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Born Cattle Bandits? Not Us

9 min read.

Pastoralists have long been the object of unfavourable and misleading stereotypes and narratives that have contributed to their communities’ neglect and marginalization.



Born Cattle Bandits? Not Us

On the 9th of April 2013, three members of parliament from West Pokot held a media press conference in Nairobi during which they vehemently protested the characterization of the Pokot people of northern Kenya as “criminals and thieves“. They were reacting to a statement attributed to President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, who was giving a speech on behalf of other invited heads of states during the inauguration of President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy William Ruto.

President Museveni, perhaps in jest, had said, “These people have been stealing my cattle.  I have agreed with these [Pokot] MPs. . . . I urge Uhuru, this people from West Pokot should stop stealing my cows.”

In their rebuttal, the three MPs claimed that they had been compelled to respond to the neighbouring president’s “wholesome condemnation” of the Pokot since, as they averred, it had become his practice to make such spurious statements about the Pokot people. The MPs claimed that following President Museveni’s statement, they had faced taunting and disparaging remarks from fellow Kenyan MPs who called them “the president’s thieves”, amongst other unsavoury epithets. They, therefore, wanted to change the perception and stereotyped portrayal of the Pokot as cattle bandits.

The MPs arguments were based on a phenomenon that social psychologist Claude Steele calls the “stereotype threat”, the fear of what effects such stereotypes may have on an individual or targeted group. In this case, the impact it may have on the innocent Pokot who does not practice cattle rustling and banditry as well on inter-communal relations between the Pokot and other communities. “In as much as these remarks could pass off as soft, friendly and populist, we are not averse to the grave repercussions that remarks could have in mopping [sic] ethnic passions and cross-border tensions particularly among pastoralist communities in the said regions,” said Pkosing, who is the MP for Pokot South.

The MPs highlighted the risks associated with persistent stereotyping and misguided narratives about “others” and raised the challenge of what needs to be done to maintain social cohesion in Kenya.

But there were those who disagreed with the pronouncements of the Pokot leaders. “While we abhor the general characterization of a whole community as cattle rustlers, it does not help either to deny the shame and embarrassment the few errant elements have caused our people and neighbours,” said the then Baringo County Speaker William Kamket.

Stereotyping is pervasive, persistent, but…

Kenya is a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multicultural country where any individual or ethnic community may be subjected to stereotyping and coded language by others. There are, however, concerns that the open and persistent stereotyping of particular communities — bordering on hate speech — could be counterproductive in many respects.

Stereotyping “other” communities could lead to prejudice, discrimination, and open hostility amongst groups. This, therefore, begs the question of whether it would not be prudent to educate social groups on the need to avoid using wounding words that could ignite prejudice, discrimination, tension, and conflict. Indeed, the National Integration and Cohesion Commission (NCIC) gives ethnic stereotyping as grounds for prosecution.

Stereotyping is an instance of what the psychologist Jerome Bruner calls “going beyond the information given”, the capacity for equivalence grouping — assigning objects to categories and making inferences about their specific attributes based on what we think we know about the class in general. It is part of the cognitive machinery that allows us to deal with novelty in everyday life. As Bruner puts it, “If we were to respond to each event as unique and to learn anew what to do about it or even what to call it, we would soon be swamped by the complexity of our environment. This is the reason why stereotyping is a common human feature.

Just because stereotyping is cognitively inescapable, however, does not mean that stereotypes are generally accurate. We also have cognitive mechanisms in place that make stereotypes resistant to change in the face of conflicting evidence. Despite evidence to the contrary about the targeted social groups, the in-group tends to always hold onto the adopted stereotypes. This is especially the case when stereotypes are laden with emotional content and thus form the basis for prejudice.

Concerning prejudice and discrimination, it may not be uncommon for stereotypes and misleading narratives to influence official attitudes, policy, institutional and administrative orientations towards certain ethnic/social groups or regions, resulting in unfavourable social, economic, political, and administrative outcomes. This is irrespective of how remotely realistic such assessments may be. Officers, in any case, are part of society, dominant or otherwise.

Stereotypes and narratives on pastoralists and arid lands

Pastoralists have long borne a barrage of unfavourable and misleading stereotypes and narratives that have impacted their well-being. These are either based on their livelihoods, their environment, or their cultural practices. Importantly, these stereotypes and narratives have led to, or become, a reflection of these communities’ marginalization, exclusion, and discrimination.

There are several ways in which pastoralists and other social groups are socially constructed and (re)presented in daily discourse. These forms vary from well-publicized political speeches, policy statements and approaches, to media coverage, and commentaries expressing concern about conflicts and insecurity in pastoralists’ areas. Kenyans are therefore well exposed to the different ways in which pastoralists and other minorities are constructed as essential categories.

In his report titled The Unrelenting Persistence of Certain Narratives, Michael Ochieng catalogues the narratives and stereotypes about Kenya’s arid and semi-arid regions where pastoralists reside, and their adverse effects on social policy change. He identifies the national actors responsible for defining policy narratives on development and climate change adaptation in Kenya, their perceptions about ASALs (Arid and Semi-Arid Lands) and the premises that underpin these perceptions and narratives.

