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Remembering Dedan Kimathi

18 min read.

Sixty-five years after he was executed by the British colonial government, freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi remains, perhaps more than any other public figure in Kenya’s history, the focal point of nationalism.



Remembering Dedan Kimathi

The fortuitous discovery of the court transcripts of the trial of freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi pierces the deliberate official silence of many years and thrusts this important historical figure right to the centre of British imperial history in Kenya.

Without a doubt, especially given the historical significance and centrality of Kimathi in the struggle for independence, there is a real possibility that the publication of this archival find (in the 2017 Julie MacArthur edited volume, Dedan Kimathi on Trial) could fling open the door to a grim and an uneasy past and bring into question not merely the skewed sense of British colonial justice but also the entire imperially inaugurated order and related issues of social and historical injustice. After all, the subjugation, domination, and social control of Africans, and the exercise of power in the allocation of resources and services under the colonial order, was through a flimsy and dubious cloak of legality.

Throughout human history, when the legal process establishes a right of one particular person, group, or institution, it simultaneously imposes a restraint on those whose preferences impinge on the right established. In this particular case, in the name of the law, the rights of white settlers were assured and their privilege entrenched even while the just and legitimate aspirations of millions of Africans were delegitimized, repressed, and extinguished without contemplation, with arbitrariness disguised as legality.

The legal illegality of empire

Moreover, the colonial order was contrived through legal prestidigitation. From the outset, the imperial legitimacy of power was, therefore, contested, and most segments of the African population in Kenya understood that the colonial order had been possible only through the legal production of illegality, that, indeed, colonial law cloaked illegitimate power.

Kimathi was convicted on two charges—unlawful possession of a firearm and unlawful possession of ammunition—contrary to the Emergency Regulations of 1953, under which it was found that he threatened public safety and order, contravening a colonial order that rested on the rickety stilts of the legal production and social construction of illegality, which is what had inspired the Mau Mau threat in the first place.

It is, in fact, curiously surprising that Kimathi’s defence team never once argued, in entering its plea, as Mandela and Walter Sisulu, among other defendants, had in the Rivonia Trial. Making a formal plea, the former had courageously stated that it was the government that should have been in the dock and not him. The latter had stated, “It is the government which is guilty, not me,” adding, after being rebuked by Quartus de Wet, the presiding judge, who asked him to plead either guilty or not, “It is the government which is responsible for what is happening in this country.”

The oppressive colonial order resting, as it did, on the social and legal construction of illegality, was not on trial, which, in retrospect, casts a shadow of doubt on this case. In other words, it was a blatant miscarriage of justice.

As if this was not enough, as British colonial authorities were wont to do, Kimathi, the embodiment of anti-colonialism, and by extension, a fighter against all that was evil in the heady, violent 1950s, was ignominiously executed and buried in an unmarked grave, his remains forever lost. With this physical, psychic, and existential erasure, it must also have been hoped that his memory was evermore expunged from the face of the earth. He was not only to be humiliated and dehumanized but also to be forgotten.

As Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o observes, this can be seen as part and parcel of, generally, European, and specifically, British imperial dismembering practice of power intended, at once, both to pacify colonial subjects, and as a symbolic act, a performance of power, intended to produce docile minds. The commutation of capital punishment was an integral aspect of colonial networks of power and violence. In addition, Kimathi’s execution was a stark enactment of colonial power intended to reinforce an imperial order and impose the authority of the colonial state. And this enactment of power over Kimathi as a colonial subject meant even more: this feared and hated “terrorist” was dismembered from memory, what he stood for now choked off, and the dangerous ideas and memories that he carried, buried.

The man that colonialists wanted Kenya to forget became a byword for contempt and derision spoken only in hushed whispers. Kimathi, his image now besmirched, like that of many others whose lives were shamefully ended on the gallows, and his memory all but wiped from the public eye for at least half a century, was an ambiguous historical figure unlike self-styled but celebrated fathers of the nation. Even after independence, a street named after him was only a token honour. But the significant military role he had played in the fight for freedom stubbornly remained a part of the national metanarrative and of the school curriculum. For most people, he remained an unspoken hero.

But, as Simon Gikandi points out, there was a gradually spreading ripple of public acclaim emanating from Karunaini, Kimathi’s birthplace, which naturally became the epicentre of the sustained memorialization of the man and what he stood for, despite years of neglect in the Kenyatta and Moi years. In the immediate neighbourhood of Karunaini, numerous elementary and secondary schools are named after him, the highest honour paid to him by the Nyeri elite led by Mwai Kibaki, who in 1972 established the Dedan Kimathi University of Technology. After assuming the presidency, Kibaki then took the memorialization a notch higher by commissioning the Kimathi statue that stands at the head of the street named after him in the centre of the country’s political and commercial capital, Nairobi.

All this came at a time when Kenyans were witnessing a distantly related reincarnation of Mau Mau, the growing Mungiki movement among Gikuyu rural and urban youth. This then is what explains why, in an intimate conversation, in 2006 with two close friends from my church in Nairobi, one concerned observer expressed fear that the Kimathi statue would send the “wrong” message in the country and signal “the return of his spirit”. Whatever that might have meant, it was not far from the truth.

In my belated rejoinder to my friend’s remark and, appropriately using Biblical imagery, this recognition that came late in the day, was Kimathi’s haunting blood bitterly crying out to be remembered, and for justice, from an unmarked grave. His voice joined at least a thousand others whose micronarratives are effectively detailed by David Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged and thus continue providing witness to British colonial political oppression, exploitation, injustice, and police and military brutality from their graves.

This moment in Mau Mau history in general, and the commemoration of Kimathi in particular, marked the zenith of the retrieval from near oblivion of one of the most violent periods in Kenya’s history that a few would rather not remember. That a small ripple could have reached such a national crescendo, and from the Nyeri region, which was particularly hard hit by the divisions and the violence that arose in the 1950s, and without the slightest demur from so-called loyalists, would warrant an urgent re-evaluation of what it meant to be a “rebel” or a “loyalist” in that decade.

Resistance consciousness

It is quite remarkable that a young peasant of Kimathi’s humble background could have taken such a militant stance against the British, becoming such a formidable imperial headache. This did not happen simply because he, as then alleged, was a demonic, bloodthirsty rebel or a deranged psychopath hell-bent on violence. This sort of offhanded criminalization and obvious dismissal has clouded a clear view of the man.

Kimathi’s stature and resistance was achieved through an ever-widening circle, starting from self-identity to his relationship with, and organization of, key figures that he knew face-to-face (read: Mau Mau forest fighters). This was followed by his keen understanding of, and appeal to, a solidaristic collective organization from which he drew upon the consciously organized resources of a social movement in pursuit of his individual agency.

Furthermore, although this is also where he floundered, he did attempt to involve the organizational capacities of generalized agencies such as other global liberation movements, and exemplars of revolution and their publications, and local and international media, which he read or knew only remotely through their representations.

In the first concentric circle of Kimathi’s organization of resistance was a deep-seated resistance consciousness the spring of which was sufficient self-cognizance to enable him to act as a coherently organized individual or to exercise reflexive agency in power relations. Moreover, his inclination to join the nationalist movement; to become a member of the Kenya African Union (KAU), for which he served as the Ol Kalou branch secretary; and his subsequent involvement with the militant outgrowth  of  the Anake a 40 (Young  Men of the 1940s)—the Muhimu—made up of ex-servicemen, urban gangs, and frustrated political activists from whose ranks he rose quickly to become a respected oath administrator and organizer, all must have stemmed from a solid base of intensive self-organization.

This sort of political activity demonstrates that Kimathi, as an individual, was organized enough to be able to seek to enrol, translate, interest, or oppose others in state-making as a public project of power. This demonstrates his existence under conditions of well-framed reflexivity. Kimathi well understood how power relations constituted his identity, which is what ignited reflexivity that propelled him to pursue possibilities of what he could be(come). This reflexive self-organization of himself as a “resistant subject” was based on framed knowledge about who he was and what he could or should be, which is what enabled him to take a stand against the established colonial order.

Kimathi lived at a crucial period of transition from African traditional ways to a racially hierarchical colonial modernity—at a time, therefore, when the very private experience of having a personal identity to discover, and a personal destiny to fulfil, became a subversive political force of major proportions.

Moreover, he knew about and sought to exploit the deep, fertile soil of brewing African dissent and real grievances, and naturally, the latently explosive transcript of indignation hidden beneath it. Kimathi’s ambition was to animate the collective cultural fantasy and dreams of violent revenge of subordinate but long-suffering Africans who, however, never gave their personal hidden transcripts expression, even among close friends and peers.

At the level of analytical understanding, this is what should matter to us most. It matters little, then, the idiosyncrasies attendant to the pursuit of his stand or whether that stand was an act of outrage or rebellion, or an existential gesture. Equally, important as they are to our full understanding of the man, it matters little what ascriptions or variable representations and multiple interpretations his image attracted contemporaneously or thereafter.

Next, at the level of social organization, Kimathi was able to implicate other important players, some of whom he knew through face-to-face relations. Put differently, he was able to draw upon resources of social organization greater than, or beyond, himself, such as ecologies of local community networks, and, by extension, the forged alliance of ethnic kin- ship and enlarged moral imagination of the Gikuyu.

This level can be said to have been reached when Kimathi took to the Nyandarua Forest, where he rose to become one of the most important leaders of the Mau Mau rebellion. It is in the forest that he would found the Kenya Defence Council, and a freedom fighters’ Kenya Parliament as attempts to bring order, hierarchy, and centralization to the scattered Mau Mau forces. This could well have been the time when Kimathi, contemporaneously, started to attract and embody all manner of competing ascriptions and symbolize many of the contradictions represented by Mau Mau, Kenyan anti-colonialism, and nationalism writ large.

It is while in the forest that a relatively well-prepared Kimathi, as a “resistant subject”, a man of courage and practical power, launched his career proper—before, of course, taking the reins of state power. Having experienced, first-hand, misfortunes that he rightly attributed to the colonial structures of domination that resulted in systematic oppression, and having witnessed the wishes of the people, and judging himself to be a formidable man of will, Kimathi thought he knew how to come to their end, and, whispering to this friend, and arguing down that adversary, sought to mould society to his purpose.

Looking upon people as wax for his hands, he started to take command of them as the wind does the clouds, in order to lead them, in glad surprise, to the very point they would be. And as a leader of men, he was, for a time, followed with acclamation. But this stage also marked the beginning of his undoing.

After all, there are obstacles and limits to the construction of any collectivity, or people as a body. There is nothing automatic about the emergence of “a people”. With him were people who, while sharing certain substantive values, consisted of multiple selves, people constituting their identities in a plurality of subject positions. Although aspiring to forge the wishes of the people into a new polity of citizens, an ordered, lawful, and progressive society, as a leader of a loose coalition with divergent interests, Kimathi easily became a blank canvas upon which were inscribed various political demands and ends.

