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Luo Lives Also Matter

10 min read.

According to a damning report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, ever since the announcement of the results of the 8 August 2017 election, the National Police Service alone may have been responsible for the deaths of up to 67 people, the injuring of many more, and the source of pain for countless others.

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Warning: This article contains graphic redacted photographs.

A woman sits behind her desk, typing furiously on her keyboard, preparing minutes from the last faculty meeting. She is frustrated because of the many mistakes that she keeps making; silly typos that she should not be making given the fact that she has been doing this job for the better half of her adult life. So she decides to take a rest. She picks up her phone, scrolls through her phonebook, looking for someone to talk to. Her thumb rests on a name. She taps on it, then hits the green icon on the screen. It rings four times before a woman with a mechanical voice tells her that George is not available, but if she wants, perhaps she can leave a message after the tone. She declines the offer. Then tries again. She calls three times; all three times her son does not answer.

On the other side of town, a boy of 26 walks into a Java Coffee shop, peels the camera bag from his back and places it next to his feet. He exhales for the first time in a while. He looks around him and the restaurant is full of people going on with their business as if nothing has happened. As if nothing is happening. He wonders whether they are even bothered, whether they really care. He wonders whether they heard the blasts…whether they have been hearing the blasts for the past, what, how many months now? He envies their ability to remain unbothered. Knowledge is not power. Knowledge a burden to those who bear it, especially when people refuse to listen. Or when they do not care.

A woman walks up to him with a smile on her face and asks what he would like to drink.

“A vanilla milkshake. Thick, if you may.” He does not even notice that he did not say please until the lady is long gone with his instructions.

But nobody can blame him.

The sun outside is showing off. His throat is parched, dry, like a terrible joke. Not from the heat outside, though, but from the white smoke that he has been swallowing since mid-morning. It is not a normal kind of smoke that one. Its introduction is announced by a thunder that shocks your heart like a defibrillator. It starts as a thick ball of smoke, then rises into a cloud that spreads. Unfortunately, this smoke preys even on those it was not intended for. And when it finds you, it will devour you methodically. It will get into your eyes and wash them with acid, then crawl into your nose to summon waterfalls of mucous. If you are careless enough to taste it, then you have tasted hell. Not even a Nigerian or Indian tongue can withstand that kind of fire.

According to a damning report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, ever since the announcement of the results of the 8 August 2017 election, the National Police Service alone may have been responsible for the deaths of up to 67 people, the injuring of many more, and the source of pain for countless others.

And it never leaves, this smoke, because long after you have managed to outmanoeuvre the people who unleashed it on you, it still stays, lodged in your throat, waiting to be challenged by something its own size. A thick vanilla milkshake, George thinks, will do the trick.

He takes out his phone for the first time in a long time and finds missed calls from his mother.

“Hallo?”

“Hallo. GG. How are you doing, nyathina?”

“I am fine,” he lies. He hopes that she does not pick up on the crackle in his voice when he lies. There are many lies told in that phone conversation. Lies that he did not have to tell, but come on, the old lady is fifty-something years old with awful blood pressure. What good is the truth to her? What good is telling her that he was in running battles with the police? Protesting against police brutality and the senseless killing of supporters of the opposition? That he luckily escaped being whooped by men in Ninja Turtle suits, wielding fat planks of death in their hands? That, in fact, the leader of the protest, Boniface Mwangi, was shot in the chest by antiriot police using a teargas canister?

***

Earlier this year, a video went on social media showing a man holding a kid in one hand and a gun in the other. A crowd of people surrounds them, helpless. The kid is already in his control, and he is visibly begging for his life. The man with a gun then pins him down, points, then fires. The first shot does not kill the boy. Neither does the second. It is the third shot that sends him to his ancestors.

There is nothing the crowd can do about it. But on social media, a good chunk of people praise the man with the gun. There are a few people who condemn it, but the majority of the people say that that these kids have been a menace, causing trouble all the time. That that kid deserves the fate he got. Nothing is done to the man with the gun. He is a policeman after all. A Hessy, so he is called. A member of an elite branch of the police whose job is just that: to kill criminals. Thus, many a Hessy exist today in many crime-prone areas of Nairobi. Hessy wa Kayole. Hessy wa Githurai. Hessy wa Eastleigh. Hessy wa Dandora.

