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ELECTION 2017: A Silent Panic in Kenya

21 min read. Fearing a repeat of the 2007/8 post-election violence, Luo and Luhya men in Nairobi and Naivasha are sending their families to their ‘rural homes’

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About a month ago, I bumped into an old friend by sheer chance on the streets of Nairobi. Night Atieno and I grew up together in the same city estate and, although we hardly met thereafter, every encounter was an opportunity to catch up and laugh about the good old estate days.

After the usual exchange of pleasantries, Night straightaway asked me what my thoughts on the impending August general election were. “We are planning to vote very early in the morning, after which we must leave town by latest 9am,” she said. “We will then drive all the way to Mwanza. By nightfall, Inshallah, we shall be taking supper with my in-laws.” Mwanza, the second largest city, after Dar es Salaam, is the lakeshore town in the northwestern region of Tanzania.

THIS TIME, THERE’S NO GOING TO THE SUPREME COURT

Looking at me right in the eyes, she whispered: “Listen, this time, there’s no going to the Supreme Court.” She was referring to the first ever Presidential Election Petition case No. 5 taken to the inaugural Supreme Court of Kenya in March 2013 by the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD), the opposition coalition led by Raila Amolo Odinga, seeking to overturn the election victory of the Jubilee coalition led by Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta, today the fourth president of Kenya.

On March 9, five days after the general election that was held on March 4, 2013, Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), through its then chairman Issack Hassan, announced the election results thus: Uhuru Kenyatta — 6,173,433 votes which constituted 50.07 percent of the total votes cast, beating Raila’s 5,340,546, which comprised 43.31 percent.

Suing the IEBC on March 16, 2013, Raila sought to stop the swearing in of Uhuru as a president. It never came to pass. Uhuru was sworn in as the president on April 9, 2013 at Kasarani Stadium.

The Supreme Court judges led by then Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, in arriving at their verdict, said: “In summary, the evidence in our opinion, does not disclose any profound irregularity in the management of the electoral process, nor does it gravely impeach the mode of participation in the electoral process by any of the candidates who offered himself or herself before the voting public.”

The judges further said: “It is not evident, on the facts of this case, that the candidate declared as the president-elect had not obtained the basic vote-threshold justifying his being declared as such. We will therefore disallow the petition, and uphold the presidential election results as declared by IEBC on March 9, 2013.”

That Supreme Court judgment read under less than 10 minutes cast a shadow of devastation and disquiet over the opposition’s core supporters. The promulgation of the new Constitution in August 27, 2010, had created the hitherto new Supreme Court and heralded a new confidence in a much-maligned justice system among Kenyans in all walks of life.

So, when Raila went to the Supreme Court to seek electoral justice, his loyal supporters who had just fervently voted for him, believed in the benign promise of a new court that had promised to dispense justice without fear or favour. It is not hyperbole to state that ever since the reading of that very short judgment by former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, a majority of Raila’s supporters have yet to overcome the spirit of deflation that engulfed them.

When Raila went to the Supreme Court to seek electoral justice, his loyal supporters who had just voted for him, believed in the benign promise of a new court that had promised to dispense justice without fear or favour

To date, the subject of one of the shortest judgements ever passed by a Supreme Court, has become a taboo narrative among opposition supporters and even among some of the leading lawyers across the country. “Let’s just put it this way,” a prominent Nairobi lawyer who did not want his name disclosed, told me, “The Supreme Court failed in its maiden moment to inspire confidence among Kenyans. It made this worse by its mode of presentation of the verdict.” The lawyer said even among themselves as senior counsels, the conversation around the Supreme Court judgement leaves “a sour taste in the mouth.”

In a parting shot, Night, who is a businesswoman, told me “Kama mbaya, mbaya…wacha wanaume waonane.” If the worst comes to the worst…so be it. Let men face each other!

Night’s scheduled temporary migration in August is part of a silent movement that has been taking place since December among the people of Nyanza and the larger western Kenya who live in Nairobi city, Eldoret and Naivasha towns.