Ochieng observes that powerful narratives about the ASALs are a legacy of the Sessional Paper Number 10 of 1965 that laid the basis for subsequent policy and marginalization of arid lands.  These include the security/insecurity/conflict narrative perpetrated by the state of emergency that revolved around security (specifically, insecurity). He notes, “The area and the people came to be viewed largely in terms of security, and interactions between them and organs of the state were defined in the same terms. Most government resources spent in these areas went to security, law and order, albeit with little respect for the rule of law.”

Hardly any investments were made in social service delivery or economic development between independence in 1963 and the reintroduction of multi-party politics in 1992. As a result, the ASALs, particularly those in northern Kenya, missed out almost entirely on the development opportunities of the first three decades of independence. The narrative that mobile pastoralism was irrational, unproductive, and environmentally destructive was essentially an all-embracing narrative with economic, socio-cultural and environmental overtones. “It had devastating effects on the way both policymakers and the rest of the society viewed pastoralists – largely as backward and resistant to change, refusing to modernize and take advantage of the benefits of civilization and development. Anthropological explanations such as ‘cattle complex’ were used to validate such characterization.”

Hardly any investments were made in social service delivery or economic development between independence in 1963 and the reintroduction of multi-party politics in 1992.

The little policy attention extended to the ASALs in the late 1970s led to the creation of the Ministry of Reclamation of Arid and Semi-Arid Areas and Wastelands, a perfect condemnation of the ASAL areas based on their perceived non-productivity. This, notwithstanding that the country continued to rely on these regions for the steady supply of livestock and livestock products and to benefit from its rich biodiversity in support of a thriving tourism economy. Ochieng links this narrative to the proclamation of Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965 that the ASALs could only benefit from the economy as recipients of “grants of subsidized loans” from the more economically productive parts of the country.

Purveyors of stereotypes, hostilities

Whether held by the majority/dominant or minority/non-dominant groups, stereotypes explain things easily. They take less effort and give the appearance of order without the difficult work that understanding the entire hierarchy of things demands. They reinforce the belief and disbelief of its users and furnish the basis for the development and maintenance of solidarity for the prejudiced.

Minority groups do not escape the tendency toward stereotype, partly because of the set of economic, political, cultural, and personal reasons they find themselves in. The hostility of the minority/target group is expressed partly towards other minority groups and in part towards the dominant groups (pastoralists amongst themselves and pastoralists jointly against farmer/ agricultural groups). And when minorities become dominant groups, they sometimes discriminate against their own (non-dominant clans). Claude Steele, for instance, has pointed out that stigmatized populations may adopt counter-stereotypical behaviours to dissociate themselves from stereotypes. Thus, prejudice and discrimination affect not only the attitudes and behaviour of minority group members towards the standards set by the dominant society but also their responsibility to themselves and their groups. Self-regarding attitudes are as much part of one’s social experience as attitudes toward other persons and social norms.

When minorities become dominant groups, they sometimes turn to discriminate against their own.

An assessment of descriptive content of cultural stereotypes not only indicates their consensual sharing but also that the content influences accepted norms for inter-group relations that finally justify discrimination.

Content of Kenyan ethnic group stereotypes

In their study, An Examination of Ethnic Stereotypes and Coded Language Use in Kenya and its Implication for National Cohesion, Joseph Naituli and Sellah King’oro have provided stereotypes of nearly every community in Kenya based on region. The graphic below presents the common stereotypes used in Baringo and Elgeyo Marakwet counties.

Common Stereotype Targeted Community Translation Meaning
Ng’oroko Pokot Cattle rustlers People who steal livestock
Punyoot Any community Enemy Any community not meant to share resources with -Elgeyo and Marakwet views
Chepng’al Nandi Person of many words Very proud and talkative
Ng’etiik Luo Boys The uncircumcised
Cheptukenyot Tugen Tugen  lady The very mean lady
Kimurkelda Kikuyu Brown teeth Community of people with brown teeth
Chepturkanyat Turkana Turkana lady The dirty lady who never observes hygiene

Source: Naituli and King’oro (2018)

Just what is it with the Pokot and others?

The Pokot (Pochoon singular, Pokot plural) of north-western Kenya and the Amudat District of north-eastern Uganda have been at the centre of national and regional discussions, narratives and stereotypes around cattle raiding, conflict and insecurity. Often portrayed as the exemplars of cattle rustling and banditry in the north-western corner of Kenya, many Pokot strongly protest what they perceive as the tendency to criminalize the entire community because of the practice of a few. In the narratives and stereotypes, they are usually accompanied by a supporting cast of their neighbours — the Keiyo, Marakwet, and Turkana, not forgetting fellow travellers from across the Ugandan border —  the Karamojong, amongst others.

Some members of the Pokot community and their allies argue that most individuals in the community are against the practice of cattle raiding. Yet, the Pokot community is persistently cast in blanket, villainous terms. Little consideration is given to context and the historical realities in which the Pokot, and indeed the other communities in their localities, have found themselves. It should be noted that the Pokot also have stereotypes of their own that target other communities.

Many Pokot strongly protest what they perceive as the tendency to criminalize the entire community because of the practice of a few.

While the “transformative” school of thought in conflict studies holds that cattle rustling — an activity that has been practised for hundreds of years — might have radically changed and acquired a horrendously sophisticated character in manifold ways, it is imperative, the Pokot argue, to interrogate the deep and tangled roots of the persistence of the practice and find urgent, pragmatic, and long-term measures to eradicate it rather than condemning a whole community.