There is a new Hessy in town. Hessy wa maprotest. Actually, not just one, but an army of them. Unlike the other Hessies, these do not hide under the guise of plain clothes. They wear police regalia. Jungle green uniform, sometimes armed with guns, sometimes with clubs, sometimes with both. They are sent to quell protests and they do not give a damn about normal police work or procedure. They finish anyone or anything in their path. And just like the other Hessies before them, they commit atrocities under the lie that they are doing it for the greater good of the society.

According to a damning report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, ever since the announcement of the results of the 8 August 2017 election, the National Police Service alone may have been responsible for the deaths of up to 67 people, the injuring of many more, and the source of pain for countless others. Up to 67 people is 67 people too many. (It is the same number of people who perished in the September 2013 terrorist attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi, which generated worldwide sympathy.)

Thomas Odhiambo Oku, aged 26, shot by police outside his gate in Dandora. Kevin Otieno, 23, shot outside his gate in Dandora. Sammy Amira Loka, hit by a teargas canister on his chest by the police. Lilian Khavere, 40 years old, 8 months pregnant, teargassed, fell and was trampled to death by a stampede. Festo Kevogo, 30, shot in the head. Zebedeo Mukhala, 42 years old, shot in the leg and then trampled to death by a stampede. Jeremiah Maranga, 50 years old, G4S employee, beaten by police and left for dead. Victor Okoth Obondo, 24 years old, shot in the back.

The President of the Republic of Kenya has not come out to speak against this kind of injustice. He has not shown any remorse, except for when he tweeted about the death of one of his supporters who unfortunately passed away during one of his rallies in one of his strongholds.

Of course, the Kenyan police has since denied the findings of this report. But we all know that when it comes to the government, an allegation is never proved until it is officially denied. According to the government, these deaths were imagined. And that is the greater insult here – that it could execute the murder of people and then claim that it never happened.

If indeed the report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch titled “Kill Those Criminals: Security Forces Violations in Kenya’s August 2017 Elections” is a work of fiction, deserving only of attention of the organisers of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, then pray tell me this: Where are they? Where are the men, women and children named in that report? If they can prove that even one of them is still alive and well, even just on a balance of probabilities, then we would take this report to the bin.

Thomas Odhiambo Oku, aged 26, shot by police outside his gate in Dandora. Kevin Otieno, 23, shot outside his gate in Dandora. Sammy Amira Loka, hit by a teargas canister on his chest by the police. Lilian Khavere, 40 years old, 8 months pregnant, teargassed, fell and was trampled to death by a stampede. Festo Kevogo, 30, shot in the head. Zebedeo Mukhala, 42 years old, shot in the leg and then trampled to death by a stampede. Jeremiah Maranga, 50 years old, G4S employee, beaten by police and left for dead. Victor Okoth Obondo, 24 years old, shot in the back.

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These are just a few of the names that are listed in that report. If this report is a lie, then where are these people? And this was just in Nairobi, by the way. In other opposition strongholds, many more names abound. Audi Ogada, the Chairperson of Kisumu City Residents Voice (KICIREVO), has more to say about the kind of brutality that has been leveled by the police on the people of Kisumu. He has been one of the first responders, dealing with whatever is left in the wake of a police invasion.

Ogada speaks of a 28-year-old boy who had his testicles clobbered by the police and was then thrown in prison. He writhed in pain for days until he (Ogada) spoke to the police to allow him to take the boy to the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Referral Hospital. Ogada speaks of the two-year-old girl from Nyamasaria who had a bullet the police put in her neck removed. And the women and young men who have had other pieces of lead removed from their buttocks. He speaks about police officers raiding shops in Kondele and robbing unarmed business people. Other reports on social media also speak about police officers burning down shops to smoke out protestors.

