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BLACK FRIDAY: Behind The Battle for Kawangware

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BLACK FRIDAY: Behind The Battle for Kawangware
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I visited Kawangware, the sprawling ghetto on the outskirts of Nairobi city, days after it had quieted down from a “political showdown” – a euphemism for brutal ethnic fighting- following the October 26 repeat election.

The air was sombre. There was an uncanny feeling that this was not your normal, bustlingly busy Kawangware. The people moved in rhythmic motions, melancholy and solemnly. It was as if they were mourning. And they were. A day after the repeat presidential election that was ignored by Raila Odinga, the opposition leader who had successfully petitioned President Uhuru Kenyatta’s win in the August 8, 2017 general elections, a massacre had occurred.

Kawangware 56 has been a melting cauldron of ethnic tensions for the last three months. After the August election, problems started brewing in the area. “The antagonism between Jubilee Party supporters and the Opposition National Super Alliance (NASA) had been palpable even during the tense campaign period,” Philip, who lives in Stage Two, one of the neighborhoods within Kawangware 56, told me.

A day after the repeat presidential election that was ignored by Raila Odinga, the opposition leader who had successfully petitioned President Uhuru Kenyatta’s win in the August 8, 2017 general elections, a massacre had occurred.

“When the Supreme Court of Kenya (SCOK) annulled Uhuru’s victory there were wild celebrations in Kawangware 56,” he added. “Businesses owned by Kikuyus – of all of them – did not open at all, especially on the main Macharia Road. The boda boda (motorcycle) riders largely Luhyas, Luos and Kisiis spent the whole day riding up and down the road, shouting, yelling and taunting the Kikuyus, who were too scared to venture out or conduct their day-to-day retail businesses.”

On October 10, Raila, who had polled second to Uhuru Kenyatta with 6,762,224 votes against Uhuru’s, 8,203,290 votes in August, had pulled out of the fresh presidential election ordered by the court, citing a recalcitrant Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) that had refused to reform.

Up until the fresh election date, both sides of the political divide had been exchanging ethnically loaded expletives and invectives. By October, the taunting had reached its apogee: Kikuyus, who had overwhelmingly voted for Uhuru were daring the Luhyas, Luos and Kisiis – many of them supporters of Raila – not to vote.

“There is not one trigger that led up to the violence that eventually erupted on October 27, but a culmination of piled up anger and animosity,” said Philip. “Matters came to a head on the eve of October 26, when hoards of NASA supporters, moved around in Kawangware 56 – which largely consists of Congo, Gatini and Stage Two areas – and vowed to chop of any finger, the following day, if found with the pink ink,” referring to the indelible ink applied to the fingers of voters during elections to prevent electoral fraud.

One of the big Kawangware 56 business moguls, who runs Waiyaki Supermarket, located on the ground floor of a multi-storeyed building in Congo area facing Gitanga Road, is said to have been one of the people who mobilized the dreaded Mungiki.

On the election day itself, businesses did not open, but that did not prevent them from being looted and vandalized by NASA allied gangs who were roaming in Kawangware 56, ostensibly hunting for those who had voted.

The following day, likewise, Kikuyu youth were also on the prowl, hunting for those who had not voted. A witness, Josphar Ochwaya, told an AFP journalist that “a group of people started attacking people questioning them why they had not voted.”

“Harassment, destruction, looting of business premises was the order of the day on election day in Kawangware 56,” said Philip. “That is the day Mwireri Supermarket on Macharia Road was broken into and looted. The other supermarket PBK Supermarket was well secured so they did not break into it.” Although PBK was not looted, it remains closed as I write. Many people did not vote, Philip said, because they were afraid of the NASA gangs.

“There was no voting at Hope Centre on Macharia Road, Kabiru Primary and Kabiru Health Centre. Although there was heavy presence of the police and GSU (a paramilitary outfit), still that did not guarantee complete safety for voters, so many kept off.” Alarmed by the escalating tensions, which spilled to the following day, Kikuyu business people mobilized Kikuyu youth to protect their property.

