Matatu politics in Nairobi

A bright pink bus sits in front of a tree at sunset

Image via CNN

I just wrote a piece for African Arguments about Nairobi’s recent downtown matatu ban.  Click on over to read the whole thing!

At the start of this month, Nairobi County governor Mike Sonko banned the entry of matatus into the city centre. The more than 20,000 minibuses which used to enter each day were forced to stop outside CBD and compete for just 500 parking spots. Passengers were dropped off often several kilometres from their final destinations. From there, they had few options but to walk. Cabs are too expensive for most, while cheaper motorcycle taxis were barred from the centre several months ago.

Understandably, there was a massive public outcry, to the extent that the ban was lifted just two days later. However, it’s still important to ask what informed the short-lived policy. While other major cities like Oslo and Madrid have recently banned private cars downtown in an effort to increase the use of buses and public transport, why is Nairobi driving in the opposite direction?

Path dependency in Africa’s wealthy cities

Marcello Schermer recently shared this map of Africa’s wealthiest cities on Twitter.  There are notable clusters along the Mediterranean and west African coasts, in the Rift Valley, and in South Africa.

Map of Africa showing the continent's wealthiest cities. The leaders are Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Lagos.

Source: The Visual Capitalist

With the exception of South Africa, this looks quite similar to the extent of precolonial empires across the continent.

Map showing groupings of precolonial African empires, including a very large cluster in west Africa, a smaller cluster in Ethiopia, and some scattered states around central Africa

Map via Wikipedia.  Note that not all of these empires existed at the same time.

There are points of divergence, of course.  The South African cities and Nairobi didn’t exist before the colonial era, and it’s arguably just a coincidence that Luanda shows up on both maps, since its contemporary wealth is an accident of proximity to oil fields.  But overall it’s a neat visual summary of the literature suggesting that precolonial political centralization in Africa still matters for economic growth today.

Links I liked

Here’s the latest edition of my Africa Update newsletter.  We’ve got Mali’s 35-year old foreign minister, the dodgeball association of South Sudan, accountability for Mozambican mayors over gay rights, the future of nuclear power on the continent, and more.

View of the Nile, with green banks on both sides and a blue sky full of puffy clouds above
Here’s the view I’ve been enjoying in Jinja during Nyege Nyege Festival this weekend

West Africa: Ghana’s plan to build a new national cathedral is coming in for heavy criticism.  Also in Ghana, cocoa companies are working with local chiefs to improve property rights for cocoa farmers.  The Nigerian government is allegedly forcing internally displaced people to return to their dangerous home regions so that they can vote in upcoming primary elections.  Félicitations à Kamissa Camara, qui est devenue chef de la diplomatie malienne agée de 35 ans.  In Niger, farmers are using a nitrogen-fixing tree to improve their soil quality and fight climate change.  Here’s a good background article on current politics in Togo.  The latest edition of West Africa Insights is all about urbanization in the region.

Central Africa:  Read all about the DRC’s upcoming election, including its unusual single-round voting that can allow a president to be elected with a tiny minority of votes, and Kabila’s preferred candidate for the presidency.  Désarmement dans le Pool : le pasteur Ntumi fait « un pas dans la bonne direction », selon Brazzaville.  This article situates Uganda’s social media tax in a long history of unfair colonial taxation.  Museveni has threatened to abolish the Ugandan Parliament after protests over the beating of prominent opposition MP Bobi Wine, whose popularity clearly alarms him.  Listen to this piece about poor conditions on Uganda’s prison farms.  Tanzania is cutting off markets in refugee camps in an apparent attempt to force Burundian refugees to return home.  Rwanda is trying to boost tax revenue by simplifying its tax code at the same time it raises tax rates.

Map showing more than 4 million internally displaced people in the DRC, and flows of hundreds of thousands of refugees to neighboring nations
Map of the massive population displacement in the DRC, via Africa Visual Data

East Africa:  Tanzania wants to make it illegal to question government statistics.  If you’d like to approach the government with a non-statistical matter, definitely read these insider tips on how policymaking works in Tanzania.  South Sudan’s newest athletic league is a dodgeball association for teenage girls.  Read this insightful article about how John Garang’s death led to the fracturing of the SPLM.  Don’t miss this recent report from the Kenya Human Rights Commission about the country’s high rates of extrajudicial killings.  This article suggests that the Kenyan security forces routinely ignore tips about planned mass shootings, and that perpetrators are rarely arrested.  More than 90% of Somalia’s new cabinet ministers are said to hold MA or PhD degrees, but only 8% are women.

