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Kenya’s Electoral Crisis: The Political Culture of Tricksters and Masks

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Kenya’s Electoral Crisis: The Political Culture of Tricksters and Masks
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Political culture is an elusive creature. It is pervasive but invisible, like the oxygen that energizes our social organization and economy. It is also colorless and odorless, the carbon monoxide that suffocates the public interest. Like the quanta of particle physics, it inhabits a difficult to pinpoint state straddling legal-constitutional rationality and people’s behavioral orientations. The oil that lubricates the wheels of power, it is also the glue that holds the system together. Red in tooth and claw, it is an essential component of peaceful coexistence.

An agricultural economist colleague once asked me, ‘all this insight into culture you anthropologists generate is fascinating, but what are we supposed to do with it?” There are no simple answers to this question, but we can try.

 

1. Political Culture Defined

Political culture is formally defined as the “set of attitudes, beliefs and sentiments that give order and meaning to a political process, including the underlying assumptions and rules that govern political behavior. The dean of political culture studies, Gabriel Almond, cited the terribly destructive “irrational” events of twentieth century like the World Wars and the Holocaust to underscore its importance, in contrast to rationality, for explaining social life.

The concept’s lineage dates back Plato who used it to explain the dispositions differentiating Greek city-states like Athens and Sparta. This comparative approach is often more useful for practical purposes than for diagnosing the intricacies of a given political system. The contrasts between the political cultures in this region, for example, can be a useful entry point for examining the different pathways nations are traveling in search of adaptive governance as well as the usual historical, environmental and other parameters guiding the journey. This in turn connects to the idea political culture is a useful indicator of the system’s health, viability, and most distinctive features.

Political culture is formally defined as the “set of attitudes, beliefs and sentiments that give order and meaning to a political process, including the underlying assumptions and rules that govern political behavior.

Ethiopia, for example, presents a very strong internalized sense of order. This helps account for why, after Mengistu’s regime fell, the country continued to function normally for two weeks without a government. Civil servants went to their offices and the business of ordinary life continued without disruption and looting. This not to say violence is alien to the country; the sustained bloodshed of the red and white terror is hardly ancient history and the government has shown itself to be quite adept at using force to leverage its objectives. The state does go about it in a more organized fashion than neighboring countries, and the same can be said for the civilians: as one acquaintance in Addis Ababa informed me, “we let these guys do their thing for a long time but when things reach a certain point we pick up our weapons and get rid of them.”

Abyssinian imperial tradition helps explain this particular set of attitudes and values, especially in contrast to the conflicts raging in neighboring South Sudan and Somalia. The example of Somaliland, in contrast, contradicts the notion that lineage based societies are conducive to clan-based violence.

The more self-explanatory aspects of the term are expressed in familiar truisms like the ‘culture of impunity’ or ‘subculture of violence, and tired clichés like ‘there are no permanent friends or enemies’, and ‘politics is a dirty game’, or more homegrown expressions like ‘to slip is not to fall’ one hears in Kenya. These indicators of modern political culture underscore the rupture between the more seamless quality traditional African political cultures and the contemporary variations that replaced them, including the culture of unchecked power and domination.

 

2. In Search of African Political Culture

Cultural exemplars are typically context-specific, by nature a derivative of culture proper, and of which Africa has long been a rich reservoir. In general, African cultures established clear boundaries between generations and groups, defined clear mechanisms for participation, and incorporated belief in higher powers and recognized the agency of forces operating outside the natural world. Politics was for the most part embedded in the internal order of these societies and recognized the overlap between the material and the unseen world. The uncertainty embedded in the environment gave rise to mythical representations like the character of the trickster who was often represented by an animal, the most famous being Ananse the spider of Akan-Ashanti traditions.

Ethiopia, for example, presents a very strong internalized sense of order. This helps account for why, after Mengistu’s regime fell, the country continued to function normally for two weeks without a government. Civil servants went to their offices and the business of ordinary life continued without disruption and looting.

Leadership was often distributed across generations and genders, though less so in the case of women in many societies, and included pathways for integration and negotiation with other groups. Culture is by definition plastic and adaptable, and institutions such as age grade organization and elders’ councils facilitated the transfer of problem-solving skills and wisdom across generations. In the areas that gave rise to centralized structures, kings operated more as managers and coordinators who oversaw the redistribution of resources; the culture of gift giving, dance and music, rituals and rights of passage featured prominently, as did the tradition of sacrifice to propitiate to the gods and the higher powers. Rainmakers and seers occupied a prominent position in many cultures. Violation of social rules and the unseen order could bring misfortune upon the individual and the group.

