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Existential Threat? Why Prevailing Notions of Security are Illusory

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Meru, Kenya – TERRORISM JOINS THE TRADITIONAL QUARTET OF WAR, FAMINE, PESTILENCE, AND DEATH

Developments of the past two decades have elevated security concerns within every domain. Issues ranging from data to employment to identity now invoke the need for protection in some manner or form. Hot viruses and Biblical climatic events lie in wait. It is as if the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have dismounted, mutated, and insinuated themselves into everyday life. Our collective sense of angst has spiked since terrorism joined the traditional quartet of war, famine, pestilence, and death.

The demand for protection has never been so high. The rapid pace of global change in general feeds the post-truth perception that we inhabit a planet of unprecedented threat. In a world where we are constantly under attack from something real, imagined, or invisible, sowing terror has become the underdog’s weapon of choice. Safety has become a commodity and the bazaar has responded with gadgets and elixirs to keep uncertainty at bay. And for decades, Western governments and their military technologies have dominated the marketplace.

In a world where we are constantly under attack from something real, imagined, or invisible, sowing terror has become the underdog’s weapon of choice. Safety has become a commodity

There are compelling reasons — like the combination of capacity, donor funds, and diplomatic capital — that explain why the United States in particular has dominated responses across security-related fields. We can add science, and a dose of Christian morality and secular ethics into the mix. All of these factors have made ‘security’ a ubiquitous but tricky word. This is why some governments are still trying to figure out the practical impact of the Donald Trump government for their nations and regions.

East African policy makers do not have that problem. Kenya is a case in point. Because it is a primary theatre in the Long War Against Terrorism, the national government’s many shortcomings are routinely overlooked. The new administration in Washington is likely to reinforce the prevailing status quo even if it negates the substantial investment in promoting democratic governance that preceded it.

The buzz in Washington indicates that Peter Pham of the well-respected Atlantic Council will be appointed Undersecretary of State for Africa. Although progressive by the standard of Trump appointees, he is hawkish on security issues, and in sync with currently influential proponents of the boots-on-the ground school.

But there are voices challenging the sustainability of this relationship. For years, conservative and military critics abroad have been questioning the foundations of the LWOT, asking why those in charge of its unsuccessful execution on the ground are not held to account. Their liberal counterparts have interrogated the waste of trillions of dollars and the political capital squandered along the way.

Yet the architects of LWOT policies continue to enjoy immunity. We can therefor expect support for the military sector to continue for now, albeit with some major strategic modifications. One forward thinking military analyst, John Robb, recently tweeted that ‘US counter-terrorism policy has been on autopilot for over a decade.’ Donald Trump’s policies, including investing in obsolete conventional and nuclear weapon systems, is actually a step backward.

Unfortunately, Trump’s budget for militarisation comes with a corresponding reduction in American funding for developmental and humanitarian assistance.

In a letter sent to Congress, a group of 121 three-star and four-star generals wrote to Congress that, ‘Many of the crises our nation faces do not have military solutions alone,’ adding that ‘the military needs strong civilian partners in the battle against the drivers of extremism.’ When questioned on the cuts, Trump security spokesman Sebastian Gorka replied, ‘If poverty was the problem, half of India would be terrorists.’

MILITARY FUNDING GREASES THE WHEELS OF THE MULTINATIONAL CONVOY

The extended drought ravaging the East African region provides the backdrop for the new American president’s promise to eradicate Islamist extremism. Double the numbers affected by the 2011 famine are at risk. The US provides one-third of the emergency assistance demanded by such natural disasters across the world.

Documenting problems of waste, top-down approaches, counter-productive projects, and dependency has catalysed improvements in the design and delivery of external assistance. The same cannot be said for the counterterrorism industry: The US State Department counted 348 terrorist attacks worldwide in 2001, compared with 11,774 attacks in 2015.

For years, African governments have bought into the political narrative supporting the retaliatory responses adopted by the likes of Bush and Blair. Military funding used to grease the wheels of the multinational convoy is usually diverted from other developmental initiatives. Choices, as a former American undersecretary of state declared, have consequences.

For example: USAid’s Secure Project in Lamu was assisting some of the area’s most marginalised inhabitants to understand and utilise Kenya’s new land laws to protect their communal lands. The project was abruptly suspended and Lamu found itself instead hosting a contingent of marines and drone operators at Camp Simba. The presence of the best army in the world, however, did not deter subsequent actions such as the series of bloody raids across the Lamu mainland in 2014.

The attacks were used to promote Al Shabaab videos and messages about the Christian usurpation of local lands. The high quality production and on-target messages about land and social justice generated by the jihadi propaganda machine should not be underestimated. Even if Shabaab is eradicated, the influence of their social message will endure, and can seed new episodes of violent resistance long after the current generation of combatants is gone.

Kenya is already paying a high price in the form of terrorist taxes like the shift of the Uganda oil pipeline to the Central Corridor route, several years of dead tourism on the Coast, and the ineffective if not misconceived military misadventure in Somali.

When questioned on the cuts in humanitarian funding, Trump security spokesman Sebastian Gorka replied, ‘If poverty was the problem, half of India would be terrorists’

A decade of COIN has seen Al Shabaab, like the mythical Anteus, remain firmly rooted in the ground while becoming more elusive as the demoralising attacks on the Kenya Defence Forces in the Baure, El Adde, and Kulbiyow bases demonstrate. The KDF suffered significant casualties in all these raids while the vigour of Al Shabaab to carry out missions is undiminished.

Such LWOT-related costs should serve as a recurring reminder that currently prevailing notions of security, however strongly imprinted on our psyches and burnt into our brains through years of mainstream media and government-sourced reports, are illusory.

The now common use of the term, existential threat, is a rather ironic example of the conundrum. I personally do not know who introduced ‘existential’ to the lexicon of security; in most of the contexts in which it is used the meme appears to connote a zero-sum threat to material existence. For Trump advisor Steve Bannon, it fits his polarising vision of the world of Judaeo-Christian capitalism at war articulated at a Vatican conference in 2014.

Citing existential threats as the reason for combating Islamic terrorism makes it necessary that we clarify the current use or misuse of the term.

The original concept dates back to the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who said that individuals must take responsible for imparting meaning to their existence. The search for existential authenticity allows us to live with sincerity and a passion for life. Kierkegaard saw modernity as a threat to these qualities. After two world wars, a new generation of European intellectuals adopted his concern over the increasingly mechanical quality of material existence.

Writers like Camus and Sartre identified the term existentialism with an enduring quest for meaning. This requires that the individual define one’s being in terms of their essential humanistic values, and not submit to the labels and definitions imposed by society. Finding one’s inner identity was an antidote to the sense of dread that comes with living in a confused, disoriented, and apparently meaningless and absurd world.

Much existential thought focused on being entrapped by the absurdity of the contemporary world. The resulting angst is born out of the perpetual danger of having everything meaningful break down. The philosophers proposed an escape: We are defined by our actions. The praxis associated with this existentialism was one of the behind-the-scenes drivers of the anti-war movement and environmental activism that gathered speed during the 1960s.

The validity of an idea is confirmed when it comes back in different forms. The practice of Islam now helps fill the gap for Muslim and converts who feel trapped by monolithic economic and political forces. This is why variations on the secular existentialism of the mid-20th century are discernible in the accounts of self-confessed jihadis who survived to write about their conversion to Islamist extremism.