In addition, he was a suspended hegemon in the making without firm or well-established authority, a floating signifier rather than a fixed one that was pinned down, ordering the form of debate, irrespective of the content. Not having achieved fixity that avails hegemonic power, his authority was subject to the harsh audit of his peers. It comes as no surprise then that Kimathi was less known for his prowess as a field general than for his motivational speeches and his legendary obsession with the output of bureaucratic prose, a discursive practice that is a constant site of struggle over power.

In his power stratagem, Kimathi believed the pen was mightier than the sword. The power struggle was not just within the movement and its top leadership but also within the wider political frontiers of the colonial state. Ultimately, this is what defused the violent forest struggle for land and freedom, arresting the momentum of Mau Mau’s militant demand for independence. Competing loci of personal authority impaired collective action and blunted the first impulse of social obligation, muddling the core and shared substantive value between all Mau Maus as encapsulated by their central argument about “moral economy”.

Confrontations and divisions between forest fighters, and, specifically, challenges to Kimathi’s authority, no doubt affected the stories that these opponents of colonial power wanted to tell Kenya and the world. Furthermore, this fragmentation of resistance lacked all vital centralization and a shared quantifiable strategic objective. As a result, while initially successful in tapping into the energy, general mood of dissent, and resources of a movement that had discrete but wide support of the majority of people in Central Province, solidaristic organization there and elsewhere in the colony and beyond did not quite take root.

In spite of his prowess at drawing on global exemplars of revolution and political thought, Kimathi’s predicament was exacerbated by lack of success to connect with “generalized others” like such révolutionnaires elsewhere in the world and media organizations. In the long run, the colonial state caught up with this central figure whose personal resistance had become the keystone upon which the struggle to defeat tyranny, imperial hegemony, and regime of colonial “normalcy” or order rested. Once the influence of the person at the centre of the Mau Mau rebellion was snuffed out, the back of the resistance was broken.

Thus ended the ambition of a man of courage and measured practical power to mould society to his purpose. But it is important to turn to the fulcrum on which this personal ambition and carefully cultivated identity turned: that is, various technologies of self-expression and, therefore, self-inscription and self-formation. Specifically, this refers to Kimathi’s identity-shaping disciplines and discursive practices through which he sought to transform himself into a formidable man of will and a practical man of action and power, and which also enabled him to assume, as a personal mission, the alignment of ordinary people’s everyday projects with authoritative images of the colonial social order.

A closed double riigi

As Derek Peterson has observed, Kimathi’s ensemble of representations and disciplines necessitating incessant writing, bureaucratic recording and record-keeping materials, typewriters, printing machines, and so forth were ways of imagining a counter-state. More than being a hobby or obsession, it does seem that Kimathi understood the nature and inner workings of power—above all, that it is textual, semiotic, inherent in the very possibility of textuality, meaning, and signification in the social world. Moreover, his letter writing and record keeping can, and should, be seen as discursive resistance or discursive articulation of resistance that informed Kimathi’s sense of self-identity and purpose.

Kimathi’s identity-shaping disciplines and discursive practices were a way of engaging with social reality, which cannot be known unequivocally but only through its representation in language. He was exercising discursive consciousness by putting things into words or giving verbal expression to the promptings of action. His use of speeches, text, writing, cognition, and argumentation can, and should, be seen as reliance on language to represent possibilities, and to position possibilities, in relation to each other. In other words, he used language to define the possibilities of meaningful existence.

Although he was known to have written profusely, however, there is precious little that exists of Kimathi’s records to shed light on his thinking, what he understood his cause to be, and his stand. Nevertheless, it is worth making a gallant effort to reveal his thoughts.

For all his disrepute, Kimathi’s sharpness, illustrated in his few surviving historical records, is not in doubt. Indeed, there has not been a more comprehensive testimony to the man’s intellectual acuity until the recovery of transcripts of his trial. Although meant to argue for the prosecution, an expert witness, a medical doctor, stated that Kimathi was a “reasonably intelligent man, intelligent above the standard of a man of his education.” This rings true in the pages of his scant writing. His is a feeble and isolated prophetic voice crying out from the wilderness of colonial oppression, that of socioeconomic neglect of African reserves and exploitation.

Nor was it a voice that was taken seriously. But what one deduces from the little writing available, and specifically that selectively adduced in the trial as evidence (Exhibits Nos. 22A, 23, and 24), is a person of more than average intelligence and a man wholly committed to a just cause, something that is echoed in Maina wa Kinyatti’s The Papers of Dedan Kimathi, the veracity, provenance, access, and translation of which, in academic circles unfortunately, is still much in doubt.

Scattered throughout are gems of Gikuyu wisdom from a man moved to action, not out of flippant emotions but from the depths of the experience of colonial injustice and the pressing need for redress. One gleans appeals to the colonial authorities to rely less on coercion or  fear and more on truth; appeals for mutual trust, respect, and friendship, and mutuality in giving and acceptance; appeals for truth and justice; appeals for shared prosperity while appreciating that all people cannot be rich; appeals for the need for reconciliation; and appeals for peace and mutual coexistence and the hope that blacks and whites in Kenya be of one heart.

One also finds, in these few pages, a stunning tenacity in the justifiability of the cause for which he was fighting. The reading of the three Kimathi letters also shows a clear understanding of his cause: Kimathi and others were fighting for the country and its people, for wĩathi (self-mastery) and for truth and justice.

And, in this worthy struggle, surrender was out of the question. It was something that could not get into the minds of intelligent people. Indeed, it was preferable to sell one’s soul instead of having to surrender it. Surrender would also not bring about an end to the war. It was also quite clear, in Kimathi’s mind, who Mau Mau were, and it was not just a matter of white and black as the problems that beset Kenya affected both races. As such, justice could not be expected from the barrel of the gun.

Mau Mau was the cry of a people suffering from poverty and exploitation. It was a vehicle to liberate Kenya, to regain the Kenyan soil that Europeans had occupied by force. The poor man was Mau Mau, and therefore, bombs and other weapons could not finish the movement. In fact, if the exploitation of the Africans did not stop, Kimathi said, it was to be expected that the war in Kenya would continue for a long time.

Violent confrontation between the two sides could not bring about fairness or truth. Only peace could hold the Kenyan house together, as opposed to ruling Africans with the colonial whip in their faces. There was need for reconciliation (ũiguano), and mending of the “paining” part of the colonial body politic, beyond the rift occasioned by the war. The fight was not one of everlasting hatred but was, rather, a necessary but regrettable pause calling for the creation of a true and real brotherhood between white and black, so that the latter could be regarded as people, as capable and equal human beings.

All said, one may be forgiven for seeing, in Kimathi, a quite different kind of man from these letters. A Kimathi who was not a mastermind of evil and a militant man of violent action but also an understanding diplomat in his own right, especially considering his constant appeals for peace.

Nonetheless, Kimathi’s cause and what he stood for, his thinking about the colonial order and his action(s) against it, and his appeals, were not taken as seriously as he would have wished. Indeed, because of it, his letter writing and record keeping, and the content therein, even proffers of peace, were met with a closed double riigi (door)—that of the colonial authorities on the one hand, and that of sections of the forest Mau Mau and their leadership on the other.

Kimathi faced opposition from his fellow forest fighters over strategy revolving around his peace efforts as well as challenges to his authority. This rift stemmed from literacy, which in the forest often became a dividing line, especially among the movement’s leadership. While exercising identity-shaping disciplines and discursive practices, Kimathi elevated himself over his peers, whom he was often given to criticizing as unlettered. They, in turn, accused Kimathi of having been poisoned by Christianity and Western education. It is not surprising that the modestly educated, like Kimathi, and the highly educated, like Karari Njama, were disturbed by traditional Gikuyu practices and superstitions, for instance, precolonial oath-taking elements, yet tolerated them for their utility.

In due time, those who clung to traditions and superstitions, deeming themselves to be authentic Gikuyus, retreated to the house of Gikuyu customs and closed the woven door (riigi) behind them. These Kimathi critics were weary of his bureaucratic Kenya Parliament with its incessant writing and record keeping and talks of making peace that they found untrustworthy. They accused Kimathi and other educated Protestant leaders of using their illiterate followers for their own selfish ends.

On the other hand was the riigi of the colonial authorities. The colonial authorities, and the court, chose to look beyond Kimathi’s motivations, what he stood for, and what he was fighting for. That mattered little. It is little wonder that Kimathi was tried within the narrow legal parameters of a court of Emergency assize. Why he was in possession of both an unlicensed revolver and six rounds of ammunition was not in question.

Kimathi’s proffers of peace and appeals for redress of pressing African grievances; for the colonial authorities to rely less on coercion or fear, and more on truth; for mutual trust, respect and friendship, and mutuality in giving and acceptance; for shared prosperity while appreciating that all people cannot be rich; for the need for healing and reconciliation; for peace and mutual coexistence, and the expression of hope that blacks and whites in Kenya be of one heart; and for justice and truth, came to naught. Indeed, what he represented, the truth of the weak spoken in the face of power, was inadmissible and unacceptable.

Kimathi’s insubordination against the constituted colonial order and its laws, and the insurrection that he had led, had breached the bounds of established rules of structured consensual interaction, including whatever conflict existed between the imperial authorities and their “lawful” African subjects. His war sought to reconfigure the socioeconomic formation of the state, the political order within it, and its power structure. The violence and its envisioned objectives went beyond ordered conflict within the structured rules of interaction that colonial authorities oversaw.

What is more, Kimathi’s truth and knowledge were at loggerheads with the ideas and beliefs that had (re)produced the colonial political, economic, and social structure. Structurally, what Kimathi stood for was dangerous to the systemic colonial structure and had to be rooted out and crushed. What Kimathi stood for was, therefore, feared by, and undesirable for, the colonial authorities. He was the paragon of radical and revolutionary thought that demanded far-reaching reforms and fundamental decolonization.

The door to this “dangerous” road had to be firmly shut, even if it meant granting flag and political independence to Kenya. Indeed, independence was one way of preventing this possibility: it was a safety valve that ensured that the madding crowd of have-nots could not at any time leap over the barriers and invade the pitch of sanitized politics of “law and order”, as they had in 1952.

In death as in life, Kimathi represents the deep politics of moral ethnicity that continues to pit the haves against the have-nots, that is, at once a dynastic, factional, and generational game. This, then, is what explains why he continues to be the revolutionary touchstone by which radical politicians such as J.M. Kariuki, writers acutely sensitive to social and political forces and relations of production, and socially conscious musicians, evaluate politics in Kenya.

Kimathi remains, perhaps more than any other public figure in Kenya’s history, the focal point of nationalism, the smouldering embers of which promise to glow brighter into an ever-shining dawn of the quest for popular statehood.