One of the big Kawangware 56 business moguls, who runs Waiyaki Supermarket, located on the ground floor of a multi-storeyed building in Congo area facing Gitanga Road, is said to have been one of the people who mobilized the dreaded Mungiki.

It is not clear how many people were actually killed that night. The government and local media reports claim only 10 people were killed, but the residents I spoke to say the number could easily reach 100.

Mungiki, a Kikuyu youth movement started in 1987 in Nyahururu town environs, later spread to urban towns of especially Nairobi and Nakuru, where there are large Kikuyu populations. The youth settled in the slums, where they quickly and successfully built extortion rings, the first target naturally being their own Kikuyu people. In no time, they came to be feared for their macabre killings, which were a way of sending coded messages to business concerns that refused to pay blackmail money.

As time wore on in the 1990s and 2000s, the group expanded its extortion businesses – from offering security services to running and managing matatu businesses. At the same time, it mutated into a militia for hire to wealthy businessmen and politicians. In Kawangware, less than 15km west of Nairobi’s city centre, the Mungiki became famous for terrorizing landlords. Later, the same landlords were to rely on Mungiki in dealing with difficult tenants, majority of whom were non-Kikuyus. The landlords had found a symbiotic way of co-existing with the dreaded youth group.

Philip says that “the youth assembled outside [the Waiyaki Supermarket] at around 5.00pm, I saw them. Charged and chanting, they were ready to shed blood. In the heat of the moment, they killed two NASA supporters,” though the local press reported three deaths.

Following this, for seven hours, from about 8pm to 2.30am on Friday October 27, with the Mungiki on one side and Luhya, Luo and Kisii youth on the other, a fierce battle was fought into the dead of the night. At the end of the clash – according to several Kawangware 56 residents and a landlord in the area, many bodies lay dead.

It is not clear how many people were actually killed that night. The government and local media reports claim only 10 people were killed, but the residents I spoke to say the number could easily reach 100.

Many of these deaths, they say, have been concealed. “Families that lost their kith and kin have been mum about their loss. They are not talking about them – it is as if they have been sworn to silence,” said a source who did not want his identity revealed for security reasons. But more significantly, according to the source, “all of the youths killed on Macharia Road [where much of the fighting took place] were picked up by the police that night, put on their trucks, which drove away with them,” said the source. This may explain the disparity in casualty figures.

Most of Raila’s supporters had heeded his call and stayed away from the polls and word was going round that Luhya and Kisii youth were chopping off fingers of anyone who had the pink ink on his finger. Njogu had supposedly dared the Bunge youth to cut his finger if “they were men enough”.

Kawangware is basically divided into two areas: Kawangware 46 and Kawangware 56. The numbers are city bus routes that the defunct Kenyan Bus Service (KBS) came up with in the 1980s when it was still providing public transport services across the city. The route numbers were adopted by matatus and outlived the collapse of KBS.

Kawangware 56 borders Kangemi and the wealthy Lavington suburb across Gitanga Road. Kangemi – a slum settlement – is in many ways just like Kawangware: it is a Kikuyu indigenous area, now majorly occupied by the Luhya community. It is also host to Mungiki youth, who today engage in turf wars and gang battles with the Luhya youth.

The most popular myth of the origin of the name Kawangware is the one that refers to a Kikuyu man named Ngware, who is believed to have opened the first shop in the area in the early sixties. Kikuyu shoppers would say they have gone to Ngware’s shop or “Ka – wa – Ngware”. Another myth suggests the place got its name Ngware, because it was the place of the “guinea bird” (Ngware in Kikuyu language). Yet another claim is that Kawangware is a corruption of the Maasai name, Ewa Engare, or the place of floods.

