I was born in 1988, eight years after Zimbabwe’s independence from British colonial rule. I am thus considered a “Born Free” — meaning one born after the liberation war. For a long time, particularly over the last two decades and the fraught turmoil we have endured as Zimbabweans, the term has been used to denigrate those of us who were born into freedom from colonial rule and did not experience the struggles of the liberation war.
Robert Mugabe, for me, has always been a figure of ambivalence. This is because many people from Matabeleland, where I come from, have always had a great loathing for him. As a child, I was never able to fully understand why.
It was only when I began working on my novel House of Stone, which has been my way of trying to understand and grapple with the many faces of Zimbabwe’s past, that I came face to face with one of these faces, Gukurahundi, the genocide in Matabeleland and Midlands that occurred in the 1980s, shortly after independence. Gukurahundi was something I grew up knowing about, for it is spoken about among the people of Matabeleland with great pain and in fearful whispers; it’s taboo in Zimbabwe to remember the genocide, and those who remember these “criminal memories” are constantly punished.
It is for this reason that the genocide was something I knew about but did not know. This ambivalence about working through our pasts as well as our presents is something I grew up with; it’s the tentativeness born from having to live in a state of physical or psychological violence. This ambivalence was amplified in 2001 when I was in my teens and when our socio-politico-economic meltdown started – when things became so unbearable for my family, as they did for millions of Zimbabwean families, so much so that we had to leave for South Africa in search of a better life in 2009.
This culture of erasing whole peoples and their experiences from the geographical, communal and imaginative space that is Zimbabwe is not unique to the past two decades; it’s an indelible part of our Zimbabwean history, as Gukurahundi exemplifies.
Ambivalence was a necessary condition for us to go about living, loving, celebrating, mourning and dreaming amidst the constant stress of the empty supermarkets, the never-ending scuffles in the queues for food and money, and the abuse lambasted at us by Mugabe and his advocates on state media. Politicians and army generals would pop up on state television during election time declaring that there would be war if the populace dared to vote for the opposition party, MDC, and that Zimbabweans who did not support Zanu (PF) and its doctrines were traitors and sell-outs who deserved to be expelled, ideologically, communally and most terrifying of all, violently, from the Zimbabwean imagination. This culture of erasing whole peoples and their experiences from the geographical, communal and imaginative space that is Zimbabwe is not unique to the past two decades; it’s an indelible part of our Zimbabwean history, as Gukurahundi exemplifies.
Many of my family members found Gukurahundi too difficult to talk about when I asked them as part of my research for House of Stone, as it brought up so much pain. This pain is not just a pain about what is past—for the past is never about the past, but is about the future and dealt with in relation to the present. It’s very much a pain that endures in the present, since those who went through Gukurahundi are not acknowledged by our communities and our country, meaning they are not able to freely mourn their dead, exhume mass graves, perform rites, build shrines, work through their trauma, and come together in remembrance and healing – things that are done for other periods in our country’s history where great suffering and loss was endured, such as the liberation war.
In her introduction to the book Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe on the Catholic Commission Report on the genocide — the said report which euphemistically described the genocide as “disturbances in Matabeleland and Midlands”— writer and human rights activist Elinor Sisulu writes:
“The Shona expression ‘Gukurahundi’, meaning ‘the first rain that washes away the chaff of the last harvest before the spring rains’, used to have pleasant connotations…In the 1980s the term Gukurahundi assumed an entirely new meaning when the North Korean-trained 5 Brigade murdered thousands of people in the Zimbabwean province of Matabeleland and parts of Midlands. Both the 5 Brigade and the period of mayhem and murder they caused were called Gukurahundi, which is why, since then, the word Gukurahundi invokes nothing but negative emotions among Zimbabweans, ranging from indifference, shame, denial, terror, bitter anger and deep trauma, depending on whether one is a victim, perpetrator or one of the millions of citizens who remained silent.”
