Kenya’s New Railway: Politics, Pollution and Pastoralists

The $4 billion railroad that the Chinese are building from Nairobi to the port city of Mombasa stirred up controversy from the start. It cuts through one of Kenya’s cherished national parks, a move opposed by most conservationists, even after the government agreed to raise the track — thus allowing animals to pass under it. The governnment of Uhuru Kenyatta is borrowing at least $3.6 billion from the Chinese saddling future generations with spectaular debt. Given the project’s cost inflation, this has presented huge opportunities for politicians to spread money around.
President Kenyatta is up for re-election and the railway is front and center of his campaign to catapult Kenya into modernization. The race in the Rift Valley, where these pictures were taken, has become especially competitive. Research by Ryan Briggs from Virginia Tech suggests that receiving foreign aid is a pretty good strategy for African leaders, since it increases incumbency advantage — even if the donor had no such partisan intentions.

Brewing Local Complaints about Chinese Construction

But in the Rift Valley, ordinary people increasingly see the government’s vision for modernization as problematic. According to local activists I visited, the project has proceeded with little consultation from impacted communities. The CCCC often hires workers for a probationary period with the promise of a permanent position that never transpires because they are fired before the period ends. Workers take the jobs at $5 a day, and have had no success seeking a modest wage increase to $7. The Chinese have resisted calls for unionization, and they manage to use Chinese workers for certain tasks despite Kenyan requirements to employ locals.
Some of the complaints seem fairly minor, such as the dust generated by truck drivers speeding through crowded markets and marijuana being grown just outside the compound walls. These problems could probably be addressed through community relations and mediation.

Environmental Impacts

Other issues, including dumping waste and chemicals pictured here, appear more serious. The community around the Ilgaroj construction site are complaining about coughing, itchy skin, sneezing, headaches, eye itches, and chest congestion. I drank water from wells just a few miles from this place, and cattle graze in these areas. The courts are considering a case filed with the help of NGOs to sue for an environmental impact assessment. If you have any details or updates on this, please post a comment.
The pastoral people who populate the area also complain about the grazing grass changing color due to quarry dust. The brewing environmental catastrophe also affects trees that wild giraffes depend on for food. This could roll back local conservationist efforts that successfully helped the giraffe population recover from a few dozen animals ten years ago to several hundred today. Even with the raised railway line, says one local activist who participated in the successful public education campaign to save the area’s wild giraffes, poaching could increase.

A wild giraffe wandering the Ngong Hills. Due to local conservation efforts by the Maasai, giraffe populations have recovered over the last decade.

Demonstrations on these various issues are common, but residents wonder about their declining media coverage. Protesters pictured below blocked roads on June 14, with the following list of demands:
  • Fair pay
  • Improved environmental safety
  • Jobs for locals first, not foreigners
  • Increased employment opportunities for women
  • Community social responsibility
  • “health and safety for all”
Residents also worry that the railroad that will pass them by entirely, including the tunnel through the Ngong Hills, since there are relatively few stops. It is not clear if such stops would bring inclusive development by benefiting small towns. For example, the number of wind turbines in the region generating electricity increased from five to about 36, and residents say most of the power is carried into the city rather than to the communities. (The idea of rural resources being diverted or redirected should sound familiar to Niger Deltans.)
In the August elections, will the electoral coalition for environmental cleanup (and redress of any health hazards) be larger than the constituency for development by debt?

Growing Opposition to US sale of Attack Aircraft to Nigeria

Should the United States sell attack aircraft to Nigeria? The following letter, signed by an unusual cross-section of advocacy organizations, was sent to the chairs and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Dear Chairman Corker, Senator Cardin, Chairman Royce and Representative Engel,

We the undersigned organizations are writing to convey our concerns regarding reports that the Trump administration is moving forward with plans to sell A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft, with mounted machine guns and related part and logistical support to the government of Nigeria. We believe that without concrete evidence that the Nigerian government is taking action to protect human rights and enforce accountability, this transfer is a mistake.

In June of 2016 we expressed concerns over the same proposed sale to President Obama, citing the lack of adequate safeguards and accountability mechanisms to ensure that the Tucano aircraft would be used consistently with international human rights and humanitarian law by the Nigerian military.  We reiterate those concerns now and ask that you take steps to limit the risks that equipment supplied by the US will be used to commit violations of human rights and humanitarian law.