The report by KICIREVO is a graphic horror scene, featuring, among other atrocities, a man lying dead next to his work place, thanks to a bleeding hole in his head, another with a busted jaw, and children from Mount Carmel Nursery School admitted to hospital because the police threw teargas into their school.

At what point will we cut the bullshit and call this what it is: persecution? This is not even about the protests. This is no longer about protecting businesses. Because a good majority of people who have been slain by the Kenyan police were not even protestors. They were innocent bystanders.

At what point will we cut the bullshit and call this what it is: persecution? This is not even about the protests. This is no longer about protecting businesses. Because a good majority of people who have been slain by the Kenyan police were not even protestors. They were innocent bystanders. Besides, there have been violent protests even in Jubilee strongholds, but none of those people have been killed for it, or been met with the kind of brute force that NASA people have endured, especially those of the Luo community. The areas reporting these kinds of hostilities are Kisumu, Homa Bay, Migori, Siaya and NASA strongholds in Nairobi like Kibera and Dandora.

History provides the context for the targeting of Luos by the Kenyan state. The whole Luo community has been branded thugs whose only characteristic is their high affinity for chaos – for the destruction of the businesses of others. This kind of branding and framing is reminiscent of what happened in Rwanda (the reduction of the Tutsi to inyenzis or cockroaches), in apartheid South Africa (calling black people kaffirs) and in the United States (when black people had no rights). The strategy is to reduce them into something less than human and thus make them easier to oppress and kill. Audi Ogada recounts how the police raided neighborhoods in Nyalenda, Manyatta and other neighborhoods in Kisumu. They stormed into houses, dragged out the men, beat them up within an inch of their graves…and in some cases (like the fateful night of August 10th) shot them dead.

And what was their crime? They were protesting. They were exercising their constitutional right under Article 37 of the constitution. They were picketing against the election results that the Supreme Court of Kenya declared null and void.

Luo Lives Matter is a slogan that was popularised on the Internet. The Government of Kenya, through its spokesperson Eric Kiraithe, claims that the slogan is part of a larger devilish conspiracy meant to instill fear amongst the Luos and to generate hatred towards the police. But as a Luo, I do not need the help of a slogan to instill fear in me. I am already afraid.

Speaking to the BBC World Service, Ambassador Martin Kimani, Director of Kenya’s National Counterterrorism Centre, defended this kind of police brutality by saying that the protestors were violent. This is true. It would be a lie to claim that the protests have been peaceful. In fact, protesters had set tyres on fire and barricaded roads. Some criminal elements in the group had also committed crimes, including looting and robbery.

Be that as it may, none of these alleged crimes deserved indiscriminate police brutality. They did not warrant the use of live bullets. It is a shame that a man of Ambassador Kimani’s stature can embarrass himself like that on television. That kind of force is not proportional. Kimani should have referred to Article 244 of the Constitution of Kenya, as well as the Sixth Schedule of the National Police Service Act, read in compliance with Sections 49 (5) and 61 (2).

Yet, if we recollect well, in the call for any kind of significant change, violence inevitably rears its ugly head. Expecting anything else would be wishful thinking. Violence was part and parcel of the civil rights movement under the leadership of Malcom X and the Black Panthers, the Black Lives Matter movement in the US today, the fight against apartheid in South Africa, the struggle for independence throughout the world, and the clamour for multiparty democracy here in Kenya. There is a cause and there are the people behind it. It is important that we distinguish between the two. All of the above causes involved violence, yet they are celebrated today, and the people behind them are honoured. So why does the cause for electoral integrity in Kenya be any different?

Luo Lives Matter is a slogan that was popularised on the Internet. The Government of Kenya, through its spokesperson Eric Kiraithe, claims that the slogan is part of a larger devilish conspiracy meant to instill fear amongst the Luos and to generate hatred towards the police. But as a Luo, I do not need the help of a slogan to instill fear in me. I am already afraid. I have seen body bags sent to my hometown of Kisumu days before elections, and I have seen bodies fished out of Lake Victoria weeks after elections. I have organised a peaceful protest in which we did nothing but cry for help and we were still beaten. I have read my history and I cannot forget how former President Jomo Kenyatta ordered the opening of fire onto a crowd, killing at least eleven people. And now my tribesmen are being butchered by the police, and I watch helplessly as the police say that I am hallucinating.

