“If democracy is someday to regain control of capitalism, it must start by recognising that the concrete institutions in which democracy and capitalism are embodied need to be reinvented again and again.” (Piketty 2014: 570).
During the run-up to the US elections in November, a number of my African colleagues and friends told me that Trump would win the presidency. Several even opined that something good would come out of it in the end. Experience has taught me to treat such counterintuitive observations with a degree of cautious respect. But this particular appraisal was a tricky proposition.
Trump ran more on outrage with the status quo, homespun economic nationalism, and anti-Hillary sentiment than workable policies for reversing the domestic malaise framing his rude political rhetoric. The Tea Party crowd flocked to Trump’s campaign, presenting Trump with the kind of political stage suited to his unconventional and often reptilian behaviour. The national media feasted on Trump’s antics and divisive positions, but the condescending coverage of the campaign of a candidate who started out as an outlier also camouflaged the more clinical aspects of his strategy to defeat Hillary Clinton.
The poll numbers and sophisticated data analyses dismissed the likelihood of a Trump victory. But then the same electorate who twice elected Obama by sizeable majorities propelled his polar opposite into the White House.
For the many millions of Americans and others around the world distressed by the Trump campaign, the implications of his electoral-college victory was like waking up to a collective nightmare. Most of my friends, family and colleagues were stunned. Anger and agitation quickly replaced the shock. Obama’s bleak reaction, “Well, it’s not the Apocalypse,” offered little comfort.
This added up to a lot to think about as I made my way back to the US for the first time since 2004, arriving in the country two days after Trump’s inauguration. I was told to expect massive changes. My destination was Salt Lake City, the capital of Utah, socially the most conservative of the red states of the American West.
Exposure to racist theology like that of the Church of Latter Day Saints was a primary motivator for the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. Tommy Smith won the 200 metres in world record time followed by John Carlos in third place. The medallists mounted the podium barefoot, to symbolise the poverty of their African-American community, and raised black-gloved fists in defiance during the raising of the American flag. The protest triggered an explosion of institutional indignation and recriminations portraying Smith and Carlos as Nazis and traitors
For decades, many Americans considered the Mormon-dominated state to be a quasi-theocratic no-go zone with a unique past that set Utah apart from other ultra-conservative Western states like Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and the Dakotas.
During my two previous trips I had found a large and variegated landscape of rangeland, desert, and mountains, with a large inland sea thrown in to boot. I found many similarities between Utah and Marsabit and the Lake Turkana region, including its traditional spatial and social separation from the rest of the country.
Mormons fleeing religious persecution in the East settled in Utah at a time when almost everyone else was heading to California. The Territory of Utah was officially recognised in 1851. It was the only Western state to allow slavery, and attempted to secede from the Union shortly afterwards. Washington was compelled to send in the army. Brigham Young, who had succeeded the religion’s founder, Joseph Smith, capitulated, but with the promise that the government would grant the Mormons autonomy to live according to their religion. The Church of Latter Day Saints has dominated the state’s economy and government ever since.
The Book of Mormon stated that the indigenous peoples the white settlers found in their new home originally came from the Middle East, but had divided into two antagonistic groups. The “Lamanites” were idolaters revealed to have extinguished a population of “Nephrite” Hebrews who had migrated to the New World several hundred years before the coming of Christ. Mormon scripture saw dark skin as a curse from God for wickedness, but otherwise taught that peoples of colour who converted and abandoned their culture would become white over time.
Exposure to this racist theology was a primary motivator for the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. Tommy Smith won the 200 metres in world record time followed by John Carlos in third place. The medallists mounted the podium barefoot, to symbolise the poverty of their African-American community, and raised black-gloved fists in defiance during the raising of the American flag. The protest triggered an explosion of institutional indignation and recriminations portraying Smith and Carlos as Nazis and traitors. The firestorm also curtailed the running career of the Australian silver medallist who in solidarity wore the same human rights badge pinned to the Americans’ jerseys.
