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MIDNIGHT SAFARI: How and why David Ndii was abducted

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The Inspector General (IG) Joseph Boinnet’s recent pronouncement that the police had formed a special squad to deal with the Jubilee government’s critics confirmed what many believe to be a plot by the government to clamp down on opposition politics and what it considers to be individual “dissidents” and provocateurs.
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The Inspector General (IG) Joseph Boinnet’s recent pronouncement that the police had formed a special squad to deal with the Jubilee government’s critics confirmed what many believe to be a plot by the government to clamp down on opposition politics and what it considers to be individual “dissidents” and provocateurs.

The police’s daring move of snatching opposition National Super Alliance (NASA) MPs and supporters on highways and from their homes at the beginning of this year was preceded by the sensational episode when the secret police stalked and ambushed David Ndii late last year. The kidnapping of Ndii, NASA’s economic and strategic advisor, in a hotel lobby in the south coast of Kenya and his “midnight safari” from Mombasa to Nairobi and then straight to the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) at Mazingira House off Kiambu Road – the successor to Nyati House’s operations – is a strategy that the government hopes to continue using to harass the opposition as it seeks to legitimise its contested rule.

Ndii’s abduction and his 500km journey in the dead of the night on December 4, 2017, was a precursor to lawyer Miguna Miguna’s dawn kidnapping from his house in the suburbs of Nairobi and his eventual deportation to Canada.

Nyati House is an oblong-shaped, deathly grey, macabre building that has always been the site of eerie and mysterious police activities. It was a torture chamber reserved for Kenyans who differed with President Daniel arap Moi’s despotic rule. Nyayo House, a sister to Nyati House, also in central Nairobi, was the other torture dungeon. The five-floor, two-part symmetrical building, which is currently undergoing renovations, has always been unkempt and ghostly, with exit doors permanently shut with metal grills.

Ndii’s abduction and his 500km journey in the dead of the night on December 4, 2017, was a precursor to lawyer Miguna Miguna’s dawn kidnapping from his house in the suburbs of Nairobi and his eventual deportation to Canada. The suspension of passports of targeted NASA advisors and supporters that the Jubilee government categorises as consultants and politicians, is yet another tactic the Jubilee government is using to possibly scuttle and disorient a recalcitrant opposition.

The kidnapping and transporting of state opponents by the secret police in the dead of the night is a method that was perfected by the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe and apartheid South Africa.

The night journey

It is some minutes past 7.00pm on December 4, 2017, a breezy, cool Sunday. David Ndii is walking towards the lobby of Leopard Beach Hotel in Diani on Kenya’s south coast. Suddenly, he is accosted by two nondescript fellows who enquire from him whether he is David Ndii. It is evident from their inquiry that they are not sure of his identity. All the same, Ndii answers in the affirmative. They ask him to accompany them. His first instinct is to ask them, “Who has sent you?” To which the police officers answer, “DCI director Ndegwa Muhoro.”

The police officers plead with him to be cooperative and to just allow them to lead him to the unmarked waiting vehicles (in their minds, they are probably praying that he should not cause a scene that will interfere with their mission). Ndii hesitates momentarily – he was walking to the hotel reception with his daughter to pick his feature phone popularly known as mulika mwizi (literally translated as thief catcher) in the Kiswahili language. He turns towards the hotel room where his wife is. The officers follow him, but on second thoughts, he decides he should not let the police near his family and into his room. So he tells his daughter to tell her mum that there are some police officers who want to take him away.

See also: NYAYO HOUSE: Unravelling the Architecture and Aesthetics of Torture

Ndii has been at the south coast for three days. He came down from Nairobi to attend his wife’s nephew’s wedding. After the wedding on December 3, 2017, he decides to stay on with his family – after all, it was the holiday season and they could do with some beach holidaying. In hindsight, Ndii’s muses, “I should just have proceeded to the reception area. That way maybe I’d have made it difficult for the police to take me away.” He was charging his mulika mwizi because his smart phone had fallen into the swimming pool. When it rains…it pours. This was the smart phone that had all his contacts so he could not immediately call his friends to tell them what was happening to him.

Sandwiched between two police officers in the back seat of one of the vehicles, Ndii is calm, but his mind is racing with all manner of thoughts about what they are planning to do with him.

The police take him to two new Subaru Outbacks, and together they drive to Diani Police Station, which is a short drive away. While the two policemen are accosting him, five others are lurking under the cover of darkness at the hotel’s parking bay.

The Subaru Outback, just like its predecessor, the Peugeot 504 station wagon, is today the preferred get-away car of secret police covert operations. It is hardy, fast, powerful and a 4-wheel drive. The Peugeot 504 station wagons used in the 1980s and 1990s were all white in colour. Because the secret police used to be recruited from different police stations and regions, white was the identification code that allowed covert police to easily recognise each other. Other than white Peugeot 504 station wagons, the other covert vehicles the secret police used was white Land Rovers.

