and both could have been described as loners.

Hilary Ng’weno came back to Kenya from studies in the US at an exciting time in Africa. More than 15 countries attained their independence in 1960 alone. In East Africa, Tanzania and Uganda became independent in 1961 and 1962 respectively, to be followed by Kenya in 1963. Pan-Africanism. A little utopia. Five-year development plans were ambitiously written. With the newly independent African states bubbling with enthusiasm, nationalism and optimism the 1960s were an interesting time to be in Africa

In Kenya, Paa ya Paa (The Antelope Rising), the oldest Pan-Africanist Arts Centre, was established just after independence in 1965. In the many years that were to follow, it became a place of pilgrimage for art lovers stopping in Nairobi for whatever reason. The Pan-Africanist Art Gallery was the Mecca of cultural re-connection for performing artists, painters, writers, journalists, publishers and Africanists from Africa and the Diaspora.

The Paa ya Paa gallery was founded by a group of young, ambitious, artistic and creative men and women. On Fridays, Hilary Ng’weno and his wife Fleur, Mr and Mrs Pheroze Nowrojee, Terry Hirst, Jonathan Kariara, James Kangwana, Dr Josephat Karanja, and Elimu and Rebecca Njau, would meet at Rebecca’s house to discuss the one thing that was common to them all: media and artistic expression.

It is Kangwana (the unsung poet) who came up with the name Paa ya Paa at one of those Friday meetings. The young men and women were already established in life: Rebecca, who would later become an acclaimed author, was the first African headmistress of (Moi) Nairobi Girls.

Paa ya Paa gallery at Sadler House on Koinange Street was officially opened by Prof Bethwell Ogot.

Elimu, the Tanzanian-born Pan-Africanist painter and sculptor from Moshi had already shot to fame in 1959, when he became the first African artist to paint the mural of a Black Jesus that today adorns the Anglican Cathedral in Murang’a (then Fort Hall).

Kangwana was the first African Director of Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) and the Harvard-educated Hilary had just become the youngest ever editor-in-chief of the Daily Nation, the Aga Khan’s flagship daily in East Africa that styled itself as a nationalist newspaper that had championed Kenya’s independence from British rule in its editorials and news gathering.

Kariara, one of the finest poets to come from this part of the world, was just emerging as a poet of note. With a PhD in History Dr Karanja was soon to serve as the first Kenyan High Commissioner in London. He was later to become the first Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nairobi.

Pheroze was a radical young Pan-Africanist lawyer scaling the legal heights as a human rights lawyer and political activist.

Terry Hirst, the illustrator-intellectual, had just landed from England to find Kenya savouring its new status as a newly independent state.

Before moving on to Rebecca’s, the group’s Friday meetings had been taking place at Elimu’s House at Maua Close in Parklands when he served as the Director of the (Captain Marlin) Sorsbie Art gallery.

Elimu put up a temporary studio at the back of the house in Parklands where he remembers inviting Ng’weno and Karanja to discuss art and even paint. “Hilary would do landscape painting and occasionally strum the guitar,” said Elimu nostalgically, recalling those heady and exciting days.

When the Sorsbie gallery closed in 1965, the Friday group finally found a permanent home in September of the same year: Paa ya Paa gallery at Sadler House on Koinange Street was officially opened by Prof Bethwell Ogot who was then Director of the East African Institute of Socio-Cultural Affairs based at Uniafric House. Paa ya Paa was domiciled in the city centre until the late 1970s when it moved to a five-acre piece of land in the Ridgeways residential area off Kiambu Road.

It was at this time that Ng’weno started his flagship weekly political magazine, the Weekly Review. By sheer coincidence, the launch of the weekly coincided with the announcement of the murder of JM Kariuki on 5 March 1975. The mutilated remains of the populist Nyandarua North MP had been “discovered” in Ngong Forest.

From then on, The Weekly Review became the standard-bearer for political news reporting in Kenya and the region. If you didn’t read the Weekly Review every Friday, you didn’t know what was happening in the country politically. So much so that a retired Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) official — now a mzee in his 80s who started working for the bank in 1966 when Duncan Ndegwa was appointed the first African governor — told me that senior staff were provided with the magazine so that they could keep abreast of political developments in the country. So important was the Weekly Review that it was considered the country’s political barometer.