Be that as it may, Kawangware was a traditional weekly market place which in colonial times was part of the original Kiambu district and under paramount chief Kinyanjui wa Gathirimu, the chief of Riruta area. From 1904 to 1959 African farming and land ownership was confined to native reserves. During this period, land in Kawangware and the neighbouring area of Satellite was made available for African freehold ownership. In the run up to and following independence in 1963, partly as a result of the area being exempted from taxes and from strict building and planning regulations, the area witnessed a huge influx of immigrants coming from other parts of the country in search of a good city life and cheap accommodation. Thus by 1964, when it was swallowed as part of Dagoretti District within the city boundaries, the largely Kikuyu population had swelled to include Kisii, Luo, Luhya, Nubians and Maasai. A 1979 study found that following sustained immigration from Busia district, Luhyas by then made up 20 percent of the population.

“The Mungiki had no inkling that the Luhya, Luo and Kisii youth already expected that they could be attacked any time and had prepared for battle,” said Karanja.

Both Kawangware 46 and 56 are densely populated, but it is Kawangware 56 that is the hotbed of cross-cultural ethnic politics, because it is today largely populated by non-Kikuyu communities from western Kenya: the Luhyas and Kisiis. Official figures regarding the current ethnic composition of Kawangware are hard to come by. According to the 2009 Kenya Population and Housing Census, the population was 133,286 -that has doubtless grown in the 8 years since- but offered no account of the ethnic breakdown. “Nine out 10 people who live in Kawangware 56 is either a Luhya or from the Kisii community,” estimates a Kikuyu landlord, who has been renting his houses to the Luhyas from the mid-1990s.

Stage Two is where Kawangware 56 Bunge la Mwananchi (people’s parliament) meet every evening. Established in the early 1990s, Bunge la Mwananchi is a grassroots movement that provides social space for debates and discussion on social, political and economic issues by ordinary Kenyans. During the campaign period for the August 8, elections, the Kawangware chapter met even more regularly: early in the mornings before everyone started on his day’s business and in the evenings to exchange notes on the day’s politics. Bunge la Mwananchi in Kawangware 56 comprises largely Luhyas and Kisiis.

At about 10.30am, On October 26, a middle-aged Kikuyu businessman known as Njogu, who ran the Zebra Bar and Restaurant Club on Macharia Road, opposite Stage Two, and who had just voted, was said to have come to the meeting place and waved his small finger with the ink mark. “I have just voted: what are you gonna do?” he is said to have taunted the assembled youth.

All that violence could not have taken place without the unseen hands of the politicians across the political divide. The galvanization of the respective militia gangs was the work of local politicians.

Most of Raila’s supporters had heeded his call and stayed away from the polls and word was going round that Luhya and Kisii youth were chopping off fingers of anyone who had the pink ink on his finger. Njogu had supposedly dared the Bunge youth to cut his finger if “they were men enough”. They knew him very well, the club owner and took this as a direct affront.

Njogu went away, but not before warning the youth and reminding them that they were foreigners and could be sent packing any time. Not long afterwards, the bunge was adjourned and the youths left Stage Two.

To the NASA brigade, the deaths of their kinsmen the next morning, was an ominous sign of what was to come and, unbeknownst to the Kikuyus, they alerted their brethren in Kangemi and in the Kibera slum .

At about 4.30pm, around 400 Mungiki youth started moving down in a column from Waithaka wielding pangas and clubs in broad daylight heading towards Kawangware 56 along Naivasha Road. Little did they know that the Luhya, Luo and Kisii youth lay in wait. “The Mungiki had no inkling that the Luhya, Luo and Kisii youth already expected that they could be attacked any time and had prepared for battle,” said Karanja.