Southern Africa: At some South African universities, nearly 80% of black students report that they sometimes don’t have enough to eat.  A South African court has ruled that marriages between Muslim couples in the country must be legally registered and not simply recorded with religious authorities, giving women legal protection in the event of divorce.  Zimbabwe’s harsh laws criminalizing the transmission of HIV are discouraging people from coming for testing and treatment.

mozambique
A hopeful headline from Mozambique, showing a newspaper asking mayoral candidates in Nampula how they plan to combat discrimination against gay people (via Tom Bowker)

Public Health: I’m excited to hear about sensors.AFRICA, which is using low cost monitors to track air quality in several countries across the continent.  A non-profit organization is offering cash transfers to women who bring their children in for vaccinations in Nigeria.  One Nigerian woman has created a mental health hotline after struggling to access treatment for depression.

Economics: This was a really interesting thread about how legal uncertainty is increasing fuel prices in Kenya — an exemption on VAT for fuel expired on August 31 with no legal guidance on whether it was meant to be extended, leading to strikes by fuel importers.  South Sudan is beginning to bring oilfields back online after production was drastically reduced by the civil war.  An economist discusses how the cedi’s depreciation lead to the recent collapse of several banks in Ghana.  This was an interesting piece on the history of Ghana’s failed attempts to create a local rubber processing industry.  A new book argues that political conflict determines when protests take place in Africa, but economics determines who participates in them.  Is there a future for civilian nuclear energy in Africa?

Map showing what rotating savings groups are called throughout Africa
Great map of regional names for rotating savings and credit associations across the continent (via Funmi Oyatogun)

China in Africa:  This article shared some interesting reflections on the shortcomings of standard “China in Africa” narratives.  Chinese handset maker Transsion is capturing the African market with affordable phones that feature built-in radio reception and cameras calibrated for darker skin.

Arts and Literature:  Check out Robtel Neajai Pailey’s interactive website for her anti-corruption children’s books about Liberia, and Lupita Nyong’o’s upcoming children’s book as well!  Apply to work with the British Library on their collection of African-language materials.  Lots of interesting articles to be found in the Johannesburg Review of Books.   Read this dispatch from the Mogadishu Book Fair.  The Goethe Institut is calling for submissions of young adult literature by African authors in English, French and Kiswahili.  Here are all the African film festivals you can attend in 2018.

Black and yellow print showing a woman with her fist upraised, and a slogan at the bottom reading "Now you have touched the woman you have struck a rock; you have dislodged a boulder; you will be crushed.  9 August SA Women's Day"
Art for the day from Medu Art Ensemble, who created this poster for a 1956 women’s march against apartheid (via Women’s Art)

Conferences and Scholarships: Register for the Decolonial Transformationsconference at the University of Sussex — and before you do, read this great curriculum which a group of Cambridge students put together for decolonizing the Human, Social and Political Sciences degree.  Submit a paper to the Africa Social and Behavioral Change conference in English, French, Portuguese or Kiswahili.  The Working Group in African Political Economy is now accepting paper applications.  You can also send your scientific papers or science journalism to the African Science Desk to have them turned into short documentaries and explainers.  Spread the word about this multidisciplinary post-doc for African scholars at Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study.

Links I liked

Here’s the latest cross-posting from my Africa Update newsletter!  We’ve got the paradox of powdered milk in cattle-loving Somalia, the national airline of Chad, challenges of urban planning in Kenya, free African documentaries online, and more.

Tweet from Samira Sawlani: "There's really no such thing as the voiceless.  There are only the deliberately silence, or the preferably unheard" - Arundhati Roy
Thought of the day, via Samira Sawlani

West Africa: Because Dakar lacks public space, kids play on the beaches, despite a high risk of drowning in the strong Atlantic currents.  Stereotypes about single women in Nigeria make it difficult for them to rent apartments on their own.  “Many Nigerian small businesses are products of ‘necessity entrepreneurship’ and therefore would not exist if there were more large-scale employers offering better salaries.”  This was a thought-provoking article about why former combatants in Côte d’Ivoire generally refrained from going to work as mercenaries in Mali.

