David Ndii’s recent decision to publicly renounce Kikuyu ethnicity and adopt a “Jaluo” one may spark a long overdue debate about the nature of ethnicity in Kenya and in Africa. For many people, both on the continent and outside it, the idea of tribe – with its connotations of strong, primitive, primordial ethnicity and ancient cultural traditions – is an indispensable part of African identity. The makers of the blockbuster superhero movie, Black Panther, who imagined the fictional African state of Wakanda as the most technologically advanced nation in the world and one that retained its essential character, still felt constrained to organise that nation into tribes. Africans are first and foremost seen as tribesmen or tribeswomen and tribe is taken for granted as the best explanation for their actions. This idea is so deeply ingrained that few ever bother to question it.
Yet question it we should. For rather than something indelibly encoded into the African genetic make-up and over which one exercises little choice, tribe turns out to be largely an artificial construct. The fact is, there is a marked difference between how ordinary Africans, including Kenyans, think of tribe and its origins and what history and social science has to say about it.
Africans are first and foremost seen as tribesmen or tribeswomen and tribe is taken for granted as the best explanation for Africans’ actions. This idea is so deeply ingrained that few ever bother to question it.
To begin with, just what is a tribe? Even this question turns out to be not as straightforward as some would have us believe. “Tribe has no coherent meaning” wrote Dr. Christopher Lowe of Boston University in his 1997 paper “Talking about ‘Tribe’: Moving from Stereotypes to Analysis”. “If by tribe we mean a social group that shares a single territory, a single language, a single political unit, a shared religious tradition, a similar economic system, and common cultural practices, such a group is rarely found in the real world,” he wrote.
What? But people do identify as Kikuyus or Luos, no? And they have done this for ages, haven’t they? Well, yes and no. People have always banded together in groups in search of security. As they grew, such groups, initially defined by kinship relations, developed common ways of responding to and relating with the world around them, as well as systems to manage relations within the group. But since the world kept changing, so did these groups. Some were subsumed into others, some got separated and developed along different paths, others disappeared altogether. Customs and languages changed. The idea that our current ethnic communities have survived unchanged from ancient times is plainly false. As Prof. Scott MacEachern of Bowdoin College in the US says, “‘Tribal’ and/or ethnic identities have never been primordial and immutable, in Africa or elsewhere.”
The politicisation of ethnicity
In fact, our current ethnic formations – some of which did not even exist a century ago – and our understanding of how they relate to each other, are the products of much more recent events. “What is a tribe?” asks Mahmood Mamdani, the Executive Director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research. “It is very largely a creation of laws drawn up by a colonial state which imposes group identities on individual subjects and thereby institutionalises group life… Above all, tribe was a politically driven, totalising identity.”
“The politicisation of ethnic identity began with the colonial experience,” says Prof. Kimani Njogu in the recent Africa Uncensored documentary titled In Tribe We Trust. According to the book Ethnicity and African Politics by Crawford Young, “although the ethnic labels… have pre-colonial origins, they became comprehensive and rigidly ranked categories only in the colonial period; they were heavily influenced by imperial codifications and further transformed by politicised actions in the last half-century.”
In pre-colonial societies, as Young explains, ethnicity was a fungible cultural artefact, one that was not necessarily encoded into one’s genes, attached to particular homelands or imbued with ideas of political sovereignty. Individuals and even entire societies could navigate in and out of them.
Clearly, pre-colonial peoples had their ideas as to who they were and how they related to the world around them. But what we call tribes today bears little semblance to the ever-changing aboriginal identities they fashioned and would probably be completely unrecognisable to them. In any case, the idea that today’s ethnic communities necessarily grew out of kinship relations is bogus.
In pre-colonial societies, as Young explains, ethnicity was a fungible cultural artefact, one that was not necessarily encoded into one’s genes, attached to particular homelands or imbued with ideas of political sovereignty. Individuals and even entire societies could navigate in and out of them. In fact, even the ideas of kinship and shared ancestry were “notoriously malleable to serve contemporary social or ideological purposes. But once rooted in the social consciousness, mythology convincingly impersonates reality.” For example, a study by Timothy Parsons of Washington University details how the colonial government once urged Meru elders to accept anyone willing to bow to their authority as Meru. He further states that “Kikuyu” was more an expression of agricultural expertise than a coherent or bounded ethnic group.
