The Africanists

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This is our home, say the Sengwer

the Embobut forest in the west of Kenya

The dilemma whether an indigenous people can live in a forest that is a water catchment area, stares you in the face in the Embobut forest in the west of Kenya. There are only tufts left, while it harbours the source for a river that is important for a large part of Western Kenya. The forest needs urgently to be rehabilitated because Kenya is already struggling more and more with water shortages.

And then there are the Sengwer, a people of what used to be hunters and gatherers, who consider the Embobut forest as their traditional home. Their ancestors found everything they needed in the forest. They ate meat from wild animals which they killed with bow and arrow. They gathered tubers and wild grains with which they supplemented their diet. They also got honey from the bees and used medicinal herbs for diseases.

Elias Kimaiyo, a Sengwer activist, believes that it is not a dilemma but a win-win situation. “We know the forest best. We are the natural guardians. The forestry department must teach us how to restore it.” However, the government does not want anyone in the forest and chases everyone out of it with use of excessive violence.

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Hands off the Judiciary! Will the Kenyan elite ever grow up?


By Willy Mutunga, Former Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court

The Kenyan elite and its variants in the political, corporate (licit and illicit), civil society, media, intelligentsia and the diaspora, need to grow up and cease their superficial dramas and look past their noses to see that their theatrics have far-wide reaching consequences that affect millions of lives.

But the million-dollar question is can they ever grow up?

The factions of the divisive Kenyan elite have consistently subverted one important pillar in the 2010 vision of the Constitution – The one on building strong institutions to deliver on the promise of democracy to the country.

The Judiciary continues to endure vicious attacks on its independence and whenever elections take place, followed as they are invariably by electoral disputes – the Judiciary is never spared. More likely, it gets thrown into centre ring for all sides to rain their blows.

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How fear and violence became part of elections in Kenya

Election violence 2007/8 Phot Petterik Wiggers

Women of the Nandi and the Luo no longer want to wash their clothes together in the River of Lions, the river dividing their tribal areas. Because of the forthcoming elections, tensions between their tribes have risen to boiling point.

“I see signs of violence,” says Atieno Atito, teacher in the village of Kopere on the right bank. To the right of the river, on the plains of Lake Victoria, live the Luo’s, to the left in the hills live the Nandi’s. Every day Atito sees Luo’s with trucks full of household goods departing from Nandi dominated area. In schools and churches in Kopere, preparations are made for the reception of displaced persons.

“They are different from us,” Atito points out to a hill across the river. “They are voting for the government party of President Uhuru Kenyatta, we are for the party of opposition leader Raila Odinga. These people at the other side of the river think that in a democracy the winners take all, including our fields. That’s why, since the introduction of the multi-party system, Kenya has no longer known peace.”
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We must not give up on revolutionary optimism in Kenya

Election violence 2008(Photo Petterik Wiggers)


Kenyan former chief justice Willy Mutunga speaks out. “We must not give up on revolutionary optimism”, he warns in this piece. Since a new and progressive constitution was promulgated in 2010, reactionary forces try to undermine it. But “the struggle to implement the progressive vision of this Constitution continues today”. Mutunga praises devolution, which he sees as “transformation from the margins”.

This article first appeared on the website of Transformation.

On August 27 2010 Kenya promulgated a progressive Constitution whose vision is social democracy. It’s a vision of the promotion and protection of the whole gamut of human rights; the equitable distribution of political power and the resources of society; and the creation of a nation out of different ethnic groupings. The Constitution aims to bring an end to the organization of politics through divisions; mitigate the protection of private property in land; cement agreement on national values and principles; promote integrity in public and private leadership; and build depersonalized national institutions.

The struggle to implement the progressive vision of this Constitution continues today. The elite forces of the status quo who found this vision unacceptable are resisting its implementation at every step. As the latest stage in this process, Kenya will hold new elections on August 8, 2017. I was Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court of Kenya from 2011 to 2016, so I’ve observed and participated in this process first-hand. Given the efforts of the political elite to resist the implementation of the Constitution, I became convinced that the Judiciary had to play a pivotal role in defending and advancing it. We consciously developed a jurisprudence that promoted the Constitution’s robust implementation, and in that way the Judiciary became a political actor.

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Only a strong judiciary can guarantee progress in 2017

Willy Mutunga and Al Capone(the Star)

Money does the talking in Africa, now that the continent is growing fast. Increasingly cartels and mafias are taking charge. Leaders can act with impunity. I will therefore in 2017 closely follow the beleaguered presidents of Gambia and Congo, because they will only resign if they get a guarantee from their successors that they may take their riches amassed through corruption with them. And that they will not have to stand trial for their actions.


Justice forges a nation, but these rights are still missing. The biggest challenge for Africa remains the development of an independent judiciary. Judges are the last hope for justice. As in South Africa, where ombudswoman Thuli Madonsela bravely continued to dig into corruption by president Zuma. She has resigned and it will in part depend on her successor whether South Africa remains a democracy, or it will become a nation of thieves as Congo is. If a citizen feels disenfranchised, he turns away from the state. Corruption in the judiciary is destroying the whole fabric of society, a process of erosion which threatens to unravel Congo this year.


Like Thuli Madonsela the Kenyan Willy Mutunga resigned last year. The Chief Justice of Kenya tried to tackle corruption in its own judicial system. He described himself as someone who tries to tame a tiger while the beast is trying to devour him. Courts can be a counterforce to the cartels. If that fight has been won, maybe democracy has a chance. Mutunga want to hand over the banner to a young, digital generation to keep watch. He has hope for citizen groups such as is in Senegal and Burkina Faso, which have ousted presidents. And civil society activists in Congo, which agitate against the entire political class. Is a new pan African civil movement emerging?