European intervention effectively deculturalized many areas of Africa with ramifications for post-colonial governance. The problem was most acute in Anglophone countries. In a recent article in the Guardian, Chizidie Obioma describes colonialism as a process where “the civilisations of the peoples, their various cultures and traditions, their religions, political philosophies and institutions” were effectively hollowed out.

In any event, the transfer of state institutions at independence came with the attendant problems of fossilized ethnic identities, marginalization of indigenous institutions, detention without trial, and other repressive mechanisms adopted by the new state elites. The pattern coincides with multiple other examples in developing regions where political culture is often reducible to the influence invested in national elites. The following decades saw diverse attempts to reconstitute a national political culture based on different ideologies including efforts to indigenize the Marxist orientation behind many liberation movements.

One analyst explained the political culture of democratic transition in Latin American countries by underscoring the link between the material aspirations of the general public and the goal of replicating the greater opportunity and ability enjoyed by the wealthy classes. This equates to the quest for democracy incentivized by material success. The caveat here is that for generations, that region’s political culture was shaped by the contest between ‘the people’ and small cartels shaping their nation’s key political institutions and controlling most of the wealth. These conditions gave rise to Neo-Marxist models that were exported to Africa in the form of dependency theory and critiques of neo-colonialism, but the political culture they fed elsewhere never really took root in African soil.

In general, African cultures established clear boundaries between generations and groups, defined clear mechanisms for participation, and incorporated belief in higher powers and recognized the agency of forces operating outside the natural world.

The African socialism of that era was a convenient catchall term. Julius Nyerere’s Ujumaa was arguably the most serious attempt to inculcate a political culture based on indigenous tradition. The idea of African socialism was a common meme across the continent after independence, but took different forms. The African Socialism featuring in Kenya’s Sessional Paper No. 10 provided a convenient wrapper for expanding the inequality associated with the country’s agrarian capitalism, while others like Kwame Nkrumah parlayed the term into a vehicle for grandiose infrastructural projects. On more than one occasion civil servants explained it to me by saying, ‘we Africans like to socialize so we get together somewhere and share beer and talk’.

The centralized system behind Syad Barre’s contrived concept of hantiwadaag, or camel-sharing, scientific socialism was another example. During the early years of his rule Syad Barre sincerely attempted to extrapolate his hantiwadaag socialism into economic reality by nationalizing most of the country’s formal sector economy and by devoting a third of the government budget to setting up a system of agricultural cooperatives, including a pilot scheme of fourteen cooperatives for herders based on the allocation of grazing blocks and drilling boreholes for water. His most ambitious cooperative-based project was the conversion of 90,000 drought stricken nomads into fisherman. Other initiatives including processing facilities for milk, meat and fish canning, and sugar enjoyed a measure of success during the 1970s before everything unraveled following his ill-fated support for the occupation of the Ogaden.

In the end, the political culture of irredentism triumphed over the scientific management of national resources. Such case studies provide ammunition for academic critics who regard “the very concept of political culture as epiphenomenal and superfluous,” according one scholar based at the University of Warwick. Even so, the idea keeps on coming back.

In 2009 I participated in a research project entitled Political Culture, Governance, and the State in Africa. Our objective was to examine the influence of political culture across the continent. We recruited a diverse collection of academics and analysts to explore how culture and politics interact, and the import of political culture in African societies where institutionalization is weak and emergent national political cultures reflect a variety of diverse influences and forces.

I reviewed and read close to sixty papers, many of which were interesting, well documented, and insightful. Some featured captivating but complicated titles; one of my favorites was African Cultural Political Renaissance: Strategies, Identities, Ambiguities, And Confrontations. Quite a few were also dense, abstract, and not easy to read. They invariably illuminated the culture of politics in diverse African settings and contexts from South Africa to Tunisia, and discussed issues from the role of the military, to capacity building and indigenous conflict management. However, none of them directly addressed the basic thesis that sought to pin down how political culture articulates within African settings to influence political processes and their outcomes.

The same proved true during our three-day meeting, despite the project’s curator, Professor Abdalla Bujra, attempts to steer discussion toward this end. The case studies demonstrated that culture is integral to politics, and that governance draws from a variety of sources both within a given national arena and from without. The practice of socialism, democracy, participatory governance, and resource redistribution as well as relentless exploitation and opportunism all have precedents on the communal level. Pluralism is the problem; the richness of indigenous political culture contrasts with the poverty of its institutional counterparts. They negate each other in a manner that tended to make the conclusions of the papers amorphous in the end.