So when Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a contemporary of Ng’weno and Ochieng, accused Ng’weno and The Weekly Review of “malicious” and “speculative” reporting on his detention in 1977, it provided Kenyans who read the weekly with a viewpoint that had not revealed itself before.

I might here also as well mention the press hostility led by the Hilary Ng’weno group of newspapers and especially The Weekly Review,” wrote Ngugi in his prison memoir: Detained A Writer’s Prison Diary. “I was hardly out of prison when Hilary Ng’weno sent one of his reporters to interview me. But he had given her suspiciously leading questions and also instructions on how to go about it.

If you didn’t read The Weekly Review every Friday, you didn’t know what was happening in the country politically.

Apparently, Ng’weno had written questions for the female reporter to raise with the author. “I looked at the questions and asked the reporter why her employers were interviewing me by proxy. I refused to be interviewed by proxy. She there and then conducted her own interview.” But Ng’weno was not yet done with Ngugi: “And when at long last, the whole interview was published, it was accompanied by the astonishing accusation that I was the only detainee who had not said thank you to the President for releasing me.”

Ngugi said, he “could not understand the source of this post-detention hostility, especially coming from a group of newspapers I had always supported because, despite their pro-imperialist line, I saw them as a hopeful assertion of a national initiative.”

In the diary, Ngugi accused Ng’weno of pursuing a speculative agenda on him: “What’s surprising is that The Weekly Review saw it fit to repeat the speculation even after my release!” The speculation being referred to here is that Ngugi had been detained because “of the Chinese and other literature found in his possession at that time of the police search in his study.”

“The aim of such speculative journalism as in Newsweek and Time magazines,” wrote Ngugi, “is to shift the debate from the issue of suppression of democratic rights and the freedom of expression, to a bold discussion and literary posturing about problems of other countries.” Ngugi said Ng’weno described him as an “ideologue” rather than a “writer”.

The Weekly Review of 9 January 1978 published that:

During the past year or so, Ngugi has acted the part of an ideologue rather than a writer. And has done so with increasing inability to relate in the limits of the sphere of an author’s operation which is possible in a developing country in areas where ideas, however noble, can be translated into actions which have far-reaching implications to the general pattern of law and order.

In the years that Ng’weno practiced newspaper journalism he styled himself as an apostle of press freedom and even though he was pro-establishment, he still got into trouble with Moi’s government.

In a memo he wrote to his staff on 19 October 1979, Ng’weno stated:

As we all know, we are having problems with the government at the moment. Most parastatal organisations have been instructed not to advertise with us anymore. As a result, a lot of advertising has been cancelled. We have not been told why this is being done and all efforts by me to get an explanation have failed so far. I do not know what the intentions of the government actually are, whether they want to kill our newspapers, or simply punishing us for something we have published.

The memo went on to say, “What I do know is that we cannot continue operating as we are now without advertising. Advertising is what makes it possible for a newspaper to survive or grow, without money from advertising, we cannot make ends meet.”

In the years that Ng’weno practiced newspaper journalism he styled himself as an apostle of press freedom.

Although The Weekly Review was supposed to be Kenya’s Newsweek, Ng’weno nonetheless styled the political magazine on the quintessential British magazine – the Economist. Just like at the Economist, writers at the Weekly Review did not have by-lines. To the great credit of Ng’weno and his team, it was impossible to tell who wrote what story from the names of the writers on the magazine’s masthead. Again, just like in the Economist, the writing styles were synchronised to present a uniform, distinctive style.

The Weekly Review had another distinctive feature: the editorial, which was written by Ng’weno until he ceded the space, was a short, pointed and punchy 500-word opinion written with candour and panache. Ng’weno used the same style that in his one-page Newsweek columns, in which he broached global topics as diverse as the Cold War, bilateralism and internationalism, neo-colonialism and patrimonialism. Ng’weno was possibly Newsweek’s only African columnist south of the Sahara.