In Nairobi’s central business district, according to one police source, one out of every four Subaru Outbacks prowling the streets is a police car. They come in different shades, but the secret police prefer metallic grey and silver colours. At the Central Police Station on Harry Thuku Road, next to the University of Nairobi, you will find some parked there. It is here that the police keep on flipping their registration number plates depending on the nature and state of their undercover missions.

At Diani Police Station, the two police officers who had abducted Ndii from the hotel communicate with some “higher authorities” on what is to be their next move. After mobile phone consultations, they get back into the vehicles and head to Mombasa island. On their way to the Likoni Ferry, they pull aside several times to get instructions. They are constantly on their phones, talking to “higher authorities” who do not seem to have made up their minds what they want the police officers, who are seven in number, to do with Ndii.

Agitated and cursing, the police drive back to Diani Police Station and park outside. After they had driven away to Likoni, a crowd had gathered at the station demanding to know where the police had taken Ndii. The crowd was composed of the Leopard Beach Hotel’s subordinate staff. It occurs to Ndii that while at the hotel, the housekeepers, waiters, stewards and other workers had taken note of his stay at the hotel and had come to the station to support him. His wife was also at the station with opposition leader Raila Odinga’s daughter, Winnie. They demand to see Ndii.

Kandie unleashes a smartphone and proceeds to read from Tuko.co.ke, an online news website. Listening to Kandie read fake news purportedly about him and his “illegal activities” against the state, Ndii – who is visibly amused and aghast that he was tracked all the way to the coast on account of fake stories about him – tells Kandie, “There are four ways in which I communicate and engage with the public. I write a newspaper column, I conduct public speaking, I run a Twitter handle and I engage in TV interviews.”

The Officer Commanding the Police Station (OCS) threatens Mwende, Ndii’s wife, Winnie and the crowd, telling them they are “trespassing a police station”. This ridiculous statement shows that he did not expect a crowd to mill around his station so quickly and openly showing solidarity with a now well-known public figure. This whole rigmarole – of to-ing and fro-ing – takes two hours. Then they set off for Nairobi at about 10.00pm. The same ritual – of the vehicles pulling aside to receive conflicting instructions – commences yet again.

Sandwiched between two police officers in the back seat of one of the vehicles, Ndii is calm, but his mind is racing with all manner of thoughts about what they are planning to do with him. One of the thoughts that crosses his mind is: Could they possibly be planning to execute him, just like they had executed radical sheikhs from Mombasa who had been summarily assassinated a while back? He asks to be allowed to take a toilet break. They refuse.

One of the officers is carrying an AK47, which he places under the seat. This time they drive all the way to the ferry’s gangplank. At this time of the night there are few ferries, so they have to wait for one to make its return trip from the other end of the crossing. When they cross the ferry, they head to a Total petrol station in the city centre, where they refuel and check tyre pressure. It dawns on the police officers that they are set for a long journey – which apparently they had not planned or prepared for – because they loudly complain and grumble about it. “Shouldn’t they have forewarned us,” they seem to say.

They had barely passed through the Makupa Causeway when the police inside the vehicle carrying Ndii were already wondering loudly when they would arrive in Nairobi. They estimate that they will arrive in Nairobi around 7 the next morning They abruptly stop somewhere in the bush and tell Ndii that he can now relieve himself. It is pitch dark. They all come out, but Ndii finds this idea of stopping in the middle of nowhere in the dark night spooky and not amusing at all. When they had stopped to refuel at the petrol station he had asked to be allowed to go the toilet and but they had not let him.

Left seated inside the vehicle as the officers oversee the servicing of the vehicles, an eerie thought crosses Ndii’s mind: If only they could allow me to go to the toilet, I could find a way to melt into the street. The city streets of Mombasa are lively at night and there a lots of people milling about. The policeman who was in charge of the AK47 that he had placed under the seat pulls it from there and hands it over to the other policeman guarding Ndii. Instinctively, he asks Ndii: “Do you have a firearm?” “No, I have never owned a gun,” Ndii tells him.

After refuelling, they drive like crazy. Ndii wonders if they are on a suicide mission. “Is this their plan to kill me?” he thinks to himself. “Let me belt up”, he says to one of his captors as they overtake and overlap the multiple 24-wheel trucks plying the busy highway. They are driving like obsessed mad men. They stop at Mariakani to buy snacks for themselves. They ask him whether he wants anything. He declines. It seems that these policemen were plucked from their homes, not having eaten supper, and not fully briefed on the nature of the mission they were supposed to undertake. They were unaware and unprepared for a long journey in the middle of the night.

For the first time since they went for him at the hotel, they engage him in a conversation. “Are you worried?” one of the policemen asks him. “We have no intention of harming you,” he hopes to reassure Ndii. What could they be up to with all this banter? “I don’t know who sent you,” Ndii answers him. The conversation does not go far. They drive dangerously the whole night. When they reach Mombasa Road in Nairobi, they take the northern corridor, which passes the North Airport Road and the Embakasi garrison and that crosses Kangundo Road through Ruai onto Ruiru railway line and then links with the Thika superhighway to connect with the Eastern bypass that starts at the Kiambu-Ruiru Road.