“In the guise of travelling upcountry for Christmas holiday 2016, many family men from the ghettos of Nairobi transported their wives and children to their rural homesteads in Nyanza and Western Kenya,” said my source who spoke to me in confidence. “The month of December was just the right time because the children were on holiday, were relocating to their rural homes and so there was ample time to transit to new schools.”

“I’m a board member of a school in Siaya County,” my confidant told me. “When we sat in January 2017, to admit fresh pupils and pupils seeking transfers, we dwelt mainly with parents from Nairobi and Eldoret.” Investigating further on where the parents from Nairobi were from, he found out they largely came from Kariobangi North, Mathare North, Mathare 4A, Ngei/Huruma and Ngomongo.

It is not for nothing that the parents from some of the toughest slums of Nairobi are sending their children and extended family back home. These slums, today divided between Embakasi North, Mathare and Ruaraka constituencies, were the sites of bloodletting following the bungled December, 2007 general election that led to at least 1,400 people getting killed and 600,000 Kenyans displaced countrywide, especially in the Rift Valley region.

These ghettos, which are inhabited largely by the two “antagonist” ethnic communities — the Kikuyus and Luos — exploded into violence on December 30, 2007, when young men from the two communities faced off with weapons such as daggers, hunting knives and, pangas.

NOBODY IS TAKING ANY CHANCES, ESPECIALLY IN THE NAIROBI SLUMS

Regardless of whatever outcome is anticipated a month from now, given the heightened tensions, “Nobody is taking any chances, least of all the people living in the slums, who bore the greatest brunt of the violence,” said my informant.

If the slums are witnessing a vertical exodus, that of families moving from the urban to the rural, the men who have remained behind have been also moving, but horizontally. In Ngei and Huruma slums, which are in Mathare constituency, and are adjacent to each other, Luo and Luhya men have been changing houses, moving closer to their kinsmen within the same area. In the sprawling Mathare slum. for example, there are areas that are predominantly populated by Kikuyus, while others are populated by Luos. This “cross-border” movement — of shifting rented accommodation to beef up and secure their respective ethnic group safety— has been going on since January.

If the slums are witnessing a vertical exodus, that of families moving from the urban to the rural, the men who have remained behind have been also moving, but horizontally

In the peri-urban areas bordering the city on the south, a similar movement has been also taking place. Non-Kikuyus, mostly Luos living in the Riruta Satellite area, too have been sending their family back to their ancestral homes in western Kenya. Riruta Satellite is a quasi-rural, quasi-ghetto,village bordering the Waithaka area, mainly populated by Kikuyus.

Translation: We have been neighbours. On 8th of August don't divide us

Translation: We have been neighbours. On 8th of August don’t divide us

Riruta and Waithaka areas are in Dagoretti South constituency, which in Kenyan political parlance “belongs” to the Jubilee Party coalition. A friend — a veteran journalist who worked for the defunct Kenya Times in the 1980s and is from the Luo community and who has lived in Riruta Satellite for close to three decades — confided to me that his kinsmen have been shipping their families back home during the December and Easter holidays.

To the north of Riruta is Kawangware, a sprawling ghetto today populated equally by Kikuyus and Luhyas. Many Luhya families were settled in Kawangware and Kangemi areas, which are in Dagoretti North and Westlands constituencies respectively, during the time of Fred Gumo when he was appointed as a City Council commissioner by former president Daniel Arap Moi in 1989. Gumo was later to serve as a three-term MP for Westlands.

GET THE AWAY FROM SODOM

The Luhya families, like their counterparts from the Nyanza region, have relocated their wives and children — “Wacha wao waende nyumbani tubaki tukilinda mji (Let the women and children be sent away so that we men can remain to guard the homes),” a Luhya man from Sodom told me. Sodom is a sprawling slum in Kangemi that stretches down to the valley that borders the leafy suburb of Lavington.

During the 2007-2008 post-election violence, Sodom, especially the area around Kihumbu-ini Primary School and Kangemi gichagi (village), became a site of violence pitting the Luhya community against the Kikuyu, who consider themselves indigenous to the area.

