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National Insecurity: Kenya’s Forever War on Terror

21 min read.

In many ways, the conditions that allowed an Al Qaeda sleeper cell to destroy the US Embassy in 1998 have become even more favourable for Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, ISIS, narcotics traffickers, poachers and international fraudsters.

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Remembering Kolbiyow
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Another Beginning?

In May 2017, delegations from a wide and diverse array of international stakeholders with interests in Somalia gathered in London to attend a high-level multilateral conference, the third major conference to be held on Somalia since 2012. Hosted by the British Government in conjunction with the United Nations Secretary-General, more than forty organisations and nations ultimately met to outline the relationship between the international community and the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) over the next four years.

To this end, the conference participants unveiled a New Partnership for Somalia (NPS) and a Security Pact (SP) whose objectives -the continuing pursuit of a stable and secure Somalia- did not really differ from the outcomes of the two previous high-level conferences. Indeed, they were very much in accordance with all such gatherings held since the overthrow of Siad Barre in 1991. From the points of view of the conference organisers, international and local media and the newly elected FGS President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” Mohamed, the conference was deemed a success, attracting as it did pledges of additional financial assistance, training and material support, as well as deadlines for achieving the full realisation of national security architecture within a federalised governance structure.

For Kenyans, however, news coming out of the actual conference, as well as in the days preceding and after the event, was much less positive and considerably more ominous. The Head of State, President Uhuru Kenyatta, facing a tough campaign for re-election in August 2017, seemed to commit the Kenya Defence Force (KDF) to remaining in Somalia until the objectives of Operation Linda Nchi, the invasion of Somalia launched in October 2011, and which had since been folded into the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), had been achieved. Mr. Kenyatta was quoted as saying that “Our ultimate objective is to ensure the country’s (i.e. Somalia’s?) security is guaranteed. We cannot exit without accomplishing our goal of bringing stability and have a secure nation.” President Kenyatta was reported as asking the international community to significantly enhance its support to AMISOM; alternatively it was suggested that the UN take on much more of the funding responsibility for AMISOM. It was unclear whether KDF assigned to AMISOM would be withdrawn along with other troop- contributing nations’ military and police units as of 2020, as previously announced by the African Union; President Kenyatta was reported as stating that greater UN support would accelerate the planned draw down of AMISOM soldiers.

Back home neither the Kenyan media nor any of the opposition leaders took much notice of the president’s declarations that the KDF would stay in Somalia to pacify and stabilise Somalia; editors were happy to express patriotic sentiments supporting continued KDF presence because, as the Sunday Standard stated, “Al Shabaab strikes when we relax and retreats when we advance, the idea being to wear down the KDF to desperation and withdrawal. This is why President Uhuru Kenyatta has made it clear that the army is in Somalia for the long haul. Withdrawal would mean loss of national face and a propaganda coup for the Al Shabaab.” And that was that as everyone turned all their attention to politics and the price of ugali.

Operation Linda Nchi

On Sunday, 16 October 2011, a column of approximately 1,800 Kenya Army troops crossed into Somalia from their bases in Mandera, Wajir and Garissa. Although supported – when weather permitted – by helicopter gunships and Kenya Air Force F-5s, this was essentially a conventional motorised assault against Al Shabaab terrorists. During the five weeks prior to the cross-border assault, suspected Al Shabaab militants had allegedly attacked Western tourists in Lamu and had also abducted two Spanish Médecins Sans Frontières volunteers from the vicinity of the Dadaab refugee camps. Throughout 2011, there had also been an upsurge in-fighting inside Somalia between AMISOM, Somali government forces and the Al Qaeda affiliated Al Shabaab militia. The latter had been pushed out of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, and was relinquishing control over towns in central Somalia where much of the population was experiencing serious famine. Further south, Al Shabaab had retained control of Kismayu with its strategic functioning port facilities and, in the areas adjacent to the Kenya border, held increasing sway over the population.

Although I initially viewed Operation Linda Nchi as a legally permissible punitive strike against Al Shabaab’s cross-border incursions, the longevity and development of the operation, as well as evidence that Al Shabaab terrorists were not involved in attacks on tourists in Lamu or in the kidnapping of the two Spanish MSF employees in Dadaab, caused my views to shift to more prosaic and indefensible reasons.

This cross-border incursion had limited objectives and the columns’ various combat elements – armoured fighting vehicles, towed artillery, troop transports, donated American Humvees, lorries, British supplied tanks, Land Rovers – were not accompanied by ambulances, fuel trucks, combat support engineers, water bowsers, mobile kitchens, specialised command-and-control armour-proofed vehicles or heavier artillery pieces. The numbers of troops initially committed and the configuration of the attack column gave no indication that the KDF had planned a campaign to last beyond Christmas 2011.

The very limited objectives of Operation Linda Nchi included recovery of those kidnapped ostensibly by Al Shabaab terrorists, pushing the group’s units away from the international border and retaliating for previous terrorist attacks against targets within Kenya, however infrequent and sporadic they may have been; in fact Kenya had largely escaped the sort of Al Shabaab terrorism unleashed against civilians in Uganda in 2010, which had troops actively engaged in combat with Al Shabaab on behalf of the Mogadishu authorities.

Within two weeks of the Kenyan troops crossing into Somalia, Al Shabaab launched a still ongoing, albeit intermittent, campaign of terrorist attacks on mainly civilian targets in and around Nairobi and Mombasa, as well as throughout the counties of the former North Eastern, Eastern and Coast Provinces. Al Shabaab also increased recruitment within Kenya and a local branch developed, seemingly focused on exploiting domestic alienation and historical anti-government grievances among Muslim communities who viewed themselves as being largely marginalised and discriminated against by successive post-independence governments. Attacks against soft targets inside Kenya have waxed and waned. Though Nairobi has been spared similar attacks to that on the Westgate Mall in 2013, which killed at least 68 people, Al Shabaab has since 2012 massacred students, civil servants and workers across Mandera, Wajir, Garissa and Lamu counties. Continuing assassinations of chiefs and subchiefs, as well as occasional successful attacks on isolated police posts and ambushes within Kenya of KDF convoys and police patrols, are clear evidence that Al Shabaab’s somewhat minimal presence in 2010 inside the four counties bordering Somalia has developed into a self-sustaining domestic insurgency.

The situation in Mombasa has also become increasingly confused since 2011, mainly because of heavy-handed government repression and extrajudicial executions targeting radical Imams and alleged Jihadist recruits, apparently with the tacit support of foreign intelligence agencies.

Operation Linda Nchi – A Confluence of Interests?

During the thirty-six years since I first arrived in Kenya, the security relationship between Washington and Nairobi has undergone substantial changes in scope, in activities undertaken and in financial support given, as well as in the expectations and motivations of all participants and stakeholders. Between independence in 1963 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Kenya had been a reliable, albeit not terribly strategically important, ally of the West against the spread of communism, whether in East Africa or throughout the Greater Horn of Africa region. All Kenya had the port of Mombasa and its relatively stable and peaceful political environment in which a host of service industries (i.e. finances, logistics, education, communications, light manufacturing built on import substitution, and export-oriented agricultural enterprises) seemed to operate reliably and efficiently, especially when compared to the rest of the region. Kenya had also attracted the only UN Headquarters located in Africa, numerous foreign correspondents and both major and minor international media institutions. During the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, international NGOs and development agencies established regional offices and substantially increased the inflow of donor dollars, whether for project support or simply to conduct daily operations. The country also experienced a genuine tourism boom which benefited from – by African standards – her superior infrastructure (i.e. all-weather roads, international and domestic air connections, seaport, etc.) and a well-developed hospitality industry. Despite her one-party government, price and exchange controls, and a growing movement advocating greater democracy, increased economic opportunities and an end to rising levels of government corruption, Kenya was a haven of stability and pragmatic African nationalism.