It was a radicalising moment: I compiled a comprehensive report of the protest and the conditions leading up to it for a high school project. The racism of the church of Latter Day Saints added to my impressions of the state based on the gruesome fate of the Westward-bound Donner party caravan and the numerous massacres of the local Amerindian communities during the early days of the territory. Many of us growing up at that time saw Utah as the American equivalent of Albania or North Korea.
The Civil Rights movement had already done most of the heavy lifting. This in turn provided a platform for the anti-war movement. Before long, what began as a political movement for peace and racial inclusion coalesced into a much broader social upheaval
Utah has evolved during the intervening decades. The US government has resettled refugees of diverse backgrounds in the state. Salt Lake City’s industry-friendly environment also attracted the tech companies relocating from California, bringing the formerly isolated state into the American mainstream over the past two decades. Readily available jobs, a reasonable cost of living, and a network of Kenyan friends and family already established in the former no-go zone attracted several of my kids to Salt Lake City.
The growing cultural diversity has not altered the state’s bedrock conservatism. Mitt Romney and George Bush Jr still received a phenomenal 72 per cent of Utah’s vote in 2012 and 2008. Although Donald Trump’s tally did not reach these heights in 2016, the sum of these factors designated this most red of states an appropriate re-entry point for my tour of Trump’s America.
Steve Bannon, the Breitbart News executive who became one of the key architects of the Trump campaign, declared that if you want to change politics you have to change culture first. There was the angst on the surface and uncertainty lurking underneath, but was the Republican clean sweep of White House, the Senate, and House of representatives really a marker of far-reaching culture change?
THE COUNTERCULTURAL ROOTS OF THE TRUMP PRESIDENCY
Bannon clearly arrived at his change-the-culture thesis by observing the counterculture that emerged while my generation came of age, a phenomenon that reshaped American society and politics along the way.
The post-World War II period was an era of unprecedented prosperity, middle-class growth and technological progress for the USA. Politics was something that our parents followed as it came around in four-year cycles. America was a truly great place to grow up, as long as you could keep the fear of nuclear Armageddon, and other industrial-scale threats, at a safe distance.
For the young Americans growing up in customisable bubbles coloured by the scientific advances underpinning the futuristic orientation of American society, that was harder to do as the 1960s wore on. The raised fists in Mexico City — along with other radicalising events like the Vietnam war, the violent suppression of the Yippie protests at the Chicago Democratic Convention, and the river in Cleveland that actually caught fire and burnt for 17 days — confirmed my own doubts about how wonderful everything was or was supposed to be.
The Civil Rights movement had already done most of the heavy lifting. This in turn provided a platform for the anti-war movement. Before long, what began as a political movement for peace and racial inclusion coalesced into a much broader social upheaval. The country entered a state of agitation sustained by an expanding range of worthy causes from the conditions of migrant farm workers to rampant industrial pollution. Much of the conflict was generational, and reflected a polarising explosion of new memes, pheromones, and mind-altering visions.
As the awakening and the activism of the Vietnam era ran its course, American conservatives felt increasingly isolated. Not only had their values been shunted aside, the country’s conservative hard core saw the reforms and new liberalism as a direct threat to the sources of their wealth. Conservative partisans like Steve Bannon may have missed the party, but they were taking notes
The sentiment at the time was that only a far-reaching cultural reorientation could triumph against the entrenched political order and the military-industrial complex controlling it. The mix of hot politics and cool culture was always more about challenging the conventional assumptions underpinning American exceptionalism than the political revolution advocated by the far-left fringe.
Waves of new music, innovative lifestyles, radical role models, and more mundane concerns like promoting healthy dietary choices rocked the national status quo. People started searching for alternatives to the mindless consumption of the planet’s limited resources. Tabs, buttons, and mushrooms opened up new internal vistas that encouraged interest in ancient cultures and their spiritual religious traditions. We probed the mystical symbols adorning the dollar bill and investigated the esoteric philosophies guiding the new nation’s founding fathers.
The combination of protests, new cultural orientations, and developments in the war zones of Southeast Asia shifted public opinion. Withdrawal from Vietnam accompanied progress on other fronts from race relations to female liberation. New legislation addressed discrimination based on colour, creed, and gender, reined in the CIA, and created the Environmental Protection Agency to control serial polluters.