THE ONLY PHILOSOPHIC PROBLEM IS SUICIDE

This line of thinking influenced the essay by Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, where the author observed that in the absurd world we now inhabit, ‘There is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.’ The angst and existential dread permeating the post-Christian capitalism Islamic world made it easier for the theologians of jihad to weaponise suicide bombing as a way out, with the added incentive of martyrdom.

Nuclear warfare, climate change, the very real possibility of a global pandemic are existential threats. Poverty in the form of 17 million people facing starvation is an existential threat. Religious violence with its long historical pedigree is not.

CAN IGAD AND KENYA SUCCEED WHERE GOLIATH HAS FAILED?

The writing on the wall is now in boldface. The fiscal impact and human suffering incurred by the region’s real crises now demand that influential actors and thinkers across the greater Horn region look within for solutions.

Writing in the Sunday Nation of March 12, Peter Kagwanja notes that world powers have always cultivated and utilised soft power to justify their foreign interventions; colonialism and its aftermath are proof of how Africa has fared poorly in the battle of ideas. These observations reinforce his call for a new breed of policy think tanks mandated with the ‘extraordinary task of decolonising the policy space where decisions affecting Africa are negotiated and made.’

The revisionary political trends disrupting business as usual in Western democracies indicate the time is ripe to act on Kagwanja’s challenge. The failure of hard power to counter violent extremism points to redefining what security means in the regional context as a good place to start. The process is actually underway on the regional level.

In another Sunday Nation article, Kagwanja describes the formulation by Igad of a regional initiative to counter violent extremism (CVE) in its different forms. The Igad project is reviewing conventional securitisation policies with a view to formulating long-term strategies specific to the security needs of this region. Actions already underway include the development of CEWARN, the regional conflict early warning system that serves the same objective through its activities on the ground.

The angst and existential dread permeating the post-Christian capitalism Islamic world made it easier for the theologians of jihad to weaponise suicide bombing as a way out, with the added incentive of martyrdom

CEWARN is a practical tool for conflict prevention based on local information networks that collect and document relevant information and data on cross-border and related pastoral conflicts. It combines the accumulation of big data with a unique combination of national, regional, civil society, and grassroots relationships. Operationalisation over the past decade focused on testing its methods in three cross-border clusters across the region. The success of the predictive algorithm developed over this period sets the stage for its rollout on a larger scale, and for its application to other problems such as the spread of Ebola, circulation of small arms, and counterterrorism.

Although still a work in progress, adoption of the CEWARN model by other regional organizations like Ecowas attests to the efficacy of CEWARN’s methodology. A book documenting the vision, methods, and evolution of the CEWARN system since its inception in 2002 will provide a robust picture of the progress achieved so far. In the meantime, this writer can affirm that CEWARN is a positive presence in the areas where it works, and that the replication of the early warning model across the continent will enhance the scope of African Union operations.

Administratively, the AU has a long way to go. This does not contradict the value of its human resources and knowledge of the region’s problems. Subsequent developments in Libya showed the arguments made by Secretary General Jean Ping to involve the African Union as a mediator to be correct. More recently, the AU’s negotiation of the succession impasse in the Gambia contrasts favourably with the messy outcome resulting from the UK’s quasi-diplomatic intervention in Sierra Leone a decade earlier.

The directionality of developments in this domain reinforces Kagwanja’s thesis across a number of important policy domains. It is now reasonable to expect that a combination of regional co-operation, economic integration, and the bottom-up dynamics now gathering momentum will over the long run counteract the sources of the region’s endemic insecurity. Resilience conditioned by years of low-intensity conflict and uncertainty is indicative of local communities’ ability to stay the course.

By the same measure, we can anticipate that national governments will continue to be the weak link as the continent’s age of capital gathers momentum.

In his 1981 book on The Emergence of African Capitalism, John Illife posited that the solution for most the continent’s problems lies in the rise of a truly indigenous and creative capitalist class. Although we can see signs of this emergence in the private sector in the likes of Alex Dangote and Mohammed Ibrahim, the influence of rent-based accumulation will dominate for the time being. The region’s unexploited oil reserves, strategic minerals, and the large tracts of land coveted by foreign agribusiness investors will continue to encourage elites to place their interests above the public good while they and their clients on the ground compete to claim their share of the spoils.

Kenya is a significant test case of this emergence due to its status as the region’s most advanced exemplar of indigenous capitalism. It is also a crucible of internal and external conflicts. The violent forces incubating in post-state Somalia also gave rise to Africa’s most dynamic example of trans-border economic synergy. Kenya straddles both.

THE REAL POLITICS OF THE HORN OF AFRICA

The operations of the new regional political marketplace paralleling the state-brokered capitalism of the Kenya model is the subject of Alex De Waal’s 2016 book, The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa. De Waal’s regional case studies illuminate how political entrepreneurs operating in the new transactional space sustain many of the violent struggles for socioeconomic resources complicating conventional securitisation policies.

In an earlier discussion paper, De Waal addresses the ‘notoriously difficult’ task of assessing class forces in Somalia’s predominantly pastoralist economy. He analyses how what appear to be clan and factional driven struggles to control resources camouflage the class-based factors operating underneath. Siad Barre’s government elites could not penetrate the livestock export economy that was generating 80% of the country’s revenue. Instead, they usurped control of the agrarian economy of southern Somalia.

The commercial class dominated by livestock traders managed to reassert control of the livestock trade networks extending deep into the hinterland. Their co-operation with the weak new state institutions in Somaliland and Puntland accounts for the relative stability of the northern region.

De Waal observed that the failure to consolidate similar control in southern Somalia and the exports passing through Kismayu’s port would result in the region’s livestock exports passing through Kenya. This assessment, made in 1996, came to pass.

The disenfranchisement of agro-pastoralists, herders, and peasant farmers in Juba and Shebelle river regions was exacerbated by the competing warlords’ efforts to take over where Barre left off. Sorting out the economic disruptions and land ownership in the country’s most productive region, according to De Waal, is a basic prerequisite for establishing any effective national government. This prediction also proved true.

The region’s unexploited oil reserves, strategic minerals, and the large tracts of land coveted by foreign agribusiness investors will continue to encourage elites to place their interests above the public good while they and their clients on the ground compete to claim their share of the spoils

The AK-47 was invented as an anti-capitalist weapon. But together with Sharia law, it reinforced formal principles regulating mercantile capitalism in Somalia. Local business communities supported the Islamic courts, which operated as a court of appeal for Somali customary law. Case studies of African rebel movements attest to how the practical task of governing typically moderates the extremism of insurgents. In any event, radicals controlled only three of the 16 Islamic courts in the capital and this was beginning to happen before the defeat of the ICU saw Al Shabaab grow from a militia with less than 50 men under arms in 2005 to a regional vehicle combining Somali nationalism with international jihadi extremism.

History repeated itself. In the 1996 paper, De Waal advised, ‘It is worthwhile to study its approach to the land question in the riverine areas it formerly controlled.’ Several consultants who spent time there before the KDF invasion of 2013 personally reported to me that the southern areas under their control had stabilised under Al Shabaab, and that administration of local affairs was efficient, peaceful, and equitable.

KDF EMPOWERS SHABAAB’S JIHADI FACTION

The 2013 occupation empowered Al Shabaab’s international jihadi faction at the expense of the nationalist faction, and encouraged militant recruits from Kenya’s Al Hijra chapter to carry out their attacks in Nairobi, Lamu, and Garissa.

The renewed international interest in land and extractive resources is now transforming the Horn of Africa into the world’s latest theatre in the Great Game. The contest between state-based forces and agents of De Waal’s political marketplace in this scramble will influence how the current phase of capital penetration and infrastructural investment plays out.