None of the foregoing should be dismissed as a somewhat irrelevant backstory. The same factors that made Kenya a moderately useful ally during the Cold War can still be found today. Kenya remains an essential hub for major humanitarian and relief operations in the Horn of Africa, South Sudan, the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)and Burundi, and is a vital component in international antipiracy operations. She has become increasingly important to the conduct of US counterterrorism operations focusing on the Al Qaeda leadership co-located with Al Shabaab elements within Somalia and elsewhere in the region.

Although I initially viewed Operation Linda Nchi as a legally permissible punitive strike against Al Shabaab’s cross-border incursions, the longevity and development of the operation, as well as evidence that Al Shabaab terrorists were not involved in attacks on tourists in Lamu or in the kidnapping of the two Spanish MSF employees in Dadaab, caused my views to shift to more prosaic and indefensible reasons.

The launch of Operation Linda Nchi substantially altered the relationship between the Kenyan and US governments.

Just as Operation Linda Nchi effectively constituted a “declaration of war” on Al Shabaab and other radical Islamic terrorists – and changed Kenya forever – the successful Al Qaeda attacks in September, 2001, on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon transformed how the US government perceived global threats to homeland security; much of the language used to describe the global danger to America of radical Islamic Jihadist terrorism is eerily reminiscent of the views of threats posed by international communism in the aftermath of the Second World War. The “enemy” then was exemplified by the Soviet Union and mainland China, as well as such bit players as Cuba, Vietnam (North until 1975) and North Korea. Because all of these enemies were essentially state actors, American responses could be characterised as merely adaptations of traditional statecraft (e.g. diplomatic, political, military, economic, etc) somewhat modified to fit post-war United Nations conventions.

Since 9/11 traditional statecraft, whether modified or adapted, has been pretty much thrown out the window, the “enemy” in our Global War on Terror seems mainly comprised of non-state actors fighting to impose their ideology of radical Islam wherever an opportunity arises. Although violent Jihadists may be sponsored or supported by established nations and may even seek to overthrow existing governments (e.g. Mali, Somalia, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Afghanistan), the received wisdom and emerging doctrine within ascendant Western security establishments views the current conflict as being both global and forever. This has led to new ways of assessing “victories” and conducting operations whose effect on US-Kenya bilateral relations may not be obvious but is nonetheless pervasive and with consequences that are unintended and little commented on.

Despite occasional statements paying lip service to promoting good governance, countering insurgency (i.e. hearts and minds activities, developing partners’ security capacities, etc.) and promoting a human rights agenda, short-term success is measured by the elimination of “wanted” Al Qaeda/Al Shabaab terrorists with little or no loss of American lives; financial considerations are secondary. In addition, since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 “nation building”, as a modern term for either small wars or counter insurgency campaigning, has fallen completely off the charts used by American and nearly all Western leaders. For example, in Somalia the US is following a policy of stabilisation which is inherently short term in nature and which has no overall strategic objectives.

In this scenario, Kenya, as a stable geographical entity with a friendly government, has assumed much greater importance than at any time in its nearly 40 years of military cooperation with Washington. In fact the nature of America’s “Forever War” since 9/11 gives the Kenyan government much greater influence in its relationship with Washington than was ever the case even at the height of the Cold War when American efforts in Africa concentrated on suppressing threats posed by the Soviet Union, Cuba or East Germany and such proxies as Libya and Ethiopia.

Another thing that is seldom appreciated is how many “survivors of terrorism” are driving America’s post 9/11 security agenda. For example, the present US Ambassador to Kenya, Robert Godec, survived the Al Qaeda bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi on 7 August 1998 and his career assignments since then have involved various aspects of the US government’s Global War on Terrorism. His immediate predecessor, Scott Gration, was on duty at the Pentagon on 9/11 when hijacked aircraft slammed into the building; he was also a senior officer who witnessed the terror bombing in the early 1990s of the Khobar Barracks used by US Air Force personnel in Saudi Arabia.

Further, I believe an appreciation of the connections and links between the individuals running the US security agenda in the Horn are critical to any assessment of the US government’s assistance to Kenyan security agencies. When Operation Linda Nchi was launched, Ambassador Scott Gration, a retired Major General in the US Air Force, was the US Ambassador to Kenya; he had previously served as the Obama administration’s representative in Juba, South Sudan. Ambassador Gration had grown up in Kenya and, as a US Air Force Major, had from 1983 to 1984, worked closely with Julius Karangi, then a Kenya Air Force Major, when the US government supplied Kenya with F-5 jets and instructors. Major Karangi, who was then in charge of US-Kenya military assistance programs, had risen to the Chief of Defence Forces when Operation Linda Nchi was launched.

US training and logistics assistance to Kenya increased substantially during 2012, although Gration resigned on 21 June 2012. Gration remains active in business and missionary circles in Kenya. General Karangi retired from KDF in 2015 but remains highly influential inside the government and its security architecture, as well as in business circles.

The political class in Kenya is oblivious of the existential security threats confronting Kenya; there is an ingrained belief in the nation’s exceptionalism and resilience based on little more than hope and an unwillingness by the media, government, civil society and the private sector to demand accountability from their friends, relatives and colleagues occupying senior positions of power, influence and responsibility when things go wrong.

Although Scott Gration served as Senator Obama’s military aide during the latter’s visit to Nairobi in 2006 and was one of the first generals to support Obama for president in 2008, he has close ties to Dr. Jendayi Frazer, a former Republican Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs serving through January 2009; Dr. Frazer has been associated since 1990 with the Kenyatta family and does business in East Africa – especially in Rwanda – and is a strong proponent of fighting Islamic Jihadist terrorism, especially in East Africa. During her tenure as Assistant Secretary of State, the Kenyan government allowed the recruitment of ethnic Somali Kenya citizens and Somali refugees from Dadaab who were trained in Manyani by retired US personnel and serving Kenya Army officers and then sent in Somalia National Army uniforms to fight Al Shabaab; this project was eventually abandoned and by August 2011 some wounded survivors made their way to Mandera. This entire operation remains shrouded in secrecy but seems to have fallen apart when funds for salaries and logistics were stolen, with the fighters in Somalia being literally abandoned and left to their own devices; an unknown number of these trained soldiers were alleged to have defected to Al Shabaab. The financing of these sorts of shadowy military operations, which date back in concept to the late 1940s, has always been “off the books” and not subject to normal financial and performance audits.