Meanwhile, Mungiki had also summoned reinforcements from their Kangemi fraternity. Kawangware 56 and Kangemi are connected by Mau Mau Bridge – a low level stone bridge with metal guard rails on both sides that crosses a stream meandering through Kangemi. “On Friday evening, I counted about 300 Mungiki youth rolling down to Mau Mau Bridge, carrying pangas, sticks and clubs singing Kikuyu songs,” said a source who spoke to me in strict confidence and who asked me to hide his name. “I was able to count them because they passed just outside my house.”

Karanja told me Mau Mau Bridge, which is strong and wide enough for motor vehicles to pass, has seen many a gang battle between the Mungiki and the Luhya youth. “Whoever controls the bridge carries the day”, said Karanja, who has aptly nicknamed the bridge “ground zero.”

“In all of my 20 years at the market, business has never been this bad,” confessed Kabuda, a seasoned vegetable seller.

Once the Mungiki youth from Kangemi had crossed the bridge, their would-be targets emerged and sealed it off trapping them. From the Mau Mau Bridge, which is on a valley, the road climbs up to connect with Macharia Road, which links up with Naivasha Road. It is therefore a corridor that runs about 1.5kms. Left only with the escape route at the mouth of Macharia Road, the Mungiki had been out-manoeuvred and were out-numbered. They would soon be overpowered and overwhelmed,

Some sought refuge at Zebra Bar. It was a deadly mistake as the club was surrounded, locked and set ablaze with them still inside. The rest of the Mungiki youth, pursued by the panga wielding Luhya and Kisii, ran up the road and attempted to hide at the rental houses and shops located at the junction of Macharia Road and Naivasha Road. It became another death trap. The compound was also razed, the fire engulfing retail shops butcheries, M-Pesa agent kiosks and residential houses.

“In a conventional battle, the Kikuyus are no match for the Luhyas and Kisiis” Karanja told me. “The Mungiki youth thought they would stalk their enemies but instead walked into a trap.” What saved the Mungiki youth from further annihilation were the police and the paramilitary, who came to their rescue. However, even the police were no match for the combined force of the well-armed and prepared gang.

“10 policemen were caught in the ensuing battle and died,” an intelligence officer based at Central Police Station told me. “Six died on the spot on Macharia Road.” Many, he added, were maimed and driven by ambulance vehicles that came to pick the wounded officers that night. They are being treated at Defence Forces Memorial Hospital, a military hospital on Mbagathi Way that is reputed to be one of the best equipped referral hospitals in the country.

All that violence could not have taken place without the unseen hands of the politicians across the political divide. The galvanization of the respective militia gangs was the work of local politicians. One name on the lips of many, including the Kawangware 56 residents, is that of rambunctious area MP, Simba Arati, of the Orange Democratic Party (ODM), an affiliate of NASA coalition.

Jubilee politicians have accused Arati of being an instigator of the violence, which he has denied, claiming in court papers that he had been hospitalized at the time and only heard of the fighting through social media. The MP has successfully applied to the high court for anticipatory bail, which prevents the police arresting him.

Many in Kawangware are not buying it. “Simba Arati is the one who orchestrated all the chaos,” said a Kikuyu landlord from Gatina. “After Arati was elected the MP, he began inciting both the Luhya and Kisiis to engage in acts of violence.” Arati, an ethnic Kisii, is distrusted by the Kikuyu landlords and business class, who accuse him of fomenting trouble, in the ultimate hope of ejecting Kikuyus from Kawangware 56.

“Before Arati was elected MP, there was peace and harmony in Kawangware 56,” said the landlord. “He is the source and inciter of the violence. He has been telling his people they cannot remain tenants forever. They must secure their space. What does that mean?” posed the landlord. “Already we have been outnumbered by these foreigners. That is why they are able to elect one of their own in our homeland.”

The landlord said there is vacant government land in Kawangware 56, “and I suspect Arati is ‘mark timing’ for that land, so that he can settle his people there as he plans on how he is going to overrun the rest of us Kikuyus.” The landlord was genuinely concerned that if the government machinery does not come to their aid, there was a real danger of ultimately being overpowered by the Luhyas and Kisiis, who he kept referring to as “foreigners.”