A belated eulogy

The emerging image of Kimathi is that of a simple man who acted with courage when he experienced systematic colonial oppression. It is this courage that propelled him to take a daring stand and to fight as a David against an imperial Goliath for basic human rights and shared prosperity, dignity, truth, justice, mutual respect, and coexistence. In so doing, he exemplified Ralph Waldo Emerson’s three qualities of greatness, which conspicuously attract the wonder and reverence of mankind.

First, Kimathi demonstrated a purpose so sincere that it could not be sidetracked by any prospects of wealth or other personal advantage. It is this virtue that steeled his nerves as he waited for his end and must have enabled him to embrace self-sacrifice. It is such self-sacrifice that made renowned heroes of Greece and Rome such as Socrates, Aristides, Phocion, Quintus Curtius, and Regulus.

Second, he was a man of practical power who sought to memorialize and, therefore, immortalize, the thoughts of powerless peasants in sculptures of wood and stone, brass, and steel.

Third, Kimathi excelled in courage, which no imperial terrors— neither bombs from the sky nor the gallows—could shake. His own truth and knowledge were the antidote of fear. Kimathi had the conviction that the imperial agents with whom he contended were not necessarily superior to him in strength, resources, and spirit. A self-made field marshal, his speeches motivated his itungati (troops of young “soldiers”) reminding them that they were men and that their enemies were no more. It is this same sacred courage that steadied his pen as he scribbled his last letter, addressed to a Father Marino (from a Catholic mission in Nyeri). From a stoic pen flowed words of a man who was persuaded that he had attempted to accomplish the cause that he was put in colonial Kenya by the Creator to do.

Penning these last words, I wonder whether, as a professing Christian, Kimathi thought he was indestructible. Whether his only fear was facing his final judge, the Almighty, and not those who could kill the body but were unable to kill the soul or destroy his legacy. Otherwise, how could he have taken on the British unless he believed he was more than a match for his antagonists then and in the long sweep of history? Was death his final hope for escape from the imprisonment of an oppressive colonial architecture of legal strictures and exploitative policies; from the manacling of individual and collective wills; and from imperial spatial deletion and delimitation constraining the individual field and basis of action and, therefore, African agency? And how could he have been impenitently “so busy and so happy preparing for heaven” on the very eve of his execution (by hanging by the neck until dead) unless he was consumed by the best and highest courages that are the beams of the Almighty? Did he believe himself to have fought the good fight, to have run and finished the race and remained faithful to a just cause that had, for him, shone like the noonday sun?

We may never know the full answers to these questions. But one thing is without doubt: there was once a man in a leopard skin jacket and hat under a castor oil tree in the thick tapestry of sickly wafting mist of the Nyandarua Forest of the cold Aberdare Ranges of Central Kenya. A man who consigned himself there because he loved the idea of a free country more than anything in the world, even his life. A man who, aiming for neither wealth nor comfort, ventured all to put, in one act of violent resistance, the invisible thought in his mind. A man who is in anybody’s eyes and for all times will remain, a liberator, for he sought the ideal of self-mastery and freedom stemming from the restoration of alienated African lands.

This man, Kimathi, must stand like a Hercules, an Achilles, a Rüstem, or a Cid in the mythology of the Kenyan state; and in its authentic history, like a Leonidas, a Scipio, a Caesar, a Richard Cœur de Lion, a Nelson, a Grand Condé, a Bertrand du Guesclin, a Doge Dandolo, a Napoleon, a Masséna, and a Ney.

But this is now a matter before the court of public opinion, which must decide this now reopened case: one between what Kimathi stood for and his stated cause, and that of Mau Mau, versus an obsolete, and unjust and legally illegal British colonial justice system.

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Githuku is a scholar and writer based in New York.

Long Reads

Non–Animal Pastoralism and the Emergence of the Rangeland Capitalist

In early 1997, a cohort of members of parliament from the long-neglected pastoralist rangelands defied President Daniel arap Moi to hold a meeting that formed the Pastoralist Parliamentary Group. Paul Goldsmith looks back his contribution to the meeting.



Non–Animal Pastoralism and the Emergence of the Rangeland Capitalist

The mid-1990s were a time of new beginnings in Kenya. The return of multi-party politics had accelerated the transition from the modernization prescriptions of the post-colonial era to new visions of the country’s future. In the pastoralist sector, the political and constitutional reform movement fed into the old and new frictions generating turbulence on the range. It also supercharged other streams feeding the societal awakening in the more urban environs where pastoralists congregated.

After decades of malaise and lassitude, events were moving fast. Eastleigh was becoming the significant crossroad of the Horn, a switchboard for real-time news happening across the region. The vacuum was filled by the spread of firearms, shifting economic networks undermining the older patron-client networks that survived the Kenyatta era while also fuelling the rise of a vibrant civil society. Emergent synergies fed into a new awakening of sorts across the more extensive pastoralist interface, proceeding in synch with the decomposition of the old order.

Nothing captured that moment’s zeitgeist better than the rise of a new cohort of young parliamentarians in northern Kenya.

In early 1997, a cohort of mainly younger members of parliament came together for a leaders’ meeting in Naivasha. Before the meeting, Sammy Leshore, Mohammed Shidiye, and Abdullahi Wako were called to State House to explain what they were up to. The president expressed his displeasure by banging his fist on his desk, “This meeting is not going to happen!” Nicholas Biwott nodded in agreement.

The MPs had provided the most consistent backing for KANU after the restitution of multi-party politics, but the display did not cow them: “Not this time Mzee, our meeting is going to go ahead.”

Nothing captured that moment’s zeitgeist better than the rise of a new cohort of young parliamentarians in northern Kenya.

The meeting, organized by the Kenya Pastoralist Forum, provided a watershed moment for the long-neglected pastoralist rangelands. The participating MPs — including John Munyes (Turkana North), Ekwee Ethuro (Turkana Central), Francis Ewaton (Turkana South), Sammy Leshore (Samburu West), Samuel Poghisio (Kacheliba), Geoffrey Parpai (Kajiado South), Mohamed Shidiye (Lagdera), Elias Bare Shill (Fafi), Adan Keynan (Wajir West), Abdullahi Ibrahim Ali (Wajir North), Abdi Mahamud, (Wajir East), Mohamed Abdi Affey, (Wajir South), Shaaban Issack (Mandera East), Mohammed Amin (Mandera West), Mohamed Dahir (Ijara), Abdullahi Wako (Isiolo South), Molu Shambaro (Garsen), Mohamed Galgalo (Bura), Ahmed Galgalo (Moyale) — officially launched the Pastoralist Parliamentary Group on the last day of the meeting.

I was privileged to contribute the following essay to the meeting, which foreshadowed some of the developments on the ground that followed while providing a marker for the progress realized since that time.

Pastoralism is a transhumant mode of production based on the herding of domestic livestock or migratory animals. The Sioux, Cheyenne, and other North American pastoral communities followed the herds of wild buffalo wandering across the Great Plains. The pastoralism of the Sami of northern Europe manages communally-owned herds of reindeer. Many Eskimos are pastoralists who survive on a featureless landscape of frigid tundra with seasonal shifts to the coast to harvest seals. African pastoralism, in contrast, is associated exclusively with cattle, camels, and small ruminants. The viability of these societies is a function of their symbiotic relationship with the animals and the austere environments they share.

What was already a difficult pastoral existence has become increasingly precarious during this century. Today, animal-based pastoralism persists on a meaningful scale, mainly in Central Asia and Africa—which in the latter case is often seen as indicative of the continent’s marginalization. This is typically accompanied by the corollary observation that agricultural communities have provided the main economic thrust for African economic modernization.

In turn, the conventional view of economic development contributed to decades of dysfunctional policies for the larger ASAL (arid and semi-arid lands) regions.

Proper policies sustain adaptive practices and developmental interventions. The overarching influence of the World Bank and IMF formulae in Africa’s development reflects the assumption that conventional expertise is the best method for combating politically-induced poverty and stagnation. Since pastoralists themselves best understand the problems and potential of pastoral areas, are they not the ones most qualified to determine the most appropriate long-term policy framework for Kenya’s rangelands?

What was already a difficult pastoral existence has become increasingly precarious during this century.

Not necessarily. The exercise requires knowledge of how policy works, the political support needed for proper implementation, and realistic expectations about the results that can be achieved. There are many pitfalls along the way; a major one is the law of opposite outcomes — in the end, many well-meaning and logical policies do not solve the targeted problem but result in unexpected and often contrary consequences.

This is why we can trace many of the policy formulation and implementation process flaws to the uncritical assumptions of pastoralism’s narrow and static animal-based definition. On one side there was the official position advocating pastoralist settlement, on the other was the indigenous position emphasizing the enhancement of range livestock production.

Of course, the assumptions guiding pastoral development have changed over the decades. The agrocentric view characterizing pastoralism as an archaic and undesirable cultural-economic complex has given way to one based in cultural-ecology studies positing traditional pastoralism as the most adaptive production strategy for Africa’s large tracts of arid rangeland.

But while recognizing traditional pastoralism as the optimal land management option for these areas was a step forward, it did not change the nature of the beast. Therefore, formulating a long-term policy framework entails transcending the traditional emphases on livestock and state policies predicated on sedentarization.

Getting to the roots of the pastoral dilemma entails identifying the distinct elements of pastoral culture and social organization that constitute pastoralists’ natural comparative advantage. This redefines African pastoralism as a mode of production predicated on group mobility, cultural mechanisms for cooperation, long-term resource management based on a symbiotic relationship between local society and the environment, and communal solidarities balancing the penchant for individual freedom with loyalty and strong leadership. Key features defining the pastoral society include mobility, adaptability, cooperation, physical endurance, and culturally reinforced propensities for risk-taking.

Because policy operates within the larger socioeconomic system, reviewing several historical examples helps us understand how the dynamics of pastoral systems contribute to the long-term outcomes. Relating these traits to prevailing socio-economic conditions will help us come up with realistic policies for advancing pastoralists’ common interests. But it is often the case that one who wishes to go forward is best served by first looking back.

Lessons of history: Central Asia’s Hordes, the Moors in Spain, and the Plains Indians

The Late Middle Ages in Western Europe saw the pre-capitalist feudal order give way to changes preparing the way for capitalist transition. During the same period, Eastern Europe absorbed several waves of nomadic invaders originating in the steppes of Central Asia. Though the “barbarians” were eventually repelled in each case, they destabilized the region for several hundred years.

Eastern Europe subsequently stagnated during the period capitalism was emerging in the West. The mercantile states that replaced the feudal order exploited the eastern region as a source of raw materials and economic colonialism, preserving regional inequality on a level that was to contribute to the rise of communism later.

The Mongol hordes who invaded China under Genghis Khan provide a contrasting example. The nomadic conquest ended local power struggles. Like the British in Africa, the Mongols were numerically insignificant, but unlike the British, the Mongols ruled by adopting the ways of their subjects. Within the space of a generation, this transformed the Mongol warlords into cosmopolitan leaders who ushered in an era of revitalized trade, artisanal production, and expedited communication underpinning the prosperity generated by the Silk Road.