However, for a colonial administration that required order and control in order to facilitate its extractive aim, such inexactitude was unacceptable. Confronted with the reality of the diversity on the African continent, the European colonisers tried to hammer it into compliance with their preconceived ideas. Much of this was accomplished using administrative measures and backed up by brute force. Young writes: “The task of the colonial state was to discover, codify, and map an ethnic geography for their newly conquered domains, according to the premise that the continent was inhabited by ‘tribal man.’ This ethnic template, as imagined by the coloniser, became the basis for administrative organisation.” Parsons adds that “faced with a confusing range of fluid ethnicities when they conquered Kenya, colonial officials sought to shift conquered populations into manageable administrative units.”
Thus colonialism imposed its own version of order, superimposed its idea of tribes bounded within district boundaries on this ethnic patchwork, and even created an entirely new “traditional” administrative structure in the form of tribal chiefs who were actually state employees. Young writes of “the illusion that colonial ethnic mappings were historically authentic”. In this way, the state created the tribe which, in turn, became, as Parsons states, “the basic unit of government, education, labour, law, and most importantly land tenure.”
The late Prof Terence Ranger, in his famous 1983 essay on The Invention Of Tradition in Colonial Africa, shows how invented traditions, both European and African, were a crucial plank in allowing colonial settlers and administrators to “define themselves as natural and undisputed masters of vast numbers of Africans.” Which meant reinventing colonials as feudalistic patriarchs and the African as the tribal savage. Though many “found themselves engaged in tasks which by definition would have been menial in Britain and which only the glamour of empire building made acceptable” they were still proud to belong to “an aristocracy of colour”. Echoes of this remain today in the deference with which European “expatriates” are treated.
Ranger also notes that “since so few connections could be made between British and African political, social and legal systems, British administrators set about inventing African traditions for Africans… transforming flexible custom into hard prescription.” So successful was this effort that “many African scholars as well as many European Africanists have found it difficult to free themselves from the false models of colonial codified African ‘tradition’.” As he would more recently summarize, the colonial period was marked “by systematic inventions of African traditions – ethnicity, customary law, ‘traditional’ religion. Before colonialism Africa was characterised by pluralism, flexibility, multiple identity; after it African identities of ‘tribe’, gender and generation were all bounded by the rigidities of invented tradition.”
Thus colonialism imposed its own version of order, superimposed its idea of tribes bounded within district boundaries on this ethnic patchwork, and even created an entirely new “traditional” administrative structure in the form of tribal chiefs who were actually state employees.
However, it is important to note that while tribe and tradition were built into the very foundation of the colonial state, the people were not just passive victims. Just as they had been doing for eons, they both resisted and reacted to the impositions, inventing and discarding identities and traditions of their own. At the outset of the colonialism, some identities, like Kikuyu, were already in the process of being created though, as described by Prof Bruce Berman, were not yet stable nor traditional; they hardened in response to the colonial state. Later, similar innovations like Gusii, Luhya, Kalenjin and Mijikenda appeared in the years between the two World Wars to essentially beef up numbers for the negotiation of status within the colonial state. What John Iliffe said of our neighbours to the south in his book, A Modern History of Tanganyika, was true in Kenya: “The British wrongly believed that Tanganyikans belonged to tribes; Tanganyikans created tribes to function within the colonial framework.” Such ethnic and cultural refashioning continues to this day.
The important takeaway is that rather than ancient “nations”, today’s ethnicities are a creation of the colonial era – “state-sponsored tribal ethnographies and romantic essentialised notions of tribal culture”, as Parsons describes them. Writing a decade ago as Kenya threatened to descend into ethnic carnage, American historian Caroline Elkins, author of Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, noted that “Britain’s famous imperial policy of ‘divide and rule’, playing one side off another, … often turned fluid groups of individuals into immutable ethnic units, much like Kenya’s Luo and Kikuyu today. In many former colonies, the British picked favourites from among these newly solidified ethnic groups and left others out in the cold. We are often told that age-old tribal hatreds drive today’s conflicts in Africa. In fact, both ethnic conflict and its attendant grievances are colonial phenomena.”