The slumlords who had built the timber shacks rented by the Luhyas quickly changed sides and, as the violence spiralled into us vs them, meaning the Kikuyus versus anybody else, whoever was deemed not to have voted for president Mwai Kibaki was harassed and even killed.

Mungiki, whose peripheral meaning is translated as the multitude, is a Kikuyu youth movement that began in the plains of Ng’arua and Sopili in Nyahururu around 1987. Over the years, it mutated into a militia for hire by the political elite.

Thiong’o, who is a landlord in Kangemi, told me there is a silent face-off between the Kikuyus and Luhyas: “Right now, we are not talking to each other [meaning no discussions that may lead to politics] until August 8. But we are ready for them. If they think they will be voting Raila so they can be paying reduced rent… they are in for a rude shock. We landlords have agreed that in the very unlikely event Raila is sworn in as president, we would rather burn the houses than see these western people dictate to us the rents we charge.”

Still, with all his bravado and ethnic machismo, Thiong’o nevertheless whispered to me that once he has voted, he will be gone to his rural home in Murang’a to follow the vote count among his relatives.

“Kikuyu tenants too have been changing houses and moving closer to their fellow kith and kin,” said a tenant I interviewed recently. “If you may recall, there used to be a village called Kijiji cha Chawa (the louse village), sandwiched between Huruma and Mathare 4A, that was largely inhabited by Kikuyus. Many of them were killed [during the 2008 post-election violence]; those who were able to escape, ran away, and whatever was left was destroyed youth from the Luo community.” Today, what used to be a slum dwelling is a playing field connected to Huruma by a footbridge.

“The Kikuyu landlords are aware of these movements, but they will not talk about them openly,” said a landlord from Huruma, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “In fact, some of them are abetting these movements, as they also prepare to secure and safeguard their property.” Once bitten, twice shy. Landlords who burnt their fingers in the violence following the 2007/8 general election have come up with ingenious ways of ensuring their steady income is not interrupted and their property not destroyed.

“Kikuyu landlords, the majority of whose tenants are Luos, have evolved a symbiotic relationship with them. The tenants have been given the freedom to pick one of their own as the buildings’ caretakers, collecting rent on the landlords’ behalf, as they also ensure that the buildings are well maintained.”

In the Kibera slum, quiet movements have been taking place. For instance, Kikuyu families living in Gatwekera village, which is largely composed of Luos, have been relocating to Laini Saba village, nearer to their fellow Kikuyus

The horizontal movements have not only been taking place in the northeastern slums of Nairobi. In the infamous Kibera slum, quiet movements have been taking place as the country hurtles towards elections. For instance, Kikuyu families living in Gatwekera village, which is largely composed of Luos, have been relocating to Laini Saba village, nearer to their fellow Kikuyus.

The regrouping of the menfolk along ethnic lines in the major ghettos and peri-urban areas of Nairobi is to create buffer zones, just in case the violence of 2007/8 is repeated. “It is as if you were watching a pantomime: There are a lot of rhythmic motions by silent men, who very well know what they are plotting against each other, but nobody has the guts to stop and say; ‘But why are we doing this to one another?’,” observed my confidant.

Barely 100km northwest of Nairobi, Naivasha, one of the towns in the Rift valley region that was badly affected by the 2007-2008 post-election violence, is witnessing its own vertical and horizontal migrations. Presiding over a memorial service in the town in mid-June, Nakuru Catholic Diocese head Bishop Maurice Muhata observed, “Some families are transporting their children to their rural homes ahead of the election and this is very wrong.”

A cosmopolitan town mainly populated by Kikuyus, Naivasha nonetheless has a minority migrant labour force mostly drawn from Nyanza and western Kenya, who are employed as casual labourers in the large mechanised flower farms in Karagita, Kawere and Kongoni on the Moi South Road. Ten years ago, as the violence spread into the inner towns, Naivasha and Nakuru’s migrant workers bore the brunt of revenge violence by marauding Mungiki youth imported into the towns to murder and pillage the Luo people and their property.