Elsewhere, the Muslim polity founded by Arabs, a generation removed from their pastoralist roots, soon became the most progressive force in Europe. But during the latter stages of their 800-year rule, the Moors of Spain turned to Berber mercenaries to reinforce their failing dynasty. These warriors soon became an autonomous presence who lived off the countryside, hastening the downfall of the Islamic state. The excesses accompanying its collapse and the rise of the Spanish Inquisition reinforced the anti-Islamic legacy that remains alive beyond the Iberian Peninsula.

The case study perhaps most relevant to Kenya’s pastoralists’ situation is provided by the nomadic tribes of North America. The Apache, Sioux, Cheyenne, Crow, and numerous other indigenous communities gallantly resisted the occupation of their lands. They were less defeated by the US cavalry than overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of settlers heading west. Prospectors initially attracted by the potential for striking gold and other resource extraction gave way to farmers who continued to settle on what was perceived as unoccupied or under-utilized land.

Like the British in Africa, the Mongols were numerically insignificant, but unlike the British, the Mongols ruled by adopting the ways of their subjects.

The Amerindians ended up being resettled on autonomous reservations, often marginal territorial units unsuited to farming. Although ostensibly designed to preserve their unique way of life, the reservation model did not work. Fiercely independent tribes like the Sioux, the Comanche, and Apache became dependent on government famine relief. Their culture degenerated in these isolated conditions, leading to widespread alcoholism and economic despondency.

Renewed awareness of opportunities presented by the different legal status of their reservations over recent decades has in some cases enabled them to extract better terms for their oil deposits and minerals. Still, the most commonly exploited economic option on reservations is the establishment of gambling casinos.

Assessing the long-term impacts of pastoral policies

However, removed from contemporary African circumstances, these historical anecdotes complement insights provided by more familiar exemplars ranging from the Bani Israeli diaspora and the urbanized Bedu of Arabia’s oil states to the extinction of the Laikipiak Maasai, and post-state Somalia.

Together, these historical trajectories convey important cautionary implications for different policies and political strategies in Kenya. These can be summarized as a few general statements.

The first concerns the matter of pastoralist military organization. These stories indicate that little will be achieved through the use of force: violent tactics ultimately come home to roost. This nevertheless does not recommend the abandonment of pastoralists’ warrior tradition. Rather, pastoralists on the range have a right to protect themselves. By the same measure, pastoralists should avoid using their political spears in the service of others, as has been the case under the KANU status quo.

The second observation identifies isolation as the most significant single enemy of pastoral development. In contemporary settings, the ideal of pastoral self-sufficiency is a recipe for stagnation and entropy. The obverse of this point underscores the importance of exchange and commerce. Historically, trade has been the natural predilection of pastoralists in both the traditional and the modern setting and a primary mechanism for integration into the larger economy.

Finally, livestock’s role in the pastoral economy’s long-range prospects. The decreasing share of animal production within the pastoralist economy is one of the indicators of the livelihood diversification required under conditions of high demographic growth and increasing environmental uncertainty. Briefly stated, livestock should necessarily serve as the engine of economic diversification but not the developmental endpoint.

This, in turn, underscores the importance of urbanization. Genghis Khan may have hated cities, but his grandson Kublai was the ultimate urbanite.

These observations are mentioned as guiding principles for designating policies that can be implemented on the ground. The evolution of local pastoralism will necessarily proceed in tandem with Kenya’s own economic, political, and social progress. That Kenya has achieved the point of no turning back in respect to the ongoing transition to capitalism increases the stakes of this game considerably.

Fiercely independent tribes like the Sioux, the Comanche, and Apache became dependent on government famine relief.

The current situation contains several possible future scenarios for the pastoral community. One scenario is based on the continuation of the status quo, which is marginalization reducing most pastoralists to an economic underclass. Based on historical precedents like the Laikipiak Maasai, a second scenario highlights the likelihood of aggressive response to the former, leading to internal dissolution and the disappearance of specific cultural communities. A third scenario, patterned on the historical process interrupted by colonialism, posits the co-evolutionary integration of Kenya’s diverse cultural groups within a diversifying regional polity.

There are two caveats to scenario number three. Integration via conventional modernization may work on submerging many of the positive qualities associated with indigenous pastoralist culture and environment management. Marginalization, on the other hand, perpetuates the vicious cycle where incidents of cattle raiding and banditry, attitudes of exploitation of natural resources, and fierce factional infighting serve to reinforce the isolation of pastoralists among themselves.

The key word to be noted here is co-evolutionary. The concept of co-evolution is given prominence in the study of dynamic systems, alternately known in the popular domain as complexity or chaos theory. We can best explain the import of the concept by noting the distinction between evolving and co-evolving complex systems.

To quote one of the leading architects of dynamic systems theory, Stuart Kaufmann:

In the former, the components of the system do not replicate, and hence selection cannot directly act on them. Instead, selection only acts on the system as a whole. In the latter, the components of the system replicate, so selection may act on the level of the parts of the system and the system as a whole.

Africa’s cultural diversity, crystallizing in the form of clans and tribes, makes the dynamics of regional systems even more complicated than those of other regions. Forces embedded in the African environment selecting for cultural diversity support developmental patterns linked to econiche specialization. During the late precolonial era, specialization generated surpluses leading to exchange and co-evolutionary interactions. This fostered the spread of adaptive cultural traits, technologies, and even positive social identities transcending static ethnicity.

The European model was based on the consolidation of a centralized, hierarchical social order. Regional trade networks were approaching the threshold of coalescing into multi-ethnic proto-state polities when a series of environmental calamities followed by colonial intervention halted the process. The law of opposite outcomes can be seen in the way decades of British administration and agrarian policies in eastern Africa ended up promoting minority exclusion and a new nomadic brake instead.

Livestock should necessarily serve as the engine of economic diversification but not the developmental endpoint.

In the currently jumbled-up system, privileged access to resources undercuts policies, and political mobilization based on ethnicity sabotages natural proclivities for co-evolutionary interaction. The resulting inequalities among groups and abuses of state power has thus encouraged the idea of majimbo among the disadvantaged groups, including pastoralists, who have seen outsiders assume control over land, local natural resources, local administration, and the commercial economy.

Constitutional reform will probably lead to federalist measures for straightening out this mess, but it must involve checks and balances and a degree of downsizing enhancing public sector efficiency and accountability. Tribes and clans formerly functioned to regulate access to shared resources, maintained internal social controls and policing, and provided a base for extended support networks. We must be cognizant that such functions of these units of cultural-ethnic organisation will continue to decline under the capitalist regime, even if the scope of state interference on the grassroots level is reduced.

In contrast to the current exploitation and power relations regime, the transformation will entail the survival of the adaptive pastoralist group traits mentioned earlier within the co-evolving national order. These and the acute natural intelligence of many individual pastoralists are a bio-cultural legacy of the ASAL environment’s intense selection forces.

Indigenous peoples’ development policies recognize this legacy by advocating the conservation of local adaptations and skills suited to their indigenous environmental and social conditions. Like the cultural ecology focus on pastoral livestock strategies, the indigenous people’s programme seems logical enough compared to the maladaptive developmental regimes that preceded them.

They are not. There is no mention of specific policies here because the larger frame is defined by the same issues that enabled agriculturists to get out of farming: decent roads, affordable inputs, access to markets, education, security, health and the like. The import of this review holds that such policies obscure the real issues.

Positing a separate pastoral agenda linked to the distinctive features of rangelands communities is a worthy target, but should be seen as a sufficient and unnecessary cause of pastoralist development. Pursuing a separate agenda reinforcing the rigid quality of current identity politics risks outcomes like the isolation of the Amerindians or the collapse of the Somali state.

Tribes and clans formerly functioned to regulate access to shared resources, maintained internal social controls and policing, and provided a base for extended support networks.

The better strategy involves making common cause with the greater national interest. A good starting point would be exploring ways to promote the ecozone symbiosis proposed in Kenya’s past two national development plans. Support for the efficient use of scarce resources begins with the region’s human capital. This obviously entails more education facilities and reclaiming the brainpower going to waste in Eastleigh and other towns.

Let us be honest: the critical objective at this point in this time is retaining pastoralists’ bio-cultural legacy while freeing the rangeland economy from the constraints of traditional pastoralist monoculture. The game’s name is transforming the adaptive qualities of the rangeland human capital into a revitalized form of non-animal pastoralism.

There is no point in the nation’s history better for a rangeland reset than the present. According to many well-informed analysts and political pundits, the country is in a state of crisis. This crisis has led to consensus on the need for constitutional reform, which presents the pastoral representatives in Kenya’s eighth Parliament with a tremendous opportunity to get things right.

The possibilities latent in this moment far surpass any chance our MPs’ parliamentary predecessors had to influence the welfare of their constituents. It remains to be seen if similar opportunities will come the way of future legislators; it would not be an exaggeration to say the Northern Parliamentary Group (NPG) and their southern counterparts now hold the future of pastoral communities in their hands.

The impact of the MPs who formed Pastoralist Parliamentary Group attracted several of the KANU heavy hitters conspicuously absent from Naivasha to the three meetings that followed (Notably, William Ntimama (Narok North), Francis Lotodo (Kapenguria), Bonaya Godana (North Horr), Maalim Mohamed (Dujis), and Peter Leenges (Samburu West).

Unfortunately, the PPG never realized its potential as a political lobby-cum-pastoralist policy think tank. This was partially due to President Moi’s strategy of undermining its solidarity by elevating several of the most active young parliamentarians to ministerial positions, partly due to constraints to cooperation illuminated by Game Theory’s Prisoner’s Dilemma model. But the simple act of coming together in defiance of the ruling party’s bosses proved to be a tipping point of sorts that set the co-evolutionary ball rolling.

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Football Kenya Federation Presidency: Poisoned Chalice or Poor Management?

Despite political interference and financial mismanagement, football remains the most popular sport in Kenya as it is in many countries across the world.



Football Kenya Federation Presidency: Poisoned Chalice or Poor Management?

On Thursday 12 November 2021, the Kenyan Sports, Culture and Heritage Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohammed disbanded the Federation of Kenya Football (FKF) over corruption allegations. A 15-member caretaker committee led by retired judge Aaron Ringera was appointed to hold office for the next six months pending new elections.

Earlier in the week, FKF had been fined KSh6 million for failing to enforce a transfer ban on Gor Mahia. The club had been banned between February and September 2021, but despite the ban it proceeded to register new players between 10 and 22 September. FIFA had indicated that the suspension would last until FKF had paid all the personnel their dues.

CS Amina Mohammed took action following investigations into FKF’s failure to account for funds received from the government and other sponsors. In July 2021, the Auditor-General had raised queries about an irregular payment of KSh11 million made to FKF President Nick Mwendwa. There were also questions regarding allowances and bonuses made to the national team and the technical bench that were not in line with the government-approved rates announced in the run-up to the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations held in Egypt.