Perhaps this was understandable insofar as it is difficult too isolate the contribution of political culture when one is so immersed in the chase, so to speak. Culture is like camouflage, and its influence derives from its ability to blend so well into the background.

The practice of socialism, democracy, participatory governance, and resource redistribution as well as relentless exploitation and opportunism all have precedents on the communal level.

But there are success stories. The unrecognized Republic of Somaliland’s retreat from the brink of civil war through protracted dialogue is one such exemplar that underscores the utility of inclusive participation. The long discussions among clan elders in Boramo received most of the attention, but the contribution of organizations with names like Moonlight and Havioko that served as conduits for women and youth were equally critical to the emergence of a political culture aligned with the society’s internal cultural endowment.

Still, the shift from democratically inspired liberation movements to democratic governance has been a major problem as most other cases illustrate. The contrast between Eritrea’s remarkable guerilla campaign and the dictatorship of Isias Afworki is probably the most extreme case, and as one South African commentator details, a supportive political cultural is essential for democracy to work.

 

3. Identity, Culture, and Power

I came across an interesting commentary by Jens-Martin Eriksen and Frederik Stjernfelt on culturalism and politics while doing research for our political culture conference. The culturalism argument they address is predicated on the view that individuals are determined by their culture, and that cultures have a claim to special rights and protections even if at the same time they violate individual rights. This is the ‘each culture in its own place, each culture in its own country’ right-wing response to multiculturalism and globalization.

Any politically aware individual alive and breathing today will recognize how the issue of identity-based politics has gained traction since the time of our meeting. The American political scientist, Samuel Huntington, captured the essence of these developments in 2004 when he predicted that we are entering a time when what you support will not matter as much as who you are.

The problem in Africa is that African constitutions … are easily ripped up or ignored because the real charter organizing political life is a nation’s power map, which typically reflects ethnic identity and who controls the state.

This has been the default in Africa for quite some time, where many cultures ended up sharing the same political space. Who you are and where you were born often has a direct impact on individual and group prospects and opportunities. The departing colonialists assumed that the transfer of Western political institutions and legal institutions would solve the problem. The problem in Africa is that African constitutions, according Kenya’s illustrious legal scholar, H.W.O. Okoth-Ogendo, are easily ripped up or ignored because the real charter organizing political life is a nation’s power map, which typically reflects ethnic identity and who controls the state.

Change through legal and institutional methods is gaining ground, but there is a long way to go. When institutions lack autonomy and rule of law is weak, political culture functions as a system of unwritten codes and principles. Rules continue to be defined by the political elite, and this is often the case even when they are not in power.

This form of political culture is as much about assumptions as values. There are rules of thumb, like the common meme that ‘no incumbent government loses an election before its constitutional term has expired’. Acceptance of this assumption leads to the familiar discourse that treats the government of the day and the opposition as different sides of the same coin.

The authors of the culturalism essay cover similar terrain when they ask why the left is unable to muster their intellectual powers to counter the culturalism of the right. Erikson and Stjernfelt observe that this is due to the fact that “they allow themselves to be blinded by the same cultural views as their homologous opponents: they are themselves culturalists.” The inability to recognize their similarities limits to their ability to analyse their opponents’ position.

In the African context, the same problem translates into the often-cited view that criticism of the management of the political process is a self-serving ploy to advance the interests of the opposition’s ethnic coalition at the expense of national development. Even though they claim to represent reform and renewal, says the government in power, they subscribe to the same political culture as we do. In Kenya, the period of coalition government following the 2007 electoral meltdown added substance to this narrative.

Kenyan political campaigns typically use this ‘we are the same but they are poor and hungry’ discourse to deflect attention from issues of misrule and corruption. During the 2017 campaigns, the Presidential contenders broke new ground by skipping the debates organized by the national media houses. This confirmed the sad reality that in Kenya elections, it is the method more than the theory that determines the outcome.

 

4. The Political Culture of Tricksters and Masks

The root meaning of siasa, the Swahili term for politics, is order. The brutal but more clinical use of state violence referred to in the Ethiopian example above conforms to this definition of politics. In many other cases, the meaning of the term is inverted.