The ship had been righted, the course of the nation redirected, and use of the term “politically correct” offered backhanded acknowledgement of the nation’s cultural makeover in politics. In the end, many of the political attitudes engendered by the counterculture followed long hair, frayed jeans, and recreational marijuana use into mainstream America.
The changes, affected over a relatively short period, had made America even more exceptional in our eyes. But some observers disagreed. The eminent anthropologist Marvin Harris opined that the main impact of the counterculture was selling a lot of records. Iconoclastic musician Frank Zappa said that rock music’s potential revolutionary impact had been felt mostly in the textile industry. Cultural revolution did little to change the nation’s political structures and economy.
As the awakening and the activism of the Vietnam era ran its course, American conservatives felt increasingly isolated. Their champion, the embattled president Nixon, resigned office in disgrace. Not only had their values been shunted aside, the country’s conservative hard core saw the reforms and new liberalism as a direct threat to the sources of their wealth. They were still wealthy, but had become dinosaurs inhabiting a political landscape dominated by progressive ideas and proponents of activist government. Conservative partisans like Steve Bannon may have missed the party, but they were taking notes.
IT’S NOT REALLY ABOUT TRUMP
The Koch brothers are ferociously independent heirs to one of the largest private corporations in the United States. Like the Bush family and their cronies, their father, Fred Koch, built up his fortune during the 1930s, training Bolshevik engineers and selling his advanced oil refining technology and refineries to Stalin and Hitler’s Germany. His children’s nanny was a Hitler sympathiser, and after the war Fred Koch became a strong supporter of the rabidly anti-Communist John Birch Society to assuage his guilt over aiding the USSR. He transferred his extreme libertarian values to his sons, and after his death in 1967, Charles and David Koch bought out their two more liberal minded siblings.
In Dark Money, a book first released in 2016, Jane Mayer tells the story of how the Koch Brothers assembled a network of 400 über-wealthy industrialists. Mayer’s documentation of their activities reads like a virtual symphony of corporate crime in the form of fraud, tax avoidance, violations of workplace safety and employee welfare, foreign bribery, and environmental violations
Under the brothers, Koch Industries became the country’s second wealthiest private corporation, and they parlayed their financial muscle into the single most influential political machine in the country. Their first venture, David Koch’s run for the presidency on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1980, failed miserably. Plan B was based on a totally different approach. It began with annual summits attended by a handpicked list of like-minded individuals opposed to most forms of government regulation and taxation.
In Dark Money, a book first released in 2016, Jane Mayer tells the story of how the Koch Brothers assembled a network of 400 über-wealthy industrialists who leveraged their money and influence to penetrate the American political system for their personal financial benefit. The brothers are the sixth and seventh wealthiest Americans and their combined wealth makes them number one. Most of those they recruited belong to the top .01% of the country’s wealthiest billionaires and are known as the “invisible rich” because they operate private companies that shield them from public scrutiny and government rules for fiscal disclosure.
Mayer’s documentation of their activities reads like a virtual symphony of corporate crime in the form of fraud, tax avoidance, violations of workplace safety and employee welfare, foreign bribery, and environmental violations. Over several decades, this network, or the Kochtopus as it was dubbed by one analyst, spent billions of dollars funnelled through tax-free foundations and charities exempted from public oversight to promote their objectives.
The Koch summits provided the institutional foundation and financial support for a long-term strategy based on three overlapping components: The reformulation of libertarian ideology in terms of ideas and concepts enabling its propagation within mainstream society; the creation of institutions for translating this free-market ideology into policy positions and legislation; and building political vehicles on the ground for placing politicians aligned with their ideas and policies into public office.
Most of the Koch-networked and -funded institutions and political action committees, like Americans for Prosperity, flew underneath the radar. At the same time, an array of media personalities, talk show hosts, and academic celebrities duplicated the role that rock musicians, intellectuals and artists, political activists, and outspoken athletes like Mohammed Ali played in energising the masses several decades before. They elevated the role of divisive social issues like abortion rights in the political arena, fuelling the culture wars that influenced otherwise politically moderate citizens.