While researching KDF “Order of Battle” reports compiled by various professional risk analysts, I noticed that there are 100-110 T-72 Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) still listed in Kenya Army inventories; the KDF has never purchased or deployed the Soviet era tanks although the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) Juba government took possession of such equipment when Scott Gration was the US government representative. Somali pirates had inadvertently captured a vessel carrying 33 T-72s, which was rapidly freed and made its way to Kenya where its cargo was offloaded in Mombasa from where the tanks, ammunition, spare parts and accessories were transported by rail and road to South Sudan; the Kenyan military would have been the only Kenyan government agency with the necessary means and capabilities to ensure safety and security of this and previous transfers of heavy war materials and weapons to the SPLA in Juba even before South Sudan formally achieved independence. (Whether the Auditor General has ever queried how over a hundred MBTs were added to the KDF assets register and whether this procurement, including payment to the supplier, was properly documented remains unknown.)

The launch of Operation Linda Nchi substantially altered the relationship between the Kenyan and US governments. Washington had not been formally advised about the incursion and the seemingly open-ended nature of this punitive expedition -which had failed by Jamhuri Day, 2011, to accomplish any of its limited objectives- presented the Obama administration with an unforeseen dilemma as it opened up another front in the US Global War on Terrorism. Kenya increased its forces inside Somalia to 4, 660 and announced that the main objective of the campaign was to seize the port of Kismayu after clearing Al Shabaab forces from an expansive zone –Gedo/Juba – adjacent to the international border. In addition, the government negotiated the permanent inclusion of some 3,600 KDF troops into AMISOM; this “rehatting” was essential if Kenya were not to be bankrupted by its invasion of Somalia.

An additional consequence of Operation Linda Nchi was a nearly immediate upsurge in Al Shabaab terrorism, not only in the four frontline counties along the Somali border but increasingly directed against civilian targets in and around Nairobi as well as in Mombasa. the Kenyan security forces’ weaknesses and vulnerabilities became obvious, which prompted more financial assistance from the United States and its Western allies to Counter Violent Extremism/Counter Jihadist Terrorism.

Similarly, well-documented governance issues and failures of the Kenyan government to manage basic administrative functions normally associated with a modern nation state – and essential for any success to be achieved in countering insurgency or fighting terrorism – have merely attracted more money for more quick fixes, community-based development solutions as well as increased joint training opportunities for selected KDF elements and, occasionally, counterparts from the United States (e.g. Massachusetts Air National Guard – September 2016). There are also ongoing deployments of US Special Forces personnel to “train, advise and assist” their KDF Special Forcescounterparts; the only time such activities come to light is when a US service member dies while temporarily deployed to Kenya and a notice briefly appears in some home town media outlet. Correspondent Margot Kiser has also reported in the Daily Beast about US soldiers in the Boni Forest / Lamu area.

On the Kenyan side of the bilateral relationship, there is a permanent, long-standing community of diverse political, social, economic and commercial interests, all of which derive benefits from continuing participation of the Kenyan government in America’s Forever War as it plays out in the Greater Horn of Africa. As will be explained in greater detail, regardless of the initial factors that motivated Operation Linda Nchi, there is no longer any reason to believe that the Kenyan government’s actions since 2011 have anything to do with strengthening Kenya’s national security within the context of the 2010 Constitution and in accordance with legitimate and acceptable national interests. The political class in Kenya is oblivious of the existential security threats confronting Kenya; there is an ingrained belief in the nation’s exceptionalism and resilience based on little more than hope and an unwillingness by the media, government, civil society and the private sector to demand accountability from their friends, relatives and colleagues occupying senior positions of power, influence and responsibility when things go wrong.

In 2014, I wrote about how Kenya had become a nation of “spin” and PR:

“… Kenya has developed into a nation where shameless deception and lying have become standard operating procedure in both public and private sectors; the effects of this Orwellian dystopia we have learned to accept initially means that we fail to identify and fix problems and ultimately suffer increasingly greater financial losses… our economy fails to grow and .. youth radicalization, crime and insecurity increase nationally.”

Although I was referring to the reporting in the media of bank failures, financial fraud and regulatory incompetence, it is true that the spinning of reality and PR whitewashes have replaced news reporting and analyses of all matters security.

With hindsight, Operation Linda Nchi was launched to put Kenya firmly on the side of the US and other western allies in the Global War on Terrorism but with little thought given to the country’s national security needs, capacities and capabilities.

Further, Kenya’s failure to implement anti-money laundering policies and procedures has gone well beyond inhibiting economic growth and facilitating corruption. “Kenya on US blacklist over terrorism laws,” the Daily Nation reported in March 2012. The country had been found to not be lax in enactment of legislation criminalising the financing of terrorism. Nearly eight months later, Kenya remained on watch lists of countries failing to make sufficient progress to curb money laundering and to counter terrorist financing.

An example of how half full – even nearly empty – water glasses can be described as opportunities to turn lemons into lemonade can be found in an article in the Standard on Sunday by Prof. Peter Kagwanja. In the piece, titled “Latest move by USAID a warning to end dependence on aid”, he characterised the recent US suspension of $21 million earmarked for the Ministry of Health (after the Auditor-General found that billions of shillings in the ministry could not be accounted for) as being done on political grounds, ostensibly because corruption is a major campaign plank of the opposition; the suspension, he argued, presented an opportunity for Kenya to wean itself off aid.

However, Prof. Kagwanja finishes up by mentioning the US government’s commitment to spend $30 million on the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), implying that such spending constitutes approval rather than acquiescence. He also described the donation to the KDF of eight unarmed light transport helicopters and State Department approval of a controversial and seemingly hugely overpriced $418 million purchase of close air support aircraft, as examples of positive American support for the Kenyan government’s efforts to deal with terrorism and violent extremism.

Prof. Kagwanja is considered an international relations and security affairs expert and has presented his analyses and opinions on governance and security at the Washington DC Africa Center for Strategic Studies – an influential think tank affiliated with the Pentagon. As a senior and respected scholar, his views count and his credibility is seldom questioned by Americans active in the post- 9/11 Forever War on Global Terrorism. Whether US aid to Kenyan security forces is used effectively or KDF procurement decisions contribute to countering terrorism within East Africa is less important to the US officials involved than is protecting the American Homeland against Jihadist terrorism originating overseas. As will be explained, such disconnects between reality and fantasy, as well as different views on objectives to be achieved and relevant timelines, have created a perfect storm for national insecurity in Kenya as well as elsewhere throughout the Greater Horn of Africa.

Kenya’s War on Terror: Scorecard and Evaluation

The KDF Defence White Paper 2017, launched by President Kenyatta on 3 May 2017, emphasises threats to national security posed by neighboring states’ armed forces, as well as the existential threats in the form of radicalised Islamic youth tragically influenced by external Jihadist forces to become terrorists at home and abroad. Local influences and issues that motivate violent extremism, regardless of religion or political affiliation, are glossed over and no mention is made of the sort of counterinsurgency operations conducted by the British colonial authorities in Kenya in the 1950s against Mau Mau freedom fighters –then also referred to as terrorists – who were often executed as criminals when captured rather than treated as enemy combatants. There is no reference at all to counterinsurgency operations that focus on domestically-instigated conflicts.