The law often brought no justice in the past. Capital punishment for murder? That one you bought off with $ 500. Accused of rape? That remedied you with $ 250. Why would you pay for a lawyer if you can bribe a judge? The result was that no one believed in judges any more, the last resort for a citizen if there is no democracy and freedom of press.


In Africa the greatest population explosion ever unfolds. Three quarters of Africans are young people and the authorities have not succeed in creating enough opportunities for them. After more than half a century of independence a strong state and economy are still unrealized goals. Strong economic growth in recent years has not lead to better politics.


Will the political class excel again by opportunism in 2017? Will the confused Robert Mugabe keep on wetting his pants? Will the Zimbabwean president depart or will he stand again? Will the magic witchdoctor of Gambia go or stay? In the soap opera that has become of African politics only a strong independent judiciary can provide a guarantee for progress.

Once more thousands threatened by drought in Kenya

Samburu area near Wamba

In traffic this morning a mighty bull caught up with me. The throbbing cars were soon surrounded by skinny beasts, a long tongue licked salt from my side mirror. The open window at times let the sweet aroma of cow dung in, until a swirling cloud of dust made me to close the window.
Once more the cattle from the neighboring Maasai people invade the outskirts of Nairobi, looking for the last lush greenery around filthy sewers, or for sprinkled flowers in public lawns or gardens of the rich. The usually agitated motorists gracefully give way to the cattle. For Kenya, as well as large parts of East Africa, is on the verge of a new burning drought. According to the Kenyan Red Cross already 1.3 million Kenyans are going hungry, a number that may increase to 2.5 million in the coming months.

It is the season of the jacaranda. In a desperate attempt to survive this tree with blue-purple flowers drops its seeds just before the rains and creates a colored carpet on the streets. The flame tree, an Australian tree with red plumes, is ablaze. Normally these trees announce the spring after many dry months, but this time the weather services predict the failure of the rainy season. Kenyans are preparing for disaster.
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Kenya is faced with home-grown muslim extremism

Ahmed (32) joined the islamic terrorist movement al-Shabaab in neighboring Somalia two years ago. His sister Halima has not heard from him since. “Fortunately,” she says in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa. “Al-Shabaab will only make contact if your family member has arrived in heaven.”

Ahmed is one of the hundreds of young people in Kenya who have become radicalized in recent years. Most come from Mombasa, or from the slums of Nairobi. “Al-Shabaab recruits them to carry out terrorist attacks in Somalia and increasingly in Kenya itself,” says social worker Phyllis Muema. Muema, who heads Kecosce, a group in Mombasa trying to dissuade youngsters from their radical ideas, calls it “an explosive situation.”

Mombasa has become a hotbed of extremism. About a quarter of the Kenyan population is Muslim. Most live at the coast and in the northeast of the country, in the region bordering Somalia. When the first major terrorist attack took place in Kenya – in 1998 by Al-Qaeda on the US Embassy in Nairobi – the perpetrators were merely foreigners. Now Kenya is faced with home-grown Muslim extremism. President Kenyatta labelled this terror recently as “a threat to the survival of the nation”.

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Oboma, welcome to Kenya, but be aware

Dear President Obama: Karibu! Welcome! Asante for dropping in on us, the country of your father, before you depart the White House. There are those who called you all manner of names when you visited in 2006. I apologise on their behalf. The idea that you’d go ahead and win a presidential election two years later was unthinkable.

But many all over the world got caught out on that one. Asante sana too, because confirmation of your arrival has caused the most rapid road repair programme in the history of our capital city.

You are visiting the country that has consistently been the USA’s closest diplomatic, political and military ally in the region for half a century. This goes way back to when President JF Kennedy’s “airlift” saw your father and others travel to the US for further education. America’s extraordinary soft power – from Hollywood to KFC to Apple – sets global trends. We are no exception in being influenced by the USA in many ways.

We have taken some blows for it too, as your enemies have picked on us for terrorist attacks. Still, we are a resilient lot. We pride ourselves as exemplifying in East Africa the spirit of enterprise and capitalism that we share with the USA. (As I write, you can be sure there are even some hustlers selling tickets to those who want to shake your hand or share a meal with you.) The USA continues to need a stable, democratic friend in East Africa and its best bet continues to be Kenya.

Still, in this part of the world, new realities are serving to transform the relationship between Kenya and the USA. There is a democratic recession underway across the world. It’s playing out here in our region too. This is partly driven by old partnerships, now renewed.

China is now Kenya’s fastest growing and most significant trading partner. It has transformed our roads, skylines and national debt. Dollar for dollar, China’s impact competes with that of the USA – we see its infrastructure even when we choose to ignore some of the less salubrious accompanying aspects.

The discerning amongst us know that China’s attitudes to corruption and democracy are very different to those expressed in our constitution. Externally, the Chinese tend to be permissive towards the first and opposed to the second. China also offers a governance model that the elite finds seductive. Indeed, it’s no longer politically incorrect to hear regime apologists argue ‘we have too much democracy’. This is nonsense of course. In fact devolving – and thus deepening – our democracy saved Kenya from the crisis of a presidency won back-to-back via the dodgiest means possible.

When you visited in 2006, you spoke on corruption and tribalism. As a former Senator from Illinois you will know something about corruption, since Illinois governors are as likely as not to retire to jail. Your recent remarks on systemic racism in the USA demonstrate how well you understand that nations cannot be at peace within themselves as long as their foundations privilege some citizens on the basis on their genetic origins. Here too, we’re still fighting to overcome these two cancers, even though some argue that economic growth should be where we focus our energies as Kenyans.