Arati knows Kawangware 56 like the black of his hand. He was first elected as the area MP in 2013. Considered a frontline foot soldier in the ODM party ranks, he first entered competitive politics at the tender age of 22, when in 2003, he was made a nominated councilor by ODM. Five years later, he become an elected councilor. He is therefore a household name in Kawangware 56 and is reputed to have his own gang of loyal youth, who he can mobilize in the twinkling of an eye.

“The truth of the matter,” said Karanja, “is that today’s Kawangware is totally different from the Kawangware of two decades ago. The population dynamics of the area have altered who drives the local economy.” In short, what Karanja was saying to me was, without the non-Kikuyu communities, the Kawangware economy was dead.

The Mungiki youth are alleged to have been bankrolled by Jubilee politicians and three names were mentioned by those I spoke to: Kiambu governor Ferdinand Waititu, the former MP for Dagoretti South, Dennis Waweru and Gatundu South MP, Moses Kuria.

Tuesdays and Fridays are the busiest days in Kawangware, because they happen to be market days. Residents of the wealthy suburbs of Hurlingham, Kileleshwa, Lavington and Valley Arcade drive to the market in swanky SUVs on Saturday mornings to buy fresh farm produce.

Ten days after the battle on Macharia Road, I went to the Kawangware Market, which is located in the 46 area. I had gone to see Kabuda aka Mwaniki. It was on a Monday afternoon. Short and stocky, Kabuda, is one of the better known faces at the market. Self-effacing, he was his jolly self nonetheless. My mission to the market had been to see for myself how badly the rising ethnic tensions had affected the flow of business at the market.

“In all of my 20 years at the market, business has never been this bad,” confessed Kabuda, a seasoned vegetable seller. “Since that black Friday, market business has been just going down and down.” In this era of smart phones and the explosion of social media, information travels at the speed of light. By the morning of the Saturday October 28, information had reached Kabuda’s suppliers that Kawangware was now a no-go zone.

“My suppliers from Molo, Njabini, north and south Kinangop were already calling me asking about what was happening in Kawangware,” said Kabuda. “The burning of the club and the houses had scared them off.” Kawangware Market receives fresh farm produce – from bananas and beetroot, to cabbages and carrots, to pears and potatoes. Medium sized trucks are driven all the way from Kinangop, Kirinyaga, Molo, Njabini and Nyahururu to Kawangware Market.

Kabuda specializes in selling fresh cabbages direct from the farms in Njabini in Nyandarua County. “When business was at its peak, I would order cabbages in three Mitsubishi FH Canter trucks each carrying 3.0 tonnes, which would be delivered by Thursday night.” By Monday evening, his suppliers would again make the 100km journey to Kawangware Market to restock Kabuda’s stall.

“My customers are both retail and wholesale,” said Kabuda. And because of his huge consignment – 9.0 tonnes worth of cabbages need hours to offload- his goods would arrive on the eve of each market day. On the Monday afternoon I went to interview Kabuda, he was, as usual, expecting arrival of his goods. So we took tea and buttered bread, as we bantered away on the vicissitudes of Kenyan politics.

“Political violence and instability are destructive to business. On the Saturday morning following the fight, itonga cia Lavington itiokire thoko (the Lavington rich kept off the market),” pointed out Kabuda. “I made huge losses, because weekends are very busy for me – as they are indeed for the entire market.” He added that since the night of the violence, no supplier had been willing to risk taking his truck to the Kawangware Market.

Kabuda told me the violence had escalated an already bad situation to a worse one. “Already business at the market had been severely affected after the September ruling, which overruled the President Uhuru’s win.” The hazy political uncertainty, he said, had created an atmosphere of fear for his many customers, both retail and wholesale. Kawangware, like many of Nairobi’s 200 informal settlements, according to a 2012 study by the African Population and Health Research Centre, is a crucible of the intense ethnic passions, ignitable at the slightest provocation, that have come to pervade our political landscape.