Immediately after taking office, the caretaker committee issued a press statement suspending all top-tier football leagues for a period of two weeks.

FKF kerfuffle

The Kenyan football scene faces controversy every three to four years. This is especially the case when the organisation is about to go into an election or immediately following an election as the officials try to gain credibility, particularly those individuals of questionable character and who are wanting on the ethical and transparency fronts.

We shall seek to understand the history of football in Kenya, the past and present chairmen, their legacies and take a brief look at caretaker committees in the game, as well as what led to the current impasse and how the situation may be remedied.

FIFA’s love of the game

Despite political interference and financial mismanagement, football remains the most popular sport in Kenya as it is in many countries across the world. The game is managed internationally by FIFA, which runs a tight ship that ensures minimal government interference with national football federations. The international body is quoted saying, “As a matter of fact, we deem fit to highlight that all FIFA member associations, including the FKF are statutorily required to manage their affairs independently and without interference of any third parties”

FIFA provides the global framework for the management of football at the country level through the national football management teams or federations. These federations make up the FIFA Congress that brings together delegates from over 210 member countries.

Interestingly in Kenya’s case, FIFA had sent its own officials to take part in the investigations conducted by the government via the Football Kenya Federation Inspection Committee, which recommended disbandment and the holding of new elections as prescribed by the Minister of Sport. FIFA had also offered to mediate between the Federation and the Ministry of Sports “to address any concern both sides may have and, all together, to decide on a way forward for the sake of Kenyan football”.

Politics in Kenyan football

Football was introduced to Kenya by British colonialists. In its expansionist strategy, the British had established outposts in different parts of Africa, initially through religion and education, and then through a military presence that is still visible to date.

Before colonization, local communities had distinct cultural beliefs and sporting activities that took place at different times and seasons. These included boat racing, dancing, hunting, spear throwing and wrestling. Most of these practices were declared pagan when Christian missionaries landed on the East African coast.

On the military front, the King’s African Rifles were formed in the early 1900s as an inter-racial military unit in East Africa, with the rank-and-file under British and Asian officers. The cultural and political mix brought out many differences which were bridged by the game of football, as described by Anthony Clayton in Sport and African Soldiers: The Military Diffusion of Western Sport throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.

Clayton notes that football was initially introduced by the colonialists in the urban areas and in elite schools and was used as another tool of segregation and social control. Football clubs were eventually tolerated by the colonial masters as one of the few African-run organizations. The game was enthusiastically picked up by the Luhya and Luo of Western Kenya and by the Miji Kenda of the Coast.

Football union in Kenya?

Competitive football was started in 1923 with the formation of the Arab and African Sports Association and, in 1924, a multi-racial Kenyan team toured key towns within East Africa. A subsequent tournament in 1926 led to the inauguration of the Gossage Cup with the participation of Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika, and Zanzibar — the precursor to the East and Central Africa Senior Challenge Cup.

An example of a community club developed in pre-colonial times is the Luo Union Football Club (later renamed Re-Union) which was formed in 1957 by the Luo community around the shores of Lake Victoria. It started off as a welfare club of the Luo Union of East Africa and comprised players working with the then Tanganyika Plantation Company in Mwanza. It would record regional success in the mid-1970s.

Football was initially introduced by the colonialists in the urban areas and in the elite schools and was used as another tool of segregation and social control.

Fredrick Lugard’s The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa (1922) emphasises the importance of sport and education in building Africans’ constitutions both physical and moral — through games like athletics, cricket and football. The educationists of the time believed that character is formed “by the public opinion of the school-boy world in which a boy moves”. Lugard continues and notes that it is in a boarding school that (a boy) “learns to be less self-centred, and to take pride in the corporate body of which he is a member — the school, the ‘house’, or the sports ‘team’ — and to understand the meaning of ‘playing the game’ of loyalty, and of co-operation as a common ambition and a united effort.”

The opening of schools by the missionaries and settlers led to the development of various centres of excellence in different regions including Alliance High School and Kagumo in Central Kenya, Maseno and St Mary’s Yala in Nyanza, and St Patrick’s in Iten. These schools became academic powerhouses and centres of sporting excellence, equipped as they were with sports infrastructure for games like volleyball, netball, athletics and football.

With a vibrant football culture building up, the Kenya Football Association was initially founded in 1956 to promote local competitions as well as the participation of the national team at the regional level. The association was formed as an initiative of the colonial settlers and local football leaders. It involved cup competitions such as the Remington Cup at club level and the Gossage Cup at regional level. The Kenya Football Association became a member of FIFA in 1960 and formed the now fully national football league in 1963.

The Kenya Independence Tournament was organized in the run-up to independence, pitting Kenya against its neighbours, Tanganyika, Uganda and a select team of Scottish expatriates. The tournament’s winning team would be awarded the Uhuru Cup. It is during this tournament that Kenya’s future football stars such as Joe Kadenge, Elijah Lidonde, James Sianga, Ali Kajo and Alu Sungura came to the fore. The games were played at the Donholm Road Stadium, now known as City Stadium.

The independence government allowed community clubs to emerge and thrive. These included major clubs such as Abaluhya United (an amalgamation of teams from Western Kenya), Gor Mahia (born out of the merger of Luo Union and Luo Sports Club and drawn from the Luo community of the Nyanza region) and later Shabana FC (from the Gusii community).

1960s and 70s – The early days

The football league formed in 1963 had 10 clubs from Kenya’s three main cities, with Nairobi represented by seven teams—Luo Union, Maragoli United, Marama, Nairobi Heroes, Bunyore, Kakamega and Samia Union. The Coast was represented by two teams—Mwenge (formerly Liverpool) and Feisal while the Rift Valley had one—Nakuru All-Stars.

/ Source: Kenyan Net

The first chairman of the Kenya Football Association was Isaac Lugonzo. A budding sports administrator who had officiated in the 1962 Africa Cup of Nations, he helped develop the first nationwide league in Kenya. He held office for just over a year before plunging into politics and becoming the Mayor of Nairobi in 1967, taking over from Charles Rubia who had served as Nairobi’s first African mayor.

The involvement of football administrators in politics had started off in earnest. The second team in office was led by John Kasyoka, a multi-talented sportsman who also served as chair of the Kenya Table Tennis Federation. A pharmacist by day, his interest in sports saw him manage the game of football for the next five years until 1968.

Kasyoka’s would be the first football management team to be disbanded and taken over by a caretaker committee. Ronald Ngala, the then Minister of Co-operatives and Social Services—under which Sports was domiciled—dissolved the Kenya Football Association and suspended the league for alleged mismanagement. The caretaker team was led by one Jonathan Njenga (then a Member of Parliament for Limuru).

In 1969, Martin Shikuku was elected chair of the Kenya Football Association. His reign was as dramatic as his maverick career in politics. On taking office, he became the centre of a controversy arising from penalizing Gor Mahia and expelling four of its players along with renowned referee Ben Mwangi. Shikuku is also alleged to have been involved in corrupt backroom dealings favouring Abaluhya FC (from Western Kenya, Shikuku’s home region).

The Kenya Football Association became a member of FIFA in 1960 and formed the now fully national football league in 1963.

The poor performance of Harambee Stars at the CECAFA tournament led the then Minister of Co-operatives and Social Services, Masinde Muliro, to once again dissolve the Association and appoint a second caretaker committee with Bill Martin as Chair, Joab Omino as Secretary and H. Ramogo as Treasurer.

Under Bill Martin—who had served as the Nairobi Provincial Commissioner—Harambee Stars qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations before playing in the World Cup qualifiers in 1974.

Elections were held in 1973 and William Ngaah of Kenya Railways was elected to serve for a term of one year. Running in the same election was the brilliant and well-oiled Kenneth Matiba who upon losing, chose to walk out and form the Kenya Football Federation.

The fall of KFA and rise of KFF 

The newly formed KFF was supported by 80 clubs. Matiba, a major shareholder in many blue-chip companies including Kenya Breweries, sought to model Kenya’s football along the lines of the English and other European leagues. His influence at Kenya Breweries led to the formation of the Kenya Breweries FC that broke the two-way championship challenge of AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia. The team competed at the continental level, reaching the semi-finals in the then Africa Cup Winners’ Cup (now Champions League).

The emergence of the KFF led to the slow death of the Kenya Football Association as all the major teams, including AFC Leopards, joined the new federation. The period between 1973 and 1978 would mark a significant move towards commercialization of the game. It is also during this time that the national team, Harambee Stars, won its first major tournament in the East and Central African Championships (CECAFA).

Matiba went into politics and did not run in the 1978 elections in which Dan Owino became the next chairman. Owino’s reign was characterized by misappropriation of funds and maladministration, leading to the formation of the third caretaker committee.

Into the 80s and 90s

The 1980s were a period of turmoil for the Kenya Football Federation which was dissolved twice. A caretaker committee led by Chris Obure took over in 1981 and Joab Omino was elected chairman in 1985.

Interestingly, it is in this same decade that the Kenyan clubs and the national team won top honours in the CECAFA Club Championships and the Senior Challenge Cup, respectively. In 1987, while hosting the All-African Games, Kenya narrowly missed the top honours, losing the final game to The Pharaohs from Egypt.

The involvement of football administrators in politics had started off in earnest.

Building on the successes of the 1980s, KFF put in a bid to host the Africa Cup of Nations in the early 1990s. While the government of the day pledged to develop a second international stadium and the necessary infrastructure, politics saw off the country’s best chance to bring the rest of Africa to Kenya. KFF Chairman Joab Omino was in the opposition and the government did not actively support him and the Federation’s bid to host the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations. In 1995, with KFF’s bid looking dim, CAF banned Kenya for two consecutive tournaments.

In 1992, yet another caretaker committee was formed, with educationist Dr Matthew Karauri appointed to head the team. He was in office when Harambee Stars qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations for only the second time. But the team was humiliated in Morocco, losing all 3 group matches. However, the administration of football would run smoothly until the early 2000s.

2000s - New millennium, same old same old?

The turn of the century also brought with it more corporate types—Peter Kenneth from 1996 to 2000 and Maina Kariuki 2001-2004. While the former ran a fairly stable and controversy-free term, the latter was known for mismanagement, corruption and court wrangles that saw the government dissolve the federation followed by 3-month ban by FIFA.

Between 1996 and 2002, stability in the administration of Kenya’s football helped bring some level of success to the game. In 1996, Kenya played Algeria in Nairobi, beating them 3-1 before an aggregate of 3-2 saw Harambee Stars eliminate the Desert Foxes from the 1998 World Cup qualifiers. Kenya played Nigeria—the reigning Olympic gold medallists— in 1997, holding them to a 1-1 draw at the Kasarani stadium, in one of the most memorable games of the decade.