This White Paper perfectly captures the thinking of the government’s and the country’s political class and corresponds to local interpretations of the place of Kenya in America’s Global War on Terrorism. Al Shabaab is essentially an insurgent group primarily fighting to take power in Somalia. It may have irredentist ambitions to establish a Greater Somalia within the Horn of Africa, and no doubt sees the frontline counties of Kenya adjacent to the international border as well as Tana River County and significant portions of the former Coast Province as being included in its area of operations. From a strategic perspective and remembering its main objectives, it is very likely that US military commanders view all of the Greater Horn of Africa as being one area of operation in the Global War on Terror -whether coordinated by Africom in Germany or US Centcom in Tampa, the enemy is Al Qaeda and its affiliate Al Shabaab, both of which are deemed to pose threats to Americans at home. The one stakeholder that has failed to embrace this expanded geographical combat zone has been Kenya which relies on borders, its role in a globalised war on terror and a notionally separate chain of command in AMISOM, to explain away the lack of progress in defeating Al Shabaab and improving domestic peace and security. It is the only actor seemingly without its own national objective.

A recent Transparency International (TI) report on Nigeria examined the negative effects of massive corruption within military procurement, troop support and administration on the war against Boko Haram. -Nigerian officials are literally stealing their soldiers’ capabilities to defeat Boko Haram! Kenya is now on the cusp of Nigerian-style military procurement corruption.

Conceptually, Operation Linda Nchi was flawed from the very beginning, and not because conventionally trained soldiers cannot defeat guerrillas. There was no reason to believe that Al Shabaab would engage in direct combat with the better armed and equipped Kenya Army professionals. Al Shabaab has historically disengaged on its own terms when in contact with AMISOM forces. And like AMISOM, the motorised road-bound KDF units occupied space without significantly diminishing Al Shabaab’s tactical capabilities.

Even assuming that the strategic objective underlying Operation Linda Nchi was to ultimately establish a permanent presence in support of a client semi-autonomous Jubaland Administration, the inevitable terrorist blowback within Kenya since the end of October 2011 has exposed massive cracks and gaps within Kenya’s entire security architecture, which have yet to be comprehensively considered or resolved despite fairly significant expenditure on new equipment and training by foreign experts of KDF and National Police Service (NPS) units and personnel.

With the assault on the KDF-manned camps in El Adde in January 2016 and Kulbiyow a year later, Al Shabaab has shown it can still mass sufficient numbers of trained fighters to successfully assault fixed defensive positions. Such conventional attacks have revealed shocking tactical deficiencies and lack of war fighting skills among KDF company grade officers and soldiers deployed to AMISOM. This latter revelation was completely unexpected and can be fixed but only if the KDF leadership believes there is a problem. Foreign military personnel generally avoid publicly commenting on these issues although they agree in private and off the record that the security leadership is either in deep denial or is simply not interested. There is no real disagreement about incompetence and poor military skills at all levels of the KDF.

With hindsight, Operation Linda Nchi was launched to put Kenya firmly on the side of the US and other western allies in the Global War on Terrorism but with little thought given to the country’s national security needs, capacities and capabilities. For example, as KDF troop numbers increased to nearly 4,600 and the Kenyan government announced its intention to join AMISOM, the government’s budgetary constraints and unanticipated consequential post- Operation Linda Nchi expenditures security operations nationwide nearly broke the bank; it became clear that much more financial support from friendly allies was required. Although Kismayu was seized at the end of September 2012 and the KDF withdrew some 800 troops, 3,660 remain assigned to AMISOM whose budgetary support (i.e. reimbursement for operational expenses, equipment losses, wear and tear, etc) remains critical to the government’s cash reserves and liquidity.

Further, opportunities for corruption abound whenever military procurement and security sectors’ expenditures take on lives of their own. Kenya is no exception although on a much smaller scale than in Somalia, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan. Corruption saps morale and discipline but also keeps conflicts from being concluded. Though the secrecy surrounding security spending makes it difficult to question its effectiveness and accurately track financial flows, it is not an impossible task. However, the media in Kenya has shown little willingness to undertake these sorts of investigations.

That the 7,000 Al Shabaab main force militiamen retain their ability to carry out attacks is not testament to their training or professionalism; Al Shabaab is just not that good. Rather, their continued resilience and successes on the battlefield shows how bad Kenya is at handling existential security threats.

Why Kenya’s War on Terror Failing

In January, much media attention was focused on looming cuts in foreign assistance to African countries announced by the incoming Trump Administration, citing the need to save taxpayers’ money for use at home, as well as corruption, ineffectiveness and the seemingly open-ended nature of US funding for democracy and governance programmes. Notably, Trump was asking why “we” hadn’t defeated Al Shabaab after spending “hundreds of millions” on a wide range of military activities within the Horn of Africa. Divorced from the source and disregarding the so called complexities of the Global War on Terror and the much studied internal dynamics of Somalia, Trump’s question is absolutely valid and worth asking not only in relation to Al Shabaab in Somalia but, more importantly, also in relation to Kenya’s Forever War On Terror. To be precise, how can the abysmal performance of Kenyan security forces in its war against Al Shabaab be explained?

As this article is being written, Al Shabaab militants have ramped up their terror campaign in the counties of Mandera and Garissa; at least fourteen police officers were killed in three roadside explosions this week with many more wounded. In March this year, Al Shabaab announced its intention to disrupt the Kenya General Elections scheduled to be held in August. In fact, since early May attacks on soft targets have occurred with increasing frequency.

Regardless of all the renewed expressions of financial and military assistance coming out of the London Conference, Al Shabaab continues to launch terror attacks in and around Mogadishu with relative impunity. Its forces in southern Somalia move freely, and when Ethiopian forces not assigned to AMISOM withdrew without notice from towns and villages they had occupied, Al Shabaab quickly reasserted control.

In many ways, the conditions that allowed an Al Qaeda sleeper cell to destroy the US Embassy in 1998 have become even more favourable for Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, ISIS, narcotics traffickers, poachers and international fraudsters.

On 7 August 1998, Al Qaeda terrorists blew up the US Embassy located in Nairobi’s central business district; a simultaneous attack on a similar target in Dar es Salaam was less successful. Investigations into the Nairobi attack showed that an Al Qaeda sleeper cell had entered Kenya in 1993/94, acquired Kenyan IDs and passports, registered companies, opened bank accounts, established families and conducted business at the coast; all their documentation had either been obtained fraudulently or lawfully because of lapses and oversights in enforcing regulations and applicable laws in place 20 years before. In 2002 surviving Al Qaeda terrorists still in place in Kenya were able to successfully detonate a vehicle borne IED in the reception of the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel on the north coast of Mombasa. Another Al Qaeda team managed to drive next to the runway at Mombasa’s Moi International Airport when an Israeli charter flight was taking off for Tel Aviv with a full load of tourists and fired surface-to-air missiles, smuggled over land from Somalia, at the plane. The missiles failed to hit the 747 but the terrorists also managed to elude capture. In 2010, Al Shabaab successfully detonated explosives in Kampala during which two venues crowded with World Cup spectators were hit. Subsequent investigations showed that much of the Al Shabaab planning, organisation and financing took place in Kenya where alleged terrorists were arrested and renditioned to stand trial in Uganda.