Our message to the Obama administration was that the US should insist on securing robust, end use monitoring commitments, safeguards against further human rights violations, and other credible and measurable progress on accountability within the Nigerian security forces.  These recommendations were offered with the aim of ensuring that the United States did not inadvertently facilitate the commission of human rights abuses in Nigeria and to try and help turn the page on the culture impunity within the Nigerian military before making a final decision to move forward with the sale.

Super Tucano aircraft (photo: DOD)

In the letter we sent to the Obama administration on June 1, 2016 we listed several incidents of human rights violations that indicated a systemic failure to respect human rights and enforce accountability within the Nigerian security forces (see attached).  Unfortunately, to date there has been no progress towards investigating any of those past incidents or bringing persons responsible for those abuses to justice.   Indeed, in 2017 new concerns have arisen with the January 2017 bombing of a remote displaced persons camp in Rann, close to the border with Cameroon.   That action by the Nigerian Air Force killed at least 126 people (and possibly as many as 200), and it demonstrates the urgency of implementing safeguards and monitoring. Although a panel appointed by the Nigerian Air Force to investigate the tragedy presented its report to the Chief of Air Force in April, the report is yet to be made public and speculations about the bombing are rife. The Chief of Air Force has stated that the bombing was a human error. However, witnesses claim that the fighter jet circled the camp before it bombed the camp at least twice.

In view of the continuing patterns of abuse and potential for misuse of US-supplied equipment, and as a first step to accountability, the U.S. Congress should insist that the Nigerian government undertake independent investigation into all allegations of human rights violations by the military.  Any such reports on human rights violations by the military in northeast Nigeria should be released, including on the Rann bombing. Further, all victims should receive full reparation, including financial compensation.

As regards the intended transfer of the Tucano aircraft, Congress should ensure that Nigerian military personnel involved in its operation and command will be vetted carefully in full compliance with provisions of the Leahy Law, in order to screen out those responsible for past human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law.  Moreover, steps should be taken to ensure that personnel operating the equipment are adequately trained to comply with international human rights and humanitarian standards.

Furthermore, we ask you as Congressional leaders to insist on binding guarantees from the Nigerian government that the equipment will be used in conformity with US and international law.  Likewise, Congress should seek guarantees from the Trump Administration that the Department of Defense will effectively monitor the use of these aircraft for compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law.

Just a few weeks ago, Ambassador Nikki Haley made well-publicized comments drawing attention to the connection between widespread human rights violations and the breakdown of peace and security.  These comments underscore the risks attached to the intended transfer of the Tucano attack aircraft armed with its mounted machine guns, and the US must take seriously its responsibility to ensure that the transfer of this lethal equipment does not result in a further deterioration of human rights in Nigeria.  From your position of leadership in the US Congress, we urge you to convey these concerns to the Administration and seek guarantees that all precautions will be taken.


Amnesty International USA
Peace Action
Peace Direct
Friends Committee on National Legislation.
21st Century Wilberforce Initiative
Jubilee Campaign USA
Association of Concerned Africa Scholars

Twice Victimized: IDPs in Northern Nigeria

Development4Security welcomes this guest blog post by Medinat Abdulazeez
PhD candidate, International Studies, University of Zurich
Junior Researcher, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Germany

As I stepped through the gates, what struck me first was the filth. Heaps of debris overflowing huge metal containers with flies buzzing over tiny fragments. Filth was everywhere. In overfilled dormitories and almost crumbling tents made of crooked tree stumps. In choked pits used as restrooms. In algae-infested water puddles caused by clogged drainages. It seems incomprehensible that people lived in these camps. Inconceivable that people eat and drink in such environment. People sleep on tattered mattresses or simply on worn-out wrappers spread on the sandy floors of the shack-like tents. People ma

The author researching Inside Nigeria's IDP camps.

Photo by the author, Inside Nigeria’s IDP camps.

ted and got married, people bore children, people raised children in these camps! People lived in these camps – no, people did not live in these camps, they just merely existed.

Children milled around, running, smiling and shrieking. The first and only sign of innocence. Their faces smacked with dry mucus and eye specks. Hair tangled and grey with soothe. Lack of water means daily baths were unaffordable luxuries. So mothers have learnt the ‘wiping method’: using a piece of cloth to wipe essential parts of the body, and the head or hair was not considered essential to this process. International Organizations have promised to come fill the tanks they brought with water. When water comes, the hairs will get a thorough wash.