Kabuda, said no one was willing to tempt fate. “This state of affairs has badly affected business at the market, which depends on the movement of goods and people. If goods and people keep off, there will be no market to talk about.” At about 5p.m., a 2.5 tonne Canter truck entered the market – it was the only truck that I had seen in all the time I sat chatting with Kabuda. His perishable cabbages had been delivered.

“Look, I can only now manage to order for half a Canter truck. I am splitting up the goods and costs with a friend – that is how bad business has become.” From the 9 tonnes that he would quickly sell in two days, Kabuda now was only moving 1.2 tonnes in a whole week. “If by Friday – the next market day – I will have offloaded all these cabbages, I will indeed be very lucky,” he surmised.

Kawangware Market is one of the economic mainstays of the area. The others are hardware supermarkets, real estate and transport logistics (spawned by a booming construction industry) and the matatu industry. “The truth of the matter,” said Karanja, “is that today’s Kawangware is totally different from the Kawangware of two decades ago. The population dynamics of the area have altered who drives the local economy.”

In short, what Karanja was saying to me was, without the non-Kikuyu communities, the Kawangware economy was dead. “What Kabuda did not tell you is that many of his customers – retail or otherwise – are the Luhya and Kisii, who today constitute three-quarters of the total population of the entire Kawangware combined,” said Karanja.

“With the talk of boycotting certain products very much in the air,” he said, referring to the call by the NASA coalition for consumers to stop buying products by companies it accuses of helping Jubilee rig the elections, “it does not take a genius to know the Luhyas and Kisiis could be keeping away from the Kawangware Market.”

Kawangware has two markets: the main Kawangware Market and the much smaller and less well known Soko Mjinga Market which is in the heart of Kawangware 56. “Soko Mjinga Market is the market for the real ghetto dwellers of Gatina, Stage Two and Congo areas,” said Karanja. “Here, the real kadogo informal economy is at play: with just about two hundred shillings, one can buy ¼ kg of sugar, ¼ kg of unrefined cooking oil, kerosene, tea leaves complete with a ½ packet of homogenized milk.”

Mbuthe cursed the prevailing political climate and hoped the boycott proposed by the opposition leader Raila Odinga on certain goods and products would not translate into NASA supporters boycotting any business run by a Kikuyu.

Karanja’s assertion that Kawangware’s economy rested on the goodwill of non-Kikuyu communities was supported by Jackson Mwangi, the owner of a well-established hardware shop on Naivasha Road. A stockist of cement, metal, timber and varied construction materials, Mwangi candidly told me: “Majority of my clients are Luhyas and Kisiis. Let nobody cheat you: without them, many of the hardware businesses in Kawangware would cease to exist.”

For the last two months, Mwangi said, his business had faced hard times. “It has been the political uncertainties occasioned by the Supreme Court of Kenya judgement and now the violence that rocked Kawangware 56.” The businessman told me if the political uncertainty persisted and the random ethnic flare-ups were not checked, the business which he has built for well over 15 years would be in big trouble.

“I will tell you this: I used to deposit Sh500,000 every Friday at my bank. Today, I am barely making it to Sh100,000. I have six employees. If this situation continues, I will have to let them go. I am not in a good place.” Mwangi said that he used to enjoy credit facilities from Co-operative Bank, his bank for many years. “But you know what? I went there the other day, and the manager told me they had stopped the privilege forthwith. Nobody is taking chances.”

“My suppliers are now demanding cash. Before, they would provide me with the materials and would give me up to 90 days grace period to pay up. They trusted me, because I would honour the pledge, as I was moving the goods. With the bank covering my back, I was not worried. I could always run to my bank manager in case of a shortfall. Well, that is no more for now,” he says.