In 2002, a caretaker committee chaired by Philip Kisia held the brief for a few months before Maina Kariuki was reinstated as KFF Chair. A year later, 11 top clubs left the KFF to form the Kenya Premier Football Group Limited. A FIFA/KFF normalization committee was formed which changed the name to the Kenya Premier League Limited under a new constitution.

Shikuku is also alleged to have been involved in corrupt backroom dealings favouring Abaluhya FC

Dr Alfred Sambu was elected chair in 2004 and called upon to restore the game to its former glory. However, even he could not save the game from the politics and divisions of fellow officials Sammy Obingo and Mohammed Hatimy. FIFA’s blessings eventually fell on Hatimy who became the KFF Chairman, getting a taste of his own medicine when, shortly after his appointment, Sam Nyamweya obtained a court injunction preventing him from running football affairs.

In 2005, KFF agreed that the Kenya Premier League Limited would manage the 2005-6 Premier League.

Football Kenya Federation comes into being

The wrangles between Mohammed Hatimy and Sam Nyamweya saw the latter form the Federation of Kenyan Football (FKF). This was after the two ran parallel leagues for almost one year before FIFA intervened, seeking a unified election to restore order to the game. In 2011, Sam Nyamweya beat the more favoured Hussein Mohammed and the Federation of Kenya Football emerged.

A few months into office, Nyamweya would lose one of the biggest and most popular national football competitions—the Sakata Ball challenge—after the FKF demanded 20 per cent of the total sponsorship package from the sponsors, Safaricom. The then CEO Bob Collymore said in a statement, “We have been holding discussions with FKF for the last four months and we have written commitments from them expressing their support for this event and our contribution to local football development generally including the possibility of sponsoring FKF leagues in future.”

Nyamweya’s reign went from bad to worse as he pushed out his vice chair, Sammy Shollei, and the Nairobi branch chair Dan Shikanda. Both officials had filed a court case against the FKF which Nyamweya flipped and in turn suspended them before seeking FIFA’s approval to ban them indefinitely.

A little earlier, in 2003, the Kenya Premier League Limited had been formed under the Kenya Company’s Act as a private company with 18 teams. It was well structured, with a secretariat that ran its affairs under a CEO, voting rights for each of the 18 teams, a Board of Directors, as well as representation from the Kenya Football Coaches Association and Kenya Football Referees Association.

In 2015, the FKF and KPL signed an agreement for the KPL to run the Premier League. The KPL was able to attract major corporate sponsorship and sold media rights to pan-African payTV powerhouse, SuperSport. They were also able to sign up Puma as official ball suppliers and East African Breweries as title sponsors through its flagship brand, Tusker. A good number of the clubs also secured corporate sponsorship. There was also a semblance of order and professionalism, with the necessary infrastructure to run and manage a national league in place.

At the national level, the team won the CECAFA Senior Challenge Cup in 2017 while hosting it in three different cities. However, the periods before and after the event were characterised by lack of proper planning, unpaid bills, and lockouts for some of the national teams. The international games were poorly organised, with the national team mostly depending on benevolence to pay for flight tickets or when these were available, arriving at the venues just in the nick of time.

The 1980s were a period of turmoil for the Kenya Football Federation which was dissolved twice.

During Nyamweya’s time in office, a young man by the name of Nick Mwendwa had risen through the ranks after bringing a Nairobi-based team, Kariobangi Sharks, into the top-tier league. His ownership of the club helped propel his fortunes and he was seen as a potential future leader capable of changing the game’s fortunes in Kenya.

Mwendwa was appointed to run the FKF Premier League that was developed as a rival national league to the KPL’s Premier League. The creation of the FKF league was mooted in 2015 as the federation sought to expand the league to 18 teams from the 16-team KPL format in a bid to promote teams from the National Super League. FIFA and the Sports Ministry intervened and the two parties were forced to form a joint league.

Mwendwa’s abrasiveness and tendency to invoke FIFA and CAF provisions concerning the management of the parallel leagues mentioned above gave SuperSport (which was then holding broadcasting rights) legal wiggle room to terminate the 5-year contract which had just been signed with the Kenya Premier League.

Exit Nyamweya, enter Nick

Nyamweya had hoped to defend his seat in the 2016 FKF elections. However, there were allegations of misappropriation of funds and a court order stopped his candidacy. This left Gor Mahia Chairman Ambrose Rachier to battle it out with Nick Mwendwa, who won with a comfortable 50 out of 77 votes cast in February 2016, heralding the dawn of a new era, or so people thought. . .

In July 2016, the FKF developed a draft constitution in consultation with football stakeholders across the country, building consensus and bringing together all parties to develop a watertight and all-inclusive document to manage football affairs.

The appointed legal and constitutional committee met with the newly elected president in the first of several meetings and in December 2016, the final draft was circulated to the National Executive Council (NEC). In mid-2017, the NEC met to discuss the draft document, and again in October 2017 to table and adopt the constitution prepared by the legal and constitutional committee. Observers noticed that the draft had been completely watered-down, with critical clauses missing or revised, including the provision that the president and his deputy would only serve a maximum of two four-year terms in compliance with the Sports Act; the new draft increased the terms to three. The date on which the Annual Congress would take place was no longer specified while the number of members allowed to attend the General Assembly was limited to 94. Moreover, all clauses on accountability, including the public disclosure of NEC sitting allowances, remuneration and salaries, were removed.

With the removal of the clauses mentioned above, Mwendwa had effectively neutered those raising the accountability and transparency concerns that had plagued the administration of the game. The amendments allowing unlimited membership left the door open to cronyism, favouritism, and backroom deals.

The controversy surrounding Nick Mwendwa did not stop there. During the 2018 World Cup qualifiers where Kenya faced Cape Verde in Praia in 2016, over US$170,000 was unaccounted for. In the same year, national coach Bobby Williamson was hastily replaced by Stanley Okumbi who had not coached or tested at the national level. Williamson’s wrongful dismissal cost the federation US$500,000 awarded by the courts. Adel Amrouche, who had also been unceremoniously sacked, was awarded US$37,500. These incidents brought to light the mismanagement and the secrecy under which the federation had started operating.

Nick Mwendwa sought to procure an outside broadcasting (OB) van for the federation for use during local matches and for leasing out to other events to bring in some income for FKF. The proposed OB van had been part of a fleet operated by broadcast partner SuperSport before it closed shop. The van ended up sinking US$1.25 million, initially making its way to FKF’s offices at Kandanda House in Kasarani before it was repossessed, with the president remaining mum about the issue.

In March 2021, FIFA fined FKF US$1.03 million as part of the cost of the arbitration procedure for Adel Amrouche’s wrongful dismissal. In July, the Auditor-General called to question payments made between 25 April and 29 November 2019. These included direct payments of US$100,000 and US$518,180 made to the national team and the technical staff during the Africa Cup of Nations. Another US$1 million was flagged as approved for disbursement to cater for accommodation and team allowances. In light of the clauses removed from the constitution, it was clear that there was rampant financial misappropriation sanctioned by the highest office.

The international games were poorly organised, with the team mostly depending on benevolence to pay for flight tickets.

In 2019, Mwendwa was reelected during a special General Meeting, garnering 77 votes against Lordvick Aduda’s five and Herbert Mwachiro’s three.

SportPesa had in 2015 signed a major sponsorship deal worth KSh450 million over four years. In 2019, the betting firm pulled the plug on sponsorship of the Premier League and traditional arch-rivals AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia, bringing the gravy train to a halt.

In 2020, betting firm BetKing signed a KSh1.2 billion five-year contract to become the title sponsor of the Premier League. The Nigerian-based company pulled out after just one year, citing tough economic times and the tax regime imposed by the Kenyan authorities.

Nick Mwendwa’s regular bouts of foot-in-mouth and chest thumping at media conferences did not help matters. Recent decisions concerning the national team and its poor showing put the government on high alert as the country failed to quality for another major tournament.

Before the start of the 2022 World Cup qualifiers, the federation dropped local coach Jacob Mulee, ending his fifth term, and hired a foreign manager, Turkish-born Engin Firat. Firat came from Moldova with a questionable record, having lost 9 of the 11 games he had managed. The new manager lost his opening game, losing 5-0 to Mali. Mwendwa berated the national team on live television for losing 6-0 to Mali in the 2022 World Cup African qualifiers, saying that Kenya did not have enough football talent and that not even “Mourinho or Arteta could save Harambee Stars without quality players”.

Chickens come home to Roost

Nick Mwendwa has tendered his resignation and recommended the appointment of Vice President Doris Petra as the acting president of the disbanded Football Kenya Federation. How this will affect the court’s proceedings, the caretaker committee and football administration remains to be seen.

The van ended up sinking US$1.25 million, initially making its way to FKF’s offices at Kandanda House in Kasarani before it was repossessed.

Whether or not the current impasse between the government and FIFA is resolved, there are many questions that need to be answered. Can there be a better way of identifying, electing, and ensuring the right football officials are put in office? Can nationally elected officials focus on rebuilding the game beyond the boardroom instead of playing politics? Can the federation agree to cast aside its selfish interests and allow a purely professional management to run the top-tier leagues? How many caretaker committees will it take to get the game of football operating at an optimal level and bring back glory and repute to the country? For how long will the selfish interests of a few individuals hold the country to ransom yet talent needs nurturing and growing to its full potential? Can our footballers be allowed to play the game without worrying about where their next meal will come from?

Federation of Kenya Football states that its main objective is “to improve the game of football constantly and promote, regulate and control it throughout the territory of Kenya in the spirit of fair play and its unifying educational, cultural and humanitarian values...”

Can the next administration aim to live by this objective?

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Long Reads

Colonialism Remains Invisible – With Several Fancy Names

Yusuf Serunkuma asks how the continued and violent colonisation of the continent has not been more systematically resisted. In a long-read, Serunkuma looks at the extraordinary control of the continent, from banking, the coffee trade, land grabs and mining. Why have Africans failed to see these forms of foreign control as ‘colonial,’ in which former colonisers have continued the pillage of the continent?



Colonialism Remains Invisible – With Several Fancy Names

With all the evidence in our midst—foreign monopolies in mining, banking, coffee trade, humongous profit expropriation, policy double-standards, direct foreign aggression such as foreign capital land grabs, and violent aggressions as witnessed in Somalia and Libya, endless captive debt and so-called aid—why have Africans failed to stage committed resistance [intellectual, cultural or even military] against the ongoing pillage? Most of this championed through the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) whose ruins on the continent have been acknowledged as visible everywhere, why have Africans refused to resist this pillage with their lives as their grandparents’ resisted colonies and protectorates?

Asked differently: how did “former” colonisers so successfully and quickly manage to re-colonise newly independent states—as early as just 30 years after independence—that is, re-monopolise cash and food crop trade, and continue the aggressive violent extraction of Africa’s natural resources without attracting the ire of Africans? Or why have Africans failed to see structural adjustment as ‘colonial adjustment,’ as new ways in which yesterday’s colonisers returned to continue the pillage of the continent?