You will also know that this battle is not new. In the 1990s, Kenyans, led by a coalition of civil society, the church and media, and supported by sympathetic sections of the international community, agitated for multiparty democracy as a conducive environment to fight against these and other ills. The gains of that era are now being rolled back ever so gently.

We lost the Church as an ally along the way while media and civil society chug along in an increasingly hostile environment replete with extrajudicial methods of sanction, intimidation and elimination. Our allies in the international community sometimes seem to have lost their confidence. This has led to a disconcerting ambivalence amongst Kenyans themselves about values and principles that once seemed so crystal clear.

There are concerns in particular that the so-called war on terror has taken precedence over the democracy and anti-corruption agenda. And yet, corruption in Kenya feeds both domestic and jihadist insecurity in very direct ways. Authoritarian extrajudicial reactions too have served to alienate Muslims and radicalise youth.

Sliding back into a Cold War posture where developing world leaders use the war on terror as an excuse to roll back democratic freedoms will backfire. The struggle against communism was once used as an excuse to keep the historical aberration of apartheid going way longer than simple decency demanded.

As we welcome you to the country your ancestors call home, let not your visit be used to rubber-stamp the most far-reaching reversals in the hard-won freedoms enjoyed by media, civil society and Kenyans in general in the past two decades. Thank you. Enjoy the visit and – once again – thanks for the refurbished roads and freshly planted grass!

This article was first published in the (Kenyan) Star on 24-7-2015

A recession in democracy in Kenya and beyond

 In truth across Africa and many other parts of the world the situation vis-à-vis basic human rights has been in decline. A democratic recession has gripped entire parts of the African continent even as we celebrate the narrative of ‘Africa Rising’ that is driven by consistently high levels of economic growth over the last two decades; a growing vibrant middle class; a massive bulge of educated energetic, healthy and globalized youth with the potential to power our economies to unprecedented levels. Africa’s tremendous wealth in natural resources and the world’s huge hunger for them has been a major factor in creating potential confluence of positive factors. Add to this the fact that most of Africa democratized in the early 1990s then on paper the conditions are beginning to come together that would create for a situation of countries that are stable and governed via systems of that have the principles of social justice embedded in them.

Unfortunately over the last two years we have endured the reversals in human rights in some areas and the current Kenyan government has often made it clear that some of the rights Kenyans have come to take for granted are at best an inconvenience and at worst a risk to national security. While the messages are often mixed and confusing it would seem that there are those within the regime – a minority it would seem – determined to craft Kenya into a militarized authoritarian state wrapped in the national flag and all the rituals and propagandised narratives of a kind of a kind of proto fascism.

 And so there are specific reasons why we should be concerned about the general environment with regard to rights and freedoms in Kenya.

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Has Kenya Destroyed the ICC?

When the supporters of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto began systematically attacking the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a neo-colonialist institution biased against Africans in the run-up to Kenya’s 2013 election, their prime concern was domestic: to ensure their champions escaped prosecution at The Hague. A publicity campaign that made clever use of social media was transformed into government policy once the two men were inaugurated president and deputy president, respectively. It then acquired diplomatic wings, with envoys from Nairobi crisscrossing the continent to drum up support, culminating with an extraordinary African Union summit last October at which it was agreed that African heads of state would no longer face ICC prosecution during terms in office.

So effective has the anti-ICC campaign proved that it is now having repercussions its originators probably never foresaw: South Sudan is likely to be just the first in a series of new African conflict zones where human rights groups and civil society organizations find themselves nonplussed, unsure what to advocate in light of the body blows dealt the ICC.

“The ICC backlash has created a major dilemma for us, no doubt about it,” acknowledged the head of one human rights organization I spoke to, who asked not to be named. “Deciding the appropriate course of action has become a very difficult question.”
Their quandary, however, is no philosophical abstraction — the privilege of Western-funded NGOs with headquarters in Washington and Brussels. Every journalist is familiar with the experience of returning to the scene of an atrocity and interviewing a cowed survivor who quietly mentions that, in the street, they regularly pass men who raped a daughter, killed a father. If the ICC no longer holds out even the slim hope of eventual retribution for those who funded and armed such thugs, what alternatives exist?

In many ways, the series of abuses committed in South Sudan after fighting broke out in mid-December would be well suited for referral to the ICC, which currently can prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. First in Juba and then in dusty towns like Bor, Bentiu, and Malakal, opposing forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar, carried out tit-for-tat massacres and gang rapes, with atrocities targeted along ethnic lines. Victims were shot in hospital beds, outside churches, and within sight of United Nations compounds.

For human rights activists, the sheer brutality of the violence, in a region scarred by 22 years of civil war between Khartoum and southern rebels, confirms a long-voiced argument that preventing fresh abuses means ending impunity. It is vital, many argue, to avoid the example set by Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which gave birth to Africa’s newest state in 2011 while largely sidestepping the issue of accountability for past crimes.

“We’ve had 10,000 dead in less than three months. It’s been very fast, very aggressive, and the massacres have been ethnically targeted because that’s the way the leadership presented it,” says Wani Mathias Jumi, secretary-general of the South Sudan Law Society. “In the past there was no accountability at all, and that has been carried forward. If this country is to exist anywhere but on paper, we have to see redress this time.”