In addition to creating and freezing tribal identities, the colonial state discouraged and outrightly forbade political organisation across the district lines they had drawn up. This meant that tribes were not just administrative and geographical entities; they were also set up as units for political mobilisation. Tribes were, therefore, state-mandated political identities that substituted for authentic cultural expression. “The structure of tribal administration enabled the ruling British elite to deny any representative character to the troublesome urban nationalist, while claiming for itself just that,” wrote Talal Asad, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in his essay “Political Inequality in the Kababish Tribe.” “Thus ‘the tribe’ and the ‘tribal system’ from being a means of efficient administration became the justification for perpetuating colonial domination.”
The tribalisation of governance
During the bulk of the colonial era, competition for state power was conducted along racial lines (race being a similarly artificial construct) while resistance to it was channeled along the tribe. The Legislative Council, for example, had a racial make-up, with representatives of Europeans, Arabs, Indians and eventually Africans. However, as Barasa Nyukuri of the University of Nairobi observes, “The early political parties in Kenya that championed the nationalist struggle against colonial establishments were basically `distinct ethnic unions’.” As independence approached, feuds over the state that the British would leave behind were transferred to the tribal arena.
Sadly, despite their relatively recent colonial origins, tribal identities have proven to be all too enduring and ingrained. In the post-independence era, the ruling elites who inherited the colonial state from the British largely maintained its extractive nature and divide-and-rule character, even further entrenching ethnicity while paying lip service to the need to eradicate tribalism.
This understanding provides a different perspective to the essentialist arguments offered by David Ndii about Kenya being a marriage of tribes. The reverse is actually true. The reality is that Kenya created tribes and then based its governance arrangements around them. And this is the primary reason why tribalism continues to infect our politics – as the Kenyan investigative journalist John Allan Namu declared, “Kenyan politics, by design, was always meant to be tribal.”
Sadly, despite their relatively recent colonial origins, tribal identities have proven to be all too enduring and ingrained. In the post-independence era, the ruling elites who inherited the colonial state from the British largely maintained its extractive nature and divide-and-rule character, even further entrenching ethnicity while paying lip service to the need to eradicate tribalism. As noted by Professor Daniel Branch in his book Kenya: Between Hope and Despair, “elites have encouraged Kenyans to think and act politically in a manner informed first and foremost by ethnicity, in order to crush demands for the redistribution of scarce resources.”
The consequences have been predictable. Rather than tools for common advancement, the state and the resources it controls have become prizes in a bitter, no-holds-barred, ethnic contest for supremacy. The “totalising identity” of tribe has meant that Kenyans are unable to conceive of themselves otherwise, and thus are unable to imagine a different basis for political engagement. The zero-sum nature of the competition for power further reinforces and hardens tribal affiliations, engendering a with-us-or-against-us mentality with those who resist it branded as “ethnic traitors”. This all creates a vicious spiral at the bottom of which lie brutal conflagrations, death and displacement. Floating above the melee, just as the British did, is the political class that incites and is then able to continue its thieving ways with little fear of retribution.
Basing a state on the idea of tribe has also led to the perpetuation of regional inequalities as communities “not in government” are either neglected or, worse, treated as enemies of the state. It also drives corruption as public office is seen as an opportunity for tribal “eating”. Which is why the ethnic affiliation of the head of a public institution is always a good indicator of the ethnic composition of its employees. It is also the reason Members of Parliament feel constrained to defend public officials who suffer disciplinary action, as was the case recently when Lily Koros, the CEO of the Kenyatta National Hospital, was sent on compulsory leave after doctors at the hospital performed a brain surgery on the wrong patient. As Jerotich Seii observed on Twitter, “If Lily Koros was, say, Mjikenda, not a peep would have been heard from these Kalenjin MPs. Ok, perhaps from Mjikenda MPs. And therein lies the problem. We defend tribe and not competence.”
Social justice activists railing against “uthamaki” – the skewing of state appointments towards particular groups – and demanding “regional balance” seem incapable of comprehending that the construction of the state around the idea of tribe is itself the problem.