By demonstrating that structural adjustment programmes – with examples in banking, coffee trade, and mining – actually embody and display all the ugly features of the past colonial projects, this long-read argues that (a) the technocratization of pillage has so successfully disguised the exploitative nature of the power relations giving it a hue of benevolence and mutually observable interests. Africa’s eternal colonisers took off their khaki uniforms for suits, and replaced missionaries with diplomats who, instead of chanting Christianity and civilisation, are now vending democracy, human rights, and free market economics. (b) Reminiscent of the colonialism of old, in addition to violent and structural enforcement, new colonialism has conscripted both willing and unsuspecting compradors across the continent. These have been organised into sophisticated elite networks and are more handsomely [directly and indirectly] remunerated than the earlier group of compradors. These range from heads of states, mid-level politicians, and senior public servants. Others include Europeanised folks in the NGO and civil society sectors whose cosmetic work on the African continent simply benefits the workers than their claimed target groups. Against technocratization and conscription of compradors including local elites, it is common to find expectedly “woke folks” in the west—activists, journalists and scholars—not simply dismissive of the colonial nature of structural adjustment programmes, but also ignorant of the facts to the point that they are unaware of their own conscription to a newer and uglier version of colonial control. In an earlier essay on, I have called these folks, ‘the new intellectuals of empire.’ Thus, this clearly more lethal wave of colonialism remains invisible – with several fancy names – and has thus failed in generate the ire from Africans, and sympathy from genuine hearts in Europe and North America for whom colonisation of the continent continues in their name.

Most profitable banks in the world

There are 24 commercial banks in Uganda.  In the year 2019, the aggregate net-after-tax profit for those banks was USH807.5 billion (about $215m). Of the 24 banks, only three are locally owned. That is, with over 50 percent local shareholding: Centenary Bank, Housing Finance, and Post Bank. Of these three, only Centenary has noticeable visibility in the market; the other two are very minor players with limited visibility. With the remaining 21 owned mostly by South African and British, often white capitalists, that humongous amount of profit money leaves Uganda every year. Profit expropriation is easy in Uganda with the 2020 estimates showing that USH528 billion (about, $144m) left the country. This is 72 per cent of banking, net-after-tax profits that live the country annually.

Picture this: a story published by The Economist in 2020 – with closer focus on Uganda – noted that “Africa’s banks are the most profitable in the world while also being the least effective.”  With interest rates ranging between 12-30%, these banks, The Economist noted, make over 17% returns on equity for shareholders. So, what type of businesspersons borrow, thrive and pay off these loans – in an economy as small as $36 billion?

In truth, what The Economist did not say was that these inefficient banks were actually, in many ways, a bunch of thieves, disguised as bankers. The trick is, the lender lends while fully aware that you’ll not make any success with the borrowed monies, instead, the bank will keep you in a cycle of debt while they take all of your labours and any profits in the interests. But most importantly, they are looking at your collateral, which they will also take. Because no one borrows money at that interest rate, invests it and repays their loans back—and also makes profit to thrive as a business. Only thieves or friends of government – not paying taxes or working on government tenders – can actually make a profit on such exorbitant interest rates. Sadly, these bankers are not embarrassed to reproduce colonialist stereotypes as justification for the interest rates. Citing the World Bank, The Economist reported that, “Interest rates also price in risk. Assessing borrowers is hard when they often lack credit histories. Chasing up bad loans is a struggle.” Why do honest borrowers incur costs for unfounded colonialist mistrust that bankers have about them?  Can you imagine even in the year of the pandemic – where there was literally no economic activity – these banks together collected USH874 billion (about $239m), which meant their net-after-tax increased by 6.9%! How did they make this money? Through a more technocratized form of exploitation, where, with lengthy labyrinth of contracts and ideologies, the guilt of exploitation is sadly passed onto the exploited as s/he hands over their land, property, sweat and entire livelihood chastening themselves for their bad luck and poor business acumen.

The Kenyan central bank tried resisting this nonsense. In 2020, The Economist reported, Kenya tried capping commercial-loan rates at four percentage points, which was above the central bank’s policy rate. But “the move backfired. Bankers slashed credit to small businesses, reasoning that the rewards of lending no longer matched the risks.” But the exorbitant interest rates actually keep many small businesses away from even approaching these banks in the first place. To appreciate the deep-seated racism and deceptiveness of these high interest explanations, you need to know that in Uganda, for example, the present banks have worked tirelessly to make sure than no native bank opens and thrives.

In 2018, the Auditor General of the government of Uganda, in a confidential report to parliament noted that the central bank of Uganda had in the past three decades closed and sold assets of seven banks – all of them locally owned – with neither guidelines nor minutes: these banks include Teefe Bank (closed, 1993), International Credit Bank Ltd (closed, 1998), Greenland Bank (closed, 1999), The Co-operative Bank (closed, 1999), National Bank of Commerce (closed, 2012), Global Trust Bank (closed 2014) and Crane Bank Ltd (2016).  And here is the kicker: Nile Rivers Acquisition, an offshore company based in Mauritius bought assets of five of the closed banks at 93 per cent discount using the British lawNever mind that these assets, mortgages and loans were based on Ugandan soil, and there was no indication whatsoever that the Ugandan laws could not handle the said transactions.  One would then ask: what enraged Bank of Uganda to close these banks for sport? Why did locally owned commercial banks become criminalised to the point of being closed without due procedure?

The answers to these questions cannot be reduced to individuals at the Bank of Uganda or the government of President Museveni (although these persons are responsible to a degree especially for their comprador character). But the colonialism of structural adjustment, which coerced African political leaders into selling government assets to foreign capitalists—because these recently decolonised countries had no local capitalists—offshoring them and hiding their profits from public scrutiny, before moving this stolen wealth to the bustle of London and Paris. Indeed, if colonialism was about syphoning Africa’s resources, this has continued uninterrupted, as former colonisers learned exploiting without direct administration!

Creaming Africa’s Coffee

Uganda ranks as one of the world’s leading producers of coffee producing over 5 million bags [each of 60kgs] of beans in the year 2019. Coffee remains a major foreign exchange earner in Uganda bringing USH1.8 trillion, that is, $494m in the financial year 2019-2020. This made it Uganda’s number one forex earner.  But while these figures look awesome, the money, despite being counted in Uganda, does not end in the hands of Ugandans farmers and businessmen. But rather traders and big conglomerates in the UK, Switzerland and Germany among others. The Ugandan, Ethiopian, Kenyan coffee farmer remains as exploited as his grandparents during the colonial period.  Political economists, Jörg Wiegratz (2016) and Karin Wedig (2019) have documented the quagmire in which the local farmers are trapped after structural Adjustment in the late 1980.

Using terms such as “fraud,” “cheating,” “theft,” “deception” as empirical tools, Wiegratz has showed the farmer as an endangered species cheated for sport by middlemen in the absence of powerful negotiating unit which were once provided by cooperatives. With majority coffee farmers being rural and often uneducated small-scale folks, the cooperative often negotiated prices on their behalf. Dismantled by free markets, they are cheated with impunity. While Wedig disagrees that cooperatives were ever dismantled – focusing on recently created dilutions of cooperatives such as Gumutindo – she too, acknowledges the conditioning limits in which both farmers and the present cooperatives operate.

I came of age after SAPs (structural adjustment programmes) had just been imposed onto the continent, and cooperatives were dying out across Uganda. But I vividly recall coffee growers’ unions—a local extension of cooperatives—spread across the countryside helping local farmers thrive. The colonial government had, specifically, favoured Indian monopolists, and had worked so hard to make sure farmers remained disunited and lacked a single bargaining voice. This barrier had been successfully dismantled with the enactment of the Coffee Industry Ordinance in 1952. This allowed Native cooperatives to thrive having been denied operational licenses since 1908 which saw many natives die fighting to cooperate. Local Growers’ Unions had village offices, big storage facilities, and cemented yards where farmers collectively dried their coffee beans. Small scale farmers using mostly family labour would harvest their coffee, and use a bicycle or carry it on their heads to the nearest grower’s union yards and stores. The prices had been fixed for the benefit of the farmer. Since Uganda Coffee Marketing Board (UCMB) had negotiated the price for the beans, there were no middlemen to cheat the farmers, and prices never depended on seasons.  If they did, the UCMB would pass the message down the chain.

Over and above negotiating good prices, the cooperatives and growers’ unions ensured that farmers received additional services, including farm equipment, training, seedlings and veterinary support. During bad weather, storage facilities were offered. Lorries branded, “FOR EXPORT” or “COOPERATIVES” often traversed villages collecting farmer’s produce. The Uganda Commercial Bank (UCB) offered big and small loans to farmers—alongside grower’s unions—to help them meet their immediate needs including sustaining their families and paying school fees, medical bills. Can you imagine UCB was giving farmers up to 90 per cent of capital costs to cooperatives to buy ginneries of their own? The 1950s-1980s were good times before structural adjustment took hold.  Together, the farmers were enabled with a voice to demand representation at the national stage. Then structural adjustment came and crushed this down.

Presently, with the dismantling of nationally supported and bottom-up cooperatives, coffee farmers do not have any locally-invested voice on the international market, as UCMB did.  Prices are determined by the so-called market forces of “demand and supply”—and all their fetishized violence. When the books say $490m were earned in a particular year, over 60 per cent of that money ends in the pocket of local barons and British and Indian middle-men. These middle-men have also set up shops and farms in Uganda and are, sadly, part of the local count. African Business reported that the biggest players include, “Kyagalanyi Coffee…which later became Volcafe group, the coffee division of ED&F Man, a commodities trader headquartered in London. Other big players include a subsidiary of Sucafina, a Swiss trading firm, and Olam, a commodities giant from Singapore.” Others include Neumann Gruppe with farms and large tracts of land in Mubende district in the central region, and Twin Trading, which is a UK coffee trading company. These use their local offices to earn money—audited as earned by Ugandans—but quickly returned to Europe – just as colonialism did.

But there is more: if Ugandan coffee ever fetched $490m into the Ugandan economy—which ends in UK and German companies with local offices in Uganda—the same beans brought $3.4billion into the Swiss or Germany economy. In a ground-breaking essay, Angers Elsby showed us how a bag coffee grown in Uganda, Ethiopia or Ivory Coast, Europe earns from the same bag seven times more. Elsby has written that, “between 2000 and 2010, Ethiopia, Uganda and Cote D’Ivoire received an average of $138, $71 and $68 per bag of coffee exported, respectively.  Switzerland, Europe’s most profitable coffee re-exporter, earned over $700 per bag.” And this is not because African countries are unable to “add value” but rather that the politics of assessing value addition are inherently flawed to favour western multinationals. Elsby notes that policies implemented by European states during the 1980s and 1990s – accompanying structural adjustment – “dramatically restructured global commodity markets in their favour of Europe and artificially inflated the international competitiveness of their commodity trading and processing industries”. In truth, this so-called competitiveness, Elsby demonstrates, does not stand much on value-additional claims but rather “value capture” by Europe, a thing entirely dependent on political or state power. Not economics. Value capture, and claims of value addition is the new language of exploitation. But what more value would be there beyond making the bean available, beyond farming this bean?