South Sudan possesses other characteristics that make it suitable for ICC referral. The three-year-old country’s judicial system is still in embryonic form. No legal provision for crimes against humanity exists, and legal aid and witness protection programs have yet to be established. Judges, prosecutors, investigators, and clerks are in short supply and were often trained in the north, and so are accustomed to legal documents written in Arabic and the workings of sharia law. In South Sudan, where most inhabitants are either Christian or animist, the official language is English and the legal system is based on common law.

“Even before the latest conflict, South Sudan was struggling to cope with prosecuting ordinary crimes,” says Amnesty International’s Elizabeth Ashamu Deng. “It’s clear that the normal justice system would not be able to deal with this latest challenge without significant external input.” Daniel Bekele, the director of the Africa division at Human Rights Watch, describes South Sudan’s judiciary as “one of the weakest in the region,” adding, “In a new country, that’s not surprising.”

Always envisaged as a “court of last resort,” the ICC was set up in 1998 with precisely such circumstances in mind, offering justice to people in states too fractured to deliver it themselves. South Sudan may not be a signatory to the Rome Statute that established the ICC (neither, of course, is the United States), but the U.N. Security Council can refer a situation to the ICC, thereby establishing jurisdiction.

Yet in spite of South Sudan’s apparently meeting many ICC criteria, leading human rights and policy advocacy groups are skirting calls for the court’s involvement. Human Rights Watch says it is still assessing the situation. The International Crisis Group is calling instead for a tribunal on the lines of that staged in Sierra Leone after its civil war. Amnesty International, for its part, says it is waiting on the final recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan, set up by the African Union.

This wariness is rooted in recent, scarring experience. Shocked human rights groups are still digesting the African Union’s decision to rally behind Kenyatta and Ruto, accused by the ICC of organizing the violence that claimed more than 1,000 lives in the wake of Kenya’s 2007 elections and nearly tore the country apart.

“The ICC has, unfortunately, become a toxic brand in much of Africa,” says John Ryle, of the Rift Valley Institute think tank. “This is due to the ineptitude of its former chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, and to the skillful political maneuverings of a number of ICC indictees, who have managed to represent the court as an instrument of Western intervention in the affairs of sovereign nations. The vulnerability of the ICC to this backlash has been a blow for African civil society activists who seek justice and accountability from their leaders.”

Indeed, aware that three of the regional states now attempting to mediate a peace deal between Kiir and Machar — Sudan proper (where President Omar al-Bashir himself faces ICC prosecution), Kenya, and Uganda — have been particularly vocal in their hostility toward the ICC, many human rights groups are seeking cover behind the African Union’s commission of inquiry, which is seen as a classic “African solution to an African problem.” Led by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and launched in March, the commission includes Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani, who has made his impatience with the ICC clear, arguing that a fixation with delivering pure justice can clash with the political accommodations necessary for peace. Influenced by South Africa’s post-apartheid experience, the commission’s members see reconciliation as their overriding priority. It is already running months behind schedule, but its final report, due in September, is expected to reiterate initial support for a “hybrid court” as the most appropriate way of delivering justice to South Sudan.

Hybrid, or “ad hoc,” courts usually involve a mix of domestic judges and international magistrates, prosecutors, and investigators flown in to bolster a weak local legal system. The aim would clearly be to deliver a form of justice that would be both credible and recognizably local.

But many in the human rights sector see the championing of the hybrid-court model as deeply ironic — history turning full circle. Ad hoc courts of various kinds were experimented with in Africa during the 1990s as reactions to abuses committed in Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and, more recently, Chad. The ICC formula came to be seen as far preferable as a result.

“It seems we’ve gone right back to the 1990s,” says Casie Copeland, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. “The problem with the ad hoc courts was that they were tremendously expensive and that cash” — usually provided by the United States, European Union, or United Kingdom — “just isn’t on the table now.”

“Decisions to appoint ad hoc courts were often highly political, whereas with the ICC system everyone knew they were dealing with international treaty bodies,” she adds. It can sometimes prove impossible to set up a hybrid court in the country where the atrocities were committed, leaving proceedings looking just as remote to the local population as those in The Hague. Another problem with hybrid courts has proved to be the often-tense relationships that develop between internationally funded employees and local staff working in cash-strapped, demoralized courts — tensions that undermined the ambition to build up a legacy of skills, resources, and legal expertise.

“The hybrid-court approach might be one useful model, but it is no panacea for all situations,” warns Human Rights Watch’s Bekele. “The relevance of a hybrid-court model needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.”

Wary of being associated with another high-profile ICC debacle — one many observers predict could effectively spell the end of the court — human rights workers say the ball on South Sudan is now in the African Union’s court. But they privately express concerns about the commission of inquiry’s scarce resources and the modest amount of time spent on the ground. “The African Union really needs to step up to the plate on this and demonstrate it can push for accountability,” said one activist who wished to remain anonymous.

History may well come to see Kenya as the place where an idealistic — but perhaps naive — drive for universal justice was checked by the realities of entrenched elite power. The notion that sitting heads of state or popular ethnic champions would meekly allow themselves to be prosecuted seems extraordinarily starry-eyed now. But that realization still leaves unanswered the practical question of what is to be done when fresh conflicts break out and abuses are committed in traumatized African states that lack either infrastructure or political will to deliver accountability. This question is immediately pressing in South Sudan, as well as the Central African Republic, but will inevitably arise in other parts of the continent before too long.

Expect years of debate. “The end goal is that there should be justice,” says Copeland. “If there’s a way of achieving that without involving the ICC, then let’s do it. But we’re going to see plenty of efforts to find ways of working around the ICC that will be confronted with the same facts that motivated the establishment of the ICC in the first place.”

