Writing for the Route to Food blog on 8 January 2019, University of Nairobi don Celestine Nyamu Musembi and Patta Scott-Villiers, a research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Sussex University, said: “Though Kenya’s (im)moral economy was forged at a time of colonial rule, the pattern of the weak response to undernourishment has persisted. Kenyans on low income do not feel that they have a right to not feel hungry, despite the words of the constitution.”
And what do the words of the 2010 Constitution state? They guarantee food for all – that no Kenyan should go without food. That food is a basic need and an undeniable human right. Specifically, Article 43 (1) (c) states that, “Every person has the right to be free from hunger, and to have adequate food of acceptable quality.” This state of affairs, of poor and underprivileged Kenyans not “knowing” that they have “a right to not feel hungry”, has been particularly evident during the global coronavirus pandemic.
The onset of COVID-19 in Kenya in March 2020 exacerbated an already bad situation insofar as the food crisis was concerned. By February, the government had already been sending warning signals indicating that the maize reserve was depleting and could not last for the next six months. The pandemic is a phenomenon Kenyans of all shades have never experienced before; when it hit them, it hit them really hard, leading to many poor people losing their sources of livelihood.
It is estimated that 820 million people, 10 per cent of the world population, are suffering chronic hunger caused by the devastating COVID-19 outbreak, the deadliest pandemic since the Spanish Flu of 1918. Many of these people, in Kenya as in the rest of the world, come from the working class.
The COVID-19 containment measures imposed by the government caused a majority of Kenyans — those who live in the ghettoes and the crowded suburbs of Kenya’s towns and cities — to lose their daily (casual) jobs, their kadogo economy businesses and other self-employment hustles; they started going hungry. This was Julia Renner’s central thesis when she presented her paper Kenya’s Government Under Pressure: Lockdown increases Hunger and Unrest at the Alumni Network Sub-Saharan Africa ANSA Conference 2020 in Passau, Germany.
We want food
Sections of Nairobi’s underclass and those living in low-income areas attempted to organise food protests in the hope of prompting the government to help them with food rations. On 11 May 2020, Eastleigh residents woke up to demonstrations, with people waving placards reading “We want Food”. The demonstrators were peaceful, and their message was targeted at the national government which has the capacity to provide relief food. The government’s usual response towards any demonstration is to come down hard on the protesters; the demonstration was scattered by armed police within hours.
In their blog Musembi and Scott-Villiers further stated that “Moral economies emerge and are renewed each time there is a subsistence crisis when state responsibilities and the rights of citizens are made clear in formal responses. These episodes leave an imprint in people’s hopes and expectations that can last for decades. Kenya’s contemporary moral economy was forged during the colonial famines of the early 20th century. One of the most severe was between 1943-45 [in the thick of World War II], when the rains failed in successive seasons . . . .”
But have Kenyans always been docile when it comes to agitating for food rights? Not always. The 2011 food protests dubbed the Unga Revolution proved that when pushed to the limit, poor and low-income Kenyans can mobilise and organise themselves to fight for their right to affordable food
Unga is the Kiswahili word for the white maize flour which is used to make ugali – a thick gruel that is the staple food in many homes in Kenya. Up until President Mwai Kibaki’s reign, this was the most affordable staple for low-income households. When he came to power in 2003, a two-kilogram packet of unga cost KSh30. By 2011, during Kibaki’s second term —which was a coalition government between him and Prime Minister Raila Odinga — the price of unga had shot up to KSh120.
Granted, the country was going through a devastating draught and there was a global rise in food and oil prices, which led to Kenya experiencing a 14.5 per cent inflation that obviously hit the Kenyans hard, especially the urban poor. Yet, it is in times of such crises that the government should act to cushion the poor and underprivileged by providing them with the necessary basic foodstuffs.
But truth be told, the Unga Revolution was not a spontaneous reaction to soaring food prices, or to Kibaki’s insensitive government policies and attitude towards the poor. It was the expression of the accumulated anger and frustration of a people talking to a “deaf” government over a period of time. By the end of Kibaki’s first term the price of unga had nearly tripled; a two-kilogram packet of maize flour was now costing KSh80. The plaints were audible, and the people hoped the government would hearken to their cries.
The bangled 2007 presidential election led to internecine warfare in Kenya’s breadbasket, mainly in the central and north rift regions where most of the country’s maize is grown. The post-election violence (PEV) displaced about 600,000 people, most of them farmers, and many lost their lives. Predictably, the country experienced a severe maize shortage in the aftermath of PEV; 35 million bags of maize had been destroyed in the violence. Hunger loomed.