From Leopold II to King Gertler

In his seminal book, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Adam Hochschild tells the story of an official, Edmund Dene Morel from shipping company Elder Dempster which was based in Liverpool.  Morel championed the campaigns to end the late phases of slave trade under King Leopold II, something he followed up on by sheer intuition and instinct. It was about 1897, when, on one of his occasional supervisory trips at the Belgian port of Antwerp, Edmund Morel noticed something unsettling about the ships loading and unloading goods to and from the Congo:

At the docks of the big port of Antwerp he sees his company’s ships arriving filled to the hatch covers with valuable cargoes of rubber and ivory. But when they cast off their hawsers to steam back to the Congo, while military bands play on the pier and eager young men in uniform line the ships’ rails, what they carry is mostly army officers, firearms, and ammunition. There is no trade going on here. Little or nothing is being exchanged for the rubber and ivory. As Morel watches these riches streaming to Europe with almost no goods being sent to Africa to pay for them, he realizes that there can be only one explanation for their source: slave labor.

Indeed, there was slave trade, and Morel would go on to champion a major human rights movement against King Leopold II in the years that followed. Among the other activists that Morel inspired was the well-known satirist and novelist Mark Twain. In one of his epistles, Mark Twain noted that when he participated in the anti-slave movement that Morel had inspired, “in the Congo, a practice [Slave trade] had taken eight to ten million lives.” Reading this figure, Hochschild was startled: He noted:

Statistics about mass murder are often hard to prove. But if this number turned out to be even half as high… the Congo would have been one of the major killing grounds of modern times. Why were these deaths not mentioned in the standard litany of our century’s horrors?

There are three things I want to highlight from this section of the story of King Leopold II and his crimes in Congo. The first is that if he ever returned anything to the Congo for the rubber and ivory he pillaged, it was weapons and soldiers. Not more goods. Secondly, his actions directly led to millions of deaths as Mark Twain noted. If they were not directly killed and maimed as punishment for not fulfilling the quotas of wild rubber demanded, they died from the conditions that the Leopold enterprise put in place. Conservative estimates have put the numbers at 10 million people. The third point, and perhaps most important for this essay, is that the template that Leopold used has never been thrown away.  It has simply been revised over the successive years, to become more disguised but it remains as lethal as before. To make that case more succinctly, I will tell the story of Leopold’s later replacement: King Dan Gertler.

Considered the richest or one of the richest men in Israel, Dan Gertler’s empire has been built off Congolese natural resources and like Leopold, leaving many dead bodies in his wake.  With monopolistic rights over almost all the mining sites in the Democratic Republic Congo, Gertler is the absolute embodiment of the colonialism of the so-called free-markets – that were ushered in by structural adjustment. Gertler enjoys near-monopoly rights in Congo’s diamond, copper, cobalt and gold trade, which he attained only dubiously. Recently, western media was awash with his corruption scandals, in which he allegedly gave out $100m of bribes to acquire this monopoly status. Interestingly, the script involves direct voices and footprints of the American presidents from George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and now Joseph Biden. Sadly, not narrativized as colonialism, but in the beautiful language as a contention over a “trading licence.” The state of Israel appears only on the side-lines.

But why would the story of a single businessman – interacting in a free market economy – directly implicate presidents and states? Because there are no businessmen of this size without the violence of their states. These license scandals notwithstanding, in 2020, Bloomberg reported that Gertler would be getting richer over his Congolese possessions after entering trade agreements with Tesla’s Elon Musk.

Having reached the DRC in 1997, the BBC reported, Gertler’s breakthrough came during the 2000 civil war in DR Congo which “risked ending Kabila’s reign as suddenly as it had begun.” Arguably with the support of the Israel government, “Gertler promised millions of dollars and, according to a United Nations report, access to arms.” Emphasis added. In the spirit of states propping their capitalist exploiters of the African wild—disguised as individuals on free trade projects—this access to arms would only be guaranteed by his state. Gertler delivered on his promise of arms according to a UN report cited in the New York Times. In return, Gertler “received a monopoly on DR Congo’s substantial diamond exports,” and “diamonds would be exchanged for money, weapons and military training.”

The mention of military training should signal us to the ways in which state-driven, war-driven capitalism reproduces itself: works with the state. No wonder, when Laurent Kabila was assassinated in 2001, Gertler had “gained the trust of the younger Kabila” who went on to become president, and with him, Gertler was guaranteed more success.  Just 47 years of age, Gertler is believed to the richest man in Israel with major investments across Tel-Aviv – not Kinshasa.  King Leopold built Belgium through his proceeds from Kongo – not Kongo.

The BBC story continues that with bribes estimated to be over $100m, “Companies controlled by Mr Gertler started sweeping up licences for mineral deposits all over the country.” Not to eat alone, Gertler helped other capitalist exploiters “like Swiss commodities trader Glencore and New York hedge fund company Och-Ziff Capital Management.” These acquired control over mining sites, and the pillage continued. It is estimated that DR Congo has lost $1.36bn in these shady deals. Presently, there are Blue Helmets in DR Congo, and continued violence in different parts of the country directly connected to the ways in which minerals are mined in the region. The difference here is that while King Leopold II would be directly called out, under Gertler’s regime, it is individual Congolese held responsible for killing each other. Gertler is deftly hidden.

For those unfamiliar with the new wave of colonialist-capitalist control, it is easy to put the two Kabila presidencies on the spot for being corrupt and allowing foreign pillage. It is also easy to seek to hold Gertler as individually accountable. This would be barely scratching the surface. These men are beneficiaries and servants of a ‘regime of truth’ that was set in motion by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Under the language of free market economies, former and new colonisers work in the background—outsourcing individual businessmen whom they can discard once things turn sour. In addition to quietly manipulating and supporting conflicts, they return as defenders of human rights, and seek to prosecute perpetrators – to do all of this they have conscripted an army of journalists and scholars, returned as donors and aid-givers, and turned the political class into compradors accessing entire economies through simple, technocratized routes (development, aid, human rights, democracy, etc.)

In the Congo, the Gertler pillage is technocratized and no one ever questions how a white foreigner owns monopoly rights over natural resources in a war-ridden country. Instead, the situation is captured and debated in technicalities and legalese of courts judgments, licenses or sanctions, and does not involve dismantling this outrightly colonial empire.

Structural Adjustment as Colonial Adjustment

In a recently published book, Less is More: How Degrowth will Save the World, Jason Hickel tells the story of Structural Adjustment in rivetingly precise details:  after independence in the 1950s and 1960s, Hickel writes, newly independent governments rolled out progressive policies to rebuild their economies. They used taxes and subsidies “to protect their domestic industries, improve labour standards and raising workers’ wages. They also invested in public health and education.” Hickel continues that “all of this was meant to reverse the extractive policies of colonialism and improve human welfare – and it was working.” The effect of this was that “average incomes in the global South grew at 3.2% per year in the 1960s and 1970s” which in effect, improved the quality of life in these countries. As this happened, former colonisers were not pleased at all. These breakthroughs in formerly colonised places had meant, Hickel notes, “losing access to cheap labour, raw materials and captive markets that they had enjoyed under colonialism.” They had to intervene. For about 25 years, they schemed and planned on how to reverse the tide. Using their control over the World Bank and the IMF, they imposed structural adjustment programmes across Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia.  Forcefully, SAPs “liberalised the economies of the global South, tearing down protective tariffs and capital controls, cutting wages and environmental laws, slashing social spending and privatising public goods – all to break open profitable new frontiers for foreign capital and restore access to cheap labour and resources,” Hickel concludes.

To make the argument that parastatals and cooperatives – mining companies, transport systems, farmer’s support systems, value addition chains, hotels, etcetera – were not working, Wiegratz (2016) has noted that World Bank (i.e. it’s advisors/experts) had to forge evidence: according to a key source from inside the state machinery in Uganda, “cooperatives were forced to sell their business to the private sectors” through manufactured bank statements that declared them indebted and unsustainable: “accountants were sent into cooperatives to check their books… made sure the cooperatives were on a loss on paper: cooperatives were told, you have to sell to cancel your debt [that was created on paper in the first place]. Also, cooperatives were not regarded credit worthy by respective banks” (2016: 99).  It did not matter that almost all African economists and ministers of finances had argued that African economies were too small to be left on their own (i.e., without protective barriers, state subsidies, trade deals politics etc.).  There were no businessmen rich enough to buy, take loans (at +20 per cent interest), and run entire railway lines or hotel chains. We had just emerged from colonialism. It meant – with global market fictions – that, rich, mostly white men from Europe and North America, propped by their governments would come and buy the very things they had once taken by force and looted.

In truth, after decades of independence, the loot continues – but in a more technocratized form and expert driven and less violent than before. This is the story of Dan Gertler, ED&F Man London, Sucafina, Switzerland, Olam Group, Singapore, Neumann Gruppe, from Germany and Twin Trading from the UK.

Conclusion: scramble without partition

If the 1885 Berlin Conference meant that Europe would grind Africa down after sharing it amongst themselves—which also often meant fighting over each other’s share—the 1980s Structural Adjustment project meant that the lions had finally agreed to eat their prey without fighting over it. There was no reason to split it into small units of influence anymore. They could eat all at once, and everybody was welcome to the dining table, exclusively designed, meticulously calculated, legally and forcefully protected for dinners in Europe and North America.

Hickel has written that in Europe and North America, “…fully half of the total materials they consume are extracted from poorer countries and generally under unequal and exploitative conditions. The coltan in your smartphones comes from mines in the Congo. The lithium in your electric car batteries comes from the mountains of Bolivia. The cotton in your bedsheets comes from plantations in Egypt… the vast majority of materials consumed in the south ultimately originate from the South itself even if they are recycled through multinational value chains” (2020: 112). How does one ensure that these supplies keep coming? Beyond the legalese of SAPs, Sierra Leonian-German activist, Mallence Bart-Williams has added that this also involves “systematically destabilising the wealthiest African nations and their systems, and all that backed by huge PR campaigns” while at the same feigning endless benevolence to the Africans through aid—under the flashing lights of cameras—but stealing much more under the shadows.

One might say, that one of the most binding lessons of the Second World War, and the Cold War, was the uselessness of fighting over helpless prey – or prey that can easily be sedated or manipulated into subservience. The lions realised there was no need for outright violence over the prey. This eating-together approach is more tactical, subtle, disguised, and even welcome among sections of the prey, as it does not arouse any animosity from the prey itself. In truth, it is this subtlety, technocratization, legalese, conscription of local politicians/elites that Africans publics remain blinded from the colonial continuities despite the enormity of scale.

This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).

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