Is Someone Trying To Kill Devolution?

I am one of those who insist that Kenyans did not choose to adopt a devolved system of government because they had thought it through rationally, weighed all the options at hand, before deciding on it as the most efficient and desirable governance system given our circumstances. Rather, decades of centralised, ethnicised, authoritarian, corrupt, deeply discriminatory and unequal development as a result of the national government policies favouring Nairobi and the elites that dominate it, forced the hand of the majority who voted for it.

The attitude was, “We’ve tried everything else –political pluralism, successful agitation for basic freedoms and rights etc – and those who have controlled the center of power in Nairobi since independence continue to make off with a hugely disproportionate chunk of national cake.” On the ground, this developed into a powerful narrative that has in turn been ethnicised and politicised to the extent that it has helped define the outcome of elections in the multi-party era; the only policy pillar that stood out in ODM’s 2007 campaign, for example, was ugatuzi.

As a slogan, this was read by many Kenyans as essentially a political instrument to correct ethnic discrimination in development, especially as regards access to justice and economic opportunity. Devolution remains, in effect, the biggest rungu in the arsenal of those communities who aren’t, and probably will never be, part of the so-called “tyranny of numbers”.

A similar underlying rationale informed the ‘District Focus for Rural Development’ initiative of the Moi administration that kicked off in October 1982. In essence, this was in actual fact Kenya’s first real attempt at an affirmative action programme to more equitably distribute resources and opportunities to parts of the country that had historically been economically and politically marginalized. However, a mixture of incompetence, graft and the politics of patronage scuttled the potential of the initiative.

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Uhuru Must Step Up To Tackle Rhino Poaching

We were getting together for a Lewa Wildlife Conservancy board meeting and as a newcomer I was excited to be part of this world-class operation. Lewa is a prestigious private conservation area in northern Kenya, famed for its rhinos and its annual marathon.

I had been thrilled when the chairman, Michael Joseph called me to his office last year and asked me “Will you join the Lewa board?”

I had always wanted to learn from Lewa’s enormous body of knowledge, and to contribute to its successful rhino conservation programme. He didn’t need to ask.

Now in my first board meeting meeting, Mike Watson, CEO of Lewa Conservancy, took an urgent phone call, then returned and informed us that gunshots had been heard at nearby Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

I called Richard Vigne, CEO of Ol Pejeta. He confirmed one black rhino bull was dead, his horns gone. There was no need for words to describe the anger, defeat, upset and sorrow he was feeling. It was not lost on any of us that the events at Ol Pejeta, just a few dozen kilometres away, might well have been here at Lewa.

Despite the news, we went ahead with our board meeting, which was upbeat and concluded on a positive note. But all I was thinking about was how to get to Ol Pejeta, and I invited others to come with me.

At first nobody wanted to. It would be depressing and besides, they said they all had other plans. I’m used to this reaction. Nobody wants to confront the horror of what is happening in its bloody face.

But after a few minutes of explaining why this is relevant to Lewa, I had a full car with members of board from both Kenya and the US.

None of them had ever seen a freshly butchered rhino before. I didn’t tell them that neither had I. But I’ve seen enough dead elephants to know that it’s a life-changing experience.

We drove to Ol Pejeta, where Martin Mulama and his chief of security Serem welcomed us. Their faces revealed a despondency rarely seen in conservation. We set off for the rhino under a heavy cloud of dark emotions.

Some of us stood in the back of a pick-up which crashed ahead through the bush followed closely by all the others in a Land Rover.

I asked Martin about the incident. As the vehicle bounced around, and branches caught my hair, Martin explained that gunshots were heard at 6 pm the previous evening somewhere deep inside the conservancy. Security was scrambled and the perimeter of Ol Pejeta sealed with road blocks. But it was too late. The killers had already gone.

The carcass was deep inside the middle of the 75,000 acre conservancy, and several kilometres off any track. Whoever killed this rhino knew the terrain.

We ploughed through thick bush, zigzagging around hyena holes and ant hills and following the muddy tracks of cars that had gone before us.

Then the car came to an abrupt halt and I jumped down. Serem pointed. The rhino was somewhere in the bush only a hundred metres away.

I walked quickly to where I knew he would be, anger and sadness driving me to look at the face of the lifeless animal. And there he lay, silently on his side, his massive grey body slightly bloated, his left legs suspended up in the air.

He had died in deep bush and was lying in a pool of his own blood that looked like black oil. His left eye was open staring unseeingly at us, a few flies buzzed around him. Bubbles of red frothy blood oozed his nose. His pointed white lips were slightly open.

It was hard to look at his face, his eye was staring up at me. His two horns had been cut off at the base with an extremely sharp instrument. They appeared almost surgically removed. His hornless face seemed misshapen – without his horns he hardly looked like a rhino.

Rhino killed by poachers with horns removed on Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya. Photograph: Paula Kahumbu

Martin explained the cuts on the rhino’s ear. Two precise notches had been cut into his ears when he was a calf to help identify him.

All the rhinos here are notched. The notches told us that this was 15 year old Sheria. Ironically his name in Kiswahili means Law. After a pause Martin said “Law is dead”.

Apart from the bloody gashes where his horns once were, he seemed unharmed. There were no other wounds. I was confused, wasn’t he shot?

If it wasn’t for Serem I would have missed the tiny bullet wounds that were almost impossible to see. He had been sprayed with bullets from an AK 47 but the entry points had closed over his thick grey-black rough skin.