Since the trashing of the presidential petition on March 30, 2013, the silent narrative out there among the opposition’s legion of supporters has been that there is no turning to the (Supreme) Court and there is no crying foul in case their party is (at least to their minds) unfairly defeated yet again. Beginning in 2016, this resolve has been gaining currency, telling opposition supporters that they should be prepared for any eventuality.

WE ARE NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS LYING DOWN

The National Super Alliance (NASA) presidential flagbearer Raila Odinga seemed to feed into this urgency when in an exclusive press interview at his home in Nairobi’s Karen suburb, he told the interviewer on January 28: “I have said clearly, we are democrats. We would like to have a fair game. If we lose unfairly, we will not accept… We are saying we are not going to take it lying down this time round.”

Roundi hii kutawaka nare” (this time round, there will be real fire), a fiercely loyal supporter of the opposition told me last year. “Ile gwoko ya 2007, itakuwa chai ya saa nne,” (The violence that erupted in 2007 will be likened to ten o’clock tea). Middle-aged and going by the moniker Roger Millah, the Luo man declared, matter-of-factly: “Electoral theft cannot be allowed to continue unchecked; this thing has to be sorted out once and for all.”

For Florence Kanyua, a vocal Bunge la Mwananchi (people’s parliament) activist from Nairobi, there is no mincing of words: “Every Kenyan is hoping for a peaceful election, but a peaceful election does not mean we should not demand justice and when that justice is taken away, we are expected ‘to move on’, just because, apparently, Kenyans love their peace. This time, Kenyans will say no monkey business. The governing coalition has been warned that it cannot steal the election once again and hope to get away with it.”

Kanyua was addressing her fellow Bunge members, who have created their own space at the cross-section of Mama Ngina Street and City Hall Way, right in the CBD centre. Here, the members congregate in the evenings from 6.pm-8.30pm to dissect the day’s political happenings. When we met, she had a special topic she wanted to lecture them on.

“The church does not know what it’s talking about, because it has been overtaken by events. Its peace message is tired and useless — what we need is justice, not peace,” her tenor voice boomed, reverberating beyond the ethnically diverse group of men who surrounded her. “In 2007, when the peace message would have made sense, the church was nowhere to be found or heard; it had compromised itself by taking sides in the politics of the day.”

The result, Kanyua told her crowd, was that the church lost its credibility because it had become partisan. “Kenyans were killed in a church in Burnt Forest in Eldoret — where was the voice of the church when Kenyans needed that voice most? It was nowhere. Why? Because the church became part of the post-election violence. The church ought to know Kenyans are a peaceful people: what they are craving for is justice. The church should not douse us with its peace rhetoric.”

The truth of the matter is Kanyua was not saying anything new. Months after a peace agreement had been ironed out between President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga in February 2008, with the help of former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, I had a long chat with a Diocesan Catholic priest from the Archdiocese of Nairobi.

Every Kenyan is hoping for a peaceful election, but a peaceful election does not mean we should not demand justice and when that justice is taken away, we are expected ‘to move on’, just because, apparently, Kenyans love their peace. This time, Kenyans will say no monkey business

“Why did the Catholic Church — the largest, most influential and powerful church in the country — fail Kenyans in the 2007-2008 post-election violence?” I asked him. “The church did not fail Kenyans in 2007/8,” said the priest, who spoke to me on condition that what we were discussing was strictly between a parishioner and his confessor. “The post-election violence was the culmination of a church that had ceded its moral authority to the state five years earlier. The church was reaping the fruits of its lack of moral indignation and its overt indulgence of a state that had come to regard the Catholic Church as its ruling partner.”

In the 1990s, the Catholic Church had thrown it weight behind a fledging opposition that was continually harassed by former president Daniel arap Moi. When, in 2003, Mwai Kibaki, the compromise opposition candidate, floored Moi’s protégé Uhuru Kenyatta, the Church celebrated with the new President.

After all, he was a Catholic, “But fundamentally, the then head of the Catholic Church in Kenya, retired Archbishop Ndingi Mwana ’Nzeki, was a friend of Kibaki,” the priest reminded me. “The Church literally went to bed with the state. A criticism of the government was considered to be a criticism of the president himself.”