The urbane, cosmopolitan Ng’weno walked with a swagger that told all and sundry that he was an Eastlando guy through and through. Kenyans who have interacted with Nairobians who grew up in the south-east of Nairobi where life, in Hobbesian maxim, is poor, nasty, brutish and short, know that they are street smart, witty, great seductors, agile, multilingual and multitalented, traits that the cool Ng’weno exhibited throughout his life.

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Deconstructing Race and Gender for the African Traveller

Nanjala Nyabola’s new book reflects on Africans’ experiences of dislocation, exile, belonging and not belonging.

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Deconstructing Race and Gender for the African Traveller

The news that European Union countries could deny visas to Africans, the majority (90 per cent of those vaccinated) who have received the Covishield vaccine produced by the Serum Institute in India has once again highlighted how disadvantaged Africans are when it comes to travelling abroad. I don’t want to go into the intricacies of why the EU has made this decision, which you can read about here, but I would like us to explore what travelling abroad will mean for Africans during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Will vaccinations determine who can and cannot travel? Given that less than 2 per cent of the African population is currently fully vaccinated, will this mean that the majority of Africans wishing to travel abroad will have to wait at least a year or two before they can do so?  And if Covishield is not approved by the EU, does this mean that those who like me received two doses of the vaccine will be permanently barred from entering Europe?

Believing that the pandemic would not negatively impact Africa was just wishful thinking. While the number of infections and fatalities have been low compared to other regions, the economic shock has been equally – if not more – devastating. Loss of incomes has already impoverished millions of Africans as lockdowns continue with new waves of the pandemic. Moreover, we are – and have always been – at the receiving end of decisions made in other continents (the decision to colonise Africa was taken in Berlin by European powers) – decisions that determine what Africans should or should not do. We are not allowed to make decisions on our own behalf. African countries, including Kenya, for example, did not stop flights from Europe or North America – the epicentres of the pandemic in the first and second waves – but these regions were quick to stop flights from African countries. Nor did we impose “vaccine passports” on citizens of these regions that would allow them to gain entry into our countries. As one of my Twitter followers explained, this should not surprise us because it is the mighty dollar and the euro that determine how Africans treat those who control both currencies.

How could it be any other way? Citizens of African countries are subjected to the most stringent visa conditions for entry into Europe or North America. Those of us who have applied for a visa to a European country, the United States or Canada know how painful and humiliating the process can be. From providing mountains of documentation, including bank statements, to show that one is not a potential illegal immigrant, to bearing the cost of exorbitant non-refundable visa fees, the visa application process is designed to deter Africans from travelling to these countries. This has significantly diminished the travel experience of Africans.

In her book, Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move, the Kenyan writer Nanjala Nyabola describes visas as “a cruel and unusual invention” and “a power play, a cash grab, and a half-assed invitation to enter but not belong”.  Nyabola not only unravels the experiences of Africans travelling abroad and within the continent but also exposes the “insidious racisms that shape the politics of human mobility”. As she emphasises in her foreword, the book is not a travel memoir, but essays inspired by travel – a book that tells uncomfortable stories that make us think about why they make us uncomfortable. As she so eloquently puts it: “In this book I want to sit in the discomfort of being a black woman and having our intersectional pain ignored . . . I want to reflect on what it means to be at home, and to be un-homed.”

The book begins with her experiences as a humanitarian worker in Haiti, the first black republic and one of the world’s poorest countries, where she learned about “the cultural construction of race”. In a country where NGOs managed mostly by white people practically run the country, she questions why she had to bend and adapt to their whims. Why were the Haitians not running the show?

Much has been written about the inadequacies of aid to Haiti, also known as “Republic of NGOs” (more on this in my forthcoming book), but not quite with the insider-outsider perspective of Nyabola, a black humanitarian worker in a non-African black country where white foreigners have more say than the locals. She concludes that those claiming to help impoverished Haitians should do so not because they feel bad for them, but “because we want them to experience the same fullness of life that we ourselves aspire to”.