A quick sampling — from different timelines and sources — of the various favourable or unfavourable narratives, stereotypes and analytical proclamations targeting the Pokot, that could well refer to other communities too, might be illustrative:

“The region’s most formidable and battle-hardened ethnic war machine” — Paul Goldsmith, The Cost of Cattle Rustling in Northern Kenya, 1994.

“The Pokot have hostile relations with almost all of their neighbours.”

“Vulnerability to frequent harassment from their neighbours has made the Pokot a tough and ruthless people.”

“The heaviest losses of the Kenya military since independence has been sustained during the ill-fated suppression of the Pokot.”

“Due to their small territory the Pokot have remained the most ethnically cohesive society, and often their conflict for grazing area is about community survival.”

“It is therefore important to educate the Pokot and other communities on issues related to stereotypes and coded language because it is evident that it can cause violent reactions between one community and another.”

“Cattle are symbols of wealth, blessings, and the male identity. Raiding has been common place, as warriors are expected to replenish declining herds or to take vengeance on those who have raided them.”

“You have reached the Heart of Africa. You are now entering Karamoja Closed District. No visitor may enter without an outlying districts permit” — Colonial signposts marking Karamoja region.

“Pokot raids do not aim at expanding their territory.”

“Conflict is concentrated in the village of Loruk, where Pokot and Tugen live. Three districts meet at this ribbon-built village, and the boundary lines are unclear, which causes tension because both groups suspect each other of encroaching on their own land. Furthermore, the Pokot claim their right to a primary school that was allegedly built for them in 1984 but later was assigned to Baringo Central where Tugen are the majority.”

“There is the facile, shorthand cultural explanation that conveniently fits preconceptions of timeless ‘tribal’ warfare. This ‘cultural’ explanation is facile not because it is untrue, but because it is only one of several entangled causes that range from the colonial and independent Kenyan governments’ culpability in resource depletion through underdevelopment and reduction of land holdings.”

“The overriding factor that makes pastoral communities prone to conflict (whether violent or otherwise) is their ambiguous relationship with the state and the majority of sedentary populations that reside within them.”

“Recent new factors fuel ongoing conflicts along the Pokot–Turkana border. Successful oil-prospecting missions and a proposed geothermal power plant increase the desirability of land areas claimed by both sides. The Pokot are not the main aggressors.”

“No common policy on intervention by the states is available. Attempts at interventions have been poorly coordinated and executed, too often taking a narrow definition of security that has focused on coercive disarmament without focusing sufficiently on providing viable economic alternatives to those whose  livelihoods have become dependent on gun. Finally, traditional structures of  authority within communities have been gravely weakened, as have some of the cultural restraints upon violence that operated in the past.”

“Currently, the Pokot in Uganda are allied to the Pokot in Kenya and jointly carry out raids on the Karamojong and the Karamojong from Uganda also have alliances with the Turkana of Kenya and carry out raids in Pokot North (Kenya).” — David Aliker

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Yobo Rutin is a public policy specialist focused on pastoralism and natural resources.


Agricultural Productivity as Performance: A Tale of Two Mozambican Corridors

Agricultural corridors in Mozambique emerge when international funders and investors, national elites, local bureaucrats and smallholder farmers overstate the success of agricultural projects.



Agricultural Productivity as Performance: A Tale of Two Mozambican Corridors

In what is now remembered as the Great Leap Forward, 15 to 55 million people died of starvation in Mao Zedong’s China. Decreeing increased efforts to multiply grain yields, Chairman Mao unleashed panic in rural China, and local officials, fearful of the national government, competed to fulfil (or over-fulfil) quotas based on Mao’s exaggerated claims, collecting “surpluses” that in fact did not exist and leaving farmers to starve as a result.

The Great Leap Forward took place between 1958 and 1962. Such schemes ostensibly aimed at improving the human condition and which end up in epic failure, as observed by James C. Scott, have reoccurred throughout history.

Other examples may not have led to a widespread loss of life as happened in mid-twentieth century China, but they have certainly produced hybrid and rather unpredictable outcomes.  An agricultural campaign with similar objectives as the Great Leap Forward was adopted by the Mozambican government for the year 2018/19.

It rallied smallholder farmers to increase production and productivity under the motto, “Mozambique Increasing Production and Productivity Towards Zero Hunger”. In the end, Mozambican farmers were unable to significantly increase production.

They had faced a number of challenges: limited access to credit, fertilizer, farm inputs, and feeder roads, and thus to markets. Which is to say, without easy access to markets, any surplus the farmers had produced was wasted before it even got to market.

What is more important to consider is the fact that this failure to increase the productivity of rural farmers in Mozambique had occurred at the same time as the government had put in place measures to commercialise agriculture along two important transport corridors located in its central and northern regions, that is, the Beira and Nacala agricultural corridors. The Mozambican government had been mobilizing international capital over a decade or so, in order to build and renovate transport infrastructure with the aim of commercialising agriculture along the corridors.

Despite attracting some capital and infusion of technology, capital flows and technological transfers were generally unpredictable as they largely depended on the intervention of multiple actors and the dynamics of the global economy and global commodity prices. Adding to the lack of the much-needed infrastructure was the absence of Mozambican capital, as the banking system in Mozambique was unwilling to take the risks that come with financing agriculture. Investments in agriculture normally take 5-10 years to show visible returns, and Mozambican investors cannot afford to wait that long.