Once I knew what I was looking I could see there were dozens of these wounds and I pictured the events of the night before. The deafening sound of gun shots, the acrid smell of gunfire, Sheria screaming and crashing through the bushes in a state of terror as he tried to escape the hail of bullets before he fell. I imagined that Sheria was still alive when they cut off his horns – he was probably watching them helplessly with his one open eye.

It would have taken a few minutes to cut off the horn, an eternity to Sheria. There were two murderers, one shooter and one guide. They worked quickly, silently, and escaped completely unnoticed save for the sound of bullets.

I squatted beside Sheria and leaned against his body. My arm on his massive leg, I reached out to touch his face. His body was warm, it felt as if he was still alive. I almost expected to feel him breathing.

The only smell was fresh blood. I don’t recall any sounds, the world was utterly silent. We stayed there for an hour talking in low tones, touching, feeling.

Now Sheria’s name and photograph will be removed from the rhino monitoring list for Ol Pejeta, where every rhino is sighted by security officers each day. This incident comes exactly one month after another rhino shooting. That rhino was injured and miraculously is still alive.

The escalation of poaching at Ol Pejeta is surprising because this sanctuary has some of the best rhino protection found anywhere in the world.

The population is completely fenced and anti-poaching investments include sniffer dogs, attack dogs, SAS-trained armed rangers, helicopters on standby, aircraft support, even military vehicles.

But the poachers are somehow outwitting us. They move with stealth, and are smarter and swifter. Even when they get caught they somehow subvert justice. Motivated by cash they will take huge risks – few poachers survive an encounter with KWS rangers nowadays.

Sheria was one of two rhinos poached this weekend, the other in Ngulia rhino sanctuary. These incidents are a reflection of a national and continental crisis.

Sixteen of Kenya’s rhinos have fallen to poachers in Kenya this year already. KWS says we have over 1,000 remaining but few conservationists believe these figures.

Even if we have 1,000, we could lose them all – South Africa lost over 1,000 last year alone. In Kenya all rhinos are in protected sanctuaries, yet none are safe. Rhinos are being gunned down everywhere in increasingly brazen and daring attacks in national parks and private sanctuaries like Lewa and Ol Pejeta.

Kenyans fear that the problem reflects a breakdown in governance. The people charged with protecting these invaluable creatures are turning their guns on them instead. And, the government is silent.

Kenyans are furious and determined to change things. They are now calling on the president, His Excellency Uhuru Kenyatta to declare elephants and rhinos national treasures and to make it his personal crusade to stop the poaching. Without political will, the game is over for these magnificent species.

Some people think it is too late, but we did recover from similar threats in the 1980s under President Moi’s leadership. And in Nepal, rhino poaching has been reduced to nil due to the personal interventions of President Baran Yadav. Kenyans want President Uhuru to step up to this challenge – we simply cannot afford to give up.

Paula Kahumbu is the CEO of WildlifeDirect.

This article was originally published on the Kenyan newspaper The Star

A book on and by gays in Kenya

A fresh breeze is blowing through the gay community in Kenya since the beginning of this year. First, the famous Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina came out of the closet. And now a book is published with stories, letters and poetry by and about gay people in the country. Homosexuality is not illegal in Kenya, but there is a prison sentence of up to 14 years for sex between two men or two women.

Kevin Mwachiro is author of Invisible: stories from Kenya’s queer community.  He hopes to combat with his book ignorance about homosexuality, and especially show gay people that they are not alone. “It’s a very lonely time before you dare to come out of the closet. I certainly experienced it like that. But after all the stories I’ve heard over the past two years, I realize how smooth it actually was for me”, says the 40 -year-old gay activist and journalist.

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Kenya and the ICC: “Don’t be vague, go to The Hague,” (but send Bush and Blair too)

This is a crucial moment for the International Criminal Court. If it drops the ball or the UN Security Council (UNSC) kicks the Kenyan cases into the long grass, the ICC is finished. At present the Court has agreed – reluctantly – to a postponement of the cases against President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice-President William Ruto until February. Interestingly it has done so because the prosecutors did not object – they wanted more time to present witnesses. The Court did not believe that Kenyatta’s presidential duties were a reason to delay the trial.

African heads of government have denounced the ICC as disproportionately focusing on the continent. In terms of numbers, they are right. All eight current cases before the ICC are African. Four of them are at the request of the African governments themselves and two were begun with the full support of African governments. The other two were referred to the court by the UN Security Council. Of the seven other cases being investigated by the ICC two are African.

So what on earth were the African presidents going on about when they complained at their recent meeting in Addis Ababa that Africa was being unfairly targeted? This is a specious, self-serving argument that assumes they are above the law. I was shocked to see Mrs Nkosasana Zuma, Chair of the African Union, joining in. My question to them is where else in the world are atrocities happening and why aren’t you bringing them to the attention of the ICC? Syria? It is being investigated already.

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Westgate: “our turn eat” costs national security

During my brief tenure in government I clashed with senior colleagues who insisted that ‘eating’ from security contracts in particular was okay because the money was essential to pay for democracy that we all know is messy and expensive.

‘National security’ became the final refuge of the corrupt. My repost then and now was: when you eat from procurement deals meant for the police, military, customs, immigration at the top, then bureaucrats below watch and learn.

Like termites munching at the wooden foundations of the house of State everything soon becomes porous. Driving along a pretty rough road deep in a rural part of Pwani we once turned a corner to find ourselves staring at a magnificent palace of a residence in an area where the next best nearby house was the one that had corrugated iron on the roof.

When I asked whom the first house belonged to, I was told: “Oh, he works for Customs at the port of Mombasa”. And the house owner was a relatively junior civil servant.