My research for House of Stone showed me that Gukurahundi was not just “something terrible that happened” and gave me an opportunity to confront the experiences and testimonies of the victims who endured it. The Catholic Church Commission Report has the most comprehensive of these testimonies, including reports about the goings on at places such as Bhalagwe Concentration Camp, which was near Antelope Mine in the Kezi district of Matabeleland South. Here, horror is told of sharp objects being forced up women’s genitals, of civilians being forced to have sexual relations with donkeys and beaten up if they refused. Other reports relate water torture, which included drenching the victim’s head in a bucket of water, and then the perpertrator jumping on the victim’s stomach until he vomited blood.
The atrocities committed during Gukurahundi, then, were not just against the people of Matabeleland; they were also against Shona as a language and as a culture, against the humanistic values and precepts that this language and culture carries, and thus, against the Shona people as well.
In the villages, civilians were made to dig graves, and then forced to watch as their loved ones were ordered into these graves and shot; they were then forced to cover the mass graves, and then dance on top of these graves while singing praises to Mugabe. It has been very confusing for these victims because although the genocide was not an ethnic one (civilians from Mashonaland did not come to Matabeleland and commit these acts on the civilians there); the specially trained 5 Brigade that committed these atrocities were mostly Shona speaking, and would force the mostly Ndebele civilians to chant praises to Mugabe in Shona while dancing on the graves of their loved ones.
Thus, language was abused as a tool of terror, and has caused great trauma to the victims. The atrocities committed during Gukurahundi, then, were not just against the people of Matabeleland; they were also against Shona as a language and as a culture, against the humanistic values and precepts that this language and culture carries, and thus, against the Shona people as well. Many Zimbabweans don’t seem to know or understand exactly what happened during Gukurahundi, and why this period looms large for its victims and their communities. Hence the importance of working through our histories. (More on the findings by the Catholic Commission Report here.)
Having to read, watch and listen to these testimonies caused me to break down. I wept for our people, for their humanity, for their dehumanisation, and for the silence that continues to surround what they went through. Yet, witnessing and re-experiencing was a necessary step, is a necessary step, towards empathy, towards being able to see others.
The culture of violence around Gukurahundi in our country encourages a looking around but not a looking at the victims who experienced it and who live with its scars. Many discussions about the genocide tend to weaponise the victims; as tools and symbols for justice, for instance. Though justice is necessary, weaponising the victims in this way — as symbols caught in this dehumanising glare, without fleshing them out as human beings whose humanity we seek to recover and honour — has the ironic effect of de-centring them, so that we are unable to see them and thus witness with them, which is the first step towards building empathy, and prioritising them and their healing.
Perhaps, with this landmark removal of Grandfather after thirty-seven years from the office of President, we can begin to look our histories in the face and work through them.
Perhaps, with this landmark removal of Grandfather after thirty-seven years from the office of President, we can begin to look our histories in the face and work through them. This is something we ought to do for our own sakes, as a matter of moving into a future that honours our humanity, as Africans, and makes sure the cycle of violence that has been unacknowledged in our country right from its inception does not keep repeating itself.
Many eulogies, odes and critiques have been written about Grandfather since the army’s soft coup, the protest marches, and his resignation. In many of them, Grandfather has been the towering centre. Even in the bitter criticisms about him, he remains, ironically, the main visible figure in the glare of the indicting spotlight. Furthermore, the Mugabe who is alternately deified or indicted is not Mugabe the person; he is objectified to represent the land reform programme, for instance, or Zimbabwe’s excellent education system, or Gukurahundi, or the liberation war, or our recent desperate decades of destruction.
I think of these abstractions of Mugabe as a manifestation, in our languages and our psyches, of the authoritarian culture we have lived with for the past thirty-seven years. It has led not just to physical and political violence, but has also affected us psychologically and culturally, leading to a narrowing of our imaginings and thus our vocabulary. In all of this, Mugabe the person, Mugabe as a person, is lost, and in it, we, as people, as well as our humanity, are lost, too.