Additional challenges to the implementation of the Beira and Nacala agricultural corridors were related to national and local politics. On the one hand, the armed confrontation between government forces and the armed branch of the major political party in the opposition, Renamo, which affected parts of Sofala and Nampula provinces between 2013 and 2016, had led to a reduction of investments, disrupting the flows of existing businesses. Also, agricultural corridors, in particular the Nacala corridor, tend to generate anxiety over land, leading to continuous debates and campaigns over “land grabbing” and land titling. As a result, both the Beira and Nacala agricultural corridors faced significant challenges in their implementation.

Investments in agriculture normally take 5-10 years to show visible returns, and Mozambican investors cannot afford to wait that long.

The vision of their blueprints, that is, of interlinked agricultural activities – that would have stretched from the cities of Beira and Nacala on the Indian Ocean up to Mozambique’s land-locked neighbours, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi – is yet to materialize. Despite the fact that such a grand vision is yet to materialize – if at all it will – this piece highlights its material consequences on the ground.

As a recently published special issue of the Journal of Eastern African Studies on growth corridors has shown, a careful examination of the planning, implementation and effects of agricultural corridors suggests that they often generate anxiety over land, and potential environmental impacts, and reconfigure power dynamics between international capital, local elites, bureaucrats and smallholder farmers – whether or not their official objectives are achieved.

By focusing on the practices of international investors, national elites, local bureaucrats and project beneficiaries, this research has suggested that, in order to attract capital, selected regions for development projects must dramatize their potential as places for investment, carefully selecting project locations and participants who will make compromises so as to conceal failure, virtually guaranteeing that the programme will be declared a success when the time comes for evaluation. These performances of success require the participation of a constellation of actors in order to be effective.

Along the Beira and Nacala agricultural corridors of Mozambique, there has been a widespread trend where international funders and investors, national elites, local bureaucrats and smallholder farmers collude in performing agricultural success, not only to attract the much-needed international capital, but in ways that bring the largely non-existent corridors to life. Agricultural corridors in Mozambique, in this sense, emerge on those occasions when international funders and investors, national elites, local bureaucrats and smallholder farmers overstate the success of agricultural projects – much like Chinese local officials did in the early 1960s. Below are two examples worth considering.

The tomato processing plant that never was

The administrative post of Tica in Nhamatanda District – along the Beira agricultural corridor – is famous for its abundant production of tomatoes. They are often left to rot when farmers are not able to sell all their produce.

In the local media, talk of building a tomato processing plant in Tica can be traced back to 2009, when a local entrepreneur reportedly received about US$33,000 from the Nhamatanda District Development Fund to build a tomato processing plant in order to capitalize on the district’s agricultural potential. In some of the media accounts, the processing plant was presented as if it already existed, running and fulfilling its promise to absorb the horticultural produce of farmers along the Beira agricultural corridor.

In 2013, a daily newspaper Notícias, published a news piece with the title, Processing plant created in Nhamatanda. The content of the news was based on an interview with the then district administrator of Nhamatanda, who said that a building plot had been located for the construction of the processing plant, and that a public tender for constructors had been announced and bids were awaited. He stated that the building would be completed by December 2013, and that equipment would be installed by February 2014.

There has been a widespread trend where international funders and investors, national elites, local bureaucrats and smallholder farmers collude in performing agricultural success.

In April 2015, another headline by the Voice of America read, Tomato processing plant changes the lives of producers in Tica. This story was based on two women who had been making a living for over 12 years selling tomatoes at a small agricultural market. This time the district administrator was announcing that the building was going to be completed by May 2015. In February 2018, another headline announced, This year Nhamatanda is going to process tomato, in an article where a district administrator was boasting of the 200,000-tonnes capacity of the future processing plant, advising local farmers to get ready to “produce a lot” since there was going to be a company to buy their produce.

When I visited the factory in March 2018, the building was not equipped. In a follow-up visit three months later, the main building of the processing plant was closed; a small agricultural inputs shop was operating from the security booth. The main building had caught fire at some point, and was closed pending repairs. The situation on the ground was in stark contrast to what district officials had been telling visiting researchers and journalists.

Ideas such as the introduction of financial services or the provision of technical assistance and tillage services are attractive, not only to farmers, but also to international donors and investors, but at the time the success of the tomato processing plant in Tica was being widely touted in the media, most of these plans were yet to materialize. The fire did indeed put an abrupt end to the brief lifespan of the plant, but the expectation of agricultural commercialisation that the plant had generated in the region long before it began operating exemplified the extent to which local officials were willing to create a narrative of success around a project in anticipation of, or as a means of attracting the much needed but seriously lacking investment capital.

A very important agribusiness fair 

On 7 and 8 July 2018, an agribusiness fair took place at the municipal soccer field of Ribáuè in Nampula province along the Nacala agricultural corridor. The fair was entitled Nakosso Agribusiness Fair: Facilitating Access to Markets, and was the first of a series of five fairs to be organized in northern Mozambique by a private company working in partnership with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. The fair was an important event in the calendar. The provincial governor opened it in a ceremony that was also attended by the Ministers of Agriculture and Rural Development, and by the Minister of Industry and Commerce.