After they had dealt with their agenda of the day, Ruto turned to complaining about Ndii, lamenting how Ndii was feeding NASA luminaries with the political theory of “grabbing power”. His grouse was a regurgitation of the standard Jubilee Party cabal’s conventional thinking on Raila Odinga: “Raila is a ‘good man’, but has been captured by hardliners” – chief among them, one David Ndii.

Caught in the traffic snarl-up, the policemen buy a newspaper from the roving vendors. It is The Standard. On the front page, there is a mugshot of Ndii. They tune into the radio and the news is all about Ndii’s abduction. The police now turn to examine Ndii properly. They obviously did not know who he is. “Who is Ayub Ndii”, one of the policemen asks him. Ayub is actually Ndii’s uncle. In proper Kikuyu parlance, Ayub would be referred to in the English language as “younger father”.

Avoiding the superhighway, the police drive through the back roads behind the sprawling Mathare North slum. They are headed to the Directorate of Criminal Investigations DCI. When they reach there, Ndii is taken straight up the stairs to an office. The first thing he asks is, “Why am I here?” to a junior officer. “Can I have a phone?” The junior officer shrugs off his request – he is possibly as clueless as Ndii about why he has been brought here. “I am here to keep you company,” says the policeman nonchalantly. Another junior cop shows up and joins Ndii in the sparsely furnished office. He offers Ndii tea. Ndii refuses the offer. The two policemen are obviously Akamba because they converse in the Kamba language while keeping Ndii company, pending further instructions. Ndii is kept at the DCI for several hours.

Then the real police honcho shows up. He is the Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), somebody called arap Kandie. The office that Ndii is being kept in is the Serious Crime Office (SCO). Kandie pompously announces that he is the head of SCO. “Am I under arrest?” Ndii immediately asks him. Kandie mumbles some unintelligible answer. He appears not to know why Ndii has been referred to his office. “We need to interrogate your crime,” he tells Ndii. “The last time I was under this kind of situation, it was 30 years ago, I hope we are not going back there?” Ndii tells Kandie.

“Trouble shooters”

In 1987, Ndii was a third year economics student at the University of Nairobi’s main campus. It was a time when there was a crackdown on university students. President Daniel arap Moi had unleashed his secret police to hound the students, who he deemed were in cahoots with political dissidents opposed to his dictatorial regime.

Ndii spent two weeks at the Nyayo House bunkers, where he was tortured and thoroughly interrogated. That was the same year that Miguna Miguna was arrested by the same secret police, and later forced into exile, first to Tanzania, where he stayed for three months, then further south to Swaziland, and eventually to Toronto, Canada, after a six-month sojourn in the southern African state.

SSP Kandie grouses over the fact that people like Ndii are “trouble shooters” and their only agenda is to cause “chaos and disaffection” among “peace loving Kenyans.” Why is he constantly attacking the government, he wonders aloud – loud enough to solicit a rebuttal from Ndii. He asks Ndii about the Larry Madowo NTV talk show in which he had participated several days ago. “I will not discuss political theory with you,” Ndii replies to Kandie.

Kandie unleashes a smart phone and proceeds to read from Tuko.co.ke, an online news website. Listening to Kandie read fake news purportedly about him and his “illegal activities” against the state, Ndii – who is visibly amused and aghast that he was tracked all the way to the coast on account of fake stories about him – tells Kandie, “There are four ways in which I communicate and engage with the public. I write a newspaper column, I conduct public speaking, I run a Twitter handle and I engage in TV interviews.”

At that point, Kandie asks his four junior officers – two had tagged along him to join the other two – to leave. Among the officers is a Mr. Cheruiyot and a Kamba deputy SSP. Kandie then produces a statement and asks Ndii to sign it, stating that it is for his own “protective custody”. Ndii declines to sign it. Instead, he writes his own statement, now detailing the four ways he engages with the public and how he goes about making his political pronouncements.

As he engages with Kandie over whether to sign the statement, several of Ndii’s friends and political activists are now gathered at the DCI precincts, demanding for his release. Among them are lawyers James Orengo and Edwin Sifuna. Having not eaten for more than 18 hours, Ndii asks his lawyers to bring him coffee from Java Café. At 2.30pm the police say the charge sheet is ready. So, accompanied by Orengo and Sifuna, and not by the police, Ndii is driven to the Milimani High Court.