Central Africa: There’s a large Congolese refugee population in Kenya, but they lack access to support since they usually stay in Nairobi rather than in designated camps.  An activist group in the DRC has launched an online portal to track the quality of election implementation.  Kabila has finally named his successor in the DRC’s presidential race, but there’s little reason to expect that this will change the quality of governance.  The competitiveness of elections is limited by the fact that all Congolese presidential candidates must pay US$100,000 to get onto the ballot.  Lisez cet article : « Au Rwanda, la transformation agricole à marche forcée. »  Chad is launching a new national airline, which is clearly the most important priority for a poor, conflict-prone country.

Chart showing infrastructure funding flows from various sources to Africa
Interesting chart on fragmented flows of infrastructure funding, via Africa Visual Data

East Africa: Read about the informal courts maintaining order in IDP camps in South Sudan.  Over 40,000 Kenyans have been denied compensation for alleged torture during the colonial era after a British judge said their case exceeded the statute of limitations.  Kenyan activist groups are repurposing famous dates from the democracy struggle to call attention to extrajudicial killings.  This is a great story about the challenges of setting up Kenya’s first domestic athletic shoe brand.  Nairobi tried to get its private buses to go cashless, but they failed to get buy-in from an obvious constituency: the drivers.  Many Somalis drink powdered milk instead of fresh because a lack of regulation makes fresh milk dangerous, but one dairy is trying to change that.  Deaf footballers in Somalia have set up their own league after being blocked from joining existing leagues.  This was an interesting piece about path dependence and the end of sanctions in Sudan, where people who are accustomed to working outside the formal banking system are reluctant to re-engage with it.

Southern Africa: In Botswana, a new antiretroviral drug could save the lives of HIV patients, but there are concerns about whether it may lead to birth defects, since pregnant women are rarely included in studies of drug safety.  The Magamba Network offers regular polling data on citizen sentiment in Zimbabwe.

Two maps showing the distribution of development aid to Africa, from the World Bank and from China
Map interlude: check out Tilman Graff’s work on the locations of aid projects across Africa

Urban planning in Kenya: Residents of poor areas in Nairobi are mapping their neighborhoods to make it more difficult for the government to demolish them and then claim they don’t have records of who lived there.  Kibera residents are also speaking out against the “poverty tourism” which brings foreign visitors to their neighborhoods to gawk at them.  Kenya’s president has a plan to build social housing, but one critic points out that the mortgage rates are still out of reach for most people who really need access to better living conditions.  Buildings in Nairobi are being demolished for encroaching on rivers, but some commentators are asking how the demolitions will meet the city’s broader mission of urban regeneration.

Infrastructure week: Kenya and Ethiopia are close to completing construction for cross-border electricity transmission, in a step towards creating a regional power pool.  Foreign architects are accused of building schools for form rather than function in Nairobi.  The perils of distributive politics are clear in Uganda, where a politician destroyed boreholes he had installed in his constituency after he lost an election.  In Kampala, race-based restrictions on housing from the colonial era are still visible in the build environment today.

electricity
Great chart on electricity generation from Africa Visual Data

Arts and culture: A Beninese artist planted a copy of a 19th century royal throne at an archaeological dig to protest the fact that the original throne is held at a museum in France.  A dozen authors from the Middle East and Africa who were invited to the Edinburgh International Book Festival had their visas denied for unclear reasons.  AfriDocs has a number of African documentaries available to watch online for free.  Check out the online resources for teaching African decolonization at the National History Center.

Fellowships and workshops: The Women for Africa Foundation offers visiting positions at Spanish centers of excellence in science for female researchers from Africa.  If you’re a writer in Nairobi, don’t miss this great writing workshop being offered by Nanjala Nyabola and others on August 28.  Journalists should apply for the African Investigative Journalism Conference from October 29 – 31.

The politics of urban poverty in Mathare

A panoramic photo showing the rusted tin roofs of the single-story buildings in Mathare
The view from the MSJC building

My partner and I have recently been learning more about the excellent work done by the Mathare Centre for Social Justice.  They’re a small organization which documents human rights abuses in the neighborhood, and organizes for environmental protection and better services for people with disabilities.  They’re also part of a broader network of social justice centers in poor neighborhoods across the city, including Dandora and Kibera, which run coordinated advocacy efforts to get the city to stop extrajudicial killings.  (To learn more about MSJC’s work, check out this excellent piece by Nanjala Nyabola from earlier this year.)