I do not need anyone to make me fear the Kenyan police; it is a default setting.

***

As the cold milkshake eases into his mouth and down his throat, George wonders just how many more people need to die for this to become a problem. The killings are a deterrent, yes, but only for so long. You can only oppress a group of people for so long before they decide that they have had enough. For now, he logs onto Facebook and likes yet another profile picture of a person posting about Luo Lives Matter. They do. He matters. It is such a shame that some people think Luo Lives Matter means that the lives of Luos are the only ones that matter. It simply means that Luo Lives Matter as well.

It is such a shame that some people think Luo Lives Matter means that the lives of Luos are the only ones that matter. It simply means that Luo lives matter as well.

He wonders how many Luo men have lied to their mothers. When their mothers ask how they are doing and they say fine simply because it is a formality and not a real representation of how they are actually doing.

He is not fine. He has not been for a while. It is such a horrible feeling, dreading the moment your mother will find out how you are really doing – because you are tired of telling lies.

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Magunga Williams is a blogger and writer based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Politics

Why Azimio’s Presidential Petition Stood No Chance

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

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

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

Adjudicating electoral fallouts

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

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

Relentless petitioning

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supreme Court power grab 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missed opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Politics

GMOs Are Not the Only Answer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maize is not the only ugali

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

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

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

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

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

Were it that simple.

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

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

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

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

The survey defines large farms as those above 20 hectares.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mary Kanyaman Ekai: Gender and Livestock Rustling in Northern Kenya

Mary Kanyaman Ekai was a peace ambassador from Turkana County who lost her life in the course of saving her family’s livestock in Turkana East on September 24th 2022. Kanyaman’s case illustrates the complexity of “cattle rustling” at Kenya’s northern frontier from a gender perspective. 

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Mary Kanyaman Ekai: Gender and Livestock Rustling in Northern Kenya
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Following the recent rise of incidents at the border of Baringo, Turkana and West Pokot County, it seems timely to learn more about a strong female figure, a woman who dedicated her life to the fight against the frequent outbreaks of violence. By providing a short portrait of Kanyaman, we are able to illustrate the role of women in conflict resolution. Grounded in the authors’ ethnographic research conducted in both West Pokot and Turkana County, the article is based not only on an in-depth interview conducted in 2020 with Kanyaman, but also on the broad expertise of social scientists working in the respective areas.

It was pure luck that led to the meeting with Mary Kanyaman Ekai in December 2020. Mary was visiting Kapenguria on some errands for the Turkana County Government and I (Elizabeth Ndunda), on my part, was seeking information from influential elders from the pastoralist communities in northern Kenya. The tall lady in the elegant dress was introduced to me as mama wa maji na amani, Swahili for mother of water and peace. I immediately recognized Mary the moment she entered the room. I knew her from various news feeds and meetings with officials where she prominently acted as peace ambassador and environmental and gender activist.

On this December 2020, Mary was on a sad mission. The previous day, bandits had attacked the village of Lopii in Turkana East and killed three young men, taking off with a considerable number of livestock. Although these kinds of violent outbreaks often involve brutal, reckless murder and criminal marketing chains, they are commonly labelled “cattle rustling” or “cattle raiding”, with the act of stealing cattle portrayed as culturally intrinsic to pastoralist societies. Yet, the shifting nature of the raids, which are driven by economic logic and modern forms of violence, should more accurately be referred to as “predatory raiding”, according to international security advisor Dylan Henrickson.

Mary and her entourage were in Kapenguria to seek the County Commissioner’s help in following up the bandits and ultimately punishing them before more attacks occurred. This has been a continuous cycle between the government and the communities of north-western Kenya.