A recent Transparency International (TI) report on Nigeria examined the negative effects of massive corruption within military procurement, troop support and administration on the war against Boko Haram. -Nigerian officials are literally stealing their soldiers’ capabilities to defeat Boko Haram! Kenya is now on the cusp of Nigerian-style military procurement corruption. The acquisition of much needed IOMAX Air Tractor Close Air Support aircraft referred to by Prof. Kagwanja has been delayed – possibly irrevocably – because the original equipment manufacturer contends that the KDF is paying $125 million more than it should and getting them from a US Defence Contractor, L3 Technologies, that has no track record of supplying this sort of aircraft; in effect a “super broker” eating up to $125 million of Kenyan taxpayer money. The allegations are yet to be substantiated, though the US Air Force has been accused of not cooperating with congressional investigations.

As previously mentioned, the US has castigated Kenya for not doing enough to tackle terrorist financing; Kenya remained for another three years on a Financial Action Task Force (FATF) watch list of countries failing to enact legislation to curb money laundering and other assorted financial crimes. The still unresolved scam at the National Youth Service, dating back to early 2016, showed 28 commercial banks failing to report cash transactions in excess of $10,000 to the Central Bank of Kenya’s Financial Reporting Centre, as required by laws designed to curb money laundering.

The administrative chaos and regulatory confusion in Kenya militates against the prevention of the sorts of criminal activity that has brought down Dubai Bank, Imperial Bank, Chase Bank, Tsavo Securities, Discount Securities, Loita Asset Managers, Ngenye Kariuki Stockbrokers, and others. Vast amounts of money have gone missing through clever manipulation of existing laws and regulations, lax and/or complicit GOK regulators, and an overburdened outdated judicial system.

Three years ago, 18 foreign heads of mission, including US Ambassador Godec, jointly issued a letter demanding that the government put its financial house in order by enacting laws and actually implementing its own legislation. However, no timelines were set nor any punitive action described.

In many ways, the conditions that allowed an Al Qaeda sleeper cell to destroy the US Embassy in 1998 have become even more favourable for Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, ISIS, narcotics traffickers, poachers and international fraudsters. Yet this has seemingly had no effect on how American tax money is spent in Kenya. The only logical explanation is that the consistent and short-term protection of the [American] Homeland is the overarching priority of the US Government; Kenya is a sovereign country and what the natives do with our “training, assistance and advice” is really not something we can or should dictate. In any case the real dilemma is that Kenya – the government, the political class, the private sector and its mainstream media – is its own incubator of national insecurity and the situation can only get worse.

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Andrew Franklin is a former US marine, writer and security consultant based in Nairobi.

Politics

It’s a Nurses’ Market Out There, and Kenyans Are Going For It

Nurses are central to primary healthcare and unless Kenya makes investments in a well-trained, well supported and well-paid nursing workforce, nurses will continue to leave and the country is unlikely to achieve its Sustainable Development Goals in the area of health and wellbeing for all.

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It’s a Nurses’ Market Out There, and Kenyans Are Going For It
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Nancy* is planning to leave Kenya. She wants to go to the United States where the nursing pastures are supposedly greener. I first met Nancy when the country was in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic that tested Kenya’s healthcare system to breaking point. She was one of a cohort of recently graduated nurses that were hastily recruited by the Ministry of Health and thrown in at the deep end of the pandemic. Nancy earns KSh41,000 net with no other benefits whatsoever, unlike her permanent and pensionable colleagues.

When the then Labour and Social Protection Cabinet Secretary Simon Chelugui announced in early September 2021 that the government would be sending 20,000 nurses to the United Kingdom to help address the nursing shortage in that country, Nancy saw her chance. But her hopes were dashed when she failed to raise the KSh90,000 she needed to prepare and sit for the English language and nursing exams that are mandatory for foreign-trained nurses. Nancy would also have needed to pay the Nursing Council of Kenya KSh12,000 for the verification of her documents, pay the Kenya Medical Training College she attended KSh1,000 in order to get her exam transcripts, and apply for a passport, the minimum cost of which is KSh4,550 excluding the administrative fee. Nancy says that, contrary to then Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe’s disputed claims that a majority of applicants to the programme had failed the English language test, most nurses simply could not afford the cost of applying.

Of the targeted 20,000 nurses, the first 19 left Kenya for the UK in June 2022. But even that paltry figure represents a significant loss for Kenya, a country where the ratio of practicing nurses to the population is 11.66 per 10,000. The WHO considers countries with less than 40 nurses and midwives for every 10,000 people to not have enough healthcare professionals. Nearly 60 per cent of all healthcare professionals (medical physicians, nursing staff, midwives, dentists, and pharmacists) in the world are nurses, making them by far the most prevalent professional category within the health workforce. Nurses offer a wide range of crucial public health and care services at all levels of healthcare facilities as well as within the community, frequently serving as the first and perhaps the only healthcare provider that people see.

Kenya had 59,901 nurses/midwives in 2018, rising to 63,580 in 2020. Yet in 2021, Kenya was proposing to send almost a third of them to the UK to “address a shortfall of 62,000 in that country”.

The growing shortage of nurses in the UK has been blamed on the government’s decision to abolish bursaries and maintenance grants for nursing students in 2016, leading to a significant drop in the number of those applying to train as nurses. Consequently, the annual number of graduate nurses plummeted, reaching the current low of 31 nurses per 100,000 people, below the European average of 36.6 and half as many as in countries like Romania (96), Albania (82) and Finland (82). Facing pressure to recruit 50,000 nurses amid collapsing services and closures of Accident & Emergency, maternity and chemotherapy units across the country, the UK government decided to once again cast its net overseas. Established in 1948, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has relied on foreign healthcare workers ever since staff from the Commonwealth were first brought in to nurse back to health a nation fresh out of the Second World War.

The UK government’s press release announcing the signing of the Bilateral Agreement with Kenya states that the two countries have committed  “to explore working together to build capacity in Kenya’s health workforce through managed exchange and training” and goes as far as to claim that “with around only 900 Kenyan staff currently in the NHS, the country has an ambition to be the ‘Philippines of Africa’ — with Filipino staff one of the highest represented overseas countries in the health service — due to the positive economic impact that well-managed migration can have on low to middle income countries.”

It is a dubious ambition, if indeed it has been expressed. The people of the Philippines do not appear to be benefiting from the supposed increase in capacity that the exchange and training is expected to bring. While 40,000 of their nurses worked in the UK’s National Health Service last year, back home, according to Filipino Senator Sonny Angara, “around 7 of 10 Filipinos die without ever seeing a health professional and the nurse to patient ratio in our hospitals remains high at 1:50 up to 1:802”.

Since 2003 when the UK and the government of the Philippines signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the recruitment of Filipino healthcare professionals, an export-led industry has grown around the training of nurses in the Philippines that has attracted the increased involvement of the private sector. More nursing institutions — that have in reality become migrant institutions — are training nurses specifically for the overseas market, with the result that skills are matched to Western diseases and illnesses, leaving the country critically short of healthcare personnel. Already, in 1999, Filipino doctors had started retraining as nurses and leaving the country in search of better pay.

It is difficult, then, to see how the Philippines is an example to emulate. Unless, of course, beneath the veneer of “partnership and collaboration in health”, lies the objective of exporting Kenyan nurses with increased diaspora remittances in mind – Kenyans in the UK sent KSh28.75 billion in the first nine months of 2022, or nearly half what the government has budgeted for the provision of universal health care to all Kenyans. If that is the case, how that care is to be provided without nurses is a complete mystery.

Already in 1999, Filipino doctors had started retraining as nurses and leaving the country in search of better pay.