The tribalisation of governance also fosters development strategies based on false ideas of ethnic characteristics, such as the one that some groups are not as suited for modernisation as others. Further, as Mamdani explains, the idea of unchanging tribes leads to the deification of fake, colonially-articulated, “traditional” culture and values, as well as the externalisation of social progress as “Western”. That has real consequences for social policy, for example on gay rights.
Tribe is not destiny
It will be impossible to eradicate tribalism without undoing the colonial state on which our current ideas about ethnicity are founded and whose logic of extraction sustains them. As John Lonsdale puts it, “There are, then, two very different dynamics currently at work in Kenya: internal ethnic dissidence and external tribal rivalry. Neither can be disarmed without rewriting the rules of political competition for the power of a rather different (‘post-post-colonial’) state.” Tribes today exist primarily as vehicles for capturing the state rather than as celebrations of diversity – which they, in fact, try to rub out. They exist to safeguard elite extraction and to prevent us from imagining different ways of being.
Kenyans today have perfected the curious art of decrying tribalism even while accepting the validity of tribe. Following the colonial template, the 2010 constitution institutionalizes ethnic formulations as the basic unit of government via the creation of counties based on colonial administrative districts and the safeguarding of “ethnic diversity” in public jobs. Today’s social justice activists railing against “uthamaki” – the skewing of state appointments towards particular groups – and demanding “regional balance” seem incapable of comprehending that the construction of the state around the idea of tribe is itself the problem. In a recent article, for example, Boniface Mwangi seems unaware of the irony of establishing his Kikuyu bona fides – “I am as Gikuyu as Gikuyus come”- before launching into a screed against Kikuyu tribalism.
The only way to completely eliminate real and potential inter-tribal tensions is to eliminate tribes. And the only way to do that is to eliminate the colonial state that created and nourished them, and to construct a different identity, built on different foundations, in its place.
Recognising that the tribe was a colonial-era invention is empowering because it means it can be disinvented or reimagined; tribe is not destiny. Many look to Tanzania as an example of how the adverse effects of tribe can be ameliorated through public policy. Young also cites Kenya as an example where this has been attempted via constitutional design through devolution, the proscription of ethnically-based political parties and the requirement for presidential candidates to garner 25 per cent of the votes in a majority of the counties. However, this retains – rather than challenges – the idea of tribe and only seeks to manage relations between tribes, which means the potential for harmful political mobilisation of tribal affiliation remains. As Young acknowledges, “while constitutional engineering is of substantial value, it cannot alone respond to the challenge of accommodating cultural diversity”.
The only way to completely eliminate real and potential inter-tribal tensions is to eliminate tribes. And the only way to do that is to eliminate the colonial state that created and nourished them, and to construct a different state and identities, even a national identity, on different foundations in its place. The problem is less the politicisation of ethnicity and more the ethnicisation of politics – the assumption that ethnicity is destiny without interrogating how ethnicity was and still is manufactured.
Kenyan social and political scientists can and should lead this effort. For too long we have left it to the politicians who have an interest in maintaining the status quo. Many Kenyans will understandably be scared of the idea of letting go of the ethnic brands that have defined them their whole lives, regardless of how hollow or counterproductive that branding may actually be. Providing a language to deconstruct the state and the tribe, as well as developing a basket of alternative, homegrown and much more authentic and beneficial political identities, are the overriding challenges of our time.
There is no point in pretending that this is going to be either easy or straightforward. Or that such a project would not itself be vulnerable to capture by a ravenous and oppressive elite seeking to legitimise its rule, as has happened in Rwanda. But we can begin a national conversation about who we really are as people and how we build a Kenya for Kenyans and an Africa for Africans. That itself means beginning to see ourselves not as the “tribes” of Western imagination strait-jacketed by concocted traditions, but as free and thinking human beings with varied and ever-changing ways of being, and who are capable of imagining and bringing to life new worlds of our own.
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Of Election 2022, the EAC And Completing the Circle
With William Ruto’s ascension to the presidency, we now have a string of governments in the East African region that hold no genuine or valuable ideological position. The job is to manage the expanding exploitation of the region’s resources on behalf of foreign capital.
The basic idea behind hustling is not to change the world, but rather to game its rules so as to change one’s status within it, going from low to high. This ultimately means accepting the world as it fundamentally is.