Mwangi pointed out that there was not much construction going in Kawangware anyway. “I would know, because many of my customers who have been putting up [housing] estates have suspended their work. They are no longer coming to me for materials. Nobody wants to invest in an area that might explode at any time.”

For Stephen Mbuthe, setting up a computer college business in Kawangware 56 has been a learning curve. “When I first came here five or years ago, I did not have a clue who would constitute my students,” said Mbuthe. We were standing outside the rented premises where his college is located. “Reke gikwire, Gikuyu gitithomaga. (Let me tell you, Kikuyus are not interested in acquiring additional skills). Why am I telling you this? For all the time I have ran this college, my students have been Luhyas and Kisiis. They are eager to first acquire new knowledge which will help them find jobs afterwards.”

The converse is true of Kikuyus: “They are interested first in acquiring money, then if it is a must they have to acquire some computer skill, that is when they will come here for short courses. But even those ones, I can count on the fingers of my two hands for all the time I have operated the college.” Bottom line: the ethnic confrontations between the Kikuyus and Luhyas/Kisiis were hurting his business.

I had gone to see him on a week day. “Look, the class is empty, my students have stopped coming, and their teachers are just lazing about.” Mbuthe cursed the prevailing political climate and hoped the boycott proposed by the opposition leader Raila Odinga on certain goods and products would not translate into NASA supporters boycotting any business run by a Kikuyu.

Like Mbuthe, David Ruraya, a landlord, who has lived half of his life in Kawangware 56, was a worried man when I went to meet him to Stage Two. He lives 500 metres on the right of Stage Two, as one approaches from Macharia Road. “All my tenants are Luhyas,” said Ruraya. He did not tell me how many they were, but he made the point that fellow landlords also hosted Luhya tenants. “We have been outnumbered by 10 – 1. If they choose not to pay rent, there is practically nothing we can do.”

Truly fortunes had changed. Barely a decade ago, no Kawangware 56 landlord would have imagined his tenants would hold him at ransom. The landlords’ association lays down the law and if tenants proved to be difficult, the Mungiki youth – at a small fee – were there to enforce it. “Let me be honest with you: the Mungiki today are not a match for the Luhya youth,” Ruraya said to me matter-of-factly. The Friday battle on Macharia Road had removed any lingering doubt about the efficacy of Mungiki’s terror tactics.

“The Luhya gangs are better organized, they are united and constantly hang together,” noted Ruraya. “Anake aitu nimanyuire muno, matingehota mbara. (Our (Kikuyu) youth have taken to reckless drinking, they can no longer fight).” Karanja had also told me that a big part of the reason why the Mungiki had been routed by the Luhya youth was many of them were inebriated. “The Mungiki incurred heavy casualties because they staggered away instead of running for dear life.”

“Let me be honest with you: the Mungiki today are not a match for the Luhya youth,” Ruraya said to me matter-of-factly. The Friday battle on Macharia Road had removed any lingering doubt about the efficacy of Mungiki’s terror tactics.

Ruraya reminded me that Kawangware was Kikuyu ancestral land, “so we the Kikuyus own the land, but the Luhyas and Kisiis have taken over our houses.” The houses in question are semi-permanent, oftentimes two-roomed affairs, with corrugated iron sheet roofs and cemented floors. “My tenants have yet to refuse to pay. I hope we don’t go there, so I am having to deal with them softly, softly,” said Ruraya.

Although in his hearts of hearts Ruraya holds his tenants the Luhyas in utter contempt, he needs them now more than they need him. If they were to vacate his houses or refuse to pay, he would suffer gravely. He told me he was hoping for peaceful co-existence. The dream of chasing away the Luhyas and Kisiis from Kawangware was just that: a dream.

That is what Micah, a mechanic from the Kisii community told me about his Kikuyu landlord. Micah who has ran a successful motor garage in Kawangware 56 for close to two decades now, said that on the day of the battle, his landlord had secured his garage and the other businesses on the property and ensured that they were protected from any malicious attacks.