Cheruiyot is the designated case officer and so accompanies Ndii to court. The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Keriako Tobiko – who has since been appointed the Cabinet Secretary for Environment – is not ready to charge Ndii until the police present his office with what he is being charged with. The lawyers are frantic; if they do not move with haste, the police may find an excuse to lock Ndii in for the night because it is already past 4.00pm and there is no charge preferred against him. They then all head to Pangani Police Station to get a police bond. The case officer asks Ndii how much he wants to pay for his bond. The lawyers give an arbitrary figure of Ksh10,000 and Cheruiyot says KSh10,000 it is. Ndii is escorted by a convoy of ten vehicles and just before 5.00pm he gets his bond. The bond says that he should report to DCI on December 11, 2017.

The derisive characterisation of Raila as a “good man” by Jubilee Party carpetbaggers is a well-oiled narrative, deliberately and systematically propagated by the architects of the theory that forming a coalition government is one way of assuaging Raila’s electoral losses, fully knowing that these losses were politically engineered through electoral malpractices.

Ndii reports to the DCI on December 11 and rewrites his statement. The police in their characteristic prevarication and procrastination claim that they are still not done with their investigations, therefore the DPP cannot commence any prosecution against Ndii. He is again asked to report to DCI on December 28, 2017. No word on his presumed “illegal state activities”, or any clue as to when the police investigations will be complete. He again reports to DCI soon after new year’s day in January. “No instructions still from the DPP”. Days later, the DPP is moved from his job. “This thing has become a circus,” Ndii concludes, and from then henceforth, he will wait to hear from the new DPP on his case.

“A good man”

Ndii realises that the plan to fix him was well-orchestrated, but poorly executed. From the officers who abducted him, to the interrogating officers, it appeared to be a combined Kalenjin-Kikuyu affair, apart from the Kamba rookie officers who were asked to keep him company. The ethnicisation of the harassment of key opposition figures has now been taken to the apolitical police force: the police officers who are now sent to pick up and intimidate opposition figures are carefully selected to convey a deliberate ethnic supremacy of brutal and naked force as a counter-measure to an equally and deliberate ethnicisation of the opposition politics by the government.

A couple of weeks before Ndii was trailed all the way to the south coast and picked from the supposedly safe confines of a five-star beach hotel, a Jubilee Party politician allegedly had a meeting with Deputy President William Samoei Ruto. After they had dealt with their agenda of the day, Ruto turned to complaining about Ndii, lamenting how Ndii was feeding NASA luminaries with the political theory of “grabbing power”. His grouse was a regurgitation of the standard Jubilee Party cabal’s conventional thinking on Raila Odinga: “Raila is a ‘good man’, but has been captured by hardliners” – chief among them, one David Ndii.

The derisive characterisation of Raila as a “good man” by Jubilee Party carpetbaggers is a well-oiled narrative, deliberately and systematically propagated by the architects of the theory that forming a coalition government is one way of assuaging Raila’s electoral losses, fully knowing that these losses were politically engineered through electoral malpractices.

Contrary to what the Jubilee Party elites would like Kenyans to believe, the talk of forming another coalition government has always been the ruling party’s idea. This idea is today being pushed publicly by one Peter Karanja, the Secretary General of the National Christian Council of Kenya (NCCK), the umbrella body that groups together Protestant churches. Karanja’s argument, which is the base logic of Jubilee Party hawks, is that if the post of Prime Minister is created by amending the constitution or otherwise, Raila will calm down, and this will in effect also calm down his supporters and all shall live happily ever after.

The Jubilee Party fraternity’s characterisation of Raila as a “good man” masks their real intentions. After the successful signing of the Peace Accord, which was reached after the post-elective violence (PEV) of December 2007/8 on February 28, 2008, I sat down with an influential Central Kenya politician in an exclusive Nairobi golf club to review the new political arrangement. “Let me tell you, we (Kikuyu political cabal) found the perfect formula for dealing with these Luos. Invite them to join the government by creating for them a pompous office, provide some chase cars and security detail (which you can always withdraw and return at will), as you keep a tight leash on them. Give them some budget to entertain themselves. In the process, they will soon be caught up in the corruption dragnet. This will disarm them, so every time they raise their voice on state scandals, you quietly remind them of the ‘living in a glass house’ aphorism.”

The Jubilee Party barons also cynically refer to Raila as a “good man” because they believe he is “tamable”. When in 2008 he agreed to form a coalition government with Mwai Kibaki, the Kikuyu political elite sighed with great relief, but later boasted among themselves of how they were the masters of political chicanery. “We outsmarted our chief political nemesis. I suspect we are going to rule this country for a very long, long time,” said the bragging politician.

In this era of social media and smartphones, the police can no longer handle “government dissidents” the way they did twenty years ago. Add to this a progressive constitution and you have a government that is groping in the dark and resorting to knee-jerk reactions

So, early on when Ndii was identified as a “hardliner” by the Jubilee Party mandarins, they sought to isolate Raila from him, or if you may, Ndii from Raila – a scheme that does not seem to be working. Alongside, Ndii, they also sought to profile lawyer Norman Magaya, another NASA advisor and presumed “hardliner”. Convinced that the much-taunted swearing-in of Raila Odinga was going to take place on December 12, 2017, on Jamhuri (Independence) Day, the Jubilee Party elites began toying with the idea of scuttling the move by taming Ndii days before the event took place. That is why, when the police bonded him on December 5, 2017, they asked him to report to DCI on December 11, the eve of the swearing-in ceremony, in the belief that they would be disorganising and handicapping the arrangement.