Kenya’s new president William Ruto has demonstrated this most ably, even using it to ramp up his campaign persona during the recently concluded elections. Having started out as a ruling party hatchet man in the 1990s Moi era, he rose to become a key player in the ethno-politics of the Kenyan Rift Valley. It was the interest taken by the International Criminal Court in the 2007 post-election violence that created a marriage of convenience between himself and what was until then his nemesis: Uhuru Kenyatta, scion of an earlier hustler-founded, but now grand, family, the epitome of what Ruto had been pitched against his whole political career—the entrenched interests of a new and landed elite.
This became an opportunity to operate fully on the national stage. This last election became in part the story of his successful determination to stay there, despite the best efforts, or so it would appear, to dispose of him once the threat of ICC convictions had receded.
A problem here is that what Kenya has always desperately needed is fundamental change. Candidate Raila Odinga’s biggest handicap was his having lived a life of being half-and-half; on the one hand, he presented himself as the anti-establishment player, determined to smash this system of historical exploitation and undeserved wealth. In that respect, he was the last of the dwindling band of 1980s would-be revolutionaries that led a meandering and error-plagued voyage in search of the kind of change needed in a former European settler economy and Western anchor-state.
On the other hand, he was also a scion of an established political dynasty. In this way, he more than once made himself part of inter-factional elite schemes and plots—of which taking the endorsement of outgoing President Kenyatta against his own Deputy President candidate Ruto was arguably the latest gambit—which only served to dilute whatever claims he may have still been making to be the progressive candidate.
Despite coming from a political dynasty of his own, birthed by his father’s own long record as a contemporary, comrade and finally victim of Jomo Kenyatta, Raila has always positioned himself as an outsider seeking to enter the system in order to break it. Then candidate Ruto’s message was the same in reverse: an actual outsider who was going, not to smash the system, but to hustle his way to its topmost levels. With his ascension, or more relevantly, with the defeat of Odinga, one can say the last of the hopes and memories of a kind of change that could favour the ordinary Kenyan are dead; this victory finally cements Kenya as a place impervious to radical political change, in which a dominant oligarchic system will remain in control, no matter who wins or loses a particular election.
“There is now in place a regime of right-wing thuggery that will run this plantation for the next twenty years.” one veteran Kenyan Kenya observer, glumly wrote to me.
However, the real point here is that this can be said of the whole region. And with this development in Kenya, a circle has been closed and the country has become fully like the rest of East Africa.
The failings of the Kenyan progressive/revolutionary movements of the 1970s and 1980s (of which Raila Odinga was a very visible part), left a situation whereby change was not going to come from outside the system, leading eventually to this “hustler” culture. First by the wider civil society that joined in the post-Moi governments in pursuit of change, and then the more directly cynical exploits that have culminated in the Ruto presidency.
“There is now in place a regime of right-wing thuggery that will run this plantation for the next twenty years.”
The few but significant reforms that actually enabled the Ruto victory to be declared were ironically the only real change that the civil society movement managed to bring to the very rigid political system. So, the irony is that these came to serve Ruto in a way they never served Odinga, despite his years of struggle that helped put them in place.
Apart from the social migration of that section of anti-colonial figures who made peace with the system and agreed to form the post-colonial regimes in partnership with those Africans that had worked for the repressive colonial state to begin with, most Kenyans remained poor, landless and exploited.
In this, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, veteran anti-colonial agitator, co-founder of the Kenya People’s Union and of course father to fifth-time losing candidate Raila, represented the first political tradition, while Jomo Kenyatta, father to the outgoing president Uhuru, famously represented the second.
This began the great dichotomy in the mainstream of Kenyan politics: between those who felt that Independence could and should mean more for the ordinary Kenyan, and those who felt that the struggle had done enough and, increasingly, it was for every citizen to make the best they could out of the new circumstances. In short, hustlers.
There were always more options. But in the politics of pragmatism, the most accessible position, least burdened of principles, usually wins.
Hence, Museveni over Nabudere in the Ugandan struggle against Obote; Garang against the void that killed him in the quest to shape a post-Arab-Apartheid Sudan; Desire Kabila over the impenetrable musings of dia Wamba during the race to remove Mobutu, and so forth.