THE CATHOLIC CHURCH LOOKED THE OTHER WAY

The Catholic Church is very hierarchical, just like the military – you must obey your superiors without question. “Individually, a priest is a mere cog in the institutional, powerful wheel that is the Church. You do not want to mess with it — you can be easily crushed.” The priest told me president Kibaki indulged the Church and did its bidding. In return, the Church unquestioningly looked the other way, as his government took the Church’s support for granted, and engaged in wanton corruption.

“I knew the Church had completely lost its moral compass, when in the lead up to the 2007 general election, our brother priests in Central Kenya openly canvassed for president Kibaki from the pulpit.” The priest told me that some of his fellow priests went beyond their call of duty to invite politicians to politick from the pulpit itself. “The Church had become the state and the state had become the Church.

“Should it shock anyone that when political violence threatened to blanket the country, the Catholic Church did not stand up to be counted?” asked the priest. “The post-election violence aftermath divided the Episcopal Conference of Bishops so much that they never could agree on anything for a long time. The violence had divided the bishops on ethnic fault lines with great bitterness and so too the legion of priests working in the thousands of parishes spread all over Kenya.”

The priest nostalgically told me how he longed for the days when the Church was led by the late Michael Cardinal Maurice Otunga. “Yes, he was conservative, yes, he was pro-establishment — but pro-establishment with checks and balances.” The priest told me even president Moi knew his limits with Cardinal Otunga. “In his reign, as cardinal, he never allowed the Church to be divided along ethnic lines and would never have allowed any politician —including president Moi — anywhere near the Catholic Church pulpit.

“How we miss the pastoral letters penned by the Episcopal Conference of Bishops then: They were direct, powerful and spoke to the heart of the nation. After addressing the nation and the government through the letter, Cardinal Otunga would direct the letter be read and communicated to the Catholics parishes all over the country.”

Two days before Raila and his NASA team went to campaign in Tharaka Nithi County in Meru on June 16, 2017, I visited a printing press on River Road in downtown Nairobi. The press, owned by a Tharaka man, was incidentally printing flags and posters to be used in NASA’s rally. Out of the blue, he said: “Hawa watu wamezoea kuiba kura za Raila, wajaribu tena… kutawaka moto. (These people who are used to stealing Raila’s votes, we dare them to try again….they will be starting a fire).”

THE SPECTRE OF VIOLENCE HAUNTS KENYA

Although I have been conducting my interviews in formal English and Kiswahili and very often in Sheng, not even that lyrical “rebel” language spoken in the ghettos and county council estates of the Eastlands area aptly captures what Kenyan writer Yvonne Owuor calls the third official language of Kenya — the language of silence (after English and Kiswahili). As these “political” realignments in the ghettos of Nairobi take place silently, but openly, in anticipation of an ominous “uncertainty” a spectre could be haunting Kenya — the spectre of violence.

“Uncertainty is not a good experience,” a Kenyan university don told me recently. “Since 2007, uncertainty in the Kenyan political terrain has come to mean a foreboding of violence.” We were having a sumptuous lunch in an exclusive Nairobi club, where the nouveau riche pontificate on the shifting sands of Kenyan politics far from the madding crowd.

The Kikuyus living in the North Rift would be well advised to take leave before August 8. They live there at the mercy of the Kalenjins. They should not wait to be collateral damage

“Let us not us not kid ourselves,” said the professor, who asked that I should not reveal her designation. “After the post-election violence of 2007-2008, our national politics has never been the same again.” The don, a Kikuyu, teaches at Kabianga University in Kericho County. “I timed my 2017 annual leave to fall in the month of August. I am not taking any chances.”

She observed how her boss, a Kalenjin professor, had, with a light touch, teased her about being timid. “I thought now we are on the same side?” She said she laughed about it, but still presented him with her leave form. “It is better to be safe than sorry.”