It is in times of crises that the government should act to cushion the poor and underprivileged by providing them with the necessary basic foodstuffs.
Because of the looming hunger, there were “maize” protests in 2008 that pressurised the government to re-evaluate its “maize policies” by, among other measures, asking the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) to import three million bags of maize to plug the gap.
The high maize prices in 2008, the shortages and the hoarding, were threatening to get out of hand. A woman alighting from a matatu at the infamous Kibera slum was spotted carrying supermarket shopping that included packets of unga. Rowdy youths accosted her and relieved her of the packets of maize meal. In Mathare and Mlango Kubwa slums, the ghetto dwellers would not wait to die of hunger; they invaded homesteads that reared pigs, grabbed the animals and slaughtered them.
So, by 2011, there was already a groundswell of angry and hungry citizens because prices of foodstuffs had not stabilised or come down as they had hoped, in particular the price of maize meal. The coalition government did not seem to have any strategic plan to ensure that poor Kenyans did not go hungry because of unaffordable maize meal prices. Cobbled together as a result a peace accord supervised by Kofi Annan, the Kibaki/Raila government seemed unable to tame the ever-soaring prices.
The Unga Revolution started as a movement among the urban poor in the slums of Nairobi. By sheer coincidence, the build-up of the protests began against the backdrop of the Arab Spring that was taking place in the North African countries of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Locally, the protests reached a crescendo on 7 July 2011, Saba Saba Day, a date associated with the pro-democracy second liberation movement of the 1990s.
Today, Saba Saba Day is commemorated by Kenyans to remember the day President Moi cracked down on opposition figures and on Kenyans in general, and by brute force stopped them from congregating at the hallowed Kamukunji grounds to agitate for plural politics.
Spearheaded by Bunge la Mwananchi (the people’s parliament), the Unga Revolution gained momentum as a grassroots movement. It organised the people from the slums of Huruma, Kariobangi, Kibera, Mathare and Mlango Kubwa among others, to come together and press for fairer maize meal prices. Gacheke Gachihi who was actively involved in the protest remembers how the organising and even the framing of the term revolution came about.
“The first meeting of the Unga Revolution took place in Kwa Negro in Mathare. We’d sourced some funds and printed 1000 leaflets written ‘Unga KSh30’ and distributed them in Mathare, Huruma and Kibera slums. At the Kwa Negro meeting, we demanded from the government that the price of unga drops back to what the people were used to: KSh30. We also used the meeting to signal to the government that we were serious on confronting the state on the matter of affordable foodstuff prices for the underclass.”
Following that meeting, Bunge la Mwananchi plotted how they would organise a protest march into Nairobi’s central business district. They also agreed that they needed to properly frame their message for it to have greater visibility and impact.
“That’s how we came up with the term Unga Revolution. I think I coined the term,” recalls Gacheke. “So, from the Unga KSh30 leaflets to Unga Revolution, we radicalised our message and hoped that the people, our people, would join us in demanding from the government, an overhaul of the maize meal prices.”
But even though on 7 July 2011 the Bunge la Mwananchi-driven Unga Revolution was prevented by a combined force of the police and the paramilitary from accessing downtown Nairobi and proceeding to Harambee Avenue where both the Office of the President and that of the Prime Minister were situated, it captured the national imagination and helped to spur a modern food rights movement in Nairobi and throughout Kenya. “The unga campaign was a major force. It led the government into asking the maize millers to start packing the five-kilogram unga bags for the rank and file,” said Gacheke.
A year after the Jubilee team of President Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto took power, in March 2013, food activists were back in town. This time they were demanding that the government reject a bill proposing 16 per cent value added tax (VAT) on essential food commodities. Their campaign was dubbed No Unga Tax. The activists printed 100,000 posters and plastered them across downtown Nairobi.
In May 2018, food activists took to the streets once again: “The government must subsidise the cost of food. It is not fair for the poor to be suffering with high food prices, yet the government has not increased salaries,” said an angry Tom Aosa, one of the protest organisers. “On Monday [June 1, Madaraka Day, a public holiday] your families will eat chicken, meat and chapatis. What do you expect us to eat if we cannot afford to make ugali?” shouted a protester.
Food protests have throughout history been instrumental in shaping government policy regarding access to adequate food for all. And while unga has been used effectively as a symbol to rally Kenyans into agitating for food rights, Kenyans are yet to fully realise that it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that its citizens are fed, and that access to food is a fundamental right which they must aggressively fight for, just as they have in the past fought against the curtailment of their right to freedom of association and freedom of speech. Will the coronavirus pandemic reignite in Kenyans the spirit of the Unga Revolution?