For the UK, on the other hand, importing nurses trained in Kenya is a very profitable deal. Whereas the UK government “typically spends at least £26,000, and sometimes far more, on a single nurse training post”, it costs only £10,000 to £12,000 to recruit a nurse from overseas, an externalization of costs that commodifies nurses, treating them like goods to be bought and sold.

However, in agreeing to the terms of the trade in Kenyan nurses, the two governments are merely formalizing the reality that a shortage of nurses in high-income countries has been driving the migration of nurses from low-income countries for over two decades now. Along with Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe, Kenya is one of the top 20 countries of origin of foreign-born or foreign-trained nurses working in the countries of the OECD, of which the UK is a member state.

Faced with this reality, and in an attempt to regulate the migration of healthcare workers, the World Health Assembly adopted the WHO Global Code of Practice on the Recruitment of Health Personnel in May 2010. The code, the adherence to which is voluntary, “provides ethical principles applicable to the international recruitment of health personnel in a manner that strengthens the health systems of developing countries, countries with economies in transition and small island states.”

Article 5 of the code encourages recruiting countries to collaborate with the sending countries in the development and training of healthcare workers and discourages recruitment from developing countries facing acute shortages. Given the non-binding nature of the code, however, and “the severe global shortage of nurses”, resource-poor countries, which carry the greatest disease burden globally, will continue to lose nurses to affluent countries. Wealthy nations will inevitably continue luring from even the poorest countries nurses in search of better terms of employment and better opportunities for themselves and their families; Haiti is on the list of the top 20 countries supplying the OECD region.

“Member States should discourage active recruitment of health personnel from developing countries facing critical shortages of health workers.”

Indeed, an empirical evaluation of the code four years after its adoption found that the recruitment of health workers has not undergone any substantial policy or regulatory changes as a direct result of its introduction. Countries had no incentive to apply the code and given that it was non-binding, conflicting domestic healthcare concerns were given the priority.

The UK’s Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has developed its own code of practice under which the country is no longer recruiting nurses from countries that the WHO recognizes as facing health workforce challenges. Kenya was placed on the UK code’s amber list on 11 November 2021, and active recruitment of health workers to the UK was stopped “with immediate effect” unless employers had already made conditional offers to nurses from Kenya on or before that date. Presumably, the Kenyan nurses who left for the UK in June 2022 fall into this category.

In explaining its decision, the DHSC states that “while Kenya is not on the WHO Health Workforce Support & Safeguards List, it remains a country with significant health workforce challenges. Adding Kenya to the amber list in the Code will protect Kenya from unmanaged international recruitment which could exacerbate existing health and social care workforce shortages.”

The WHO clarifies that nothing in its Code of Practice should be interpreted as curtailing the freedom of health workers to move to countries that are willing to allow them in and offer them employment. So, even as the UK suspends the recruitment of Kenyan nurses, they will continue to find opportunities abroad as long as Western countries continue to face nurse shortages. Kenyan nurses will go to the US where 203,000 nurses will be needed each year up to 2026, and to Australia where the supply of nursing school graduates is in decline, and to Canada where the shortage is expected to reach 117,600 by 2030, and to the Republic of Ireland which is now totally dependent on nurses recruited from overseas and where working conditions have been described as “horrendous”.

“Adding Kenya to the amber list in the Code will protect Kenya from unmanaged international recruitment which could exacerbate existing health and social care workforce shortages.”

Like hundreds of other Kenyan-trained nurses then, Nancy will take her skills overseas. She has found a recruitment agency through which to apply for a position abroad and is saving money towards the cost. She is not seeking to move to the UK, however; Nancy has been doing her research and has concluded that the United States is a much better destination given the more competitive salaries compared to the UK where nurses have voted to go strike over pay and working conditions. When she finally gets to the US, Nancy will join Diana*, a member of the over 90,000-strong Kenyan diaspora, more than one in four of whom are in the nursing profession.

Now in her early 50s, Diana had worked for one of the largest and oldest private hospitals in Nairobi for more than 20 years before moving to the US in 2017. She had on a whim presented her training certificates to a visiting recruitment agency that had set up shop in one of Nairobi’s high-end hotels and had been shortlisted. There followed a lengthy verification process for which the recruiting agency paid all the costs, requiring Diana to only sign a contract binding her to her future US employer for a period of two years once she had passed the vetting process.

Speaking from her home in Virginia last week, Diana told me that working as a nurse in the US “is not a bed of roses”, that although the position is well paying, it comes with a lot of stress. “The nurse-to-patient ratio is too high and the job is all about ticking boxes and finishing tasks, with no time for the patients,” she says, adding that in such an environment fatal mistakes are easily made. Like the sword of Damocles, the threat of losing her nursing licence hangs over Diana’s head every day that she takes up her position at the nursing station.

“The nurse-to-patient ratio is too high and the job is all about ticking boxes and finishing tasks, with no time for the patients.”

Starting out as an Enrolled Nurse in rural Kenya, Diana had over the years improved her skills, graduating as a Registered Nurse before acquiring a Batchelor of Science in Nursing from a top private university in Kenya, the tuition for which was partially covered by her employer.

Once in the US, however, her 20 years of experience counted for nothing and she was employed on the same footing as a new graduate nurse, as is the case for all overseas nurses moving to the US to work. Diana says that, on balance, she would have been better off had she remained at her old job in Kenya where the care is better, the opportunities for professional growth are greater and the work environment well controlled. But like many who have gone before her, Diana is not likely to be returning to Kenya any time soon.

*Names have been changed.

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Why Azimio’s Presidential Petition Stood No Chance

In so far as the court had nullified the 2017 elections, the evidential threshold required for any subsequent electoral nullification was going to be substantially high for any petitioner.

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Even before the 9 August general election, it was expected that the loser of the Kenyan presidential contest would petition the Supreme Court to arbitrate over the outcome. Predictably, the losing party, Azimio La Umoja-One Kenya Coalition, petitioned the court to have William Ruto’s win nullified on various procedural and technical grounds. Azimio’s case was predicated on, among others, three key allegations. First, that William Ruto failed to garner the requisite 50 per cent plus one vote. Second, that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) chairman Wafula Chebukati had announced the outcome without tallying and verifying results from seven constituencies. Finally, that the commission could not account for 250,000 votes that were cast electronically.

As we know, Azimio lost the case as the judges dismissed all the nine petitions that the party had filed, unanimously finding that William Ruto had won fairly.

Adjudicating electoral fallouts

Since its inception in 2010, the Supreme Court has played a decisive role in adjudicating fallouts linked to contentious presidential politics in Kenya, with the court deliberating on the outcome of three out of the four presidential elections held after its inauguration. Prior to this, the losing party had no credible institutional mechanism of redress and electoral disputes were generally resolved through mass political action (as in 2007) or consistent questioning of the legitimacy of the winner (as in 1992 and 1997).

The Supreme Court’s presence has, therefore, been crucial in providing losers with an institutionalised mechanism to channel dissent, with the court operating as a “safety valve” to diffuse political tensions linked to presidential elections. It is, hence, impossible to conceive of the relatively peaceful elections held in 2013, 2017 and 2022 without the Supreme Court whose mere presence has been key in discouraging some of the more deadly forms of political rivalry previously witnessed in Kenya.