There is always the one “who is” versus the idea of the “who might have been”. In Kenya, this has been Raila Odinga against just about every Kenyan President from Daniel arap Moi, onward. Until now.
William Ruto’s coming to power is the ultimate triumph over idealism, an ultimate mass endorsement of the idea of pragmatism over idealism in Kenyan politics. In that sense, Kenya now fully folds into the regional template of practical fixers and hustlers willing to work within the strictures historically imposed on their people, as opposed to embarking on a quest for genuine change.
This tells us one thing, that the largest and best organized-for-extraction economy in the region is now firmly in the grip of a very determined set of interchangeable oligarchs. Their mission in life will be to do what oligarchs do: get richer.
We can now look forward to the consolidation of a region-wide elite consensus regarding the purpose of power: which, put simply, is to get rich, and then richer.
I have written it before: the wealth of Congo has enriched many a Ugandan elite group. My prediction is that our region’s politics will increasingly take on the look of a region-wide joint elite conspiracy against the ordinary peoples of the countries therein. The entire East African region, and its resources, seems up for grabs. And the vast riches of the DRC will be at the epicentre.
William Ruto’s coming to power is the ultimate triumph over idealism, an ultimate mass endorsement of the idea of pragmatism over idealism in Kenyan politics.
President Ruto’s decision to immediately implement a commitment to the long-mooted idea of an East Africa “peacekeeping” force helps to confirm this suspicion. Kenya deployed a contingent of its Special Forces just days after President Ruto’s inauguration. This idea has always been curious; apart from the United Nations force (in its second form), Uganda’s military, and occasional forays from Rwanda (and “friends”), this adds a new layer of military presence in the country: not quite African Union, and not fully EAC either, as there is no joint command. But the goal is clear: a colonial-type pacification of the natives, so as to enable elite-managed foreign extraction.
To that end, apart from Rwanda’s occasional presence, the Congolese government made up of its own notoriously ambitious elites seems to present no real objection to other interventions, but the opinion of the general population is becoming increasingly different.
An ideal situation for the hungry wolves in Kampala would be for a consensus to emerge from among the regimes of the region as to how the region’s resources can be best looted in a sustainable way, under its overall leadership as the regime that has the best, deepest and longest established links with the Western corporations that are in need of them.
President Ruto publicly acclaimed President Museveni as the “father of the region”, which is certainly a step up from the usual “father of the nation” sobriquet pressed upon perennial African incumbents.
Long-time watchers of the Museveni regime will find this description of President Museveni as apt as it is worrying. On the one hand, it helps consolidate the long-held view that Uganda effectively works as the West’s anchor state for the region.
We may finally be reaching a point of harmony among the rulers, which will be good news for their cronies and those who want to loot the region, but disastrous for the ordinary people.
Such looting involves indentured labour, displacement, environmental destruction, as well as the attendant state-backed violence to ensure that this happens. Put bluntly, a regional “peacekeeping” force would simply be a modern version of Belgian King Leopold’s Force Publique and other colonial forces rolled into one, and designed to bring a concentration of arms to bear on any localised native rebellion protesting this state of affairs.
Progress is no longer the business of government. Democracy is no longer the concern, what we have is mere electoral-ism. Within the expanded East African Community region, we now have a string of governments that hold no genuine or valuable ideological position on the long-standing, long-held, often diverted and suppressed quest for a national conversation about these things. That has finally come to an end.
The job is to manage the expanding exploitation of the mineral, labour, wildlife, fertility and energy resources on behalf of incoming foreign capital. As long as one can assure them of their security, and also help fend others off, then life is fine.
Democracy is no longer the concern, what we have is mere electoral-ism.
We may therefore finally be at a point where we have a region that thinks as one, where there are finally shared goals and talk of greater regional integration for markets, labour mobility and infrastructure. Unfortunately, these goals do not mean the same thing in their mouths, as they do in the mouths of the older traditional voices of pan-Africanism.
Instead, whatever the long-term plans of corporate America and the wider West in the region, these may now move ahead more smoothly. We can make a fairly informed guess as to what the key elements of those plans will be: “conservation”; agribusiness; energy, all with a knock-on effect on planning for massive urbanization, which means corporate finance for real estate. This may create just enough career jobs to settle the small but historically influential and noisy middle class into complacency. Certainly, the domestic Kenyan banking sector has been very nimble in getting into the DRC financial market already.
