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.
He accuses the company of occupying too much land and failing to pay both county and national taxes.
But the governor has been lambasted by the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (Kepsa), which describes the exploitation of the soda ash as the “centrepiece of Magadi’s economic development and prosperity”.
“These grievances may very well be legitimate. But the same Constitution that gave birth to counties and devolved powers to them also contains grievance resolution mechanisms.
"Hooliganism of the kind demonstrated by the County Governor is not one of those mechanisms. Instead, such actions will only serve to drive legitimate business away from counties such as Kajiado,” said Kepsa.
Magadi is actually on borrowed time and its first 99-year lease, which was given in September 1, 1923, was to expire in 2023.
However, this was arbitrarily extended for 50 years from April 1, 2004 by Mwai Kibaki’s government to the chagrin of Maasai leaders who wanted to be consulted on the matter.
The reasoning then was that the company wanted to take a loan to help turn it around.
But over the years the various companies have had a notorious history of dishonesty in the region — ever since two Rhodesian (now Zimbabwean) investors, Thomas Deacon and John Walsh, noted the industrial potential of the soda ash popping out of the lake and staked a claim on the trona.
When the project was first mooted in 1904, with the issuance of a mining licence by Sir Donald Stewart - the then British East African commissioner - it later turned out that the agents of the East African Syndicate, which had been granted a “research” licence, had fraudulently turned the research to a mining licence and staked claim to thousands of acres of Maasai grazing lands.
The East African syndicate had taken advantage of the controversial August 8, 1904 Maasai Agreement that dispossessed the community about 4.6 million acres of land, thus relegating them to only one-third of their land.
Part of this 1904 agreement purported to give the settlers “consent” to mine in Lake Magadi under a 20-year-lease that was extended in 1924 for 99-years after expiry.
There is controversy on whether the Maasai Laibons understood the 1904 agreement that read: “We, the Undersigned, being the Laibons and Chiefs (representatives) of the Maasai in East Africa Protectorate, have, of our own free will, decided that it is for our best interests to remove our people, flocks, and herds into definite reservations away from the railway line, and away from any land that may be thrown open to European settlementt."
We also know that there was a lease signed on April 12, 1911 and which gave “full and uninterrupted right … to dig, get win and carry away all soda and other deposits minerals or precious stones there found”.
Scholars such as Dr Lotte Hughes of Open University argues that the British company which purported to sign this clause on exploitation of Magadi’s soda “had no legal right to do so”.
And this was not the only mischief employed during those days but, so far, it is the longest running.
In one of its brochures, the East Africa Syndicate said there was a fresh water lake nearby, and that the land was habitable.
But this was quickly dismissed by a Sunday Sentinel journalist who wrote: “The soda ash is there right enough … in absolutely inexhaustible quantities. But the country is awful, no African, let alone Whiteman, can possibly live there..!”
The takeover of more than 224,000 acres of Maasai land by the soda ash conglomerate has been one of the most controversial colonial undertakings and that the current Governor has decided to take up the matter is an indicator that it has not rested.
One of the leases in question covers the lake, while another portion covers the Kenyan side of Lake Natron.
When Magadi company started proper mining in 1923, mining towns were becoming the centre of industrialisation, and that this town hardly emerged as a major administrative centre is an indicator of the failure of the colonial and successive governments to add value to the soda ash.
It is an insult that although soda ash is used as an ingredient in the manufacture of dyes and colouring agents, synthetic detergents, making glass and fertiliser, we do not have any such industry there.
Reason? The British only extracted the trona and shipped it to Europe and today, with the support of the national government, the trend continues.
How Tata Chemicals resolves the current war of words with Governor Lenku will be the story of the decade.
That the company is caught in a historical web and a political quagmire is now in the open. As they say, historical sins never fade.
[email protected] @johnkamau1