Over time, the region’s states will either harness its natural and human resources for the benefit of its people, or they will lapse into a collection of ethnically divided regimes with pockets of semi-stateless territory where local compradors and political warlords cut deals with the masters of international capital.

The provision of security as a public good lies at the centre of the equation, but where will it come from? In the case of Kenya, only 3% of the 2,998 respondents participating in the recent National Constitutional Socioeconomic Audit approved the state’s handling of security issues.

Sustained commitment to implementing the country’s new Constitution will reduce the nation’s internal frictions. The current template for dealing with Al Shabaab is a trickier proposition.

Kenya’s uniquely symbiotic relationship with Somalia inscribes a basically positive trajectory when not zigzagging between episodic violence and tit-for-tat security operations

Impunity, corruption at the top, and the poor morale among the rank and file has undermined the KDF’s mission to isolate Al Shabaab. Other practical examples of Kenyan-Somali co-operation serve as a counterpoint to the failures of state and international interventions.

Kenya’s uniquely symbiotic relationship with Somalia inscribes a basically positive trajectory when not zigzagging between episodic violence and tit-for-tat security operations. Conflict has contributed to the convergence of Kenya’s capitalist economy and the creative problem solving of Somali entrepreneurs. The rise of Eastleigh in Nairobi as a prototype of transnational commerce is very much a Kenya-Somali hybrid phenomenon that Neil Carrier documents in his recently published book, Eastleigh, Nairobi’s Global Economic Hub.

Even nomadic capital seeks out the protection provided by a functional state from marauding militias and angst-driven religious zealots. A lot of the investment capital generated by the Somali diaspora ends up in Kenya. The spread of peace infrastructure on the ground, co-operation among state administrators working in border zones, and spontaneous community policing including interventions like the selfless actions of ethnic Somalis in Mandera to protect their Christian countrymen represent a strategic alternative to the increasingly meaningless cycle of violence.

In the final chapter of his book, De Waal concludes that the ‘greatest dangers facing the Horn region are mineral rents and counterterrorism funding, followed closely by any form of international security co-operation (including peacekeeping) that increases the size and opacity of military budgets.’

Regional rivalries have hampered Igad’s prospects for effective collective action in the past. In an interview appearing in the CEWARN Compendium mentioned above, a former director, Dr Martin Kimani, connects the points made by Illife, Kagwanja, and DeWaal in his nuanced overview of the organisation’s peace-building mission:

We are moving into a period of more intensified conflict. But that does mean more intensified violence. Let’s make it clear that in fact the Horn, given its contradictions, is far more peaceful than might be the case. In fact, the people of the Horn by and large are far more patient, far more flexible than many other people on the planet in light of the challenges we have here. The Igad region is actually at a very important moment in which countries and governments must decide how exactly are we going to handle having much more economic activity in our territory because there is going to be a gap between that and the time when all the people in the countries are included in that prosperity. Dealing with that gap requires intensified peace building, inclusion, and awareness that, since some people will be left behind, we need to keep the peace with each other.

Igad’s peace infrastructure, CVE policies, and early warning mechanism are adaptive homegrown initiatives designed to contain the multiple sources of violent extremism and the circulation of modern weapons abetting them. The rapid response protocol now under development recognises that properly calibrated use of force will always have a role. There will be blood.

Kenya and its neighbours, despite the mistakes and bungling characterising its anti-terrorism efforts up to now, are better off reconceptualising how to domesticate the range of threats to public security than following the lead of those calling the shots from abroad.

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Dr. Goldsmith is an American researcher and writer who has lived in Kenya for over 40 years.

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Is Democracy Dead or Has It Simply Been Hijacked?

10 min read. The rise of right-wing populist leaders in many countries across the globe suggests that democracy’s days are numbered. However, as PATRICK GATHARA argues, populism is less a cause of democracy’s demise than a consequence of it.

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Is Democracy Dead or Has It Simply Been Hijacked?
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“Anyone can cook,” declares Chef Auguste Gusteau in the 2007 Pixar classic, Ratatouille, one of my favourite animated movies. The film tells the tale of an anthropomorphic French rat with a passion for haute cuisine, who against all odds, makes it from foraging in the garbage to cooking at a high-end restaurant and being declared “nothing less than the finest chef in France”. It is an inspiring story with valuable lessons about bravery, determination and following one’s dreams. Yet it comes with a caveat, as explained by the funereal critic, Anton Ego, at the end of the movie: “Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

Across the world today, democratic societies appear to have taken Gusteau’s maxim but not necessarily with Ego’s qualification. In Kenya, the death of popular Kibra MP, Kenneth Okoth, has occasioned a by-election in which the ruling Jubilee Party has fronted a professional footballer who has spent much of the last decade in Europe and who, until a few weeks ago, had never even registered to vote or expressed any interest in politics.

“The world is going the Wanjiku way,” Mike Sonko, the populist Governor of Nairobi declared recently on the Sunday show, Punchline. “Take the example of the Ukraine. The President of Ukraine is currently is a comedian. They voted for a comedian. Because the Wanjikus were fed up with the leadership of that country. They were fed up with the politicians…Go to Liberia. They elected a footballer to be their president. Madagascar for the second time have elected a DJ, Rajolina, to be their president”.

He is not wrong. From Donald Trump in the United States to Bobi Wine in Uganda, there seems to be a growing dissatisfaction with and distrust of career politicians and the nebulous “establishment”. In Kenya, this manifests in a contest between the so-called “dynasties” (the wealthy families that have dominated the country’s politics for nearly 60 years) and the “hustlers” (the political upstarts who claim to not be a part of the establishment). It is evident in the “handshake” between President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga, sons of Kenya’s first President and Vice President, respectively, and their open feud with Deputy President William Ruto, the self-declared head of the “hustler nation”.

The idea that “anyone can rule” is taken by many to be a cardinal tenet of democracy. At its root is a legitimate rejection of the old idea that the ability to govern was only bestowed on some bloodlines, which today has largely been consigned to history’s trash heap.

Yet this democratisation of governance has created fears of its contamination by the unwashed and uneducated masses. A famous quote from the early twentieth century US journalist, Henry Mencken, encapsulates these fears: “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” The quote is taken from Mencken’s piece originally posted in the Baltimore Evening Sun in July 1920 in which he rails against the candidacies of Republican Warren Harding and his rival, James Cox, for the US presidency, which he saw as proof of the tendency of democratic competition to result in a race to the bottom.

The idea that “anyone can rule” is taken by many to be a cardinal tenet of democracy. At its root is a legitimate rejection of the old idea that the ability to govern was only bestowed on some bloodlines, which today has largely been consigned to history’s trash heap.

“The first and last aim of the politician,” he wrote, “is to get votes, and the safest of all ways to get votes is to appear to the plain man to be a plain man like himself, which is to say, to appear to him to be happily free from any heretical treason to the body of accepted platitudes – to be filled to the brim with the flabby, banal, childish notions that challenge no prejudice and lay no burden of examination upon the mind.”

Arguing that “this fear of ideas is a peculiarly democratic phenomenon,” he goes on to assert that as politicians increasingly pander to electorates, then “the man of vigorous mind and stout convictions is gradually shouldered out of public life” and the field is left to “intellectual jelly-fish and inner tubes” – those without convictions and those willing to hide them.

Populist idiocy

Many recognise the fulfilment of Menckel’s prophecy in Donald Trump’s presidency, though it is notable that it had been applied to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush before him. However, it is clear that Mencken had a low opinion, not just of politicians, but of electorates as well. In fact, in his view, it is the ignorance and stupidity of the masses that, in a democracy, makes morons of politicians. And moronic politicians love ignorant voters as evidenced by Trump’s declaration during the 2016 presidential campaign: “I love the poorly educated.”