Later the same day, while we were enjoying a cold soda in the unforgiving heat of West Pokot, Mary remarked that, for this specific meeting, Kalya Hotel was very aptly named, as kalya means peace in the Pokot language. The objective of our encounter was to discuss the weaknesses and challenges of the current conflict resolution mechanisms in northern Kenya. These mechanisms usually include disarmament measures, peace barazas (Swahili for meeting), peace caravans and arbitration measures. Disarmament involves the military and police, a common state response to regain control after a period of violence. Peace caravans are the latest, trendy mechanism for peacebuilding. Professionals from each county organize themselves and move from county to sub-county gathering villagers together and speaking of the need for peace. The colourful events usually include a lot of entertainment in order to attract many participants. However, Mary’s biggest concern was that women were simply left out and not considered able to play an important role in conflict resolution. She is far from being alone in holding this opinion. In a 1991 book titled Women and Things: Pokot Motherhood as Political Destiny, anthropologist Barbara Bianco states that the majority of peace projects target the men. Women are mainly included in programmes to fulfil a funding requirement, to attract donors. And yet they play a significant role.

So, who better than Mary Kanyaman Ekai, with her deep insights into these mechanisms, to be the perfect source of information on the subject? Born in 1979 in Turkana East, Mary learned the sad reality of raids early in her childhood, when she had to flee her home after the painful loss of family members to livestock rustling. Despite this stroke of fate, the girl’s athletic skills came to the fore in school as did her driven ambition to acquire an education. A Bachelor of Microbiology and Biotechnology and one of the few female Turkana professionals, Mary was predestined to become a public servant in the Ministry of Health. However, she didn’t rest on her laurels but pioneered the Golden Valley Cooperative Society, whose objective was to enhance resilience through improved and commercialized livestock production and to champion peaceful coexistence between neighbouring communities in the border areas of Baringo, Samburu and Turkana. Mary believed that peaceful coexistence among the pastoralist communities could be achieved if only pastoralists had alternative livelihoods and women had a greater voice.

Women are mainly included in programmes to fulfil a funding requirement, to attract donors.

Although Mary immediately agreed to our meeting, it took us some time before we were able to settle down; Mary was constantly interrupted by many people claiming her attention. I could understand this as I too was drawn to her strong voice filled with emotion as she spoke of the deaths that cattle rustling has caused in the region. Her phone rang constantly during the interview, a reminder of the busy life that she led and the tight schedule that she kept.

“Many people know my brother Ekuru. Even in the villages, people call me Ekuru’s sister. I’m not sure they would listen to me if I was not related to him.” Her brother, the lawyer Dr Ekuru Aukot, vied for the presidency on a Third Party Alliance ticket in 2017. Laughing, Mary says, “Here in this pastoralist culture, it is difficult for a woman to have her own identity, she is either a daughter or a wife of someone. I sit in the County Government yet even there I’m known as Ekuru’s sister.” With some resignation in her voice, she goes on to explain that it is this mentality and culture that has led to the role of women in conflict resolution being ignored by many peace projects and NGOs. Women from pastoralist communities are often considered victims, not active participants in the conflict. She asked me, “Isn’t it common to assume that women have little role to play in conflicts since northern Kenya is a heavily patriarchal society with archaic beliefs and supposedly harming norms including early marriage and FGM?”  Mary declared this point of view faulty.

“Many people know my brother Ekuru. Even in the villages, people call me Ekuru’s sister. I’m not sure they would listen to me if I was not related to him.”

Yes, women are victims of conflict and often face the highest security threats during periods of violence, being exposed to both physical and sexual violence. However, Mary was convinced that women play a significant role in motivating men to engage in livestock rustling. She explained that for a young man and woman to lead an accomplished life, they must marry and have children. While undergoing initiation is one important step in the journey from childhood to adulthood, young men are also required to show their courage, and acquire wealth which in turn attracts the “best wife”. This wealth is in the form of livestock—cattle, camels, goats, sheep and donkeys—that can be grown through careful breeding of animals, or simply through raiding. Dowry is often daunting and young men have little to show, and the list of fathers (every paternal uncle) who expect some livestock in exchange for their precious daughter is long. Their wives-to-be, in turn, encourage and motivate them to acquire the needed wealth and prestige as rapidly as possible.