“I was there when the March 2016 Kericho Senator seat by-election took place,” she explained. “Although it was strictly a family feud, there was an eerie feeling that if matters were to get out of hand, violence would erupt.” Seemingly thinking aloud, she added: “The Kikuyus living in the North Rift would be well advised to take leave before August 8. They live there at the mercy of the Kalenjins, They should not wait to be collateral damage. I mean if things were to go wrong…”

The crux of the matter is that the relationship between the Kikuyus and Kalenjins in the Rift Valley region has always been fragile and frosty. Since the orgy of violence that visited the North Rift after the 2007 general election, the area has remained a powder keg of bottled up emotions.

The International Crisis Group addresses the professor’s fears in its latest report, Kenya’s Rift Valley: Old Wounds, Devolution’s New Anxieties. It quotes a governance expert saying: “The alliance between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin following Jubilee’s 2013 election victory lulled many into believing historical foes were on an ‘irreversible’ course to overcoming animosities. Yet Rift Valley reconciliation remains superficial. What we have is negative peace … calm.”

This false calm seems to have reared its ugly head once again in Eldoret town and its environs. After the shambolic and bruising Jubilee Party nominations in April, the battle for the Uasin Gishu County governor’s seat has boiled down to a fight between the incumbent Jackson Mandago and Zedekiah Bundotich Kiprop alias Buzeki, a middle-aged, lean, bespectacled nouveau riche, who is running on an independent ticket and looks poised to snatch the seat from Mandago.

Feeling the heat from Buzeki, the exiting governor has resorted to the time-tested politics of us versus them in his bid to fend off the younger contestant, invoking the lingo of “aliens amid our people.” Mandago and his allies have been sending a menacing warning to outsiders who must know their place or else… vacate the county forthwith.

The aliens being referred to here are the Kikuyus, who are mostly to be found in Eldoret town itself and in its satellite towns such as Turbo. In Turbo, most Kikuyus are concentrated in Huruma ward, the most populous ward, so much so that the Member of the County Assembly is also a Kikuyu. Ditto Market ward in Eldoret town. It is populated by Kikuyu people, most of whom are traders. Market ward’s MCA is also a Kikuyu.

Why do the Kikuyus in the North Rift find themselves, once again, in the shadow of the valley of death — even though “they are on the same side with the Kalenjins?”

When the violence of 2007/8 erupted in the North Rift, Huruma and Market wards were the most affected. No prizes for guessing why.

In 2014, I travelled to Karatina, a market town about 100 km north of Nairobi, on the Nairobi-Nyeri highway, to meet one Njeri from Nyeri town. Njeri had been one the biggest mitumba (secondhand clothes) traders in Eldoret town. She had lived in the town — to be precise, in Market ward — for 15 years. “I had built my business from scratch. Every Eldoret resident knew me as ‘Njeri wa Mitumba.’ I was successful, I had made it. But then the 2007 general election came and everything all of a sudden went topsy-turvy.”

Between sips of cold White Cap beer at Star Bucks Hotel, Njeri narrated to me how on December 30, 2007, her world came crashing down. “The arsonists specifically went looking for my godown. They bayed for my blood. But before they got me, they torched the godown and my Ksh5 million stock went up in flames.”

What saved her life, she told me, was that her Kalenjin friend called her in the dead of the night and asked her to leave the town immediately. “Don’t take anything — just go.”

How has this old man ever wronged us? If Raila led this country, what would happen? Let him now lead so that there can be fireworks. We the Kipsigis people are tired of the chicanery shown to us by these two thugs , Uhuru and Ruto

“I went back to my folks’ place in Nyeri town, where I grew up, with nothing but the clothes I had on.” Seven years later, she was yet to rebuild her life — not so much in terms of capital to start a new life, but that she had yet to adjust to Nyeri life. “Eldoret had been my home. I went there as a determined young girl ready to sacrifice and work my arse off.”

Njeri told me that when, in 2013 Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto teamed up to run for the presidency, she was devastated. “My fellow Kikuyus from Nyeri could not understand me, but then how could they, I had spent my adulthood in the Rift Valley diaspora and that is when it dawned on me that there is a huge difference in how ancestral Kikuyus and diaspora Kikuyus view national politics.”