It’s ironic, isn’t it, that in order for us to recoup our humanity, we need to recoup Grandfather’s humanity, too? In humanising him, we are removing him from the deified aura he has sought to build around himself and that others have helped to build around him, which has affected how we experience reality, rendering us imprisoned in his glare and thus unable to look at and see one another. This deification has also influenced the kinds of values we have come to prioritise in our country, such as “cleverness,” which we tend to use to describe acts of corrupt wheeling and dealing.
In humanising him, we also humanise ourselves.
It would be so very easy to dehumanise Grandfather; the impulse is there. I loathe him for what his governance put us through, for what he has come to represent for us. I lost loved ones in the last two decades who didn’t have to die – aunts, uncles, and cousins, some only children. I hate that this kind of loss became normalised; our cemeteries overflow with graves, many of them child-sized.
It’s ironic, isn’t it, that in order for us to recoup our humanity, we need to recoup Grandfather’s humanity, too? In humanising him, we are removing him from the deified aura he has sought to build around himself and that others have helped to build around him, which has affected how we experience reality, rendering us imprisoned in his glare and thus unable to look at and see one another.
Why do I keep emphasising humanity, Grandfather’s humanity and our humanity as Africans? Because African lives, right from the time of colonisation, have always been rendered “unimportant” and thus fit for being sacrificed for “the greater good.” African lives have always been deemed fit to wait a little longer for the recognition of their humanity; for the sake of “unity” or “progress,” we shove aside the protests of the suffering and the dissenting. This is manifested in the way in which they, African lives, remain a clump of shadows in our discussions about our societies, never meant to disturb any glare that we wish to shine on those in power, be it celebratory or accusatory. In this sense, African lives become weaponised, and thus sacrificial, for other wars we claim to fight in their name and for their well-being; wars against Western imperialism, for example.
In this sense, Mugabe – the misnomer we continue to use to describe wholesale pasts and futures – has the unwitting effect of perpetuating authoritarian culture and its intolerance for contradictions and the existence of multiple realities and truths. This misnomer also erases us from the human glare. By using it to describe wholesale pasts and periods, we render ourselves as existing because of and thanks to Mugabe the abstraction.
Our mythologising of these abstractions, then, sets up our de-humanisation— we become enthralled with the myth, and in tying our narratives about ourselves to it, in banking our humanity on the myth’s existence and endurance, we shackle ourselves to upholding it at any cost, including the cost of denying and brushing aside the experiences of, and thus de-humanising, those in our communities who have horrific experiences and memories that shatter this myth. Like the victims and survivors of Gukurahundi.
Ironically, it’s in Mugabe’s humanisation, and not de-humanisation (we do not seek to de-mythologise him as a matter of stripping him of his humanity, which is as much a stripping of our own humanity as is the act of deifying him), that we realise our own humanisation, too. In the spirit of working with what one has, we can use the weapons that authoritarian culture has used to build itself over the last thirty-seven years to free ourselves from it.
All of this was facilitated and justified ideologically by the land reform programme, known as The Third Chimurenga, which I think of as the hijacking of real and true grievances for nefarious purposes.
We ought not to, for instance, if we are to recognise our humanity, talk about the honeymoon years of Zimbabwe’s independence, its education policies and prosperity for its citizens, without talking about and witnessing the victims and survivors of the Gukurahundi genocide. In the same way, we can’t talk about the land reform programme, which as a concept and a process was necessary (land was always at the centre of the liberation struggle) without talking about everything else that was done to the people of Zimbabwe over the past two decades in its name: beatings; Operation Murambatsvina; facilitation of corruption; repression of freedom of speech and civic participation and gatherings; rigging of elections and withholding of election results; abduction of activists such as Jestina Mukoko and disappearance of activists such as Itai Dzamara; conflating patriotism with supporting Zanu (PF); considering Zimbabweans who do not agree with Zanu (PF)’s doctrines as “non-Zimbabweans” and “un-Zimbabwean”; and criminalising the discussion of our pasts, both pre- and post-independence.