A few weeks ago we stopped by the MSJC office at the invitation of Wangui Kimari, their research coordinator, to learn more about how we could get involved.  There, we met JJ Chindi, their program coordinator, who’s been doing community organizing work in Mathare for some time.  JJ highlighted the center’s documentation work, culminating in this thoroughly-researched report on extrajudicial killings.  He then gave us a quick tour of the neighborhood, including a number of sites which had been recent locations of police violence.

What stood out to me the most was the sense of intentional, politicized insecurity which underpins many of the challenges of daily life in the neighborhood.  The underlying problem seems to be that the owners of the land don’t have legal title to it, and thus the tenants who rent from the landowners also don’t have legal title to their houses.  This has all sorts of knock-on implications which result in lower quality services at higher prices, with much of the price differential representing the cost of payments to the police to look the other way.  State agents thus benefit from this insecurity and have little incentive to change it.

Take water and electricity provision.  Because of the lack of titling, the city government won’t allow any formal electrical or water connections in the area.  Most houses still have water and electricity which is tapped illegally from a nearby air force base, but this means that these services are frequently interrupted, and often dangerous.  (A young girl died recently after she touched a live wire that someone left on the ground when they were making a new connection.)  There’s a cost to set up and maintain the connections, and then an additional cost in the form of payments to the police who regularly threaten to cut the connections.

This is also visible in the built environment.  There are few permanent structures with concrete walls.  Most buildings are single-story houses with tin walls and roofs.  It speaks to the danger of investing in a permanent structure if the government might come through to demolish it at any time — as well as the added expense of building a permanent structure and then having to regularly make payoffs to the police to keep it safe.  The permanent structures that do exist are mostly apartment buildings of eight stories of more.  According to the MSJC coordinator, getting access to land in a densely populated area is a real impediment to construction.  Some of the large apartment buildings were constructed on sites where fires had mysteriously destroyed the previous occupants’ homes, leaving the land “unoccupied.”

The same pattern of what might be called licit illegality is apparent in the management of the main industry in the neighborhood: distilling chang’aa liquor from sugarcane.  It’s legal to produce chang’aa as long as it’s done in a regulated factory and sold in glass bottles with appropriate health warnings, little of which appears to be the case for the Mathare producers.  The industry is right out in the open, with men chopping sugarcane and carting firewood to the riverside distilleries just off the main road.  The police are well aware of this, and come through occasionally to collect payments for protection or destroy the equipment of those who don’t pay.  Of course, people return to distilling after each raid because they need to make a living, and because there’s significant local demand for the drink.

All of this highlights that poverty is political and not just economic.  People in Mathare often lack access to stable and well-paying jobs, but they also have to pay more for basic services since the state has chosen not to provide them, and face regular extortion from police for trying to meet their needs.  There’s no shortage of NGOs trying to make up for some of these shortfalls, but this clearly isn’t a good substitute for actual public service provision by the government.  As Nanjala writes in a recent piece about another poor neighborhood in Nairobi, “Kibera is also synonymous with well-meaning but often poorly researched interventions. The settlement has become a testing ground for everything from innovations in sanitation … to political initiatives … to yoga…  These interventions make life for locals more bearable – a worthy pursuit in itself – but do little to challenge the political interests that keep the slum going.”

Links I liked

Lately I’ve been sending out link-roundups via my monthly Africa Update newsletter.  I thought I’d have a go at cross-posting them here as well.  Here’s what I found interesting in July.

West Africa: Aliko Dangote is building an oil refinery of staggering size in southern Nigeria.  Peugot will start assembling cars in northern Nigeria in 2019.  Here are 23 things to know before you to to Freetown.  Read about the Ghanaian paradox of rapid economic growth with continuing inequality and high unemployment.

Central Africa: A new report shows that conflict minerals legislation in the US didn’t reduce conflict in the DRC, but rather increased infant mortality rates as miners were thrown out of work.  Decentralization in the DRC may be changing the way that ethnic coalitions work in politics.  This was a strong piece of analysis about why the Congolese government has incentives to sign contracts for oil but not to allow companies to actually start drilling.