I asked him how his garage was doing. “Business had slumped,” he owned up. He was reluctant to discuss anything remotely touching on politics, but with some prodding he told me his business had seen better days. “Just two months ago, if you came here like today, I would not have had the time to spare and to talk to you even for a minute. That is how busy I was. Look around now – the garage is empty.”

He pointed to a gearbox which, he said, was what was left of a Nissan matatu that was set alight just across the road. The owner, a fellow Kisii, had entrusted it to him for safekeeping. When I wanted to know who had burned the matatu, Micah moved me aside and whispered into my ear – “Mungiki.” Nearly all the Kawangware 56 matatus – big and small – are owned by the Kisiis. But while they own the matatus, the Mungiki control the termini. Hence, there has been a never-ending tussle between the matatu proprietors and Mungiki youth over the control and management of the route. Micah was of the view Mungiki burned the matatu to spite the Kisiis. The mechanic told me the Kisiis were very angry and hinted they could be plotting revenge.

“The settling of the Luhyas, and later, Kisiis in Kawangware in the last 30 years or so, has affected the work ethic and labour dynamics of the indigenous Kikuyu people,” observed Karanja. “Today, the Luhyas and Kisiis make up the reservoir of labour that is today employed in the posh suburbs of Hurlingham, Kileleshwa, Lavington, Loresho, Mountain View, Westlands and Valley Arcade.” These rich neighbourhoods are within a 5km radius of both Kawangware 46 and 56.

“The Luhyas and Kisiis are employed as domestic workers – baby sitters, cooks, gardeners, house helps, laundry women and security men – in these areas. Unlike the Kikuyus, they have accepted lowly and menial jobs and walk to their respective work stations. Overtime, with their collective meagre wages, these people, who are derided and looked down by the Kikuyus, have helped expand and grow Kawangware’s economy in a mighty way,” explained Karanja.

“I am afraid to say this – and I wish I could be proven wrong – but I strongly believe there is a looming ethnic conflagration that, if not checked in good time, will consume parts of Nairobi County.”

“Kawangware would still be like your typical Kikuyu rural settlement had it not been for the advent of the Luhyas and Kisiis. They have spawned a local economy that cuts across real estate, provision of goods and service and, provided a ready wage labour market that is not afraid of manual work. All the mechanics, metal welders, panel beaters and spray painters in Kawangware are Luo, Luhya and Kisiis.” In Kawangware, the Luos are mainly concentrated in the adjacent Kabiria and Riruta areas.

“Because the Kikuyus have this notion that they are the owners of Kawangware, the male youth especially have largely spurned wage labour, preferring instead, to idle around as they wait for business opportunities to avail themselves. Meantime, they spend their time drinking poison and engaging in nefarious activities such as joining the Mungiki,” said Karanja.

The Luhya and Kisiis of Kawangware 56 have sworn they are not going anywhere. “We are not afraid of the Mungiki, we are ready for them – any time, any day,” said one Kisii youngster from Gatina which is a predominantly Kisii neighbourhood.

On October 31, when Cabinet Secretary for Education, who is also the acting CS for Internal Security, Fred Matiang’i, went to Gatina Primary School to inspect preparations for the next day’s start of the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examinations, he was confronted by a band of marauding Kisii youth, who pelted his motorcade with stones forcing him to flee.

“Kawangware is a microcosm of the future ethnic warfare that is going to be fought on the dusty roads of the Nairobi’s murky and sordid slums,” Karanja reminded me once more. “The armageddon that was witnessed on that fateful Friday in Kawangware 56 is a powerful signal sent across the other ghettoes that Mungiki should not scare anyone. I am afraid to say this – and I wish I could be proven wrong – but I strongly believe there is a looming ethnic conflagration that, if not checked in good time, will consume parts of Nairobi County.”

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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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