The fair had stands showing various products by local farmers’ associations, whose work is often done with the support of district extension officers, and through a number of NGO-supported projects. As the visiting dignitaries went from one exhibition stand to another, the interaction with exhibitors was punctuated by questions, compliments and suggestions for improvement. The opening ceremony ended with the provincial governor’s speech, where he congratulated the exhibitors and encouraged them to continue the good work.

The events that took place during the fair, including the governor’s speech, were disseminated across the district through local radio station news programmes by the end of the day and the following morning they featured in the provincial news broadcast – a local feat.

The processing plant was presented as if it already existed, running and fulfilling its promise to absorb the horticultural produce of farmers along the Beira agricultural corridor.

In many ways, the fair represented the desired agricultural life in the district, showcasing products and opportunities for smallholder, medium and large-scale farmers in the production and commercialization processes – financial institutions, input providers and dealers, extension officers, successful smallholder farmers and large commercial farms were all brought together at the fair in a performance of agricultural success.

While district statistics point to the growth in local production and productivity in the past three years, the fair is especially effective as a field to demonstrate agricultural productivity all throughout the corridor, giving materiality to the corridor as a result, and enlisting a network of actors in the project of corridor making. In other words, the example of the fair illustrates how such events can provide occasions for the demonstration of success, and the creation of an ideal vision for the agricultural corridor. In Mozambique, the significance of agricultural fairs is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that they form a distinctive feature in the agenda of visiting high-level dignitaries, from the president of the republic, to provincial governors and ministers.

Despite the fact that on some occasions visiting dignitaries have questioned the blatant exhibition of produce brought in from other areas – in ways similar to the deception adopted by local officials in 1960s China – the fair is presented as a sample of agricultural developments already taking place in other areas covered by the corridor, especially given the efforts local officials put into achieving some kind of geographical representation of exhibitors. Finally, the fair also provides an opportunity for a pedagogy, through the celebration of cases of success that should be seen as models to be followed by other actors, in particular smallholder farmers.

In Mozambique, the significance of agricultural fairs is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that they form a distinctive feature in the agenda of visiting high-level dignitaries.

The idea of the corridor, whether the corridor existed or not, was in Mozambique, producing material effects on the ground.

The lesson

Without actual investments and infrastructure, blueprints, visions and policies for agricultural commercialisation in Mozambique come to be, or are given visibility, only when specific agricultural projects within the geographical location of the corridor are presented as successful.

At these events, complex entanglements emerge, exemplifying the everyday work of international funders and investors, national elites, local bureaucrats, and smallholder farmers, as they all perform project success on different occasions. Meanwhile, agricultural commercialisation, within the identified corridor region, remains low.

The lesson from these examples is that whether or not they achieve their official objectives – often to increase productivity and lift people out of poverty – development plans, visions and blueprints have material consequences.

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Democracy in Africa Is in Decline, Mo Ibrahim Prize Is Not the Solution

There has been no discernible improvement since the Mo Ibrahim Prize was launched and it is fair to question whether the award is even necessary.



Democracy in Africa Is in Decline, Mo Ibrahim Prize Is Not the Solution

Few have done more to entrench democracy in Africa than Mohamed Ibrahim through his Mo Ibrahim Foundation established in 2006. The foundation’s signature effort is the Ibrahim Prize. Three years after leaving office, an “exceptional role model” former head of state or government is awarded US$5million over a period of ten years, and an additional US$200,000 every year for life. Despite such a generous offer—over three times the Nobel Peace Prize—the Mo Ibrahim Prize has been awarded in only seven of the 15 years of its existence. The late Nelson Mandela was an honorary laureate in 2007. No worthy candidate has been found in the years since.

Design flaws and the changing global dynamics doomed the Ibrahim Prize. While the prize is the most generous of any awards out there in monetary terms, it was never close to what African leaders can “make” while in power. The presidency offers more than just direct financial rewards; there are indirect gains too that cannot be satisfied by monetary compensation. “Bribing” African leaders to be models of good governance misses the point that there is no ceiling for greed, and greed is insatiable.

One year after the Mo Ibrahim Foundation award was launched, the United States launched AFRICOM (United States Africa Command), and a year later, the global financial crisis hit. Combined, these factors stymied democratization in Africa.

While, of course, Africa’s democracy cannot be predicated on a single prize, there has been no discernible improvement since the award was launched and it is fair to question whether the award is even necessary.  For, despite the award, Africa’s democracy has been in far worse shape since it was launched.

Democratic boom and slide 

The late 1980s and 1990s was a period of immense optimism across Africa. The Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War came to an end, and Nelson Mandela was released from prison, going on to lead South Africa into the first multi-racial election. These events collectively engendered a sense of buoyancy across Africa, and others started looking at Africa through rose-tinted glasses.

After a slow start, electoral democracy began taking root in Africa. According to Freedom House, during this buoyant period Africa went from having two-thirds of its countries classified as “Not Free”, with only two countries — Botswana and Mauritius — classified as “Free” in 1989, to two-thirds of all African nations being classified as either “Free” or “Partly Free” by 2009.

Many civilian and military dictatorships were swept away, paving the way for the establishment of rule-of-law-based governance systems characterised by constitutionalism and constitutional government, including reforms such as the imposition of term limits.