Relentless petitioning

While the Azimio leadership were right to petition the court in the recent election, first because this successfully diffused the political tensions among their supporters, and second because the court was expected to provide directions on IEBC conduct in future elections, it was clear that Raila Odinga’s relentless petitioning of the court in the previous two elections, and the nullification of the 2017 elections, was in essence going to be a barrier to a successful petition in 2022.

In so far as the court had nullified the 2017 elections, the evidential threshold required for any subsequent electoral nullification was going to be substantially high for any petitioner. The relentless petitioning of the court and the nullification of the 2017 elections had in essence raised the bar for the burden of proof, which lay with the petitioner(s) and, therefore, reduced the probability of a successful petition.

The Supreme Court’s presence has been crucial in providing losers with an institutionalised mechanism to channel dissent.

The reason for this is both legal and political. Legal in the sense that the IEBC is expected to conduct the elections under the law, which, among other issues, requires that the electoral process be credible and the results verifiable before any certification is made, otherwise the election is nullified, as was the case in 2017. It is political because the power to select the president is constitutionally, hence politically, delegated to the Kenyan people through the ballot, unless electoral fraud infringes on this, again as was the case in 2017.

The court in its deliberation must, therefore, balance the legal-political trade-off in its verdict in search of a plausible equilibrium. For instance, while the majority of Azimio supporters had anticipated a successful petition based on the public walkout and dissent by the four IEBC commissioners, it seems that the decision to uphold the results displayed the court’s deference to political interpretation of the law by issuing a ruling that did not undermine the Kenyan voters’ right to elect their president.

While the settlement of legal-political disputes by a Supreme/Constitutional court is a common feature across democracies, and continuously being embedded in emerging democracies like Kenya, it does seem that in this election, the political motivations for upholding the vote outweighed the legal motivations for nullifying it. In essence, the court demonstrated its institutional independence by ruling against the Kenyatta-backed Azimio candidate due to insufficient evidence.

Supreme Court power grab 

A counterfactual outcome where the evidential threshold for the nullification of presidential results is low would foster a Supreme Court power grab, in lieu with the 2017 nullification, by marginalising the sovereign will of Kenyans to elect their president.

In many ways, nullification of the results would also have incentivised further adversarial political behaviour where every electoral outcome is contested in the Supreme Court even when the outcome is relatively clean, as in the case of the 2022 elections.

It is this reason (among others) that we think underlined the Supreme Court justices’ dismissal of Azimio’s recent petition. The justices ultimately dismissed the evidence presented by the petitioners as “hot air, outright forgeries, red herring, wild goose chase and unproven hypotheses”, setting a clear bar for the standard of evidence they expect in order to deliberate over such an important case in the future.

In essence, the court demonstrated its institutional independence by ruling against the Kenyatta-backed Azimio candidate due to insufficient evidence.

Since the earth-shaking nullification of the 2017 elections, the Supreme Court transcended an epoch, more political than legal by “invading” the sovereign space for Kenyans to elect their president, thereof setting a precedence that any future successful petition to contest a presidential election requires watertight evidence.

In a sense, Azimio were victims of Odinga’s judicial zealotry and especially the successful 2017 petition. In so far as the evidence submitted to the Supreme Court by Azimio in 2022 was at the same level or even lower than the 2017 base, their case at the Supreme Court was very likely to be dismissed and even ridiculed as the justices recently did.

The precedent set by the 2022 ruling will, actually, yield two positive political outcomes. First, it will in the future weed out unnecessary spam petitions that lack evidence and rather increase needless political tensions in the country. Second, it has signalled to future petitioners, that serious deliberations will only be given to petitions backed by rock-solid evidence.

Missed opportunity

From the recent ruling, it is evident that the judgement fell far below the precedent set in 2017. The 2017 Supreme Court ruling that the IEBC should make the servers containing Form 34A publicly available, was crucial in improving the credibility of the 2022 elections, by democratising the tallying process. At a minimum, the expectation was that the justices would provide a directive on the recent public fallout among the IEBC commissioners with regard to future national tallying and announcement of presidential results.

By dismissing the fallout as a mere corporate governance issue, the justices failed to understand the political ramifications of the “boardroom rupture”. What are we to do in the future if the IEBC Chair rejects the results and the other commissioners validate the results as credible?

Additionally, by ridiculing the petitioners as wild goose chasers and dismissing the evidence as “hot air”, the justices failed to maintain the amiable judicial tone necessary to decompress and assuage the bitter grievances among losers in Kenya high-octane political environment.

In a sense, Azimio were victims of Mr Odinga’s judicial zealotry and especially the 2017 successful petition.

The Supreme Court ought to resist the temptations of trivializing electoral petitions, as this has the potential of triggering democratic backsliding, where electoral losers might opt for extra-constitutional means of addressing their grievances as happened in December 2007. It is not in the petitioners’ place to ascertain whether their evidence is “hot air” or not, but for the court to do so, and in an amiable judicial tone that offers reconciliation in a febrile political environment.

The precedent set by the 2017 ruling that clarified the ambiguities related to the IEBC’s use of technology to conduct elections, set an incremental pathway towards making subsequent elections credible and fair, and increased public trust in the key electoral institutions in Kenya.

The justices, therefore, need to understand that their deliberations hold weight in the public eye and in the eyes of political leaders. Therefore, outlining recommendations to improve the IEBC’s conduct in future elections is a bare minimum expectation among Kenyans. In this case, while they provided some recommendations, they failed to comprehensively address the concerns around the walk-out by the four IEBC commissioners.

At the minimum, chastising the IEBC conduct was necessary to consolidate the electoral gains made thus far but also recalibrate institutional imperfections linked to how elections are to be conducted and, especially, contestations around the role of the commissioners in the national tallying of results in the future.

This article is part of our project on information and voter behaviour in the 2022 Kenyan elections. The project is funded by the Centre for Governance and Society, Department of Political Economy, King’s College London.

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GMOs Are Not the Only Answer

In a country where agricultural production is dominated by smallholders, the decision to allow genetically modified crops and animal feeds into Kenya as a means of combatting perennial hunger ignores other safer and more accessible alternatives such as Conservation Agriculture.

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Newly elected President William Ruto has, to use a much abused expression, hit the ground running. I am, however, not certain that he is running in the right direction. On 3 October 2022, during the second meeting of his recently (and unconstitutionally) constituted cabinet, Ruto announced that his government had authorized the cultivation and importation of genetically modified crops and animal feeds, sweeping aside the grave concerns raised by Kenyans and lifting a ten-year ban with the stroke of a pen.

The decision was made at a time when Kenya is facing the worst drought in four decades that has left over four million people facing starvation. According to President Ruto, the adoption of GMOs is the solution to the recurring cycles of drought and famine that Kenyans have been increasingly experiencing.

I shall not go into the merits and demerits of what some call Frankenfoods here. However, it seems to me that Ruto’s decision is driven solely by the political imperative to bring down the price of maize through cheap imports of GM maize following the withdrawal of the maize subsidy.

Already, back in November 2018, the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI), the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition (KBioC), the Africa Biodiversity Network (ABN) and Greenpeace Africa had issued a joint statement raising “concerns over recent disconcerting developments in the country, that [suggest] the Government has made [a] unilateral decision to adopt genetically modified crops”, and adding that “an all-inclusive nationwide discourse through public participation, which addresses whether the technology is appropriate for us, is being circumvented”.