The Koch network funded think tanks based in respected universities to reinforce their anti-government ideology and critiques of public spending. Covertly funded political action committees were used to gain control of executive offices and legislative bodies. Over a period of 40 years, the Koch Brothers and their clique of archconservative supporters patiently cultivated a right-wing movement, often with more power to block and obstruct than to legislate their own agenda.
An array of media personalities, talk show hosts, and academic celebrities duplicated the role that rock musicians, intellectuals and artists, political activists, and outspoken athletes like Mohammed Ali played in energising the masses several decades before. They elevated the role of divisive social issues like abortion rights in the political arena
But despite the inroads and influence generated by their free-flowing money, the Koch network still lacked a nation-wide vehicle for mobilising grassroots supporters.
ENTER BARACK OBAMA, PURSUED BY MAD HATTERS
Help came from an unexpected source.
The election of Barrack Obama in 2008 triggered the formation of the anti-government Tea Party movement. Its emergence enabled the Koch network to dedicate their annual summit in 2009 to organise an all-out assault on the Democrats during the 2010 mid-term elections. Tea Party candidates defeated Democrat and mainstream Republican incumbents as the GOP regained control of the House and Senate. The trend continued in 2012, even though Obama retained the White House with a 5.5 million-vote margin of victory.
Despite their growing clout within the federal and state governments, the Koch-Tea Party coalition could not field a viable presidential candidate of their own creation, as demonstrated by the succession of inchoate candidates like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, Michelle Bachmann, and the pizza king Herman Cain.
The problem was about to repeat itself in 2016, until along came the Donald. Trump blitzed the field, reducing both establishment candidates like Jeb Bush and Tea Party aspirants to props in his carnival-style campaign. He proceeded to tweet himself into the White House, portraying himself as a new and independent force in American politics.
That he was. “I even did without a guitar and piano,” he quipped, a jibe referring to the star power Hillary Clinton trundled out at the end of her self-satisfied campaign.
Actually, the Trump team had something much better. Cambridge Analytica is a company dedicated to “the use of data to change behaviour,” or in the case of the 2016 election, using emotional manipulation based on psychological profiling to induce people to vote against their own socioeconomic interest. Electoral analysts confirm that CA helped sway the vote in key swing states like Florida, North Carolina, and Michigan, but their advanced analytics arguably required the distortionary prism cultivated by the alt-right players like Breitbart News and Steve Bannon to be effective.
THE REAL HOMELAND INSECURITY
It is easy to denigrate Trump the person. But Trump the politician scored some important points on my political scorecard. I had witnessed the beginning of the decline overtaking rural areas in the American South, and now even communities and people in America’s heartland who did everything by the book to adapt to the industrial decline still couldn’t win. The economic nationalism agenda clearly spoke to their concerns, even if it was short on viable solutions.
Despite their growing clout within the federal and state governments, the Koch-Tea Party coalition could not field a viable presidential candidate of their own creation, as demonstrated by the succession of inchoate candidates like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, Michelle Bachmann, and the pizza king Herman Cain. The problem was about to repeat itself in 2016, until along came the Donald
A Trump versus Bernie Sanders contest focusing debate on the overlapping issues at the core of both candidates’ campaigns would have been much better for the country and the eventual winner. That did not happen thanks to the Democratic National Committee’s pro-Hillary machinations. Instead, we got a noisy post-truth spectacle that made one candidate look like a sleazy demagogue while the other came across as an opportunistic mannikin compromised by special interests.
The country emerged from the polls more polarised than ever, and the acrimony of the aftermath offered little hope for improvement. The fact that Trump was not part of the Kochtopus and the Koch brothers did not support his campaign offered some hope: Maybe the guy would revert to the former Democrat who was cool with Dennis Rodman on The Celebrity Apprentice. But then again, Vice President Michael Pence was a Koch-funded poodle; Trump promptly loaded his Cabinet with Koch partisans like Betsy DeVoss and Ben Carson.
It was not easy to see where my friend’s “something good will come out this” would come from with these people in charge.