The crux of the matter is that for the first time the government is having to play catch-up with an increasingly cheeky and unpredictable opposition. The speed and turn of political events have ensured that the government cannot second-guess what the opposition is really up to. Yes, the Jubilee Party “won” the election on October 26, 2017, but four months later, the government, even after having announced the cabinet, does not seem to have found its gravitas. Its best laid plans seem not to have taken root and those plans seem to be getting continuously disrupted.

In this era of social media and smartphones, the police can no longer handle “government dissidents” the way they did twenty years ago. Add to this a progressive constitution and you have a government that is groping in the dark and resorting to knee-jerk reactions, not really knowing what to do. It is patently clear, the “arrest” of Ndii and the deportation of Miguna Miguna were not well-thought out moves. The first priority of totalitarian regimes all over the world is complete control of the flow of information – when they realise this is a futile exercise, they resort to intimidation and underhand tactics.

Fred Matiang’i, the Cabinet Secretary for Internal Security, sounded ridiculous when he sought to explain to a section of the media that the government had not ordered a media shutdown, and why some TV stations had been closed. He said that the government had exposed a scheme by the opposition to cause a bloodbath in the guise of swearing-in Raila Odinga, “The People’s President”, at Uhuru Park. The well-attended ceremony – better attended than President Uhuru’s swearing at Moi International Sports Centre on November 28, 2017 – comprised a great multitude of people from all walks of life. Hence, the switching off of the NTV and KTN TV stations’ signals for ten days and Citizen TV for even longer, was an attempt at foreclosure by the government, a move that was reminiscent of the dark days of President Moi’s tyrannical rule.

Ndii’s “midnight safari” is, therefore, a metaphor for a dark state and a regime that is desperately looking for legitimacy.

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

Is Democracy Dead or Has It Simply Been Hijacked?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Populist idiocy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A civic ritual

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How Corruption and Greed Are Destroying Africa’s Forests

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

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

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

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

Land grabs and exploitation

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

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

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

The effects of foreign liberalism

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

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

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

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

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

Deforestation and greed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The impact of corruption on deforestation

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

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

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

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

Reforestation and other plans to restore Africa’s forests

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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The Persistence of Small Farms and the Legacy of the Monoculture Mindset in Kenya
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I once drove up the eastern side of Mt Kenya with a manager working in the California horticulture industry. We passed through the Mwea irrigation scheme’s mosaic of rice plots and the smallholder coffee zone in Embu. After crossing the Thuchi River, we transited through the mix of tea farms, coffee plots, and patches of small fields of maize, pulses, and bananas framed by the heavy tree cover blanketing the hills and valleys. The Meru lowlands stretched out to the east, the miraa-dotted slopes of the Nyambene Hills loomed close as we approached Meru town. In the space of three hours we had transected one of the region’s most agriculturally variegated and productive landscapes.

Two days later we drove across the northern saddle of the mountain, leaving the smallholdings created by late colonial-era settlement schemes before cruising past the wheat fields of Kisima and Marania farms and their neighbours. The road carried us past the uniform blocks of horticulture farms and greenhouses stretching across the high plains of the mountain’s northwestern quadrant en route to Nanyuki. Over a plank of some insanely delicious beef at one of the town’s famous local nyama choma joints, my guest tells me she was impressed by the kick-ass agriculture she saw during our trip.

I remarked that we had crossed an area that produces the world’s best tea, some of the planet’s premier Arabica coffee, and the country’s most sought-after potatoes, French beans and other vegetables that grace European tables. I also informed her that we had skirted the range hosting Africa’s most sophisticated agroforestry system, home to the Horn region’s most prized Catha edulis.

“That’s interesting,” she said, clarifying that she was referring to “the area of proper farms we passed through this morning”.

Kenya’s agriculture generates approximately 24 per cent of the country’s GDP, 75 per cent of its industrial raw materials and 60 per cent of the country’s export earnings. Approximately 26 per cent of the earnings are indirectly linked to the sector through linkages to agro-based manufacturing, transport, and trade.

The sector is a major employer, with an estimated 3.8 million Kenyans directly employed in farming, livestock production and fishing, while another 4.5 million engaged in off-farm informal sector activities. Agriculture remains a key economic sector with significant unexploited potential for adding value through post-harvest processing.

The relationship between large-scale and small-scale producers in Kenya continues to evolve. Smallholder farmers generate the larger portion of overall agricultural value; large farms are still critical contributors to domestic food security and export production while pioneering new technologies and marketing arrangements.

