Confronting Climate Leviathan


Confronting Climate Leviathan

Tobias Müller on Extinction Rebellion in Kenya.

Nkamunu Patita, a Maasai community leader, at the border of Nairobi National Park

We are not rebelling against the government, we are rebelling against the bad actions of the government.

Our fellow Tobias Müller is in Kenya to meet grassroot activists working on the frontline of climate change. This time he talked with climate activists about their strategies and the challenges of being an activist in a less than liberal state. He also accompanied members of the Maasai community on a mission to count wildlife around the Nairobi National Park – a protected area under threat from industrial encroachments, water pollution, human settlement and corrupt government officials selling off land. This is his second dispatch.

“Staging a protest? Here in Kenya? Are you joking?” The four young climate activists sitting around the table burst into laughter. “When you go out and protest, you are asking for trouble.” Says Wanjira, an actress in a colourful patterned dress. “Even if it’s only a few people with branches and posters, people will look for trouble and then the police – you are asking to be teargassed!”

Over ginger tea and mango smoothies, I am joining a meeting of a local Extinction Rebellion Group in Nairobi. At the downtown branch of omnipresent café chain Java House there is still some hesitation tangible in the group. For some, this is the first in-person meeting after joining WhatsApp chats and Zoom meetings where they made first contact with the movement. Discussing what the next actions should look like is a very sensitive topic that seems to cause some discomfort. Laughing together helps bonding, and establishing some common ground on what people are willing to risk.

“I started out as a business journalist” explains Caroline Wambui, the organizer of today’s meeting. For the longest time, she didn’t really care about environmental issues much. “I always thought it was a good thing when companies built factories because that creates jobs”. But one story changed everything for Wambui.

A colleague was ill, so she took over the task of covering a drought in northern Turkana province. When she arrived, she was shocked by how dire the situation was on the ground. “We couldn’t interview people without bringing them food. They were only able to speak to us after eating.” She was devastated by the cries of a mother who had lost a child to starvation. The whole community was on the brink of collapse.

After this, Caroline Wambui decided to focus on environmental journalism and launched an organization that combines youth empowerment with ecological education. When she read about Extinction Rebellion on social media, she was excited by the possibility of just doing actions, without having to ask for permission from the organization.

Extinction Rebellion claims to be “in rebellion against the government”, because of its failure to protect citizens from the calamitous effects of climate change. For young environmentalists in Kenya, however, it’s more complicated than that. Caroline Wambui argues: “We are not rebelling against the government, we are rebelling against the bad actions of the government”.

Cyprian, an environmental journalist and documentary film maker, explains that the Kenyan government has taken some remarkable measures. In 2017, the Kenyan government issued the strictest ban on single-use plastic bags - worldwide. “When you look at its IDCs [individually determined contributions], you just think, wow!”, Caroline Wambui adds. “The policies are really good, but there is a huge implementation gap”.

In Kenya, it is impossible to ignore how the destruction of natural habitats and the changing climate have been devastating the lives of people for decades.

Listening to their discussion, I realised that compared to Europe there is a key difference in their perspective on the state. XR’s initial success in Western Europe was fuelled to a large extent by the realization that our comfortable way of life is in acute danger. States are complicit in an unprecedented destruction of the possibility of human life, and with it the lives of our children and grandchildren. The outrage about this complicity, which take the form of fossil fuel subsidies, licenses for new pipelines and a continuous global rise in greenhouse gas emissions, turned many ordinary people into activists.

In the UK, farmers from Cornwall, grandmothers from Bristol, and students from London, and others joined together in the largest mass civil disobedience action in post-war history, which saw almost 2000 people arrested in October 2019.

In Kenya, it is impossible to ignore how the destruction of natural habitats and the changing climate have been devastating the lives of people for decades. Almost every taxi driver in Nairobi can explain to you how changing rain patterns are disastrous for subsistence farmers and destroy the life-sustaining cattle herds of pastoralist communities.

Tobias Müller in the Maasai Mara, part of the expansive Kenyan ecosystem that is connected with the Serengeti in Tanzania

The legitimacy of the state, in other words, has not only been challenged or lost since the climate crisis. Many people are angry at how the post-independence elite took over the colonial power apparatus and turned it into a money-making machine. Instead of redistributing land to landless squatters who worked on the white-owned farms during the colonial period, many Kikuyu and other groups in the fertile high lands in central Kenya are still without land. For them, the independent Kenyan state has not fulfilled its promise.

The freedom fighters of the Mau Mau uprising such as field-marshal Muthoni wa Kirima were fighting for land. Land is still distributed extremely unevenly. Housing developments in protected forests or national parks abound; the landlords are often corrupt politicians, or live in vast villas on what was formerly publicly owned land.

This has caused intense dissatisfaction which people tell me was one of the reasons for the rise of Mungiki. Originally a religious-political group, they have been calling for a second independence fight, since key demands of independence, such as land for the people, have still not been met. The violence exerted by the group and the government’s shoot to kill order led to a bloodbath. The victims were mainly to be found among Nairobi’s marginalized communities such as Kibera, known by the sensationalist tagline“Africa’s largest slum”.

“We need the state to fight the climate crisis”, Cyprian explains to me. Instead of gluing oneself onto a road, a common tactic among XR activists in Europe, this group seems to agree that climate activism in Kenya needs to be different. Ecological education, social media campaigns and convincing MPs to join XR are among the proposals discussed in the meeting.

It seems clear that the tactics of the climate movement must emerge from these tensions if they are to find resonance in local communities.

One could argue that the outrage at the danger posed by the climate crisis that has galvanized millions in Europe only makes sense in light of the relative security enjoyed by Europe’s white middle classes. In a society like Kenya’s that is marked by the violence of colonialism, exacerbating inequality, rampant poverty and hyper-developmentalism, a very different relation to the state has developed.

People have been dying because of state neglect and state violence. In a country where you cross the street when you see the police in order not to be accused of a manufactured charge, you don’t necessarily look to the state to save you from impending doom. Trust rests in the people, their enormous capacity for survival and thriving against all odds. The state seems to be only one factor in a complex ensemble of political and ecological tensions.

It seems clear that the tactics of the climate movement must emerge from these tensions if they are to find resonance in local communities. Otherwise, groups like XR are just another NGO from which rents can be extracted, without being rooted in what really matters in the historical context of Kenya today. While the spread of XR in East Africa is a novel phenomenon, resistance to ecological destruction sanctioned by the state is not. Whether the two approaches will eventually converge, and thereby pose a real challenge to the post-colonial state, remains to be seen.

Tobias Müller is an affiliated lecturer at the University of Cambridge. At THE NEW INSTITUTE, he is part of the program "The Foundations of Value and Values".

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