This view is shared by officials of the county government’s Peace and Reconciliation Department. They state that while women understand the disadvantages and the calamities brought on by raiding, they are quick to defend and praise the sons and husbands who participate. This seems understandable, as men are expected to avenge death and destruction by recovering stolen livestock. Of course this creates a cycle of violence as each group feels the need for revenge. However, to simply assume pastoralists do so to impress their women would be to ignore the lack of security and justice in northern Kenya. The responsibility to recover stolen animals that are crucial for their livelihood is often left with the victims. Therefore, the women are not defending or praising violence per se, but are trying to ensure security, justice, and continuity.

Although “beaded” girls and mothers challenge their men to participate in raids through mocking and praise songs, they also want their husbands to come back alive. Lal is a ceremony during which returning warriors are anointed with oil held in a lal, a cattle horn of high symbolic value that has been blessed by spiritual elders. The honouring and cleansing of warriors with the lal after raids is done exclusively by women. It is the women’s duty to spread the oil in the lal on the warriors after a battle or to carry it to the areas where the warriors congregate. Mary encouraged women to stop the cycle of violence by refusing to protect the men during livestock rustling.

So, is it all women’s fault?

It is a little more complex than that. Professor Kennedy Mkutu, an expert in the field of violence and guns in northern Kenya, argues that pastoralists are under threat from inadequate policing, pressure on land and common resources, and the proliferation of small arms. The number of small arms circulating within the region is concerning; spears and arrows have been replaced with more deadly weapons and it is now popular for a father to gift his son a gun during initiation. Another factor that adds to the complexity is the devastating long-term absence of rain. The pressure on communally owned and unregistered land is not only high due to the changing climate but is further exacerbated by outside interests in resources such as crude oil, gold or sand. And as if all this was not enough, politicians exploit the precarious situation.

“Now”, I ask Mary, “with declining resources—over which women have little to no control—and the increase in small arms, and as disarmament measures fail and guns become more common, what can women do?” I was surprised to see Mary laugh heartily, “You look at women as weak and lacking control. Women are the instigators of violence between the Pokot and Turkana. The men fight because of us. I may not have control over the use and ownership of cattle, animals or property but I do not want to be married to a poor man, worst of all a coward. Until their [women’s] participation is seen and understood, we cannot adequately address conflict.” For instance, women have begun playing a vital role in armament. With disarmament measures being stepped-up, and with constant checks and increased patrols along the borders, women transport small arms and ammunition from Somalia and Uganda, hiding them in their clothes and undergarments. It is easy for the women because they are not as thoroughly searched as men are.

“Spears and arrows have been replaced with more deadly weapons and it is now popular for a father to gift his son a gun during initiation.”

Mary must have seen my eyebrows rising and was quick to reassure me that women are indeed quite vocal in encouraging their men to engage in livestock rustling. However, they remain timid on issues of peace and collaboration. “Older women who have a strong standing in the community may become vocal about peace, but the younger women are more supportive of their raider husbands, arguing that this is the only means of gaining wealth, economic and social status.” Elderly women have probably seen more destruction from the violence, the lost sons, brothers and husbands. They have faced highly volatile situations throughout life and have become more inclined to peace. Their participation in peacebuilding stems from the knowledge and experience that violence has devastating effects notwithstanding the wealth gained. The younger women are more desperate to find a “suitable partner”, one who will bring them pride and wealth, and earn them respect.

Therefore, for women leaders in the pastoral regions such as Mary Kanyaman, women hold the answer to sustainable peace. Mary held onto the belief that cooperation among the pastoralist women would “silence the guns”. To illustrate, Mary showed me an intricate belt, made from cow hide and decorated with shells. This belt is known as leketyo and is a powerful symbol for some pastoralists women. The belt is given to a woman during her first pregnancy, to protect the child she carries. It ultimately connects her with the child and its lifeline. Interestingly, so explains Mary to me, when a warrior goes to raid, he requests his mother to wear the belt, to ensure her child is protected. “Every pastoralist woman, even we who are modern, has their belt,” says Mary, seemingly lost in thought, brushing away some imaginary dust from the shells on the belt.