Women sat largely in groups and chatted. Laughed at each other’s jokes and bantered endlessly. But the hollowness in their voices masked horrors they have witnessed in the hands of Boko Haram. The hollowness disguise scenes of watching loved ones butchered to death, of watching daughters being dragged away to be used as sex slaves by strangers with some crazy idea about building a new and glorious society by destroying the lives of the people around them. Together, these women are bound by their grief. Yet, in their grief, they remember to be different. To steer clear of women who have returned from Boko Haram camps with pregnancies or children. Their common grief does not equate them with women who have been raped and abused by camp officials or security agencies in IDP camps. In their grief, they do not forget to claim ‘purity’. Their grief is not common with the women they refuse to sit and chat with. With the women they gossip about and make fun of. No, in their grief, they remember to uphold stigmatizing traditions that relegate abused women to pitiable positions in the society. Forlorn, the ostracized women huddle together. They laugh gingerly at my jokes. But I know not to ask how they are or how they feel. The answer is obvious in their shallow looks, their sunken gestures. Grief has paralyzed their emotions but being stigmatized by their own kin just crystallizes their anguish. Traditions that do not forgive their kind of victimization were unkind, but unfortunately, traditions are what they are, traditions.


I wonder how camp and government officials sleep at night. Diverting aids and relief materials might seem normal in a country where government salaries do not suffice to pay a family’s monthly bills, but doing this to victims of Boko Haram’s insurgent and terrorist acts surely should feel different. How do they feel when they send trucks of grains meant for IDP camps to markets in other states? Does their skin gristle when they move packs of drugs from camp clinics to their personal dispensaries for sale? Do their hearts thump as they arrange mattresses, blankets and beddings into trucks at night for onward shipment to sell at urban markets? Do their pens tremble when they inflate IDP figures to increase allocations sent to each camp? Do they feel any shame when they invite family and friends into the camps to swell the population when important dignitaries visit? Do they believe their own lies when they announce that the IDPs are well taken care of? Do their chests not feel the weights of their deception? Do their rousing libidos not lull at the sight of the cheerless IDPs they sexually blackmail with relief materials originally meant for them? Is abandoning IDPs who get pregnant from a coercing camp official a part of camp officials’ responsibility to protect?

A sign in the middle of the camp says: National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) Authorized IDP Camp. Instantly, I am jolted to realization. The federal government is responsible for the welfare and wellbeing of the displaced persons. Then I wonder, is ‘government’ deaf? Dumb? Blind? Cold-Blooded? But government is made up of the people running it. And if the deplorable situations in these camps have gone on for such a long time without change, then those people are culpable by inaction and wrongdoings. Every child that dies of malnutrition; every woman that endures rape and sexual abuse from camp officials, soldiers or vigilantes in exchange for crumbs to survive or promises of marriage; every father that averts his eyes from seeing his teenage daughter pawn her dignity in the hope of bringing home a kilo of rice for her family; every bomb that goes off in IDP camps because security officials concentrate more on sexual gratification than protecting displaced persons; every woman that loses her sanity due to lack of proper medical care for victims of trauma; every woman that has endured the scorn of bearing the consequences of sexual abuse; every displaced person that has been victimized twice, first by Boko Haram, and now by people in whose hands their well-being has been entrusted; everything that is happening in IDP camps has proven that Boko Haram is not the only evil that needs confrontation.

How would Donald Trump’s Economic Record Measure Up in Africa?

1990 was a rough year for African economies. Most countries were emerging from a decade of Structural Adjustment programs that cut public spending, and a wave of political liberalization and democratization was beginning to chip away at dictatorships across the continent. 1990 was also a rough year for Donald Trump because his financial empire was 3.4 billion dollars in debt.  To give African readers a sense of scale, there were 29 countries with less debt than Donald Trump in 1990. One could argue that Niger, Burundi, and Chad all seemed to be doing a better job managing their money, at least by this measure. The graph below gives us a compelling visual.