Kenya’s agriculture generates approximately 24 per cent of the country’s GDP, 75 per cent of its industrial raw materials and 60 per cent of the country’s export earnings.

The economists and policy-setting bureaucrats at the World Bank and other important financial institutions, however, now question the small farm sector’s capacity to satisfy Africa’s future needs. The experts have tacitly supported the controversial trend of external investors’ acquisition of the continent’s underexploited land to develop capital-intensive plantations and ranches. Agricultural progress means big fields, straight lines, greenhouses, and large grids of sprinklers, as the comments of the manager reaffirmed.

The rise of monoculture

Assumptions about the superiority of large-scale agriculture have remained unchallenged since the migration of Europeans to the Americas, Asia, and Africa. They came, saw, conquered, and converted the wide open spaces they found into plantations producing sugar, cotton, rubber, tobacco, soybeans, and a long list of other crops for export to the industrial world.

When European diseases decimated the indigenous inhabitants in the New World, the planters plundered Africa to replace them. Steam powered the Industrial Revolution; colonial plantations and mines provided the raw materials. The textile mills of Lancashire generated the profits financing Great Britain’s global empire, and America’s South supplied the cotton.

Large-scale agriculture’s global hegemony grew out of military firepower, capital, technology and ruthless exploitation of labour, not superior crop and animal husbandry. The reign of King Cotton, for example, relied on increasing quantities of land and imports of African labour to compensate for rapid soil fertility decline. Southern land owners were poor farmers who added little value to the development of their agriculture beyond the use of the whip and the noose.

Class dynamics also contributed to the rise of the large commercial farm. The working conditions of the working-class adults and children working the looms was only marginally better than that of the slaves producing the fibre. Growing numbers of the freehold farmers in Europe who were driven off their land avoided this fate by crossing the Atlantic Ocean, attracted by the US government’s recruitment campaigns offering access to land. The industry of the displaced farmers powered the nation’s westward expansion. The American Civil War decided the contest over which system – freehold or plantation – would dominate in the virgin lands beyond the Mississippi River.

Large-scale agriculture’s global hegemony grew out of military firepower, capital, technology and ruthless exploitation of labour, not superior crop and animal husbandry.

The outcome was the same. Within several decades, the massive herds of bison were decimated and the indigenous inhabitants reduced to paupers on reservations. Science and technology came into play. The impressive advances generated by agronomic research and mechanisation extended the ascendency of commercial farms and plantations into the modern era. Economies of scale enabled by railways and the steamship extended the dominance of single commodity farming systems across the world.

Relegation of pre-industrial agricultural populations to the status of pre-scientific peasants preceded the imperial occupation of Africa. The Europeans established their plantations and large farms across the continent’s savanna and highlands. Like the colonialists before them, both capitalist and socialist governments’ rural policies were predicated on the need to introduce modern scientific agriculture. The choice was as basic as the difference between a tractor and a short handle hoe.

The Kenya conundrum

A matrix of physical, climatic, spatial, and social factors complicated the installation of large-scale agriculture production in Africa. Agriculture played a singular role in the development of the modern Kenyan economy, but commercial agriculture and ranching developed by European settlers are only partially responsible for the sector’s progress.

Free land and inexpensive labour facilitated the establishment of commercial farms during the early decades of colonial rule. Drought, locust invasions and crop losses to pests and wild animals, and to vector-borne diseases posed a serious challenge. The effects of the latter were minimised by quarantining the locals in native reserves and demarcating the band of ranches that ring-fenced the so-called White Highlands. Not all the white settlers survived; some left to start over in colonies to the south, but those who stayed on prospered with the assistance of the colonial state.

After World War I the government offered land concessions to war veterans boosting the population of approximately 6,000 white settlers in 1917 to 20,000 in 1936. This abetted the diversification of the new estate sector, which came to encompass coffee, tea, cattle, sisal, cotton, wattle, and other export commodities that sustained the colony’s finances. Expansion raised the demand for African labour while fueling frictions over land between settlers and their African neighbours. It also made managing settlement considerably more difficult for the government and civil servants in the countryside.

Indigenous producers evolved intricate mechanisms of adaptation and risk management to shifting environmental conditions and chronic climatic instability. The over 100,000 African squatters on European farms by 1947 demonstrated their resilience in new circumstances. Despite the restrictions they faced, they out-performed the owners in many ways. The surplus reinvested in livestock led to competition for pasture on the estates, and this prompted restrictions limiting the size of cultivated plots and the number of livestock the Africans were allowed to keep. The number of days of labour owed to the estates also increased over time, doubling from 90 to 180 days a year.

Dependence on native labour in effect led to the parallel development of two distinct large-scale and small-scale systems on the same landholdings at the same time. The contradictions inherent in this situation, combined with the political threat of the Mau Mau, forced a rethink that led to the Swinnerton Act in 1954, which opened the way for the production of export crops in the African reserves.