That decade also saw the coming into power of former rebel leaders in Uganda, Ethiopia, and Eritrea — Yoweri Museveni, Meles Zenawi and Isaias Afwerki. This cohort was uncritically embraced and christened the “new breed” of African leaders. Decades later, with the exception of Meles who has died, the rest have their countries in a firm grip.

In 2021, Freedom House rated only eight countries in sub-Saharan Africa as free. Half of these are small island states — Cape Verde, Mauritius, Sao Tome and Principe, and Seychelles. The number of African countries that Freedom House rated “Not Free” has grown from a low of 14 in 2006 to 20 in 2021.

Presidential term limit

Because of Africa’s post-independence history, most constitutions included a presidential term limit to safeguard against presidential overreach in the absence of a strong legislature, judiciary, and civil service. Of almost 50 constitutions passed during Africa’s wave of democratisation, more than 30 had a presidential term limit. Some even included age limits beyond which a president cannot stand for election or serve.

But this attempt at full-proofing against presidential overreach has come under assault, with presidents attempting to extend their terms by fiddling with the constitution. Between April 2000 and July 2018, presidential term limits were changed 47 times in 28 countries, with at least six failed  attempts to change the law: Frederick Chiluba of Zambia in 2001, Edgar Lungu of Zambia and Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria in 2005, Mamadou Tandja of Niger in 2009-2010, and Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso in 2014. All failed in their attempts.

Of almost 50 constitutions passed during Africa’s wave of democratisation, more than 30 had a presidential term limit.

Leaders extend their terms using various means. Some increase their terms from five to seven years, as was the case in Guinea (2001), the Democratic Republic of Congo (2002), Rwanda (2003) and Burundi (2018). In Chad (2018), the term was increased from five to six years while South Sudan (2015 and 2018) and DRC (2016) used the conflict in their countries to postpone elections thus prolonging their presidents’ stay in power.

In the case of Zimbabwe (2013), the Democratic Republic of Congo (2015), and Rwanda (2015), terms of office were reset through constitutional amendments once the president reached the term limit.

In other countries, the incumbent removed the term limit altogether, as in the case of Guinea (2001), Togo (2002), Tunisia (2002), Gabon (2003), Chad (2005), Uganda (2005), Algeria (2008), Cameroon (2008), Niger (2009) and Djibouti (2010). The lack of effective term limits means that Africa has ten leaders who have ruled for over 20 years and two family dynasties that have been in power for more than 50 years.

The propensity of leaders to extend their terms is in complete dissonance with the disproportionate number of citizens opposed to it. According to a 2015 Afrobarometer survey, about 75 per cent of citizens in 34 African countries favour limiting presidential mandates to two terms. Moreover, democracy is the preferred form of governance for 67 per cent of Africans.

Extending presidential term limits is associated with adverse social-economic outcomes. All eight African countries facing civil conflict (excluding insurgencies by militant Islamist groups) are without term limits. Of the 10 African countries that account for the largest number of Africa’s 32 million refugees and internally displaced populations, seven countries do not have term limits.

The War on Terror

The 9/11 terror attacks and the 2008 financial crisis combined saw Western countries pivot away from promoting democracy in Africa.

The continent became the next frontier of the war on terrorism after Osama bin Laden was forced out of Saudi Arabia and settled in Sudan in the 1990s. This sufficiently alarmed the US, which then made security the dominant lens through it—and the rest of the West—viewed Africa and became the basis for policy formulation and engagement with the continent. Inevitably, the promotion of democracy was deprioritised with the attendant decline in spending and other resources.

In the same manner how Africa’s former Big Men had positioned themselves as the vanguard against the spread of communism in Africa, a new crop of leaders instrumentalised the War on Terror and fashioned themselves as the last defence against terrorism. This opened the taps of Western largesse, training and political support and protected them from being held accountable. On the domestic front, these leaders passed some of the harshest anti-terror laws in line with President Bush’s neat Manichean dichotomy—you are either with the terrorists or with us.

Extending presidential term limits is associated with adverse social-economic outcomes.

The anti-terrorism laws became a blunt instrument with which to beat any organised opposition by reflexively declaring it terrorism, which inevitably meant using extra-legal means, including holding opponents in safe houses, and using torture, forceful disappearances and extrajudicial killings. All these eroded the burgeoning democracy.

The reflexive reaction to the events of 9/11 spawned an interlocking web of covert and overt military and non-military operations in Africa. Initially deemed necessary and temporary, these efforts have since morphed into a self-sustaining system complete with agencies, institutions, and a specialised vocabulary that pervades every realm of America’s engagement with Africa. AFRICOM has become the primary vehicle of America’s engagement with the continent.

No president has exploited the War on Terror to their advantage more than the late Idris Déby of Chad and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. Museveni used the War on Terror to turn Uganda into the anchor state in East Africa and the Great Lakes region, as he became repressive domestically. Debby made Chad the gateway to the Sahel region. In the political arena, Museveni pronounced Kizza Besigye and Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu—known by his stage name Bobi Wine—terrorists and visited terror upon them and their supporters.

No president has exploited the War on Terror to their advantage more than the late Idris Déby of Chad and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda.