The group also voiced their suspicion that the report of the Task Force to Review Matters Relating to Genetically Modified Foods and Food Safety that was set up by the Ministry of Health in 2013 was being withheld because it was against the adoption of GM foods. This suspicion may well be founded since, in making the announcement, State House said that the decision to lift the GMO ban was “made in accordance with the recommendation of the Task Force”, while failing to make the so-called Thairu report—which was submitted in 2014—available for public scrutiny.

The cabinet said that in reaching its decision to lift the ban it had also referred to reports of the European Food Safety Authority, among others.

The European Union’s policy on GMOs “respects the right-to-know by ensuring clear labelling and traceability of GMOs. This requires reliable methods for the detection, identification and quantification (for authorised GMO) in food, feed, and the environment”. There is zero tolerance for unapproved GMOs and stringent regulation of products originating from or containing GMOs.

A detailed risk analysis and the availability of a validated method for locating, identifying, and quantifying GMOs in food or feed are prerequisites for authorization. For any GM launch, biotech businesses that want to market their product in the EU must submit an application. A very precise way of detecting each unique GMO is included in the application dossier.

The terms of reference of the government’s GMO task force included, among others, assessing Kenya’s infrastructural capacities to monitor genetically modified products in the country; assessing the adequacy of qualified human resource capacity to monitor research, use and importation of genetically modified products into the country; and recommending approval procedures for imports of GM foods.

If we are to look only at the procedures established by the National Biosafety Authority for the importation of GM products into the country, then we may conclude that Kenya lacks the infrastructural and qualified human resource capacity to monitor their research, use and importation. In effect, an entity wishing to import a GM product into the country is merely required to provide the particulars of the supplier, the nomenclature of the GMO, proof that the GMO has been registered in the exporting country, its use in the country of origin, its intended use in Kenya, a summary risk assessment, methods and plans for safe handling, storage, transport and use, and the emergency response foreseen in the event of an accident with the GMO. The second of the two-page the application document is reserved for the applicant’s signature before a commissioner for oaths, a magistrate or a judge. Means of detection of GMOs are not mentioned.

It would seem then that Ruto’s government has fully devolved the responsibility for Kenya’s biosafety and biosecurity to the authorities of foreign nations. This is very frightening when you consider, for example, that the European Union Regulation EC304/2003 allows EU companies to produce and export to other countries pesticides that are banned or restricted in the EU. This double standard is the reason why active ingredients which have been withdrawn in the EU find their way to Kenya, poisoning our bodies and our environment, and destroying our biodiversity.

Maize is not the only ugali

The lifting of the ban on GMOs may have sounded the death knell for Kenyan small-scale maize growers; GM maize is to be found on the international markets at prices that defy all competition, which will now prove to be a boon for well-connected maize-importing cartels.

But maize, a staple in the majority of Kenyan households, is a relatively recent arrival on our national menu, becoming a major staple during the First World War when disease in millet led to famine.

As Noel Vietmeyer observes in the foreword to the first volume of Lost Crops of Africa,

“Lacking the interest and support of the authorities (most of them non-African colonial authorities, missionaries, and agricultural researchers), the local grains could not keep pace with the up-to-the-minute foreign cereals, which were made especially convenient to consumers by the use of mills and processing. The old grains languished and remained principally as the foods of the poor and the rural areas. Eventually, they took on a stigma of being second-rate. Myths arose—that the local grains were not as nutritious, not as high yielding, not as flavorful, nor as easy to handle. As a result, the native grains were driven into internal exile. In their place, maize, a grain from across the Atlantic, became the main food from Senegal to South Africa.”

But with initiatives such as the Busia County Biodiversity Policy, which recognises the role that biodiversity can play in addressing food insecurity, the tide is turning and Kenyans are rediscovering and embracing the culinary habits of our forebears. You would think then that the GMO decision will not, in the main, affect the choices we make in the foods we consume. That those of us a tad squeamish about eating foods that have been genetically interfered with can opt out.

Were it that simple.

Many Kenyans are unaware that the Seed and Plant Varieties Act Cap 326 of 2012 prohibits farmers from sharing, exchanging or selling uncertified and unregistered seeds. Yet, to mitigate against the effects of perennial droughts and the escalating costs of hybrid seeds, community seed banks have been conserving indigenous seeds—that are demonstrably more climate-resilient—for sale during the planting season, in contravention of the law and at the risk of a one million shilling fine, or two years’ imprisonment, or both. Criminalising a system through which small-scale farmers acquire 90 per cent of their planting material does not augur well for Kenya’s food security, or for our biodiversity. Small-scale farmers are fighting back, however, with a group from Machakos recently going to court to challenge the legislation. It remains to be seen who between David and Goliath will prevail.

But maize, a staple in the majority of Kenyan households, is a relatively recent arrival on our national menu, becoming a major staple during the First World War when disease in millet led to famine.

What is clear is that Kenya’s David, while remaining impoverished over the decades since independence, is the mainstay of the country’s agriculture in terms of productivity. The Economic Survey (2021) of the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics reports that,

“The share of marketed agricultural output for small farms increased marginally to 73.3 per cent in 2020. This is a reflection of the continued dominance of the smallholder sector in the marketing of agricultural produce during the year under review. The value of sales through small farms increased by 9.4 per cent from KSh 341.4 billion in 2019 to KSh 373.6 billion in 2020. Similarly, the value of sales by large farms increased by 8.9 per cent from KSh 125.0 billion in 2019 to KSh 136.1 billion in 2020.”

The survey defines large farms as those above 20 hectares.

The small-holder has consistently outperformed the large-scale farmer despite government policies that have since the 70s viewed smallholders as without agency beyond adopting technologies that are presented as capable of transforming agriculture and building livelihoods. The adoption of GMOs is likely to be yet another of these technologies that, together with unjust seed legislation, will increase rather than decrease Kenya’s food insecurity.

President Ruto worries about food insecurity but fails to consider the very ready solution available to his administration and recommended in the Agricultural Policy (2021) of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Cooperatives, namely, conservation agriculture.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO – also quoted in Ruto’s decision to lift the GMO ban) recommends conservation agriculture as it is a sustainable system of production that conserves and enhances natural resources; enhances biodiversity; assists in carbon sequestration; is less labour and fertilizer intensive; improves the health of soils; and increases yields over time.

Criminalising a system through which small-scale farmers acquire 90 per cent of their planting material does not augur well for Kenya’s food security, or for our biodiversity.

The very promising results obtained among the small-scale farmers that have adopted the system following training under the FAO beginning in 2015 show that the government would do well to promote conservation agriculture among smallholders as a means of mitigating both against food insecurity and the effects of climate change, rather than hastily reaching for GM technologies that the country is ill-equipped to safely handle.

But clearly, the president is not on the same page as his Ministry of Agriculture and so, like others, I can only conclude that Ruto’s lifting of the GMO ban is for the benefit of the seed multinationals and their clients, the large-scale farmers who have taken over most of the productive land to grow cash crops for export, leaving small-scale farmers to exploit marginal lands for the production of food crops for local consumption. And for the benefit of maize-importing cartels.

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