The Great Lakes Region/Nile Valley should now be best understood as a single space. It is a vast network of nearly all the major fresh water bodies on the continent. We should observe the privatisation and commercialisation of water in Kenya as the nascent stage to capture the regions water resources. With the expansion of the EAC to include the DRC, the imperialist dream of a single economic space from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic as sought by the lumpen-explorer Henry Morton Stanley, is finally realised.
In his career-long quest to always be of the greatest use to Western imperialism (and thereby guarantee his incumbency), one can be sure that President Museveni has long been positioning himself as the conductor of this grand orchestra.
While we may now have unity at last, it would not be a unity in the interest of ordinary Africans.
The Myth That Is Plastic Waste Recycling in Kenya
The quantities of recycled plastic in Kenya remain insignificant, but the long-term ecological cost of disposing plastic waste in the environment will be immeasurable.
One aspect of modern Kenyan urban living that takes getting used to are the regular, well-timed garbage collection days. Miss your day and you will have to keep the trash a week longer awaiting the next collection date when the beaten-up lorries full of garbage labour through city estates in mid-morning collecting the waste produced by city dwellers.
Should you find yourself in the central business district at around midnight, you may run into these rickety trucks collecting food waste from city restaurants, discarded cartons from offices, and empty drink cans from the city’s clubs that they ferry to the few landfills scattered around the city.
The barely roadworthy trucks are part of the more than 205 lorries working at the city’s many collection points in a hectic bid to keep Nairobi County hygienic. So profitable is the waste collection business that private contractors and cartels have infiltrated the trade.
In Nairobi alone, the county’s garbage collection service is complemented by nearly 150 private sector waste operators who also serve this city of over 4 million residents. Private investments have done a lot but not nearly enough to address the garbage crisis that plagues Kenya’s towns and cities.
Kenya’s urban households produce the bulk of the country’s solid waste, including a major share of the estimated 24 million plastic bags that are used and discarded every month. A significant portion of the plastic waste ends up in dumpsites alongside scrap metal, paper materials, glassware, and medical and toxic waste. Plastic waste constitutes a significant portion of this trash, and poses the biggest challenge to solid waste management in Kenya.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 73 per cent of all plastic waste generated in Kenya goes uncollected. The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) reports that between 2 and 8 per cent of the plastic waste is recycled while the rest is disposed of at dumpsites such as Dandora and Ruai in Nairobi, Kachok in Kisumu, and Kibarani at the coast. In Mombasa alone, some 3.7 kilogrammes of per capita plastic waste end up in the ocean, contributing to the 1,300 billion pieces of plastic that find their way into the Indian Ocean every year. Experts estimate that there will be more plastic than fish species in all the oceans globally by 2025.
Kenya banned plastic carrier bags in 2017, at the same time that the United Nations Environment Programme was launching the Clean Seas campaign to reduce marine litter. From June 2020, visitors entering game reserves, forests, beaches, protected areas and conservancies are no longer allowed to carry plastic water bottles, cups, cutlery, plates, drinking straws, and packaging within the protected areas.
On the production end, there are industry-led plastics initiatives such as the Kenya Plastic Action Plan and the creation of the Kenya Extended Producer Responsibility Organization (KEPRO), whose mandate is to ensure that plastics are mapped, ferried, sorted, and where possible, put back into circulation. Given the low garbage collection rates, and the even lower sorting rates, recycling has been misleadingly touted as the key to managing plastic waste.
For context, the cumulative global plastic waste produced since 1950 is estimated at 8.3 billion tonnes — half of which was produced in the last 13 years alone — at an average of 300 million tonnes annually.
In Kenya recycling doesn’t work
Recycling has its limitations. Despite being cited as a major solution to the problem of plastic waste, a solution that has been taken up by 34 of the 54 African states, numerous reports have proven that it costs more to recycle than to dispose of the waste. That of course begs the question: costlier for whom?
While disposing plastic is cheaper than recycling, the long-term ecological cost to Kenyans living close to landfills and downstream is provably much higher. Kenyan plastic manufacturers are in the business for profit and, for the most part, recycling does not offer them value for money.