The sectoral duality generated by these developments has vexed Kenya’s agriculture policy ever since. Kenya gained independence committed to preserving the economic stability provided by the estate sector while satisfying the political expectations of its citizens. The latter translated into the transfer of settler lands under the Million Acre Scheme, support for the cooperative movement, and the deployment of small farmer extension services.

The structural inequalities symbolised by the contrast between the landed elite and the masses nevertheless fueled strident opposition to the Jomo Kenyatta government. Kenya’s status as an island of stability in a turbulent region encouraged international support for the development of schemes and projects mirroring a succession of theories and economic models debated by academics and institutional experts.

One critic of international development accurately described these interventions as policy experiments. Some worked and many did not. The funding flowed despite the repeated failures epitomised by the large agricultural projects dating back to the doomed Tanzania Groundnut Scheme. Attempts to rectify flaws in the Bura Irrigation Scheme, the world’s most expensive at the time, proved futile when the Tana River changed course.

How do we explain the failure to acknowledge the results of such “experiments”?

In a 1988 article, Goren Hyden attributed the syndrome to Africa’s monoculture legacy, which he defined as “mono-cropping in agriculture, single fixes in technology, monopoly in the institutional arena, and uniformity in values and behavior.” The rise of hegemonic economic monocultures, he went on to observe, are usually preceded by a period of competition and experimentation.

No such selectionary forces informed the large-scale solutions designed to alleviate Africa’s agriculture malaise. The continent’s initial conditions were different. The unique regional political economies of the precolonial era did not count. The formal protocols governing exchange among diverse communities were obsolete. The need to differentiate between size and scale did not apply.

Small as the new big

Africa’s lost decade highlighted the neglect of small-scale farmers. In an article in the same edited volume featuring Hyden’s monoculture legacy thesis, Christopher Delgado noted, “It is unlikely that more than 5 five cent of current African food production comes from large farms. A 3 per cent growth of productivity of smallholders would be equivalent to a 60 per cent growth of productivity on large farms.”

This point segued into the large body of empirical evidence marshalled in support of a new policy focus on the smallholder sector. But there was a problem, as he and other pro-smallholder analysts recognised: The high variability in conditions and circumstances within and across African countries complicated cost-effective delivery of the services, inputs, incentives, and infrastructure need for the interventions to pay for themselves.

One critic of international development accurately described these interventions as policy experiments. Some worked and many did not. The funding flowed despite the repeated failures epitomised by the large agricultural projects dating back to the doomed Tanzania Groundnut Scheme.

Asia’s breakthrough was an outgrowth of substantial international research supported by national research centres into two basic commodities. The same approach has not worked in Africa because technical enhancements need to contend with multiple crops systems, variations in soils, spatial differentials complicating access to water, markets, and service, local pests and diseases, transport and communications infrastructure, and political variables linked to ethnic constituencies, to name a few of the factors determining the productivity of small farmers.

Research attesting to the more efficient per capita and land unit output of small farms also indicated that there was still considerable scope for raising household incomes by enhancing the productivity of labour. The Kenyan government’s support for small-scale dairies, tea production, and the efficacy of extension services furnished proof. Like the case of colonial squatters before them, smallholder producers began outperforming the large farms and plantations.

Kenya and its bimodal policy frame was often cited as a success story at the time, but was this because government policy focused on concentrating the limited resources available in relatively fertile areas? The failure to replicate these successes further down the ecological gradient invoked a more complicated set of variables.

Other state-supported initiatives, such as smallholder cotton, floundered, and even a tested policy like fertilizer subsidies proved difficult to implement because the cost of delivering the input to small farm households often ended up cancelling out the benefits, especially during years when low rainfall or other external factors reduced output.

During the early 1980s Kenya’s agricultural sector reached the zenith of its development under state control. A matrix of factors, including lower prices and higher market uncertainty, declining civil service terms of pay, gradual closure of the agricultural land frontier, and the highest demographic growth rate in recorded history explain subsequent developments.

Institutional entropy set in. The food security problem became a full-blown national crisis around the same time as government mismanagement of strategic maize reserves exacerbated the impact of the 1984 famine. The food catastrophe marked a turning point, concretising the case for the structural adjustment policies that came into effect during the following years.

The donor-mandated policies included foreign trade liberalisation, civil service reforms, privatisation of parastatals, and liberalisation of pricing and marketing systems, which later involved relaxing control of government agricultural produce marketing and reforming cooperatives.

Increases in quality and efficiency tend to translate into lower commodity prices over time, and the same appeared to hold for institutional reforms. In any event, the policies designed to increase efficiency and decrease state involvement in the economy did not reverse the decline in agricultural production. Declining prices for traditional agricultural commodities and Africa’s terms of trade in general was seen as emblematic of a larger malaise stemming from poor governance and economic mismanagement in Kenya and other African countries.