All of this was facilitated and justified ideologically by the land reform programme, known as The Third Chimurenga, which I think of as the hijacking of real and true grievances for nefarious purposes. It is true that corruption and genocide are used by Western governments to blackmail non-Western leaders to conform to the unfair way the world is run. It is also true that corruption and genocide are used by non-Western leaders to coerce their populations into accepting the ways they run them. In all of this, one thing endures: African lives remain abstract in the imaginations of colonial and post-colonial societies, and are considered easy or somehow justifiable collateral, readily cast aside, unwitnessed, and swept under carpets so as to pave the way for authoritarian re-imaginings and the deifying of those in power.
A democratisation or opening up of our societies also entails a democratisation and opening up of our language and our imaginings. Instead of using “Mugabe” or even “Mnangagwa” as short-cut terms for both our dreams and nightmares (as metaphors they are inaccurate because they erase or hide other individuals and groups who have contributed to these dreams and nightmares), we may do well to try to be concrete, and in this way expansive, in our vocabulary. These misnomers carry so many histories; we use them to capture the vast events we seek to evoke, yet they end up contradicting these events. Words matter; how we use them matters.
In re-couping our humanity, I’m imagining a kind of practice that offers a third way for African lives. A way that centres them and honours them as real and concrete. A way that says: African Lives Matter. Ubuntu—I Am, You Are, We Are.
Support The Elephant.
The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.
Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.
It’s a Nurses’ Market Out There, and Kenyans Are Going For It
Nurses are central to primary healthcare and unless Kenya makes investments in a well-trained, well supported and well-paid nursing workforce, nurses will continue to leave and the country is unlikely to achieve its Sustainable Development Goals in the area of health and wellbeing for all.
Nancy* is planning to leave Kenya. She wants to go to the United States where the nursing pastures are supposedly greener. I first met Nancy when the country was in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic that tested Kenya’s healthcare system to breaking point. She was one of a cohort of recently graduated nurses that were hastily recruited by the Ministry of Health and thrown in at the deep end of the pandemic. Nancy earns KSh41,000 net with no other benefits whatsoever, unlike her permanent and pensionable colleagues.
When the then Labour and Social Protection Cabinet Secretary Simon Chelugui announced in early September 2021 that the government would be sending 20,000 nurses to the United Kingdom to help address the nursing shortage in that country, Nancy saw her chance. But her hopes were dashed when she failed to raise the KSh90,000 she needed to prepare and sit for the English language and nursing exams that are mandatory for foreign-trained nurses. Nancy would also have needed to pay the Nursing Council of Kenya KSh12,000 for the verification of her documents, pay the Kenya Medical Training College she attended KSh1,000 in order to get her exam transcripts, and apply for a passport, the minimum cost of which is KSh4,550 excluding the administrative fee. Nancy says that, contrary to then Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe’s disputed claims that a majority of applicants to the programme had failed the English language test, most nurses simply could not afford the cost of applying.
Of the targeted 20,000 nurses, the first 19 left Kenya for the UK in June 2022. But even that paltry figure represents a significant loss for Kenya, a country where the ratio of practicing nurses to the population is 11.66 per 10,000. The WHO considers countries with less than 40 nurses and midwives for every 10,000 people to not have enough healthcare professionals. Nearly 60 per cent of all healthcare professionals (medical physicians, nursing staff, midwives, dentists, and pharmacists) in the world are nurses, making them by far the most prevalent professional category within the health workforce. Nurses offer a wide range of crucial public health and care services at all levels of healthcare facilities as well as within the community, frequently serving as the first and perhaps the only healthcare provider that people see.
The growing shortage of nurses in the UK has been blamed on the government’s decision to abolish bursaries and maintenance grants for nursing students in 2016, leading to a significant drop in the number of those applying to train as nurses. Consequently, the annual number of graduate nurses plummeted, reaching the current low of 31 nurses per 100,000 people, below the European average of 36.6 and half as many as in countries like Romania (96), Albania (82) and Finland (82). Facing pressure to recruit 50,000 nurses amid collapsing services and closures of Accident & Emergency, maternity and chemotherapy units across the country, the UK government decided to once again cast its net overseas. Established in 1948, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has relied on foreign healthcare workers ever since staff from the Commonwealth were first brought in to nurse back to health a nation fresh out of the Second World War.