That beautiful house was a bricks and mortar illustration of how systemic graft in Kenya makes a mockery of national security. Additionally, the networks used by money launderers, drug traffickers, modern day slavers and participants in grand corruption in the 21st Century are increasingly the same.


Then on September 21 terrorists linked to al Shabaab and possibly al Qaeda too attacked the Westgate Mall in the high-end suburb of Westlands in our capital.

Their stand-off with our security services lasted four days that were collectively infuriating, traumatising, saddening and utterly confusing to us Kenyans. At least 67 were killed, more than 170 injured and it remains unclear how many bodies remain under the rubble.

The truth was quickly the first victim of the attack. Today, most people I speak to treat government statements related to these key facts with scepticism. Many are in fact more inclined to believe the international press and even Twitter!

It’s embarrassing that the Guardian in the UK has emerged as the paper of record on Westgate and international broadcast platforms are now considered by many Kenyans as more reliable than the local press.

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The Case of Kenya and the ICC: Diplomatic Earthquake

Everyone is so relieved that the Kenyan election this year did not result in a repeat of ethnic violence after the 2007 election, that we seem to have forgotten that both President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice President William Ruto have been summoned to appear at the International Criminal Court in The Hague charged with crimes against humanity.

This week Kenyatta was invited to London to attend the conference on Somalia, Kenya’s troublesome northern neighbour. Everyone else charged with crimes against humanity by the ICC has been arrested on sight and locked up to await trial.  But instead of slipping on the handcuffs this week, Mr Cameron grasped Mr Kenyatta warmly by the hand and welcomed him to London. He argues that Mr Kenyatta is cooperating with the court. That remains to be seen. Kenyatta must report to the ICC in The Hague on July 9th, Ruto on May 28th.

There are precedents here. Mrs Thatcher embraced Augusto Pinochet of Chile, another murderous dictator but one who helped Britain during the Falklands war, because he too was an enemy of Argentina. And Tony Blair embraced Colonel Gadaffi when he dropped his nuclear programme. But their crimes were committed before the ICC was established. {read more…}

Africa’s election aid fiasco


The development industry is as fashion-prone as any other. Fads come and go. There are a few giveaways when it comes to spotting them. Deceptive simplicity is one indication. The idea should have a silver-bullet quality, promising to cut through complexity to the nub of a problem. Even better, it should be a notion that can be rolled out across not just a country, but a region.

Covering the Kenyan elections, which climaxed with the inauguration last week of Uhuru Kenyatta as the country’s fourth president, I suddenly realised I was watching a fad hitting its stride: the techno-election as democratic panacea. We’ll see it again in Mali’s elections this summer.

Run up to Kenyan elections already bloody

Eric Kioko is in seventh heaven. He has been working since the first of January as ‘DJ Talanta’ with the popular radio station Ghetto Radio in the Kenyan capital Nairobi. It’s the first time he has a job since he lost an arm during the election violence of 2008.

Kioko is one of the thousands of victims of the orgy of violence that erupted after the election results in Kenya. He lives in Maathare, one of the slums that almost encircle Nairobi. It was one of the places where things went terribly wrong in 2008. The ethnic origin of the then 25 year old Kioko made him a target for his attackers. “Since then the government has done nothing to reconcile rivalling tribes. The tension has not been eased. On the contrary, tension is growing in the run up to the elections”, says Kioko in one of the narrow alleys of Maathare. The empty sleeve of his T-shirt moves softly in the wind.

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Will elections in Kenya be the road to hell again, or a new beginning?

President Mwai Kibaki leaves with a $200,000 golden handshake, but what kind of political settlement will he leave in his wake? Everyone is strapped in and the Kenyan election roller coaster has begun. A cacophony of electioneering propaganda is being blasted out through every medium. The political godfathers are flying around the country firing up their supporters, screwing down the vote, constituency by constituency and promising heaven after the March 4th poll. Kenya is poised at the top of a ride that could fling the country violently off the rails and send it to hell – as it did after the 2007 election. Or it could take the country elegantly into a dynamic new era, a transformation that would make it one of the most democratic countries in the world.

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Caroline Mutoko: A Critical Look at Kenyan Media

Caroline Mutoko is one of Kenya’s most-famous and most-popular radio show hosts. She writes columns as well in “The Star”. That newspaper refused to publish the below column Caroline wrote. She decided, instead, to publish it on her Facebook page.

Ninety days to Kenya’s Next general election and counting. I know we shouldn’t put numerical items in written articles, but just for emphasis – let me say this again – 90 days to go.

Sometime towards the end of last week, I saw several articles in the dailies talking about the poor turnout in the ongoing voter registration exercise. It’s news, infact it’s big news, but once again we missed the story. The IEBC is quoted as saying it might not be possible to meet the target of registering 18 million voters if the electorate is not educated on the importance of listing.

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Half a Life in Nairobi

The cool evening warmth is suddenly disrupted as a couple of loud bangs rent the air sending birds scampering up in the sky, children screaming for their mothers and people running halter-skelter. When calm sets in, everyone moves towards one direction as word spreads in the neighborhood that a couple of boys have been shot. At the site, there’s a huge crowd as some women wail uncontrollably, lying in a pool of blood next to one another are three young boys. Barely out of their teens, they’ve been shot dead by the Police just a few metres from their homes in Nairobi’s Ziwani Estate.

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Somalis in Kenya: How long will the Welcome last?