African country debt, expressed in 1990 US dollars

African country debt, expressed in 1990 US dollars

Trump dealt with the looming financial catastrophe the way many shrewd American business people do: by not paying taxes. When challenged on this scenario in the presidential debates, he said “That makes me smart.”  In 1995 he exploited (or possibly abused, since one of his lawyers called the trick “legally dubious”) a tax loophole to declare an astonishing $916 million loss on his taxes. One way to compare this “private” loss to a public policy failure is look at federal budget deficits as a proxy for seeing which countries were operating at a loss in 1995. A budget deficit is a ratio comparing spending to revenue. By this measure, at least 13 countries, including Zimbabwe (Zimbabwe!!) and war ravaged Algeria were doing better than Donald Trump. The graph below, using data from the World Bank and converting Local Currency Units to 1995 US dollars, illustrates this point nicely. Nine countries had less loss than Donald Trump, and another four (Botswana, Cameroon, Egypt and Lesotho – not shown) apparently ran surpluses.

This was calculated in two steps: (1) calculated the deficit in Local Currency Unit = surplus/deficit as % of GDP x GDP in LCU, then (2) calculate the deficit in USD = deficit in LCU X (LCU/USD) exchange rate.

This was calculated in two steps: (1) deficit in Local Currency Unit = surplus/deficit as % of GDP x GDP in LCU, then (2) deficit in USD = deficit in LCU X (LCU/USD) exchange rate.

Maybe this is unfair. You can’t really compare budget deficits to corporate income, deficits are usually expressed as a share of the economy’s size, and a nation’s debt is different from corporate debt. However, a cornerstone of Trump’s campaign is that his business “success” qualifies him for the presidency. In addition, a mountain of social science research is premised on the idea that democratic politics is analogous to free markets: competition of ideas is similar to competition of goods, and voters are supposedly just like consumers.

It doesn’t really matter where you fall on this analogy. But how you vote next week matters a great deal for both Africa and America. After all, we could end up with a president who is worse at economic management than the dictators who inspired millions of Africans to leave home.

Many thanks to Erin Kelly for her research assistance and to Prof. Assen Assenov for crunching the numbers.

The Political Economy of Nigeria’s Farmer-Pastoralist Tensions

Pastoralists and Global Terrorism

This summer the Global Terrorism Index announced that Nigeria’s “Fulani militants” were the fourth most deadly terrorist organization in the world. The GTI is based on data from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland. There’s indeed evidence that violence has increased. But it’s hard to pinpoint when and how much, and a goal of this post is to also explore some overlooked reasons as to why.

A shortcoming with the analysis is that according to the Consortium’s dataset, only one attack occurred in 2002 and precisely zero attacks occurred between 2003 and 2009. In 2010, only three attacks occurred and 2011 again saw precisely zero attacks. Since the database otherwise goes back to 1970 this makes it difficult to accurately establish the nature of a trend. This is most likely due to the dearth of online newspapers from Nigeria prior to the early 2000s, rather than coding bias. Another problem is that the Fulani, who are traditionally pastoralists, typically clash with those engaged in settled agriculture. Yet “farmers” never appear as perpetrators in Nigeria in the list of 290 incidents between 2002 and 2015. This made it easy for members of the U.S. Congress to seize on the GTI analysis to paint a picture of Islamic extremists senselessly attacking “predominantly” Christian farming communities.

Pastoralists and the Global Economy

My recent road trip through Plateau, Bauchi, Gombe, and Adamawa states with Matthew Page adds important layers of nuance and raises a number of questions ripe for PhD theses research that could clarify latent sources of tension — and help inform a balanced US policy.

(1) Farms regularly violate the boundaries of Federal Grazing Reserves – Cattle herders in Gombe argued that farms often encroach on federal grazing reserves. A visit into the forest about two hours outside of Yola in Adamawa State confirmed this; the grazing reserves are marked by small monuments (pictured below).  One cause of this, according to Pastoral Reserve (PARE), is that the government has not maintained the maps for the federally established cattle routes.  Moreover, federal officials have supposedly geo-tagged the boundaries but the data have not been made public. This could help defuse tensions between farmers and herders simply by formalizing where planting is permitted and where grazers have the right of way.