The UK government’s press release announcing the signing of the Bilateral Agreement with Kenya states that the two countries have committed “to explore working together to build capacity in Kenya’s health workforce through managed exchange and training” and goes as far as to claim that “with around only 900 Kenyan staff currently in the NHS, the country has an ambition to be the ‘Philippines of Africa’ — with Filipino staff one of the highest represented overseas countries in the health service — due to the positive economic impact that well-managed migration can have on low to middle income countries.”
It is a dubious ambition, if indeed it has been expressed. The people of the Philippines do not appear to be benefiting from the supposed increase in capacity that the exchange and training is expected to bring. While 40,000 of their nurses worked in the UK’s National Health Service last year, back home, according to Filipino Senator Sonny Angara, “around 7 of 10 Filipinos die without ever seeing a health professional and the nurse to patient ratio in our hospitals remains high at 1:50 up to 1:802”.
Since 2003 when the UK and the government of the Philippines signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the recruitment of Filipino healthcare professionals, an export-led industry has grown around the training of nurses in the Philippines that has attracted the increased involvement of the private sector. More nursing institutions — that have in reality become migrant institutions — are training nurses specifically for the overseas market, with the result that skills are matched to Western diseases and illnesses, leaving the country critically short of healthcare personnel. Already, in 1999, Filipino doctors had started retraining as nurses and leaving the country in search of better pay.
It is difficult, then, to see how the Philippines is an example to emulate. Unless, of course, beneath the veneer of “partnership and collaboration in health”, lies the objective of exporting Kenyan nurses with increased diaspora remittances in mind – Kenyans in the UK sent KSh28.75 billion in the first nine months of 2022, or nearly half what the government has budgeted for the provision of universal health care to all Kenyans. If that is the case, how that care is to be provided without nurses is a complete mystery.
Already in 1999, Filipino doctors had started retraining as nurses and leaving the country in search of better pay.
For the UK, on the other hand, importing nurses trained in Kenya is a very profitable deal. Whereas the UK government “typically spends at least £26,000, and sometimes far more, on a single nurse training post”, it costs only £10,000 to £12,000 to recruit a nurse from overseas, an externalization of costs that commodifies nurses, treating them like goods to be bought and sold.
However, in agreeing to the terms of the trade in Kenyan nurses, the two governments are merely formalizing the reality that a shortage of nurses in high-income countries has been driving the migration of nurses from low-income countries for over two decades now. Along with Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe, Kenya is one of the top 20 countries of origin of foreign-born or foreign-trained nurses working in the countries of the OECD, of which the UK is a member state.
Faced with this reality, and in an attempt to regulate the migration of healthcare workers, the World Health Assembly adopted the WHO Global Code of Practice on the Recruitment of Health Personnel in May 2010. The code, the adherence to which is voluntary, “provides ethical principles applicable to the international recruitment of health personnel in a manner that strengthens the health systems of developing countries, countries with economies in transition and small island states.”
Article 5 of the code encourages recruiting countries to collaborate with the sending countries in the development and training of healthcare workers and discourages recruitment from developing countries facing acute shortages. Given the non-binding nature of the code, however, and “the severe global shortage of nurses”, resource-poor countries, which carry the greatest disease burden globally, will continue to lose nurses to affluent countries. Wealthy nations will inevitably continue luring from even the poorest countries nurses in search of better terms of employment and better opportunities for themselves and their families; Haiti is on the list of the top 20 countries supplying the OECD region.
“Member States should discourage active recruitment of health personnel from developing countries facing critical shortages of health workers.”
Indeed, an empirical evaluation of the code four years after its adoption found that the recruitment of health workers has not undergone any substantial policy or regulatory changes as a direct result of its introduction. Countries had no incentive to apply the code and given that it was non-binding, conflicting domestic healthcare concerns were given the priority.
The UK’s Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has developed its own code of practice under which the country is no longer recruiting nurses from countries that the WHO recognizes as facing health workforce challenges. Kenya was placed on the UK code’s amber list on 11 November 2021, and active recruitment of health workers to the UK was stopped “with immediate effect” unless employers had already made conditional offers to nurses from Kenya on or before that date. Presumably, the Kenyan nurses who left for the UK in June 2022 fall into this category.