Menckel’s view is also echoed by a common maxim spuriously attributed to Winston Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” So, is the slide into populist idiocy the inevitable fate of democracy? Can anyone cook? Or is Ego right that while good governance can come from anywhere, not everyone can be a great leader?

“Democracy is hard,” notes Kenyan academic and author, Nanjala Nyabola. It “requires constant vigilance—something that we now see is difficult to achieve even under the most ideal circumstances.” For most voters, this constant vigilance is a tough ask. In fact, for most, getting to grips with the issues and personalities is not worth the hassle.

As Ilya Somin, Professor of Law at George Mason University, puts it, “If your only reason to follow politics is to be a better voter, that turns out not to be much of a reason at all… there is very little chance that your vote will actually make a difference to the outcome of an election.”

And that’s not all. Even if one were inclined to be immersed in the policy debates and to investigate candidate platforms, the sheer size of modern government and the scale and impact of its activities means that one could not hope to monitor more than a tiny fraction of what the state gets up to.

Since voters are unwilling to get their hands dirty, they take short cuts, which often means relying on someone else to tell them what’s going on in the kitchen. For instance, when asked, during the 2005 and 2010 referendum campaigns on a proposed new constitution, whether they had read the drafts, a section of Kenyan voters were reported to have responded with “Baba amesoma” (Father has read it). Baba is a reference to Raila Odinga, perhaps the best known politician in the country and the voters, many of whom had little knowledge of constitutionalism, were opting to take their cue from him. Others chose to follow the musings of pundits and other self-appointed “experts” or journalists or even comedians. The problem here, as with following politicians, is you do not know whether what you are getting is the truth, the real truth and nothing but the truth.

However, that turns out to be less of a problem than one might at first suppose. Truth (shock, horror!) is not always the reason one follows politics – or politicians. Prof. Somin notes that political supporters tend to behave very much like sports fans – less interested in the merits of arguments or how well the game is played than in whether their side wins. This is perhaps best illustrated by the phenomenon of electorates voting against their own interests. For example, in the US, older voters tend to support the Republican Party, which takes a dim view of government entitlement programmes like Medicare and Social Security that primarily benefit the elderly.

Since voters are unwilling to get their hands dirty, they take short cuts, which often means relying on someone else to tell them what’s going on in the kitchen. For instance, when asked, during the 2005 and 2010 referendum campaigns on a proposed new constitution, whether they had read the drafts, a section of Kenyan voters were reported to have responded with “Baba amesoma”.

Even the few neutrals out there tend to talk only to like-minded others or follow the game through like-minded media. In either case, there is little scope for voters to have their views challenged or their horizons expanded. As the former British Prime Minister put it, “The single hardest thing for a practicing politician to understand is that most people, most of the time, don’t give politics a first thought all day long. Or if they do, it is with a sigh… before going back to worrying about the kids, the parents, the mortgage, the boss, their friends, their weight, their health, sex and rock ‘n’ roll.”

A civic ritual

If voters don’t care about politics, why do they even bother to vote? According to Prof Somin, “The key factor is that voting is a lot cheaper and less time-consuming than studying political issues. For many, it is rational to take the time to vote, but without learning much about the issues at stake.”

Voting has thus become a civic ritual, much like going to a football game and cheering your favourite team. It provides the satisfaction of participation – one can brandish a purple finger as a marker of having fulfilled one’s duty without actually doing the hard work of wrestling with the issues. Voters pick their teams based less on ideas than on arbitrary considerations, such as ethnicity or place of birth.

The media exacerbates this trend in two ways; both in the content of their reporting and in the manner they do so. By far, the mainstream press is the most important avenue through which people access and organise information about what is happening in the world. Despite the growth of the internet, which has enabled many more people to get in on the act, news is still largely what the media says it is, whether it is an earthquake or a war in some far-off place or the latest tweet by Donald Trump.

However, as Prof Cas Mudde of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia writes, the media tends to report the news, rather than analyse and explain it. The addiction to scoops and “breaking news” and the competition to be first even when every outlet will have the story in the next few minutes and though social media means there is less attention paid to “trends behind the day-to-day news”. Further, in order to attract a larger audience and sell more advertising space or more newspapers, the media prioritises what is sensational over what is important and stays away from anything that cannot be reduced into a soundbite or squeezed into a two-minute news segment.

It also propagates and perpetuates false notions of “objectivity”, presenting itself as a reliable neutral observer rather than as an active participant. Yet through its curating and shaping functions, the media wields tremendous influence not only on how events unfold but also on how on they are perceived. Like a chef, the media takes events and fashions out of disparate events, to be served up to audiences in bite-sized chunks on its many channels.

Brought up on this fast news diet, Prof Somin says, voters come to “mistakenly believe that the world is a very simple place [requiring] very little knowledge to make an informed decision about politics”. And this leads to the embrace of simplistic panaceas for complex problems, and to a preference for populist politicians who deny complexity. If the world is so simple, then fixing it requires no specialised knowledge. Anybody can cook.

It is no wonder then that today there is a lot of angst about the state of democracy and fears that the ship of liberal democratic constitutionalism is floundering on the rocks of populism. The emergence of right wing populist governments and movements in countries as far removed as Brazil, Italy and the Philippines, and in Western countries once thought to hold the high ground for liberal democracy, such as the UK (which is steeped in a constitutional crisis over Brexit) and the US (where President Trump is facing an impeachment inquiry) has many thinking that democracy’s days are numbered.

William Galston has called populism an internal challenge to liberal democracy. Populists, he says, weaponise popular ignorance “to drive a wedge between democracy and liberalism”. Liberal norms, institutions and policies, they claim, weaken democracy and harm the people and thus should be set aside.

Brought up on this fast news diet, Prof Somin says, voters come to “mistakenly believe that the world is a very simple place [requiring] very little knowledge to make an informed decision about politics”. And this leads to the embrace of simplistic panaceas for complex problems, and to a preference for populist politicians who deny complexity.

Populism, though, is less a cause of democracy’s demise than it is a consequence of it. Democracy has been crumbling from within for a long time. Galston blames this on immigration which, he says, has not only upset the “tacit compact” between electorates and elites – where the former would defer to the latter as long as they delivered economic growth and prosperity – but has also profoundly challenged existing demographic and cultural norms, leaving many feeling dislocated in their own societies.

However, it is that compact that is at the root of the crisis, transforming as it does the understanding of democracy from a system where people participate in governance to one where they elect others to govern them. Further, the gnashing of teeth over historic decline in voter turnout blinds many to the fact that, like populism, it is also a symptom and not the problem.

As Phil Parvin notes in his paper, Democracy Without Participation, the decline in political engagement and deliberation by ordinary citizens and the eclipse of broad-based citizen associations by professional lobby groups have resulted in a model of democracy where “politics … is something done by other people on behalf of citizens rather than by citizens themselves”.

In Africa, the “wind of change” that toppled many dictatorships in the 1990s and early 2000s did not result in the empowerment of local populations to do anything other than participate in the ritual of periodic elections. Participation in governance in the periods in between elections is actively discouraged. Those who are dissatisfied with government policies are routinely told to shut up and await the opportunity to do something about it at the next election.