Many of the essays in the book focus on another type of traveller – the African refugee or migrant who risks all by making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean in the hopes of reaching Europe.  She questions the absurd practice of placing refugees in camps where they are denied freedom of movement and are not allowed to earn an income or to work. Most refugees seeking asylum before the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees came into effect, she notes, were not crammed into camps. Jews seeking asylum in Europe and North America during World War II were allowed to integrate socially and economically into the societies that accepted them. Why and how did this change? And why are an increasing number of Africans and Asians entering Europe illegally when there are legal ways to do so? Well, says Nyabola, it’s because “legal and safe passage to Europe has disappeared, for all but a small sliver of the world’s population”.

Jews seeking asylum in Europe and North America during World War II were allowed to integrate socially and economically into the societies that accepted them.

Travelling while black also proves to be a challenge in Asia. On a physically demanding hike on Mount Everest, Nyabola encountered “being raced” by her Nepali guide, who refused to attend to her even when she fell dangerously ill simply because she was black. How can people who themselves do not enjoy white privilege become racist? Is the racism of white people different from that of those who also experience white racism?  Nyabola tries to explain the difference by making a distinction between “racism” and “being raced”, the latter a phenomenon that black Africans who visit Asian countries often experience. She explains:

I think there is a qualitative difference between racism and being raced. Racism, I think, is more sinister and deliberate. But being raced or racing other people is something that people do because they aren’t paying attention. It’s cultural laziness: we create all these shorthands that allow us to process difference. . . . They have raced me – decided, based on cultural generalisations, who they think I am – in order to process my presence; and, because of the way popular culture from the West especially projects and processes black women, a lot of that is negative.

She is equally critical of Africans who treat other Africans badly. Her discomfiting experiences in South Africa, where xenophobic attacks against Somalis, Zimbabweans and other Africans have been rising in recent years, are telling, and reflective of a country that has not completely disengaged from the clutches of apartheid. South Africa challenges her belief that Africans can be at home anywhere on the continent  – a belief advocated by the leading Pan-Africanists of yesteryear who envisioned independence from colonial rule as the basis for building an inclusive Africa for all Africans. “The truth is that millions of Africans are foreigners and migrants in Africa, un-homed by power and abandoned to physical or structural violence,” she admits.

There are some uplifting chapters in the book that hold out the promise of Pan-Africanism, like her trip to Gorom Gorom in Burkina Faso where she observed “regal families undulating on their camels” and her foray into rural Botswana where she goes to trace the life of Bessie Head, the mixed-race South African writer who Nyabola admires deeply. As an outsider in both the white literary world and in Bostwana, Head suffered loneliness and rejection. The black American literary crowd in the United States had no time for an African woman writer. When she reached out to fellow African writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe, who were beginning to be recognised in the West as African literary giants, “their responses were curt and perfunctory”. The chapter on Bessie Head’s life will no doubt resonate with female African writers for whom the doors of big established publishing houses are permanently closed.

Nanjala Nyabola’s book does, however, open new worlds to African women travellers like her who are reflecting on how their race and gender have shaped their experiences of dislocation, exile, belonging and not belonging.

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Kenneth Kaunda: One Zambia, One Nation

How Kenneth Kaunda was instrumental in guiding Zambia through its formative years in the absence of war or mass atrocities that blighted many of its neighbors.

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Gone Is the Last Of the Mohicans: Tribute to Kenneth Kaunda

Zambia’s inaugural president, Kenneth Kaunda, died on June 17, 2021, at the age of 97. From the early 1950s onwards, he led a nonviolent liberation struggle against British rule, eventually forging independence in 1964. In power for the first twenty-seven years of Zambia’s independent statehood, Kaunda leaves a controversial legacy. He abandoned multiparty elections in 1973, ruled as an authoritarian leader for the next eighteen years, and was the architect of disastrous economic policies that compounded the already significant levels of poverty in the country. However, Kaunda should also be remembered as a leader who was instrumental in guiding Zambia through its formative years, doing so in the absence of the wars or mass atrocities that blighted many of its neighbors.