East Africa:  Read all about East Africa’s heroin coast.  Eritreans has been told that there will be time limits for national service, which currently involves a forcible recruitment process of unlimited duration.  Hostages are more likely to be released from Somali pirates when negotiators pay the pirates’ expenses, but not necessarily the whole ransom.  Peace deals in South Sudan keep failing because the SPLM still thinks it might win a military victory.  The latest edition of the Otherwise podcast addresses extrajudicial killings in poor Nairobi neighborhoods.  30,000 Kenyans are now homeless after the government demolished their houses in Kibera to make room for a new road.

Tweet from Shailja Patel reading "We don't need more roads. We need safe, efficient, zero-emissions, mass transit. We need good, humane, green, high-density public housing. We need universal access to renewable power, clean water, sanitation, free healthcare, free education."
Shailja Patel on the recent forced evictions in Nairobi

Southern Africa: Zimbabwe is re-opening its Literature Bureau to promote works in indigenous languages.  Lisez la légende retrouvée de Yasuke, un originaire de Moçambique qui est devenu le premier samouraï noir du Japon.  Angola has given legal recognition to a gay rights group.

A large suspension bridge with yellow, red and green lights projected on it
Africa’s longest suspension bridge is now open in Mozambique (via James Hall)

Politics and economics: You can now read the 2018 African Economic Outlook report in Kiswahili, Hausa and Arabic.  This was a refreshing take on Chinese investment in Africa, including the observations that many Chinese firms are risk averse and demand multiple types of insurance before they’ll take on new projects.  Don’t miss these engaging summaries of African researchers’ perspectives on peacebuilding, and this alternative economics reading list featuring work by women and people of color.

A map of Africa showing various legal limits on presidents' terms in office
Infographic on term limits via Facts About Africa

Taxes: Rwanda is using satellite data to increase collection of property taxes.  Read this in-depth post about how the Lagos state government launched a “wicked, satanic” attempt to change its land valuation practices in order to increase tax revenue.  Al-Shabaab is surprisingly good at collecting taxes.  This was a gripping read about the politicized dismantling of South Africa’s tax agency.

Women’s rights:  The mother of a Kenyan teenager who died after having a backstreet abortion is suing the government for not making the procedure accessible, as the Constitution requires.  Rwandan men are offering more support and autonomy for their wives after participating in workshops led by other men about the importance of women’s rights.  In the DRC, pharmacists often deny birth control to women who aren’t married.  Nigeria has its first tech accelerator exclusively focused on women’s start-ups.

Impact evaluation:  IDS is running a workshop on engaging evidence and policy for social change in January.  Submit your studies to the new African Education Research Database.  This was a good interview with Evidence Action about the political processes of scaling up pilot projects.  JPAL has published a new set of guidelines for measuring women’s empowerment.

Tweet from Dina Pomeranz reading "Amid lots of heading debates among development economists about many methodological issues, one debate seems glaringly absent: why is our discipline still so dominated by researchers without roots in developing countries, and what are we doing to change that?"
Important questions from Dina Pomeranz

Research:  “The uncomfortable truth is that some Western scholars too readily dismiss the intellectual labor of Global South partners to research assistance and facilitation.”  If you’re an African scientist, you can submit preprints of your work in local languages to the new open-source archive AfricArXiv.  Read this passionate critique of the idea that “there is no data in Africa,” then go check out the freely available data from the Sauti za Wananchi survey in Tanzania.  If you’re looking for survey research support in Kenya, one of my partner’s colleagues just founded Kenya Research Aid Services.  I’ve donated to send Rebeccah Wambui to present her work on reducing road deaths in Kenya at the International Youth Science Fair — please consider supporting her as well!

Arts and literature: This looks like a lovely documentary about the West African poets Syl Cheney-Coker and Niyi Osundare.  Here are five Sudanese books you should read.  Stream the forgotten films of Sudan online.  This piece considers the ethics and logistics of returning stolen Ethiopian artwork to its country of origin.  Don’t miss these African Instagrammers documenting the continent’s hidden hotspots.  Congratulations to Makena Onjerika for winning the 2018 Caine Prize for her short story “Fanta Blackcurrant”!

alvin
Stunning photos from Kenyan artist Kabutha Kago, via Alvin Abdullah

Twitter: Interesting people I followed recently include Yvonne Oduor (Kenya), Caroline Njuki (Kenya), Halimatou Hima (Niger), Zaahida Nabagereka (Uganda), Namata Serumaga-Musisi (Ghana), and Akosua Adomako Ampofo(Ghana).