This model of democracy as reality show, where elites compete on who gets a turn at the trough (with the media providing a running commentary and the public choosing the winner) is at the root of the malaise. The professionalisation of democratic participation – outsourcing it to politicians and activists – leads to an increasing polarisation and tribalisation, with everyone claiming to be the authentic voice of the silent and silenced population. Alienation, as political debate focuses on the problems of elites rather than those of the people, becomes inevitable.

It is into this void that the populists have stepped, claiming to do away with the edifice of “the establishment” when in fact, they are seeking to entrench elite rule by doing away with even the appearance of popular consultation. This is what they mean when they evoke the idea of a “strong leader” – one who is not bound by the charade of democratic politics and can thus instinctively channel a pure form of the people’s will. But, as the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, says, this is to ignore the lessons of history. Strongmen, as Africans know from bitter experience, tend to reflect, not the aspirations of their people, but their own.

In Africa, the “wind of change” that toppled many dictatorships in the 1990s and early 2000s did not result in the empowerment of local populations to do anything other than participate in the ritual of periodic elections.

The solution may be to do away with elections altogether as a means for selecting decision-makers. In any case, what is required is not less popular participation, but more. We can no longer afford to continue to treat governance as something voters get to participate in once every election cycle, to pretend that democracy is a fire-and-forget proposition. Constant vigilance requires citizens at all levels willing to get their hands dirty, learn about issues, debate openly and engage with representatives – citizens who collectively insist on being heard and who demand accountability from those in power, not simply wait for someone else to do it on their behalf.

Paradoxically, the internet has dramatically lowered the costs of participation and it has never been easier for people to access information, to express opinions, to participate in petitions and to organise outside the parameters set by the elite or by the state. The question for societies with democratic aspirations should be how to make the voices and concerns of ordinary folks, rather than just their votes, count and not be drowned out by the din of elite politics. How do we truly get to the public interested in the ideal of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”?

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How Corruption and Greed Are Destroying Africa’s Forests

8 min read. Africa is losing its forests at an alarming rate, yet the very forces that claim to be protecting them are responsible for their destruction.

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When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.”

As the trade war between the world’s superpowers continues, the global South is the one getting the short end of the stick. The economy of most African countries depends on massive exportation of raw materials, usually controlled by large foreign companies. The exploitation of the local resources, such as wood, never seems to stop, even if massive deforestation in countries such as Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia is bound to have catastrophic economic and environmental consequences.

Who are the main (local and foreign) players behind the progressive loss of forested areas in East and South Africa? What are the causes and, more importantly, the effects of this apparently unstoppable exploitation of land on local economies and climate change? How much is corruption responsible for this devastation? Are there any virtuous players trying to staunch this wound, or is it just the usual Western hypocrisy that preys on the unavoidable dependence on “development aid”?

Land grabs and exploitation

The Western world’s hunger for African resources, including land, has only grown more intense due tp the increased demand for carbon and biofuels. The whole continent becomes more dependent on overseas trade day after day. Internal trade between African countries is extremely weak, and most of these countries are large importers of pricey finished goods and services provided by other global partners. Most African countries are exporters of raw materials that generate profit margins that are quite small on their own and are made even smaller by the fact that most of the lands where these goods are produced rest in the hands of large transnational companies.

In many countries, such as Ethiopia, the laws that regulate land leases have been extremely generous to foreign investors. The land is leased for negligible rents, especially in remote and sparsely populated areas, and the approval process for investment proposals is superficial at best. In exchange for an alleged economic return that in many cases never follows, national governments exempted foreign companies from repatriated profits on taxes and taxes on imports of capital goods. All these land grabs are notoriously unjust to the original inhabitants of these lands – usually small farmers and pastoralists who, in some cases, have even forcefully been evicted with the help of the army.

The largest African and global development institutions, such as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and the World Bank, always sold this process as a much-needed transformation to help the growth of less developed countries. The idea of shifting toward large-scale commercial exploitation of lands and resources has been presented as the perfect recipe to overcome the stagnation of African economies; a transformation that would bring progress, modernity, and riches to all the impoverished lands and populations of the global South. Now the whole continent has been integrated into the global trade system with a relationship of complete unilateral dependence, chained to the volatile prices of commodities, enslaved by continuous “development aid”, and bent under the weight of totally asymmetrical agreements.

The effects of foreign liberalism

The free market didn’t help low-income to countries flourish; the only economic effect was purely cosmetic in nature. The shift towards large-scale commercial exploitation of lands came with promises of better employment opportunities, improvement of existing infrastructure, new opportunities for development, knowledge transfer, and professional specialisation. We saw this happen elsewhere as well, such as in Central America – all these promises eventually turned out to be empty, and only resulted in more poverty, hunger, and unfair exploitation.

In a continent where the vast majority of the population depends on agriculture for a living, uncontrolled liberalisation is nothing but a recipe for disaster. Even the most developed nations of the West know the limits of free markets very well and keep sustaining their own farmers with generous subsidies.

In many countries, such as Ethiopia, the laws that regulate land leases have been extremely generous to foreign investors. The land is leased for negligible rents, especially in remote and sparsely populated areas, and the approval process for investment proposals is superficial at best.

For example, Ethiopia’s annual GDP growth rate kept increasing by nearly 9% between 2004 and 2014, but very few Ethiopians enjoyed the benefits of this growth. Nearly 80% of the population is still composed of farmers and pastoralists whose livelihoods are even more precarious than before after their land was impoverished – their income still incredibly low, at $0.14 per day in some areas. The rural population has been marginalised even further, and local labour is often hired only on a seasonal basis, leaving very little opportunities for the professional and economic growth of all these vulnerable households. Knowledge is kept in the hands of the Western professionals, and their investments on ameliorating the infrastructure are too minuscule to represent a valid trade-off.

This non-inclusive model largely depends on the constant flow of capital, which necessarily come from foreign investors, creating an unbreakable cycle of dependency. Technology-based land exploitation has caused the environment to be degraded, and has substituted traditional sustainable and labour-intensive agriculture with intensive use of fossil fuels, pesticides, and widespread deforestation. The loss of biodiversity of large-scale monocultures and the destruction of large forested areas weakened the ecosystems against unexpected weather changes and other natural disasters.

Deforestation and greed

The constant demand for crop and grazing land, as well as wood for fuel and construction, have a tremendous impact on soil conservation and weather management. Deforestation, in particular, is one of those problems that, if left unchecked, may cause a planetary disaster.

Africa’s tropical rainforests include the Guinean forests of West Africa and the Congo Basin, which comprise the second-largest forest cover in the world. However, according to Professor Abraham Baffoe, Africa regional director at Proforest, this immense “world’s set of lungs” is rapidly disappearing. At the beginning of the 20th century, Ethiopia’s forest coverage reached almost 40%. Year after year, almost 200,000 hectares of forest were lost; by 1987 it was reduced to just 5.5%, and in 2003 it had gone down to a mere 0.2%. According to Innovation for Poverty Action (IPA), between 2000 and 2010, Uganda lost forests at a rate of 2.6% every year. Over the last century, West Africa has lost almost 90% of forest coverage.

Losing forests has devastating effects on the indigenous population, the local ecosystem, and the global environment as well. Forests are critical to lowering carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, to stabilising the weather, and preventing soil erosion. Among the highest causes of carbon emissions from human activity, deforestation is the second after burning fossil fuels, accounting for approximately 20% of world greenhouse gas emissions.

Soil erosion alone may cause the drying of lakes, such as in the case of the three lakes in the Rift Valley that recently dried up. As the soil is massively washed into the lake, the water is pushed up to a larger surface and rapidly evaporates. Without water, droughts ensue, causing famine, starvation, and poverty.