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation Award was first awarded in 2006; in 2007 AFRICOM was formed, in 2008, the global financial crisis hit. Privileging counterterrorism in engagement with Africa securitised everything, and the financial crisis limited the West’s ability to continue funding democracy.  In their place stepped African leaders who put themselves at the service of assuaging the West’s security anxieties and thus severely damaged the nascent democracy. Unsurprisingly some of the Western-trained military leaders are now emboldened to overthrow elected leaders and replace them with military governments.

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Vitu Kwa Ground ni Different! Anticipations, not Policy, Driving LAPSSET

The ubiquitous demands for financial compensation, rationalisation of land ownership, and community involvement in project planning, are all part of a wider strategy to ensure that the LAPSSET project comes to terms with local concerns and interests.



Vitu Kwa Ground ni Different! Anticipations, not Policy, Driving LAPSSET

Last May, Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta launched the operations of the first berth of the new Lamu Port on Manda Bay. As the media focussed attention on a security glitch during the function, when a man attempted to approach the president on the dais, a group of local fishers were threatening to demonstrate on the streets of Lamu town. They were demanding full compensation in cash – US$170 million, or KSh1.7 billion – that a four-judge bench sitting in the town of Malindi awarded them four years ago.

According to the Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) – which is in charge of the construction of the new port at Lamu – the demand for full compensation in cash is out of step with an agreement it had made with the fishers. The agreement, deposited at the High court, stipulates that only 65 per cent of the compensation would be made in cash, and that the remaining 35 per cent would be invested in equipment to support deep-sea fishing. The fishers now appear to be less interested in the fishing equipment. As a result, payment of their compensation has been delayed.

Such demands for full financial compensation, and others for the rationalisation of land ownership, including community involvement in project planning, have been ubiquitous across the entire Lamu Port and South-Sudan Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor since the project’s inception in 2012.

The ambitious US$25 billion LAPSSET corridor, when completed, will run from Lamu County on the Kenyan coast into Ethiopia and South-Sudan. It promises to develop infrastructure to connect a vast area covering northern Kenya, South Sudan, and southern Ethiopia with global markets. Initially driven by oil and mineral transport needs, planners hoped that the development would also boost agricultural investment, including building processing plants and distribution centres, and creating special economic zones and free trade areas. To boost agricultural production, the focus would be on setting up large plantations, nucleus farms, outgrower schemes, and large holding grounds for livestock.

Broadly, LAPSSET reflects the high-modernist impulses of its promoters (national politicians and bureaucrats), some of whom genuinely expect that their plans to transform Lamu and northern Kenya will attract the capital required to create a new modernizing force in the region. As a result, LAPSSET’s framing of northern Kenya and Lamu as empty of civilized people and modernity, but full of resources, especially land and minerals, appears to be legitimating the appropriation of “underutilized” land, while casting the state and its elites as heroes who will make these regions anew.

What is important is that this type of rhetoric – accompanied by seductive images of the future of northern Kenya under LAPSSET – is generating real anticipations on the ground. In sum, LAPSSET’s future direction is being negotiated and renegotiated in advance of any investments. The ubiquitous demands for financial compensation, rationalisation of land ownership, and community involvement in project planning, for example, are all part of a wider strategy to ensure that this large infrastructural project, with implications for the commercialisation of agriculture, comes to terms with local concerns and interests. It is through such demands that various local actors, including smallholder farmers, fishers and pastoralists, are seeking to direct the project in ways that better respond to local realities.

The promulgation of a new constitution in 2010, two-years before the LAPSSET project began, has promoted the voice of communities that will be affected. Together with the wider public ethos that accompanied the 2010 constitution, and which encourages respect for human rights and the importance of communal involvement in the policy-making process, the space needed for members of the public to petition important government projects that affect their lives has been expanded.

While information asymmetries continue to cause confusion and suspicion, civil society organisations along the corridor are demanding comprehensive social and environmental impact assessment studies be conducted, with communal consultation and other safeguards. It is these anticipations of the prosperous future that LAPSSET is promising, and which are intensified by information asymmetries that cause confusion and panic, that will influence the overall, future direction of LAPSSET – in ways that were not necessarily anticipated at the policy-design stage.

A central narrative driving the activist agenda around LAPSSET in Lamu is that information about the project is not forthcoming. Demands for information have variously been made through petitions addressed to concerned authorities, street demonstrations and court cases. A petition citing concerns over communal safeguards, community consultation, environmental protection, and the fate of customary natural resource management led to the formation of the LAPSSET Steering Committee, which brought together LAPSSET officials and local activists, smallholder farmers, women, youth, Beach Management Unit (BMU) managers and local religious leaders. However, after receiving official recognition on 2 March 2012, the steering committee was dissolved after six months due to political wrangling at county-government level.

The promulgation of a new constitution in 2010, two-years before the LAPSSET project began, has promoted the voice of communities that will be affected.

Following the dissolution of the committee, the political environment has become fraught, with multiple actors struggling to overturn and control certain aspects of LAPSSET in ways that will advance their competing interests. In some instances, LAPSSET managers have made unilateral decisions without consultation, especially regarding land acquisition for key components of the corridor.  This has affected the swift implementation of LAPSSET, as people resort to taking their grievances to the High Court, and communal protests against LAPSSET and its associated projects in Lamu have become more frequent.