Although most Kenyans blamed the Daniel arap Moi government, the less than creative destruction wrought by the penetration of capital and primitive accumulation by state-based actors was the real culprit responsible for the economic carnage that followed in its wake. The outcome was “a quasi-stagnant society” qualifying the observation Thomas Picketty offered in his 2014 book, Capital in the Twenty First Century: “wealth accumulated in the past will inevitably acquire disproportionate influence”.

In Kenya, the consequences included the revolt of smallholder coffee farmers in Nyeri, the burning of sugarcane fields in western Kenya, the collapse of cooperatives, an increase of subsistence production on small farms, the commercialisation of livestock raiding in the rangelands, and the rise of cartels that seized control of export commodities and local produce markets.

The situation in Kenya was symptomatic of the forces that eroded the impact of the pro-small-scale agriculture policy framework that had gained traction during the same period.

The release phase and agrarian transition

Subsequent developments in rural Kenya invite us to revisit Picketty’s choice of words in the observation cited above: the reference to “quasi-stagnant” is indicative of a larger dynamic. From an ecosystems perspective, the turbulence arising across Kenya’s agricultural sector and the hollowing-out of state institutions corresponds to the release phase in ecological cycles.

The role of forest fires that remove old growth, allowing regrowth and revival of species suppressed by the canopy of large trees, is the standard example used to illustrate the release function. In the context of human societies and other complex systems, it refers to transitional episodes in “an adaptive cycle that alternates between long periods of aggregation and transformation of resources and shorter periods that create opportunities for innovation.”

For present purposes we can equate Picketty’s quasi-stagnation with the onset of a transitional phase of reorganisation leading to renewal. Support for importation of large-scale capital-intensive agriculture to meet Africa’s future needs, in contrast, correlates with the old school ecological succession model. The degradation of rangelands resulting in the replacement of overgrazed grass and shrubs by less nutritious invasive species is a common example.

The African land grab by foreign investors now taking place in many sub-Saharan countries is in effect a case of replacement substituting for the adaptive processes underpinning indigenous African production systems. The government’s willingness to allocate large tracts of Tana Delta land as an incentive for foreign government investment in the LAPSSET mega-project is an example of this replacement strategy in Kenya.

I was part of a team that undertook a three-year study of commercial agricultural models in Ghana, Kenya, and Zambia. Initially motivated by the problem of large-scale agribusiness investments, the research design focused on three models: large commercial farms, plantations, and contract farming. The team’s general conclusion underscored the emergence of large- and medium-size commercial farms in the three countries.

Although most Kenyans blamed the Daniel arap Moi government, the less than creative destruction wrought by the penetration of capital and primitive accumulation by state-based actors was the real culprit responsible for the economic carnage that followed in its wake. The outcome was “a quasi-stagnant society”…

My personal take was slightly different, and although they may be particular to our Kenya research, two issues warrant mention. The first is the resilience of smallholder households in our surveys and life histories.

Without getting into the intricacies of the data, several factors support this. The time series data showed improved food security for most of the households sampled, and a corresponding decline in conflict over land: only one respondent complained about the ownership of the large farms and plantations in the area.

While the poorer families were hard-pressed to make ends meet, the diversification of income generation strategies indicate that even a small half-acre plot defrays the cost of food purchases while providing a base for participating in the rural economy.

High levels of mobility within the region and a general trend of reversed urban migration add further support to this point. For example, urban unemployment rates of 19.9 per cent for 2009 and 11.0 for 2014 per cent were about double of rural rates.

The process of consolidation underpinning the large farm formation across agro-ecological zones is underway, but it is slowed by the reluctance to sell land and a correspondingly high incidence of leasing land. This is also true for large holdings outside our Mt. Kenya research area, such as the Rift Valley, where owners are holding on by leasing out parcels to smallholders. The successful estates and horticultural firms have developed mutually beneficial links with their smallholder neighbours. This is based on outsourcing production, the sharing of technological innovations from the production of certified seed potatoes to electronic wallets facilitating rapid and verifiable payments to contract farmers, and multi-stakeholder participation in the management and conservation of water sources.

While the poorer families were hard pressed to make ends meet, the diversification of income generation strategies indicate that even a small half-acre plot defrays the cost of food purchases while providing a base for participating in the rural economy.

Our sample divided the household into two categories: those involved with the large commercial farms and those who remained independent. The scores for involved households were significantly higher for crop yields, fertilizer use, income, and most other variables. All of these observations attest to the synergies generated by the large-scale small-scale symbiosis that began to emerge during the final years of the colonial era.

This brings us to the second point – the enduring influence of the monoculture mindset. It resurfaces in the World Bank’s categorisation of both large and small organisational units’ contribution to the continent’s socio-economic transformation. Dualities deceive; learning by trial era works.

The elephantine LAPPSET project, the hallucinatory Galana-Kulala scheme, the government’s Big Four agenda, all suggest that the Chinese version is more of the same.

 

Written and published with the support of the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) (www.routetofood.org). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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