An estimated 100 million African people rely on forests for support and finding freshwater, food, shelter, and clothing. Forests support biodiversity as well, and many plants and animals only exist in these regions. Without forests, many animal species, such as chimpanzees, are endangered since they can’t survive without their habitat, and entire towns are at risk of rainforest flooding.

Africa’s tropical rainforests include the Guinean forests of West Africa and the Congo Basin, which comprise the second-largest forest cover in the world. However, according to Professor Abraham Baffoe, Africa regional director at Proforest, this immense “world’s set of lungs” is rapidly disappearing.

But the ecological devastation caused by the alleged modernisation of agriculture is not the sole reason behind the massive deforestation occurring in Africa. African forests store 171 gigatons of carbon, and there is a wide range of different interests swarming around them. Everybody wants to put their hands on this gigantic loot, no matter the consequences for the local populations or climate change.

The frequent conflicts that ravage the continent take their toll on forests as well. For example, after the South Sudan crisis in December 2013, nearly one million refugees, mostly women and children, have sought shelter in nearby Ethiopia and Uganda. Once there, they started chopping wood to build their encampments and to fuel their stoves. This had a significant impact on local forests, according to experts.

The impact of corruption on deforestation

Corruption has a tremendous impact on global deforestation. With 13 million hectares lost each year, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has identified the illegal timber trade as one of the principal causes of forest loss. The estimated value of illegal forest activities accounts for more than 10% of the value of worldwide trade in wood products. And corruption in the forest sector may increase the cost of forestry activities by about 20%.

Most countries in Central and Western Africa that are particularly rich in forests and other resources score particularly low on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), a global index of public sector corruption established by Transparency International. Without a transparent and democratic administration whose framework is built on solid ethical principles, the land rights of local communities and marginalised groups are constantly violated. In sub-Saharan Africa, one citizen in two had to pay a bribe to obtain a land service, such as registering land for his household.

The forest sector is especially vulnerable to grand and petty corruption activities because of the non-standardised but high-priced timber products and low visibility. Government officials often collude with powerful European, American, or Asian companies since they offer forest as a highly valuable commodity in exchange for power and money.

Many indigenous populations have no access to information and justice, cannot claim their rights, and have no chance but to bend the knee when land grabbing laws are enforced by corrupt governments. Foreign companies know how easy it is to violate national regulations and often do so with total impunity knowing that punishment would probably be very light. Funds generated from the profit of the forests are usually embezzled or siphoned out of the continent to be laundered through complex schemes of multi-layered shell offshore businesses. Money that could be invested in social services, jobs, and better infrastructure ends up being devoured by greedy officials, money-hungry corporations, and shady smugglers.

Reforestation and other plans to restore Africa’s forests

Luckily, not all is as bad as it seems. Ethiopia has just started a restoration process that includes a reforestation programme that should replace 22 million hectares of forests and degraded lands by 2030. Even better, in 2018, the government finally revised the National Forest Law to provide better recognition to the rights of local communities and acknowledge their importance in managing lands and crops. The new law also includes much more severe penalties for those who endanger forest ecosystems or who extend farming into natural forests.

Corruption has a tremendous impact on global deforestation. With 13 million hectares lost each year, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has identified the illegal timber trade as one of the principal causes of forest loss.

In Uganda, Project Kibale focuses on restoring the Kibale forest and has managed to restore 6,700 hectares of forest so far. On lands owned by subsistence farmers, the Community Reforestation project coordinates hundreds of small community-based tree planting, education, and training initiatives. Similar projects are in operation in Kenya as well, such as Carbon Footprint, B’n’Tree, WeForest, and the Green Initiative Challenge.

Although certainly commendable, many of these reforestation efforts simply seem to be a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. The core problems – corruption, grossly uneven distribution of power among players, and poorly-designed regulations – are not addressed at all. The handful of trees that get planted only help these parasites to get more wood to harvest in due time.

It can also be argued that many of these brave steps toward sustainability are nothing but green rhetoric spin for Western audiences. Wilmar’s hypocrisy, for example, was exposed back in 2015. The multinational of palm oil had abused human rights in Indonesia for years, expropriated lands with no qualms, polluted the environment, and destroyed crops and forest in large areas. After being named by Newsweek as “the world’s least environmentally-friendly company” in December 2013, the palm oil giant adopted a “no deforestation, no peat, and no exploitation policy” and became a champion of environmentalism. However, this was just window-dressing that was rapidly unmasked in subsequent years by NGOs in Uganda, Nigeria, and Liberia. The icing on the cake? In previous years, Wilmar was financed by none other than the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

Conclusion

When the rules are made by those who dominate the markets, globalisation becomes a source of profound inequalities. The blatant asymmetry in bargaining power between the global superpowers and the global South has all but abolished the few safety nets that national laws could provide. All the regions that are rich in resources and commodities are quickly transformed into no man’s lands where the indigenous populations become unwanted guests to be displaced. Entire ecosystems are ravaged and exploited, no matter the consequences. And when newer, fairer rules are established by a more ethical administration, they are rapidly dismantled by leveraging corruption and bribes.

The word “development” has been mentioned so many times that it is now empty and meaningless. Nonetheless, the only way to shift toward a more sustainable economic system is to focus on the real development of African countries. Reforestation is just palliative therapy that is trying to heal some of the wounds of an already terminally ill patient. Africa can flourish only through a more radical approach that allows Africans to grow, develop, and fully exploit the immense value of their enormous resources instead of leaving them in the hands of foreigners and global corporations.

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The Persistence of Small Farms and the Legacy of the Monoculture Mindset in Kenya

12 min read. PAUL GOLDSMITH explores the evolution of agriculture policies in Kenya that failed to recognise the importance of smallholder farming, which has proved to be more resilient than large-scale agriculture projects.

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The Persistence of Small Farms and the Legacy of the Monoculture Mindset in Kenya
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I once drove up the eastern side of Mt Kenya with a manager working in the California horticulture industry. We passed through the Mwea irrigation scheme’s mosaic of rice plots and the smallholder coffee zone in Embu. After crossing the Thuchi River, we transited through the mix of tea farms, coffee plots, and patches of small fields of maize, pulses, and bananas framed by the heavy tree cover blanketing the hills and valleys. The Meru lowlands stretched out to the east, the miraa-dotted slopes of the Nyambene Hills loomed close as we approached Meru town. In the space of three hours we had transected one of the region’s most agriculturally variegated and productive landscapes.

Two days later we drove across the northern saddle of the mountain, leaving the smallholdings created by late colonial-era settlement schemes before cruising past the wheat fields of Kisima and Marania farms and their neighbours. The road carried us past the uniform blocks of horticulture farms and greenhouses stretching across the high plains of the mountain’s northwestern quadrant en route to Nanyuki. Over a plank of some insanely delicious beef at one of the town’s famous local nyama choma joints, my guest tells me she was impressed by the kick-ass agriculture she saw during our trip.

I remarked that we had crossed an area that produces the world’s best tea, some of the planet’s premier Arabica coffee, and the country’s most sought-after potatoes, French beans and other vegetables that grace European tables. I also informed her that we had skirted the range hosting Africa’s most sophisticated agroforestry system, home to the Horn region’s most prized Catha edulis.

“That’s interesting,” she said, clarifying that she was referring to “the area of proper farms we passed through this morning”.

Kenya’s agriculture generates approximately 24 per cent of the country’s GDP, 75 per cent of its industrial raw materials and 60 per cent of the country’s export earnings. Approximately 26 per cent of the earnings are indirectly linked to the sector through linkages to agro-based manufacturing, transport, and trade.