Kaunda’s role in steering his country away from instability and mass violence—especially in the first decade of independence—is particularly noteworthy given the challenges at the time. His own stamp on state building helped to navigate these tensions: he shaped a new national identity that transcended ethnic or tribal affiliations, neither favoring nor scapegoating any group. Kaunda was acutely aware that the new state—with its borders artificially and arbitrarily constructed by its former colonial occupiers—was in peril of fragmenting through power struggles along tribal and ethnic lines. Referring to the dominant language groups, he reiterated the gravity of this new national identity in his 1967 memoir: “with any luck,” he wrote, “this generation will think of itself not in tribal terms as Bemba, Lozi or Tonga, but as Zambians. This is the only guarantee of future stability.” Kaunda thus seemed to be keenly aware that ideology can act as a catalyst as well as one of the most important restraints on mass atrocities; his humanist perspective fostered the latter while other leaders in the region chose the former.

Kaunda backed this principled stance with action during the first decade of independence, when his governing party, the United National Independence Party, began to fragment into factions based on ethnolinguistic differences. Kaunda frequently shuffled ministerial portfolios between factions and often changed personnel in all departments of the public sector—all in an effort to prevent the possibility of ethnolinguistic differences and tensions becoming formally entrenched within the new state. Throughout the 1960s, this constant reshuffling was effective in maintaining a power balance between the country’s different groups; but by the end of the decade, escalating tensions between these factions led to some forming breakaway parties on the basis of ethnolinguistic differences. This prompted Kaunda to centralize power and ban opposition political parties, forging a regime that was increasingly intolerant of opposition voices. Zambia, however, avoided the large-scale violence that some of its neighbors experienced. Although populations in dictatorial regimes are more at risk for mass atrocities than populations in democracies, Kaunda’s decision to centralize power and prohibit opposition parties was motivated—at least in part—by a desire to avoid the formal entrenchment of Zambia’s ethnolinguistic tensions.

In making this decision, however, Kaunda provoked a whole new set of challenges as an authoritarian leader. It wasn’t until 1991 that he lifted the ban on opposition parties, ushering in a transition toward a new phase of democratization. This was done under duress in the context of long-term economic decline, IMF-imposed economic reforms, and increasing dissatisfaction with his regime. Yet even this transition was largely restrained. The opposition movement itself (the Movement for Multiparty Democracy, or MMD) was a broad coalition that embodied Kaunda’s own vision of a Zambia that transcended ethnic and tribal difference. When the MMD registered as a political party and won the 1991 election, Kaunda conceded defeat and transferred power without contestation. While so many other authoritarian leaders opted for a violent response to the contestation of their power, Kaunda chose not to cling to power at all costs.

Even during Zambia’s phase of one-party rule from 1973 to 1991, Kaunda’s legacy of state building stands in contrast to the violent exclusionary tendencies of many regimes in the region. Although he centralized power, this was in part a response to a belief—shared by many leaders across the African continent in the 1960s and 1970s—that multiparty elections were divisive. So while research has shown repeatedly that established democracies tend to be safer for their inhabitants than democratizing or dictatorial countries, Kaunda actually seems to have used his dictatorial rule to steer the country away from the preconditions of mass violence.

Kaunda was able to shape the nation’s identity because dictatorial leaders, through their sway over the dominant narrative of their societies, can be particularly influential and shape how a population may think or act. The way in which Kaunda chose to do so was, however, extraordinary. Oftentimes, dictatorial regimes will use a destructive and exclusionary ideology, as it is through the definition of the “other” that the in-group can be defined and united. Creating such a cohesive in-group can have positive effects for leaders who tend to be more respected, but it can also enhance schisms and cause polarization or, even dehumanization, which can be conducive to massive violence. Populations are particularly likely to turn to leaders with such destructive ideologies when their life conditions are difficult; as people look for ways to understand their reality and search for someone to blame. Kaunda’s feat of uniting the nation, without exploiting ethno-linguistic tensions, is, therefore, even more noteworthy given the real and many risks for identity-based divisions to become entrenched in the first three decades of independence. Though far from perfect, Kaunda’s repeated call of “One Zambia, One Nation” resonated strongly, and established a precedent of stability and inclusion when so many other post-colonial African states went down more violent and exclusionary paths.

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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