In explaining its decision, the DHSC states that “while Kenya is not on the WHO Health Workforce Support & Safeguards List, it remains a country with significant health workforce challenges. Adding Kenya to the amber list in the Code will protect Kenya from unmanaged international recruitment which could exacerbate existing health and social care workforce shortages.”
The WHO clarifies that nothing in its Code of Practice should be interpreted as curtailing the freedom of health workers to move to countries that are willing to allow them in and offer them employment. So, even as the UK suspends the recruitment of Kenyan nurses, they will continue to find opportunities abroad as long as Western countries continue to face nurse shortages. Kenyan nurses will go to the US where 203,000 nurses will be needed each year up to 2026, and to Australia where the supply of nursing school graduates is in decline, and to Canada where the shortage is expected to reach 117,600 by 2030, and to the Republic of Ireland which is now totally dependent on nurses recruited from overseas and where working conditions have been described as “horrendous”.
“Adding Kenya to the amber list in the Code will protect Kenya from unmanaged international recruitment which could exacerbate existing health and social care workforce shortages.”
Like hundreds of other Kenyan-trained nurses then, Nancy will take her skills overseas. She has found a recruitment agency through which to apply for a position abroad and is saving money towards the cost. She is not seeking to move to the UK, however; Nancy has been doing her research and has concluded that the United States is a much better destination given the more competitive salaries compared to the UK where nurses have voted to go strike over pay and working conditions. When she finally gets to the US, Nancy will join Diana*, a member of the over 90,000-strong Kenyan diaspora, more than one in four of whom are in the nursing profession.
Now in her early 50s, Diana had worked for one of the largest and oldest private hospitals in Nairobi for more than 20 years before moving to the US in 2017. She had on a whim presented her training certificates to a visiting recruitment agency that had set up shop in one of Nairobi’s high-end hotels and had been shortlisted. There followed a lengthy verification process for which the recruiting agency paid all the costs, requiring Diana to only sign a contract binding her to her future US employer for a period of two years once she had passed the vetting process.
Speaking from her home in Virginia last week, Diana told me that working as a nurse in the US “is not a bed of roses”, that although the position is well paying, it comes with a lot of stress. “The nurse-to-patient ratio is too high and the job is all about ticking boxes and finishing tasks, with no time for the patients,” she says, adding that in such an environment fatal mistakes are easily made. Like the sword of Damocles, the threat of losing her nursing licence hangs over Diana’s head every day that she takes up her position at the nursing station.
“The nurse-to-patient ratio is too high and the job is all about ticking boxes and finishing tasks, with no time for the patients.”
Starting out as an Enrolled Nurse in rural Kenya, Diana had over the years improved her skills, graduating as a Registered Nurse before acquiring a Batchelor of Science in Nursing from a top private university in Kenya, the tuition for which was partially covered by her employer.
Once in the US, however, her 20 years of experience counted for nothing and she was employed on the same footing as a new graduate nurse, as is the case for all overseas nurses moving to the US to work. Diana says that, on balance, she would have been better off had she remained at her old job in Kenya where the care is better, the opportunities for professional growth are greater and the work environment well controlled. But like many who have gone before her, Diana is not likely to be returning to Kenya any time soon.
*Names have been changed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Culture2 weeks ago
The Empire Strikes Back at Lawino: The Heresy of Okot
Op-Eds2 weeks ago
COP 27: Climate Negotiations Repeatedly Flounder
Politics1 week ago
What Is Ruto’s Agenda on Blue Economy?
Op-Eds2 weeks ago
Twitter: Let It Burn!
Op-Eds2 weeks ago
The Specter of Foreign Forces in Haiti
Culture2 weeks ago
The Existential Crisis Created by Humanity’s Addiction to Plastic
Ideas1 week ago
Boda Boda Justice
Politics4 days ago
GMOs Are Not the Only Answer