The sector is a major employer, with an estimated 3.8 million Kenyans directly employed in farming, livestock production and fishing, while another 4.5 million engaged in off-farm informal sector activities. Agriculture remains a key economic sector with significant unexploited potential for adding value through post-harvest processing.

The relationship between large-scale and small-scale producers in Kenya continues to evolve. Smallholder farmers generate the larger portion of overall agricultural value; large farms are still critical contributors to domestic food security and export production while pioneering new technologies and marketing arrangements.

Kenya’s agriculture generates approximately 24 per cent of the country’s GDP, 75 per cent of its industrial raw materials and 60 per cent of the country’s export earnings.

The economists and policy-setting bureaucrats at the World Bank and other important financial institutions, however, now question the small farm sector’s capacity to satisfy Africa’s future needs. The experts have tacitly supported the controversial trend of external investors’ acquisition of the continent’s underexploited land to develop capital-intensive plantations and ranches. Agricultural progress means big fields, straight lines, greenhouses, and large grids of sprinklers, as the comments of the manager reaffirmed.

The rise of monoculture

Assumptions about the superiority of large-scale agriculture have remained unchallenged since the migration of Europeans to the Americas, Asia, and Africa. They came, saw, conquered, and converted the wide open spaces they found into plantations producing sugar, cotton, rubber, tobacco, soybeans, and a long list of other crops for export to the industrial world.

When European diseases decimated the indigenous inhabitants in the New World, the planters plundered Africa to replace them. Steam powered the Industrial Revolution; colonial plantations and mines provided the raw materials. The textile mills of Lancashire generated the profits financing Great Britain’s global empire, and America’s South supplied the cotton.

Large-scale agriculture’s global hegemony grew out of military firepower, capital, technology and ruthless exploitation of labour, not superior crop and animal husbandry. The reign of King Cotton, for example, relied on increasing quantities of land and imports of African labour to compensate for rapid soil fertility decline. Southern land owners were poor farmers who added little value to the development of their agriculture beyond the use of the whip and the noose.

Class dynamics also contributed to the rise of the large commercial farm. The working conditions of the working-class adults and children working the looms was only marginally better than that of the slaves producing the fibre. Growing numbers of the freehold farmers in Europe who were driven off their land avoided this fate by crossing the Atlantic Ocean, attracted by the US government’s recruitment campaigns offering access to land. The industry of the displaced farmers powered the nation’s westward expansion. The American Civil War decided the contest over which system – freehold or plantation – would dominate in the virgin lands beyond the Mississippi River.

Large-scale agriculture’s global hegemony grew out of military firepower, capital, technology and ruthless exploitation of labour, not superior crop and animal husbandry.

The outcome was the same. Within several decades, the massive herds of bison were decimated and the indigenous inhabitants reduced to paupers on reservations. Science and technology came into play. The impressive advances generated by agronomic research and mechanisation extended the ascendency of commercial farms and plantations into the modern era. Economies of scale enabled by railways and the steamship extended the dominance of single commodity farming systems across the world.

Relegation of pre-industrial agricultural populations to the status of pre-scientific peasants preceded the imperial occupation of Africa. The Europeans established their plantations and large farms across the continent’s savanna and highlands. Like the colonialists before them, both capitalist and socialist governments’ rural policies were predicated on the need to introduce modern scientific agriculture. The choice was as basic as the difference between a tractor and a short handle hoe.

The Kenya conundrum

A matrix of physical, climatic, spatial, and social factors complicated the installation of large-scale agriculture production in Africa. Agriculture played a singular role in the development of the modern Kenyan economy, but commercial agriculture and ranching developed by European settlers are only partially responsible for the sector’s progress.

Free land and inexpensive labour facilitated the establishment of commercial farms during the early decades of colonial rule. Drought, locust invasions and crop losses to pests and wild animals, and to vector-borne diseases posed a serious challenge. The effects of the latter were minimised by quarantining the locals in native reserves and demarcating the band of ranches that ring-fenced the so-called White Highlands. Not all the white settlers survived; some left to start over in colonies to the south, but those who stayed on prospered with the assistance of the colonial state.

After World War I the government offered land concessions to war veterans boosting the population of approximately 6,000 white settlers in 1917 to 20,000 in 1936. This abetted the diversification of the new estate sector, which came to encompass coffee, tea, cattle, sisal, cotton, wattle, and other export commodities that sustained the colony’s finances. Expansion raised the demand for African labour while fueling frictions over land between settlers and their African neighbours. It also made managing settlement considerably more difficult for the government and civil servants in the countryside.

Indigenous producers evolved intricate mechanisms of adaptation and risk management to shifting environmental conditions and chronic climatic instability. The over 100,000 African squatters on European farms by 1947 demonstrated their resilience in new circumstances. Despite the restrictions they faced, they out-performed the owners in many ways. The surplus reinvested in livestock led to competition for pasture on the estates, and this prompted restrictions limiting the size of cultivated plots and the number of livestock the Africans were allowed to keep. The number of days of labour owed to the estates also increased over time, doubling from 90 to 180 days a year.

Dependence on native labour in effect led to the parallel development of two distinct large-scale and small-scale systems on the same landholdings at the same time. The contradictions inherent in this situation, combined with the political threat of the Mau Mau, forced a rethink that led to the Swinnerton Act in 1954, which opened the way for the production of export crops in the African reserves.

The sectoral duality generated by these developments has vexed Kenya’s agriculture policy ever since. Kenya gained independence committed to preserving the economic stability provided by the estate sector while satisfying the political expectations of its citizens. The latter translated into the transfer of settler lands under the Million Acre Scheme, support for the cooperative movement, and the deployment of small farmer extension services.

The structural inequalities symbolised by the contrast between the landed elite and the masses nevertheless fueled strident opposition to the Jomo Kenyatta government. Kenya’s status as an island of stability in a turbulent region encouraged international support for the development of schemes and projects mirroring a succession of theories and economic models debated by academics and institutional experts.

One critic of international development accurately described these interventions as policy experiments. Some worked and many did not. The funding flowed despite the repeated failures epitomised by the large agricultural projects dating back to the doomed Tanzania Groundnut Scheme. Attempts to rectify flaws in the Bura Irrigation Scheme, the world’s most expensive at the time, proved futile when the Tana River changed course.

How do we explain the failure to acknowledge the results of such “experiments”?

In a 1988 article, Goren Hyden attributed the syndrome to Africa’s monoculture legacy, which he defined as “mono-cropping in agriculture, single fixes in technology, monopoly in the institutional arena, and uniformity in values and behavior.” The rise of hegemonic economic monocultures, he went on to observe, are usually preceded by a period of competition and experimentation.

No such selectionary forces informed the large-scale solutions designed to alleviate Africa’s agriculture malaise. The continent’s initial conditions were different. The unique regional political economies of the precolonial era did not count. The formal protocols governing exchange among diverse communities were obsolete. The need to differentiate between size and scale did not apply.

Small as the new big

Africa’s lost decade highlighted the neglect of small-scale farmers. In an article in the same edited volume featuring Hyden’s monoculture legacy thesis, Christopher Delgado noted, “It is unlikely that more than 5 five cent of current African food production comes from large farms. A 3 per cent growth of productivity of smallholders would be equivalent to a 60 per cent growth of productivity on large farms.”

This point segued into the large body of empirical evidence marshalled in support of a new policy focus on the smallholder sector. But there was a problem, as he and other pro-smallholder analysts recognised: The high variability in conditions and circumstances within and across African countries complicated cost-effective delivery of the services, inputs, incentives, and infrastructure need for the interventions to pay for themselves.