A few days after I arrived in Utah, Trump announced his Muslim travel ban. A wave of spontaneous protests erupted as airport authorities detained several hundred arrivals from abroad including a former Middle Eastern head of state. The mainstream media went into overdrive and anti-Trump posts proliferated on social media, many of them creative, incisive, and entertaining. This and the breaking news about Russia drove a former State Department official to lament that the US has become a “Banana Republic.”
Although a federal judge declared the ban unconstitutional on the first working day following the executive order, a Utah-based friend from Lamu, spooked by the ban, still felt it necessary to travel back to Kenya to escort his wife, who had just received her long-awaited US visa, past airport immigration and security. More significantly, three days later, the LDS church issued a statement opposing the ban.
I argued that the election was the best thing that happened for progressive forces in decades. It woke people up, and saved the world from a hawkish and dissembling Hillary. At least the decades of drift culminating in the aristocratic takeover of party and state by the Clinton dynasty were over
This was unexpected news, as was a University of Utah study that reported most Muslim immigrants found the state more welcoming and adjusting to the US easier in Utah’s family oriented and no-alcohol Mormon culture. I also discovered that the religion’s founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, was actually an abolitionist, and that the Utah territory granted women the right to vote in 1870, 50 years before the federal government legislated universal suffrage by passing the 19th Amendment (Congress responded by disenfranchising Utah women with the Edmunds–Tucker Act, which was designed to weaken the Mormons politically and punish them for polygamy).
Red America is not as monolithic as it may appear in media political narratives. I spent Super Bowl Sunday in Salt Lake City with a houseful of Mexican relatives. More of them were more upset with the New England Patriot’s last minute Trump-style victory than worried about Trump’s wall.
I visited blue America. We convened a large family gathering in Los Angeles, and spent time with friends in San Francisco. There were a lot of Teslas and other electric cars, and a few self-driving vehicles on the freeways, their passengers contently working on phones and tablets.
THE COMING SECESSION OF HOTEL CALIFORNIA?
California is the high-tech future. But it is also the land of a new long-tail market peasantry. Internet-savvy entrepreneurs were surviving by reselling appliances and other recycled items. Co-operatives in the form of Internet-based groups were pooling their knowledge to utilise the online economy.
I have in-laws in LA who subsist by swapping coupons and minimising household costs through scientific shopping for bargains and stocking their freezer with food reduced for clearance.
Despite their struggle to keep body and soul intact, every month they host poetry readings and other cultural events in their home that are attended by dozens of friends and associates more concerned with the fate of the country than their own declining incomes.
The two coasts had emerged as the centre of anti-Trump activism, and some of the protests, like the student protests in Berkeley that forced the administration to cancel an appearance by the Breitbart editor, Milo Yiannopoulos, crossed the line, violating basic constitutional and democratic principles. When I mentioned the retrogressive nature of some of these developments, my friends in California ranted about the new regime and talked about secession in terms that recalled my conversations with the Mombasa Republican Council’s leadership.
I responded by arguing that the election was the best thing that happened for progressive forces in decades. It woke people up, and saved the world from a hawkish and dissembling Hillary. Contributions to the American Civil Liberties Union were spiking; at least the decades of drift culminating in the aristocratic takeover of party and state by the Clinton dynasty were over.
Other developments of the past several months painted a much more nuanced picture of the state of the nation. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick revisited the spirit of the Mexico Olympic protest by refusing to stand for the national anthem. In pro-Trump Louisiana, the city of New Orleans took down the statue of Robert E. Lee — the state’s last remaining symbol of the Confederacy. John McCain penned an incisive op-ed in the New York Times underscoring the importance of human rights in foreign policy as an extension of domestic American values. Bob Dylan, the first poet of the counterculture, became a Nobel laureate.
The United States is a highly dualistic nation held together by a strong political centre. The nation’s political trajectory has consistently zigzagged between right and left of centre over the course of my lifetime. The transition from Obama to Trump was consistent with this dialectic
After the election, the website for the largest Tea Party PAC crowed that it took the anti-war movement 25 years to elect one of their own to the White House while they had done the same over the course of two electoral cycles. In reality, the success rate of Tea Party candidates peaked in 2012. Now minority politicians with names like Chokwe Lumumba and Khalid Kamau were winning seats in local government. Unheralded candidates recently won by-elections for seats in New Hampshire and New Jersey districts that had never elected a Democrat.