Apart from the lack of information, communities are concerned with how their local cultures and livelihoods will be respected and protected, especially in relation to access to Lamu’s ecological diversity and the management and stewardship of “indigenous” territories and areas in line with customary laws, values and decision-making processes. Local conservationists have deployed multidimensional traditional knowledge systems transmitted culturally through generations, which they argue provide a better understanding of local and interconnected patterns and processes over large spatial and temporal scales, such as turbidity on the sea caused by port dredging; cycles of resource availability within forests and coral reefs; and shifts in climate or ecosystem structure and function. The Bajuni fishers living on the islands of the Lamu archipelago are worried that the port risks destroying Lamu’s ecological diversity, and with it, the livelihoods of its residents. Therefore, activists have pressed LAPSSET decision-makers to pay attention to environmental conservation and human rights, and respect existing livelihoods and culture.

Lamu communities are also looking towards other possible opportunities, such as higher investment in public education and scholarship opportunities for locals so that they can become skilled in, for example, port and related operations, with the prospect of future employment. Farmers’ groups are also expecting compensation for their land and other natural resources based on a precedent set in 2015 when 300 smallholders were compensated for their plots at Kililana (now within the port area). However, local opinion is divided as some groups focus on the long-term consequences of LAPSSET on land, smallholder farming and fisheries, while others focus on immediate benefits.

Research has shown that when such mega-infrastructure projects as LAPSSET hit the ground, they interact with social groups within the state and in society that are differentiated along lines of class, gender, generation, ethnicity and nationality, and that have historically specific expectations, aspirations and traditions of struggle. It is these dynamics that produce diverse responses involving a diverse set of actors, with different consequences. A useful summation may be found in a new Kenyan adage, vitu kwa ground ni different! Things on the ground are different (from what you may think!).

Despite the recent pompous launch of the Lamu port – a key component of the wider LAPSSET corridor – the project is experiencing difficulties because the infrastructure was mainly intended to improve petroleum transport but falling petroleum prices, conflict in South Sudan, and Uganda’s decision to transport oil through Tanzania, and not Kenya, will continue to cause delays in implementation. Despite such complications to the realisation of LAPSSET, it can be observed that for a place like Lamu, the mere existence of the project, even on paper, has produced real material effects on the ground, where LAPSSET is influencing, and in turn being influenced by local political, economic and social processes, or simply, the realities of rural Africa.

Take land-use change. Since at least the 1990s, there has been increased sedentarization and intensification of land-use in Lamu County, occasioned by the spread of rain-fed agriculture, increased migration into the county, and perhaps following this, the spread of communal conservation efforts such as the establishment of ranches and conservancies. Coupled with the need for allocation of land to LAPSSET project activities, such increasing demands for land in Lamu are driving wider calls for the rationalisation of land ownership, related to a nervous politics of belonging, where renewed meanings of land as property, driven by the anticipations of LAPSSET, are conflicting with meanings of land as a cultural resource, or as ethnic territory.

For a place like Lamu, the mere existence of the project, even on paper, has produced real material effects on the ground.

The idea of land as ethnic territory constitutes a widespread ideology in Kenya, where land is inexorably linked with ethnic identity, ideas of citizenship are informed by ethnicity, and land and ethnicity have both influenced the politics of redistribution. In the context of increasing competition for land and resources in Lamu, prominence has been given to exclusivist notions of belonging and citizenship – where commonplace terms such as wageni (“guests” or “migrant” communities) and wenyeji (“hosts” or “indigenous” communities), are being cast in a new light, as individuals and groups anticipate LAPSSET’s prosperous future.

In addition, civic engagement about LAPSSET has raised key questions about the control and ownership of the proposed corridor, including who benefits. LAPSSET managers and local politicians should pay attention to the often exclusivist nature of local politics because local divisions in terms of expectation and resource distribution may drive conflict between and amongst people of different ethnicities and political orientation, most of whom are smallholder farmers and fishers. Smallholder farmers and fishers are concerned that if they do not influence the future direction of LAPSSET, especially regarding access to land, seascape, and markets, integration to value chains will not automatically accrue benefits to them. While public communal narratives have embraced concepts like consultation, inclusivity, and participation, it is unclear if these ideals will be practised in the future, when investors begin engaging with the upstream segments of the anticipated value chains.

Despite an active civil society space in Lamu, information asymmetries regarding LAPSSET persist, causing confusion, misinformation, and suspicion. This is why local activists, smallholder farmers, and recently fishers, are focussing their attention on issues that pose a direct threat to existing livelihoods, including those that promise immediate benefits such as financial compensation for land and resources claimed by the infrastructural developments.

Way forward

To achieve the LAPSSET vision, it is essential to include the vision of local actors by making more informed choices, taking more effective action, and influencing the nature of the anticipated value chains. Quotas should be created for the participation of smallholder farmers and fishers in the LAPSSET Corridor Development Authority (LCDA), for example, by including respectable smallholder and fisher associations and land rights groups. The LCDA should collaborate with the Pastoralists Parliamentary Group to develop proposals for value-chains that will not exclude the interests of pastoralists.

Lastly, LAPSSET Steering Committees should be established in the counties that will be traversed by the corridor. They will provide a much-needed channel of communication between local communities and LAPSSET managers to help project managers and community representatives address information asymmetries in order to reduce the need to resort to the courts, street demonstrations, and state harassment of local activists.

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