One critic of international development accurately described these interventions as policy experiments. Some worked and many did not. The funding flowed despite the repeated failures epitomised by the large agricultural projects dating back to the doomed Tanzania Groundnut Scheme.

Asia’s breakthrough was an outgrowth of substantial international research supported by national research centres into two basic commodities. The same approach has not worked in Africa because technical enhancements need to contend with multiple crops systems, variations in soils, spatial differentials complicating access to water, markets, and service, local pests and diseases, transport and communications infrastructure, and political variables linked to ethnic constituencies, to name a few of the factors determining the productivity of small farmers.

Research attesting to the more efficient per capita and land unit output of small farms also indicated that there was still considerable scope for raising household incomes by enhancing the productivity of labour. The Kenyan government’s support for small-scale dairies, tea production, and the efficacy of extension services furnished proof. Like the case of colonial squatters before them, smallholder producers began outperforming the large farms and plantations.

Kenya and its bimodal policy frame was often cited as a success story at the time, but was this because government policy focused on concentrating the limited resources available in relatively fertile areas? The failure to replicate these successes further down the ecological gradient invoked a more complicated set of variables.

Other state-supported initiatives, such as smallholder cotton, floundered, and even a tested policy like fertilizer subsidies proved difficult to implement because the cost of delivering the input to small farm households often ended up cancelling out the benefits, especially during years when low rainfall or other external factors reduced output.

During the early 1980s Kenya’s agricultural sector reached the zenith of its development under state control. A matrix of factors, including lower prices and higher market uncertainty, declining civil service terms of pay, gradual closure of the agricultural land frontier, and the highest demographic growth rate in recorded history explain subsequent developments.

Institutional entropy set in. The food security problem became a full-blown national crisis around the same time as government mismanagement of strategic maize reserves exacerbated the impact of the 1984 famine. The food catastrophe marked a turning point, concretising the case for the structural adjustment policies that came into effect during the following years.

The donor-mandated policies included foreign trade liberalisation, civil service reforms, privatisation of parastatals, and liberalisation of pricing and marketing systems, which later involved relaxing control of government agricultural produce marketing and reforming cooperatives.

Increases in quality and efficiency tend to translate into lower commodity prices over time, and the same appeared to hold for institutional reforms. In any event, the policies designed to increase efficiency and decrease state involvement in the economy did not reverse the decline in agricultural production. Declining prices for traditional agricultural commodities and Africa’s terms of trade in general was seen as emblematic of a larger malaise stemming from poor governance and economic mismanagement in Kenya and other African countries.

Although most Kenyans blamed the Daniel arap Moi government, the less than creative destruction wrought by the penetration of capital and primitive accumulation by state-based actors was the real culprit responsible for the economic carnage that followed in its wake. The outcome was “a quasi-stagnant society” qualifying the observation Thomas Picketty offered in his 2014 book, Capital in the Twenty First Century: “wealth accumulated in the past will inevitably acquire disproportionate influence”.

In Kenya, the consequences included the revolt of smallholder coffee farmers in Nyeri, the burning of sugarcane fields in western Kenya, the collapse of cooperatives, an increase of subsistence production on small farms, the commercialisation of livestock raiding in the rangelands, and the rise of cartels that seized control of export commodities and local produce markets.

The situation in Kenya was symptomatic of the forces that eroded the impact of the pro-small-scale agriculture policy framework that had gained traction during the same period.

The release phase and agrarian transition

Subsequent developments in rural Kenya invite us to revisit Picketty’s choice of words in the observation cited above: the reference to “quasi-stagnant” is indicative of a larger dynamic. From an ecosystems perspective, the turbulence arising across Kenya’s agricultural sector and the hollowing-out of state institutions corresponds to the release phase in ecological cycles.

The role of forest fires that remove old growth, allowing regrowth and revival of species suppressed by the canopy of large trees, is the standard example used to illustrate the release function. In the context of human societies and other complex systems, it refers to transitional episodes in “an adaptive cycle that alternates between long periods of aggregation and transformation of resources and shorter periods that create opportunities for innovation.”

For present purposes we can equate Picketty’s quasi-stagnation with the onset of a transitional phase of reorganisation leading to renewal. Support for importation of large-scale capital-intensive agriculture to meet Africa’s future needs, in contrast, correlates with the old school ecological succession model. The degradation of rangelands resulting in the replacement of overgrazed grass and shrubs by less nutritious invasive species is a common example.

The African land grab by foreign investors now taking place in many sub-Saharan countries is in effect a case of replacement substituting for the adaptive processes underpinning indigenous African production systems. The government’s willingness to allocate large tracts of Tana Delta land as an incentive for foreign government investment in the LAPSSET mega-project is an example of this replacement strategy in Kenya.

I was part of a team that undertook a three-year study of commercial agricultural models in Ghana, Kenya, and Zambia. Initially motivated by the problem of large-scale agribusiness investments, the research design focused on three models: large commercial farms, plantations, and contract farming. The team’s general conclusion underscored the emergence of large- and medium-size commercial farms in the three countries.

Although most Kenyans blamed the Daniel arap Moi government, the less than creative destruction wrought by the penetration of capital and primitive accumulation by state-based actors was the real culprit responsible for the economic carnage that followed in its wake. The outcome was “a quasi-stagnant society”…

My personal take was slightly different, and although they may be particular to our Kenya research, two issues warrant mention. The first is the resilience of smallholder households in our surveys and life histories.

Without getting into the intricacies of the data, several factors support this. The time series data showed improved food security for most of the households sampled, and a corresponding decline in conflict over land: only one respondent complained about the ownership of the large farms and plantations in the area.

While the poorer families were hard-pressed to make ends meet, the diversification of income generation strategies indicate that even a small half-acre plot defrays the cost of food purchases while providing a base for participating in the rural economy.

High levels of mobility within the region and a general trend of reversed urban migration add further support to this point. For example, urban unemployment rates of 19.9 per cent for 2009 and 11.0 for 2014 per cent were about double of rural rates.

The process of consolidation underpinning the large farm formation across agro-ecological zones is underway, but it is slowed by the reluctance to sell land and a correspondingly high incidence of leasing land. This is also true for large holdings outside our Mt. Kenya research area, such as the Rift Valley, where owners are holding on by leasing out parcels to smallholders. The successful estates and horticultural firms have developed mutually beneficial links with their smallholder neighbours. This is based on outsourcing production, the sharing of technological innovations from the production of certified seed potatoes to electronic wallets facilitating rapid and verifiable payments to contract farmers, and multi-stakeholder participation in the management and conservation of water sources.

While the poorer families were hard pressed to make ends meet, the diversification of income generation strategies indicate that even a small half-acre plot defrays the cost of food purchases while providing a base for participating in the rural economy.

Our sample divided the household into two categories: those involved with the large commercial farms and those who remained independent. The scores for involved households were significantly higher for crop yields, fertilizer use, income, and most other variables. All of these observations attest to the synergies generated by the large-scale small-scale symbiosis that began to emerge during the final years of the colonial era.

This brings us to the second point – the enduring influence of the monoculture mindset. It resurfaces in the World Bank’s categorisation of both large and small organisational units’ contribution to the continent’s socio-economic transformation. Dualities deceive; learning by trial era works.

The elephantine LAPPSET project, the hallucinatory Galana-Kulala scheme, the government’s Big Four agenda, all suggest that the Chinese version is more of the same.

 

Written and published with the support of the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) (www.routetofood.org). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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