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Monday, April 22, 2019

Magadi saga exposes the ugly side of capitalism

Daily Nation

Lake Magadi
Tata Chemicals Limited mines soda ash in Lake Magadi. The company is engaged in a dispute with Kajiado County Government over rent arrears. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP
In Summary
  • The takeover of more than 224,000 acres of Maasai land by the East Africa Syndicate has been one of the most controversial colonial undertakings.
  • This month, Governor Joseph ole Lenku led residents in storming Tata Chemicals Limited, as the company is known today, demanding rent arrears of Sh17 billion according to him.

The first time I drove to Magadi, some years back, what struck me was the manned drop-arm barrier. I recall telling a colleague, “Here is the only town with a gate.”
Magadi was hot, too hot — and it reminded me of the words of Blaney Percival, the big game hunter, who in 1900 dismissed the place as unsuitable for human occupation.
“If I owned an estate in hell and an estate in Magadi, I would prefer hell,” he wrote in his diary.
For starters, Blaney Percival is the man credited with bringing former US statesman Theodore Roosevelt to East Africa for a hunting safari in Juja plains before he went to vie for the presidency.
President Roosevelt, in his book, African Game Trails: An Account of the African Wanderings of an American Hunter-Naturalist, actually talks glowingly of Percival as “a tall, sinewy man, (and) a fine rider”.
Magadi, when I went there, was both a town and a company, and there was a thin line between the lichen-like relationships between officials of both the company, the Ol Kejuado County Council and the locals.
It was the only company in Kenya that I know of today that employed a mortuary attendant and had a cemetery.
Besides the army of nurses, it also employed a few well-paid doctors who worked at the 55-bed Magadi hospital. Medical service at the hospital was then free — even during the days of cost-sharing.
The company had also built dormitories which housed outpatients willing to stay in Magadi town until they got better to trek back home.
In these dormitories, food was free and all locals had access to free water and cooking gas since the company did not want locals to cut trees.
Along the railway line from Magadi to Konza, the company had built many water tanks which were regularly filled with clean water for livestock and human consumption.
We saw a wide range of water bowsers which ferried water to the villages not covered with piped water from Nguruman escarpment.
Officials of the company told me that this was part of the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) — but on the face of it, it masked the exploitation of the Maasai land resources by a global giant.
If you have read Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and the recently published The Looting Machine: Warlords, Tycoons, Smugglers and the Systematic Theft of Africa’s Wealth by Tom Burgis, the story of Magadi will resonate for it is a story of massive exploitation of African resources.
Magadi played the local activists, elites and politicians like pawns in a chessboard.
In my tour around the country, I have never seen any other private or publicly listed company, either at the mercy of these elites and politicos and willing to do anything to do business — so philanthropic and overly generous to an extent that it exposed the ugly face of capitalism.
By then, I was told that they were using Sh140 million for the 4,000 residents of the town. The company held enormous economic and political power in Ol Kejuado.
But looking at the poverty and lack of investments in Magadi after 100 years of exploitation of trona worth trillions of shillings, one question that lingered in my mind, is a question often asked throughout the continent: Lake Magadi has the world’s largest deposit of soda ash but all around there is nothing to show, why?
The answer lies in the lack of transparency in the governance of natural resources, corruption, and illegal outflows.
When I visited Magadi, the company was still under the British conglomerate, Magadi Soda Company, before the 2005 purchase of controlling shares of Brunner Mond — the world’s leading manufacturers and suppliers of soda ash — by India’s Tata Chemical.
That Magadi was the cash-cow of local activists and elites was known then.
And today, the County Government of Kajiado believes that this soda ash investment would help it balance its books — only if the company paid the land lease arrears and is transparent in its dealings.
This month, Kajiado Governor Joseph ole Lenku led residents in storming Tata Chemicals Limited, as the company is known today, demanding rent arrears of Sh17 billion according to him.
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