In a 2002 volume entitled Criminalization of the African State, Francois Bayart, Stephen Ellis, and Beatrice Hibou (2002) provide a deeper analysis of the pathologies of African governance. Bayart’s contribution explores the role of the trickster archetype, which appeared particularly relevant to Moi’s style of leadership. In Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument, an earlier volume in the same series, Patrick Chabal and Jean Pascal Daloz detail how disorder and violence are used to maintain the neo-patrimonial status quo. They explore the darker side of the forces unleashed by the mandarins of the neo-liberal political economy and pour cold water on the idea that the likes of civil society and structural reforms will lead to improved governance.

The advancement of political culture in these analyses tends to form a circular relationship with institutional development, posing a chicken-and-egg question of which comes first. The problem makes it tempting to advocate for more soft power and support for artistic works and civic education in order to advance the cause.

Some of my academic colleagues do not like this line of analysis, but they miss the fact that it is, for many nations, an unavoidable stage in Africa’s political development. The authors of these analyses do not posit this state of affairs is the endpoint, or a permanent condition. They push us to look deeper and to disentangle the complicated role of culture at the intersection of politics and economy.

Almond and his acolytes cloak the concept of political culture in discussions of political socialization, loyalty and human identity, the cultivation of civic virtue, historical determinants explaining the variations among political traditions, and the ‘ordered subjective realm of politics’ which gives meaning to the polity and discipline to institutions. The advancement of political culture in these analyses tends to form a circular relationship with institutional development, posing a chicken-and-egg question of which comes first. The problem makes it tempting to advocate for more soft power and support for artistic works and civic education in order to advance the cause. Of course, this is part of the solution. But interpreting what transpires in the shadows is more useful than the positivism of the Anglo-American tradition at this stage of the game.

Kenyans have consistently associated events like the departure of Moi and the passage of a new constitution with a new political dispensation, but the trickster never left. The instrumentalisation of disorder to serve political ends is still part of the game, as the 2017 elections indicated once again.

The electoral chicanery disrupting the past three electoral cycles has become part of the country’s culture of politics, and in turn encouraged resort to disorder and civil disobedience by the opposition to combat it. One cannot be separated from the other even though the intentional use of disorder justifies the opposition’s efforts to fight back. These elections have traumatized the economy and body politic while cloaking the very idea of national unity in verbal abuse and blood.

The angst conveyed by Wafula Chebukati in the wake of the flawed elections of last August mirrored the horror of his predecessor Samuel Kivuitu ten years earlier. The mocking visage of the Electoral Commission’s executive, Ezra Chiloba, in contrast, signified how shameless in contrast the Masters of Deception have become. His glib explanation for the Commission’s colossal failings, dished out to an incredulous public, remade him into a poster boy for the shadow school of analysis—or perhaps more accurately, the mask concealing the venality of the usual suspects.

Kenya’s elections have become masquerades that integrate all of these functions. Chiloba put on his mask and played God with the country’s future.

Like the trickster archetype, the mask has a long pedigree in human culture. The ancients believed masks imbued the wearer with some kind of unimpeachable authority. In rituals, masks allow humans to assume the role of the gods, or to lend credence to a person’s claim on a given social role. Kenya’s elections have become masquerades that integrate all of these functions. Chiloba put on his mask and played God with the country’s future.

National elections are participatory cultural spectacles that begin with hope but end in tragedy. Episodic incidents of electoral violence, political assassinations, and mass protests turned violent are predictable features of Kenya’s political arena. From the perspective of Kenya’s political culture, these episodes have also acted as kafara – blood sacrifices – that primed the system to accept change before plunging the nation into the kind of full-scale conflict experienced by neighboring states.

The 2017 version, however, was different. The Supreme Court parted the clouds long enough to establish an important precedent. The battle took place in the courts instead of the streets this time around. Those who found the confirmation of what is in effect a nusu kikombe instead of a nusu-mkate government—whether or not the glass is half empty or half-full is irrelevant at this juncture[1]—a cause for celebration are deluding themselves. The fat lady did not sing this time around.

 

[1] The coalition government that emerged out of the post-electoral violence of 2008 is often referred to as nusu-mkate, or a half-loaf government due to the division of positions between the two parties.

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Dr. Goldsmith is an American researcher and writer who has lived in Kenya for over 40 years.

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Politics

Why Azimio’s Presidential Petition Stood No Chance

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

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

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

Adjudicating electoral fallouts

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

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

Relentless petitioning

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supreme Court power grab 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missed opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Politics

GMOs Are Not the Only Answer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maize is not the only ugali

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

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

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

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

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

Were it that simple.

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

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

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

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

The survey defines large farms as those above 20 hectares.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mary Kanyaman Ekai: Gender and Livestock Rustling in Northern Kenya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, is it all women’s fault?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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