Finger pointing has turned to fist fights as Kenyans visibly becoming frustrated of frequent grenade and small bombs terrorists’ attacks in the Country are turning their anger on the fast growing Somali community in Nairobi.
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Kenya coast boiling of anger

Mombasa (Photo Ilona Eveleens)

Mombasa (Photo Ilona Eveleens)

Trucks and tourist buses race down the highway from the port of Mombasa to the African interior. The road is a symbol of economic progress. Turning away from this highway of progress, every sign of prosperity goes immediately up into dust. Barefoot women and bored teenagers are hanging around in the shade along a dirt road. “We do not belong in Kenya”, complains Hamisi Kanona, a motorcycle mechanic in the hamlet of Kasemeni, near Mombasa.

Mopeds serve as public transport. “With a moped young people can earn two euro’s per day,” says Hamisi. “There is no other work here. The government in Nairobi does nothing for us. Why would I still vote? We young people do not talk about elections anymore; we don’t belong to Kenya anyway. On the coast an election means fight and die. ”
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Native inhabitants of Lamu see new port as threat

Old Town of Lamu ©Ilona Eveleens

A wide, dusty road ends in a gaping hole in the mangrove forest through which the water of the Indian Ocean is visible. A man appears from the remaining forest of trees that grow in the shallow, salty water along the coast. He carries a bag with two live crabs. “There are abundant crustaceans between the mangroves. But they will soon disappear when the new port of Lamu will be constructed”, he says.
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The shooting of Sheikh Rogo

An unknown gunman short dead Sheikh Rogo, a Muslim cleric who was been able to stir emotions on either side of the divide. Riots followed his shooting in Kenya’s second city, the port town of Mombasa.

The Africanists looks into his death and the resulting riots.     {read more…}

Homosexuality in Kenya: Pushing from behind!

It’s wet and raining hard as we maneuver through dark streets in a middle class neighborhood in the lake side city of Kisumu.  There is a power blackout and with the heavy rain, perfect aura for having sex.

We drive slowly looking for a signpost for our rendezvous but the darkness doesn’t make it easy. After brief phone conversation with our host, we finally stop at a gate and my colleague and I are ushered into a huge bungalow. Music is blaring, guys dancing and the place is abuzz with activity. “Welcome to the Friday Jam at Kisumu Initiative for Positive Empowerment in short KIPE.”

We are ushered in by the centre’s project coordinator Mr. Mutisya. “Our days are themed and Friday is when we let loose, booze and just have fun,” he continues as he introduces us to different people. There are only two ladies present, the rest are young men.  Condoms, sex lubrication sachets, dildos, sexual and rehabilitative health materials are lying all over as we are shown one room after another. <!–more–>

Africa can solve its own problems

“We are not immature, poor, backward people. We Africans have our own ideas about how to solve our own problems”, says Kenyan business woman Atia Yahya. The proof lays in her innovative ideas to create access to affordable healthcare for millions of her country folk. She sees fertile fields where others see dry savannas.

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Bonoko looks young and innocent, but he is hardened and shrewd. He gained his life experience on the streets of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, where thousands of kids live. A strong genge beat under a TV interview with him talking about police brutality, made him instantly famous in Kenya. “When you see a cop, you better protect yourself and run away”, he raps in the song.

“My father was a street kid, my mother is still alive. She used to sell glue for sniffing”, Bonoko says. Streets kids don’t have a long life in Kenya. “There is always war, there is always violence”. Thugs and sects do kill, but the major killers are the police. “No money for a bribe and you end up in jail”.

All the people of the Nairobi slums, all passengers in the public transport matatu vehicles, sing loudly along with the Bonoko. “What we experience on a daily basis is being said by Bonoko”, they praise the 21 year old boy whose real name is James Kangethe Kimani.

Bonoko was born on the streets. As a baby he slept with his mother under the verandas, as an independent street kid he preferred other places, like the gutter under the highways. The government started to pick kids up from the streets in 2011 and send them to special schools to be reformed. After being caught Bonoko ran away twice, once walking for a week from Kakamega in Western Kenya to Nakuru, on his way back to Nairobi. “The watchmen at these schools beat us too much”, he complains. He ended up completing only two years of primary school education.

Back in Nairobi Bonoko made Ngara his home and place of work. Kipande became his close friend, a young butcher who sold mutura, a traditional Kikuyu sausage, on the streets. “Me and my street friends gave him our pennies for safekeeping, and he gave us leftover meat. He was a good man”.

His big rival on the streets was Kisi wa Central, a nickname for a cop who exhorted money from people in the neighbourhood. “That cop had already killed some kids. One day a rich man hit me with his car. He wanted to take me to hospital and gave me money as compensation. Kisi wa Central took it and told the rich man to get lost”.

One day Bonoko’s life took an unexpected positive turn. Kisa wa Central had apprehended Kipande because of urinating in an alley. Knowing the reputation of the cop, Kipande fled. Kisi wa Central shot the butcher dead and planted a fake gun near his body, a ‘bonoko’ in local slang. James Kangethe Kimani saw it all happening and from that time onwards he would be known as Bonoko.

That afternoon a crew from Citizen TV came to do a story on the killing. “The butcher is not thug, the cop is the dangerous one”, the words flowed out of his mouth for the TV camera. Many months later he heard his words back as a ringtone on a mobile, and after a while also on his favourite Ghetto Radio. Somebody in the slums had used his interview to make a raw rap song on his computer.

The angry cop has sworn to kill Bonoko and that is one of the reasons Ghetto radio has given him a safe place to stay. “I finally sleep without lice on my body”. Ghetto radio dj Mbussy has given him a slot on his daily show. “I have been liberated from police terror. It is so nice to go to sleep, knowing you are safe from the police”.