Crops in South Yola violating the federal grazing reserve demarcations. (Photo by Matthew Page)

Crops in South Yola violating the federal grazing reserve demarcations. (Photo by Matthew Page)

For the pastoralists, this also means that staying on route is increasingly difficult. We walked down paths so narrow that it is impossible for even small herds to pass. Some pastoralists in Adamawa allege the farmers do this is on purpose in order to precipitate the inevitable error of animals straying from a narrow path. This then entitles farmers to (modest) financial compensation for trampled crops. It also opens the door to collusion with local police who allegedly inflate the fines imposed on cattle owners in order to take a cut.

Map of Adamawa pastoral routes.

Map of Adamawa pastoral routes.

(2) Breakdown in conflict resolution-mechanisms

In 1997, during Nigeria’s military years, the Adamawa state government issued an edict establishing a conflict resolution committee that formally remains on the books. Unfortunately, the state legislature has been mired in corruption and party switching for the last several years, rendering the committee inactive. The committee could generate missing institutional trust as well as institutional memory. Several cattle herders further explained that the lag time between a provocation by farmers and a response can be a year or longer. This makes a pastoralist retaliation appear like a random attack, or perhaps motivated by other causes such as religion. Naturally, this in turn makes it easier for the Global Terrorism Index’s “Fulani militant” label to stick. Organizations such as Chatham House have appropriately called for a “balanced response” that does not “securitize” existing tensions.

Unlike other states in the northeast and the Middle Belt, in Gombe the police have convened community meetings with a broad range of stakeholders that have helped diffuse tensions. According to a pastoralist association we met with there, the government sent detailed information about the grazing boundaries to all the Local Government Areas to help prevent farms from spreading onto federally protected pastures. The government also established ranches where cattle can get water in strategic locations, so it is easier to stay on route. If federalism is an incubator for successful policy experimentation, and the accounts from Gombe are verified, then there may be an opportunity for replication.

(3) Demand for beef is rising 

Should we should think about the pastoralists as a wave of Islamic capitalists, responding to a rising demand? The price of beef has gone up (see below) while the lifestyle of those who provide the beef is proving increasingly difficult to sustain. Nigeria has one of the fastest growing populations in the world, and urbanization has been stimulating demand for meat for decades, according to the United Nations. (I also note in my 2014 essay in African Affairs that Abuja, on the edge of the north, is the fastest growing city in West Africa). Food supplies are experiencing added stress now from millions of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). This could increase the risks of food shortages, beyond the initial wave that hit the northeast when farmers abandoned their crops, sellers left Maiduguri’s market, and fishermen fled Lake Chad in Boko Haram’s violent wake (and not to mention a collapsing currency).

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the price of meat from cattle has gone up while key crop prices have remained flat. (No cattle price data available after 2008. Why?)

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the price of meat from cattle has gone up while key crop prices have remained flat. (No cattle price data available from FAO after 2008. Why?)

(4) Pastoralists are planting crops – Mixed farming, whereby herders settle and sometimes trade commodities such as manure fertilizer for harvested crops, was noted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as a phenomenon a decade ago. I met IDPs and Fulani who are now engaged in farming in South Yola. This is important because it indicates a departure from traditional economies and also suggests (based on very limited observation) peaceful co-existence between the “new” farmers and existing ones. This too may prove difficult to sustain over time, as the legal status of these farmers as “strangers” becomes salient in a competition for scarce land.


Research Agenda:

Is there an African start-up that wants to create a smart phone app with geo-tagging that helps the pastoralists avoid straying from their routes? This could help increase livehoods, match supply with demand, and defuse local conflicts. Perhaps organizations such as the Open Government Partnership and Enough is Enough Nigeria can also generate pressure for greater transparency of federal grazing boundaries as another source of data-driven peacebuilding. Publicizing the grazing boundaries would also clarify where farmers can legally plant.

In none of our interviews did pastoralists bring up religion. Even when prompted, cattle herders insisted it was irrelevant to the conflict. What is the contemporary basis for inter-ethnic harmony and intra-ethnic conflict in agrarian communities of the northeast?

What’s the price of cattle? Naturally it varies based on quality, and is influenced by supply and demand. But it also varies based on the location, and herders say close proximity is more important than migrating for a higher price. And how does demand relate to conflict triggers over time? Are the “new” farmers growing mostly for subsistence or for surplus? If you know of any subnational data on cattle prices, please post a comment. And if you know of any funders who would like to support a small collective of college students in Adamawa willing to gather data on these issues, send me an email.