AN ARMISTICE WRITTEN ON QUICKSAND

As I headed back to Nairobi and she to Nyeri, she stated that political violence will always stalk the Kikuyus in the North Rift. “Have the people who perpetrated the violence ever been punished? The artificial armistice between the Kikuyus and Kalenjins is written on quicksand.”

The rumour in the town is that Buzeki, whose wife is allegedly Kikuyu, will attract the Kikuyu votes – which, if that happens, could be the game changer. The intra-Jubilee Party political squabbles are nowhere near safer for the Kikuyu community in the tumultuous North Rift than they were in the lead up to the December 2007 general election. “We will count the votes Buzeki gets and if he gets 100 votes, then a certain community will have to move out of Eldoret,” Mandago is quoted to have said.

Yet something more sinister allegedly took place in Eldoret that went unannounced. Early in February 2017, when the IEBC opened voter registration centres countrywide, Mungiki youth were purportedly shipped from towns such as Nairobi and Nakuru to register in Eldoret North constituency, Deputy President Ruto’s former constituency. It did not take long for the local community to realise there were “strangers” among them. According to reports, the young men were thrown out of town and the story did not reverberate beyond Eldoret.

All this despite the fact that Deputy President William Ruto, whose International Criminal Court case once threatened to tear up the manuscript on which the Kikuyu-Kalenjin truce was written, has stayed united with President Uhuru Kenyatta.

The International Crisis Group report notes that the “dismissal of Ruto’s case [in April 2016] brought particular relief in Rift Valley, where uncertainty over his fate was beginning to sow division within the governing coalition. Claims Kenyatta was not doing enough to get his Deputy President off the hook fed Kalenjin mistrust, heightening fears of renewal of inter-communal tension.”

Yet, with a section of the Kalenjin nation seemingly throwing its support behind the opposition coalition NASA, it is likely that were violence to start, it would consume Bomet County and the adjoining towns of Kericho and Sotik, says Ali Abkula. Abkula was The National Alliance (TNA) political director in the lead-up to the 2013 general election. TNA is the political vehicle that President Uhuru used to ascend to power.

Bomet County Governor Isaac Ruto in April 2017 joined the NASA Four — Raila Odinga, Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka, Musalia Mudavadi and Moses Wetangula — to form the Pentagon. Ruto is a Kipsigis, the largest and the most populous of the nine Kalenjin sub-tribes. They mostly inhabit the South Rift and for the better part of Jubilee rule, have been complaining of how they have been receiving the short end of the stick from the Jubilee government, even after voting for the coalition en masse in 2013.

On the weekend of June 17-18, Ruto addressed a rally in Nakuru town and hit out at both President Uhuru and his Deputy William Ruto (no relation). Reminding them that the country does not belong to two tribes — the Kalenjins and Kikuyus — he accused them of sending the country down the drain. He told the crowd what the electorate wanted was justice and not war. “Sisi hatutaki vita….tunataka kupiga kura kwa amani ndio tupate haki… wasitutishe. (We do not want war…what we want is to vote peacefully and get justice…we will not be threatened).”

Among the Kikuyu speakers, an eight-minute video clip has been making the rounds through the social media, warning them of relinquishing power to the opposition

The community’s beef with the senior Ruto, the Deputy President, who himself is a Kipsigis, but grew up among the Nandis of Eldoret after his parents migrated north in the late 1960s, is that he dished out all the plum state jobs to the Nandis and neglected to fulfil the development promises he lured them with.

An elderly Kipsigis man, having tea in a kibanda (roadside shack) in Kericho town in early June, got into an argument with fellow tea customers about the forthcoming elections. In a fit of anger and fury, he stood up and said: “Saa yote huyu mzee…. Saa yote huyu mzee… Huyu mzee ametukosea nini? Kwani Raila akiongoza itakuwa nini? Wacha sasa aongoze moto iwake. Sisi Kipsigis tumechoka na uongo wa hawa majambazi wawili (Every time this old man….Every time this old man. How has this old man ever wronged us? If Raila led this country, what would happen? Let him now lead so that there can be fireworks. We the Kipsigis people are tired of the chicanery shown to us by these two thugs (Uhuru and Ruto).”