During the March 2020 POTUMA peace campaigns that took place in Kapenguria, Kainuk and Marich, organized by the former Minister of Immigration, Linah Kilimo, women, both old and young, publicly removed the belts, a symbol that they would no longer be active participants in the conflict. Those going for war could rely on themselves for protection. By removing their belts, the respected elderly women had placed a curse on those involved in violence and especially in acts of rape, which is taboo.

“There was so much crying from 2019, so many of our children died as they fought for cows,” Mary said. Indeed, statistics from The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) records show that in 2018 alone 11 raids and 4 fatalities occurred. In 2019, ACLED records more than twelve dead in the first raid, followed by various massacres that brought the fatalities to a total of 47. Only deaths were recorded. The injured, the traumatised and the destroyed families and livelihoods are not reflected. “Enough was enough. We toured hotspots including Kainuk and Sigor and we challenged women to take up the mantle of peacebuilding. The lal was silent, there were no songs composed for warriors that season. Women did not go to ceremonies honouring warriors and therefore there was no singing”.

According to Mary, this peace campaign had a significant influence because the women were finally involved. “While government officials were searching for the bandits, we women knew exactly where they were hiding. They rely on us for food and water as they prepare to raid. We told them clearly; we will let the police know where they are when asked. This ultimately led to a long period of peace and collaboration”. It seems it was a peaceful time; people travelled from Lodwar to Kainuk to get products for sale, and to do business. Women from Loyaa went all the way to Kapenguria to shop and sell milk. It was a good time. However, according to Mary, problems returned when the campaigns for the 2022 elections started, and politicians began insulting each other anew. The seeds of hatred grew fast. “Within weeks, we were back to fighting again.” However, contrary to other times, there has been a growing number of women actively involved in and participating in peacebuilding. For instance, the current Bunge la Wananchi grassroots assembly in Kapenguria holds the highest number of women from Marakwet, Turkana and Pokot participants ever, who are working towards peace-making and peacebuilding within their villages. This is an achievement for Mary. However, there is still a lot to be done.

Problems returned when the campaigns for the 2022 elections started, and politicians began insulting each other anew.

That day in Kapenguria, I would never have expected that the energetic peace ambassador seated in front of me in the Kalya Hotel would become a victim of livestock rustling herself. After her brother Ekuru Aukot announced Mary’s death on September 24th 2022, social media channels reported that besides Mary, eight General Service Unit (GSU) police officers, one Senior Chief and two civilians were found dead after they were ambushed by bandits at Namariat Kakiteitei in Turkana East. The story of her death reads like a crime novel. In the night of Friday to Saturday, the village of Ngikengoi was searched by armed bandits who stole livestock and murdered two people. Mary called for security backup to recover the livestock and volunteered to have the law enforcement officials use her vehicle to pursue the suspects. But, for whatever reason, the bandits got wind of the operation and laid a trap for the two vehicles.

Social media channels were awash with devastating pictures of the crime scene, with some commentators crying for revenge, while others called for an end to the violence. Tears came to my eyes when I saw the picture of a mother of four, a wife, a government servant, and a peace ambassador—a role model for women—laying there shot dead. Would we fall into another cycle of violence and revenge?

It has become obvious that current state mechanisms are not effective enough. The short-term disarmament followed by highly publicized peacebuilding barazas seem nothing more than a cosmetic solution to an internalized problem. Mary’s death should be a lesson to both local and national leaders and calls for an immediate change in the response to the violence. Within a society where women have been both victims and motivators of livestock rustling, they must become actively involved in peace-making. As Mary said, “Women are in a unique position, but largely ignored. They can reach their husbands within their homes, they can admonish their sons. Men informally seek the advice and approval of their wives, and sons seek to bring their mothers joy and pride. Therein lies an opportunity that is yet to be explored in order to shift the tide of violence in northern Kenya”.

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