In his book What’s Wrong With Kansas, Thomas Frank describes how conservatives used religion and the culture wars to flip the formerly progressive state into a Republican stronghold. A decade later, the economy is tanking, while the state’s model education system deteriorates due to the spending cuts instituted by the Koch-supported Governor. Back in another flyover state, there are helped wanted signs everywhere and the Utah economy is booming. The difference is not accidental.
After I returned to Kenya, Bloomberg News published an article entitled How Utah is Keeping the American Dream Alive. The writer begins by confessing, “There’s no getting around it: For a girl raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Salt Lake City is a very weird place.” She then proceeds to detail how the state government is collaborating with Latter Day Saints agencies to provide social protection for the poor while providing job training addressing local demand for skilled and semi-skilled labour. The formula is generating Scandinavian levels of social mobility in a state with a small but committed civil service and the country’s lowest per capita expenditure on education.
FACING AN UNEXCEPTIONAL FUTURE?
In 2017, I found a country not so different from the one I left on the brink of electing Barack Obama. Communication was efficient and uncomplicated; people were without exception polite, helpful, and friendly. The malls were filled with new versions of the usual stuff, and if you shopped smart most of it was much cheaper than it would cost in Kenya. Smoking reefer was laissez faire or just legal. The junk food was healthier, and the country was awash with innovative ideas and creative content. East Africa has changed so much more during the interim. But appearances can be deceptive.
Truth will make a comeback, and there is a world of well-informed and innovative solutions out there to get things going. Once again, it’s looking like my African friends got it right
The United States is a highly dualistic nation held together by a strong political centre. The nation’s political trajectory has consistently zigzagged between right and left of centre over the course of my lifetime. This makes for a lot of contradictions, but also for a more purple Republic over the long run. The transition from Obama to Trump was consistent with this dialectic, which is also a source of American democracy’s distinctive pattern of continuous change and incremental reform. President Trump is the latest exhibit in this tradition, but there are caveats.
The problem is not that Trump’s diagnoses of the nation’s problems were not on target. His vision for making America Great Again, in contrast, is informed by nostalgia, special interests, and backward-looking solutions. Trump’s proposed budget and tax cuts will injure the less educated and economically insecure voters who flocked to his rallies. The jobs at the Carrier factory Trump “saved” from being outsourced to Mexico are to be automated. Many elements of the economic nationalism he showcased on the stump are already in remission, and he is retreating from the foreign policy positions he used to whip up the crowds. He turned the government’s Middle East foreign policy over to the Saudis in exchange for a large order of weapons.
The future of the middle class is uncertain. The accelerating pace of machine learning and artificial intelligence may bring about the economic singularity within a generation. The country I grew up in was about exploration, problem solving, and optimising potential as we moved forward. Now I sense that for many Americans, the future is as murky as the Great Salt Lake on a cloudy winter day.
EVIL WINNERS WHO INVESTED IN PSEUDO-CHARITIES
The Koch Brothers and their friends tried to manufacture a new political culture based on libertarian values, but are really perpetuating the same financial industrial royalty presidents from Jefferson to Eisenhower warned us about. The likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are following the tradition of other American philanthropists guided by noblesse oblige; the super wealthy populating the alt-right are evil winners who invested in pseudo-charities dedicated to advancing their own narrow interests.
Things were humming along until an outsider crashed the party.
Now the Trump presidency is unravelling in the face of problems largely of his own making. Our institutions are engaged, and my only hope is Trump & Co stay in office long enough to take down the whole prevaricating, alternative fact, toxic waste emitting and hate-mongering circus. We have seen worse, and I don’t begrudge the sincere citizens who played their trump card on the Donald having their day in the sun. But now it’s time to sort out the unprecedented crisis of inequality facing capitalism everywhere. Truth will make a comeback, and there is a world of well-informed and innovative solutions out there to get things going.
Once again, it’s looking like my African friends got it right.
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.
“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.
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”?
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.
“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).
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.
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.
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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