Determined to slice off a chunk of the huge Kalenjin consolidated vote, Governor Ruto has stoked real fear in the heart of the Jubilee coalition. “Sometime early this year, the Kipsigis elders met and gave the Governor the go-ahead to form an alliance with the opposition NASA,” an elder from the community said to me.

On June 17, Emurua Dikirr outgoing MP Jonathan Ng’eno was in Narok North attending a funeral service. Looking visibly agitated he asked the congregation: “Kwani tukipigia Raila kura tutakufa? (If we choose to vote for Raila, are we going to die?)”

“The intransigency and the digging in by both Jubilee Party and NASA is ominous,” says Ali. “It does not augur well for the country. Like in the 2007 general election, the August 8 election involves the unseating of an incumbent.” Such a scenario, he says, is always fraught with overtones of political violence.

On the same day Ng’eno was telling his constituency they could vote for the opposition leader Raila Odinga, Raila himself was telling the Maasai people in Kajiado County to not dispose of their land hastily. The comment was quickly hijacked by Jubilee Party aficionados who used this remark to paint Raila as a warmonger. No sooner had Raila finished uttering those words than leaflets were already in circulation in the county.

“We woke up the following day to find leaflets strewn everywhere and pinned on electricity poles saying that ‘foreigners’ such as Kikuyus and Kisiis should vacate Kajiado,” said Mzee Kanjory who lives in Corner Baridi. Mzee Kanjory said that many of the leaflets were dropped off in the Pipeline area. Pipeline is the stretch between Isinya and Kiserian towns.

“This area is really cosmopolitan; Kikuyus, Kisiis, Luhyas, Luos, Maasais all have invested in this area,” said Mzee Kanjory. “It would be a good starting place to foment ethnic tension in Kajiado County.” If violence were to occur in Kajiado, the Mzee assured me, it would be brutal and genocidal.

“This is a county that has been harbouring festering wounds for a long time among the local Maasai people, who, even though they sold their land on a willing-buyer willing-seller basis, still feel they were cheated. It would only take a small trigger to ignite an inferno.”

The forthcoming general election, which is already showing signs of being the hottest contested ever, has put Kenyans on edge. Among the Kikuyu speakers, an eight-minute video clip has been making the rounds through the social media, warning them of relinquishing power to the opposition. Entitled Mt Kenya Group — Ngai Emwena Witu — “God is on our side,” the video is a montage of Kikuyu popular songs carefully selected to evoke ethnic passions, as well as to create a siege mentality among the larger Kikuyu community.

The lyrics disguised as a clarion credo to rally The House of Mumbi — a catchphrase used by ethnic bigots to evoke a sense of emotional oneness among the Kikuyu nation — are a subtle call to arms if the opposition NASA coalition were to wrest power from the Kikuyu.

CALING ALL KIKUYUS

Calling all Kikuyus, wherever they are, to vote for President Uhuru Kenyatta, the jingoism expressed in the amateur production is frighteningly unabashed and unapologetic in its war cry: “We must protect Uthamaki (political king) at all costs. We must stop the opposition from capturing power by all means. We will not accept to be defeated, because defeat does not exist in our lexicon. Therefore, the House of Mumbi cannot be defeated.”

In a bizarre request to the Inspector General of Police Joseph Boinnet, the Kiambu County governor seat candidate and Kabete MP Ferdinand Waititu asked him to deploy only Kikuyu police officers to the county. “The deployment is the only way our people will effectively communicate to the police and therefore boost security,” said Waititu on June 29.

With a fidgety ruling coalition seemingly under siege from a resurgent opposition, determined to snatch power from a faltering coalition — but one with immense powers of incumbency — we could be headed for a civil war if the election is not properly conducted.

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

Is Democracy Dead or Has It Simply Been Hijacked?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Populist idiocy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A civic ritual

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How Corruption and Greed Are Destroying Africa’s Forests

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

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

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

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

Land grabs and exploitation

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

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

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

The effects of foreign liberalism

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

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

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

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

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

Deforestation and greed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The impact of corruption on deforestation

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

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

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

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

Reforestation and other plans to restore Africa’s forests

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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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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