According to Kenya’s PET plastic industry’s joint self-regulation effort, once plastic waste enters the recycling conveyer, it is assembled and packed into bales that are sold as industrial goods and sent to the dozens of recycling plants around the country to be sorted by quality, industrial variety, texture and colour. The waste is then shredded, sanitized, melted down, and moulded into smaller, smoother plastic pellets.
These pellets, known as nurdles, are bought and once again melted down and fashioned into other plastic products, ready for re-use by industries. This form of recycling is the optimal pathway for plastic waste, but it rarely is feasible. Recycling plastic waste is a lengthy and costly process that is avoided by many plastic producers.
To put it in context, less than 45 per cent of Nairobi’s overall waste is recycled, most of it undergoing what is referred to as down-cycling, open recycling, or cascaded recycling.
Cascaded recycling refers to the process of using recycled plastic waste to make an item of a lower quality than the original product. These items typically have reduced recycling potential, which destines them for the landfill after use. Models of cascaded recycling in Kenya’s informal settlements therefore turn the triangular recycling loop into a one-way direction to an incinerator or landfill.
Recycling plastic waste is a lengthy and costly process that is avoided by many plastic producers.
Global research led by plastics expert Dr Roland Geyer claims that only 9 per cent of all the plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. Kenya’s cascaded recycling rates are harder to quantify but an authoritative plastics report states that only 14 per cent of global plastic packaging waste was collected for recycling in 2013. Only 8 per cent of that amount was down-cycled, of which 4 per cent atrophied during the process while only 2 per cent was recycled into a product of equal or higher value.
Even locally, recycling plastic is a costly process and sorting it, many experts assert, is unfeasible, which means that there is no way out when dealing with plastic waste other than banning the production and use of plastics.
Kenya and the global dumping of plastic waste
The non-feasibility of recycling plastic waste has been an open secret among plastics industry insiders since as far back as the 1970s. As early as 1973, senior executives of plastics multinationals had already ruled out plastic waste recycling on a large scale. Instead, these multinationals paid for misleading big-budget advertisements extolling the virtues of plastic products, and lying about the ease with which plastics could be recycled for other uses, while also placing the responsibility of recycling or disposing plastic waste on the end-user. However, the mounds of plastic waste that are now an eyesore in many urban areas belie the claim that recycling is the solution.
Old industry memos and library archives show that as far back as the mid-1980s Kenyan scholars like Kamau Hezron Mwangi had begun to call for a serious look into the efficacy of recycling while, in the mid-1990s, researcher Dr J.N. Muthotho and his team demanded for greater research across specific plastic products supply chains. The growing concerns linked to plastic products, their quality, disposability and the economics of the industry paint an image of an industry that has always been well aware of the problems caused by plastic waste but has lacked the motivation to address the issue. In an increasingly consumerist society, plastic has continued to be affordable, readily available, cheap, convenient, and yet very difficult to dispose of.
Ending Kenya’s relationship with plastic
A radical behavioural shift by producers, packaging firms and end-users is required in order to rid the Kenyan environment of plastic pollution. The ban on plastic carrier bags has had an estimated 80 per cent efficacy rate. Industry insiders including manufacturers and distributors now say that the ban should be extended to disposable tableware, plastic straws, plates and cutlery.
The mounds of plastic waste that are now an eyesore in many urban areas belie the claim that recycling is the solution.
This, the stakeholders say, will reduce the amount of single-use plastic in landfills, reduce waste, minimize animal deaths, improve human safety, and save our water systems. However, a concerted effort is needed to ban single-use plastic bottles, plastic straws, and plastic packaging and replace them with organic, biodegradable plastic (BDP) alternatives.
Most BDP products in the Kenyan market are made of thermoplastic starch that uses a polyester similar in material strength to plastic. Currently there is only one manufacturer in the country. However, researchers are coming closer to finding organic alternatives to plastics.
Reimagining a post-plastic country
In Kenya, the stakeholders have to begin to reimagine new models of ridding the country of plastic waste in the everyday life and habits of Kenyan citizens. Nairobi and its environs alone is estimated to produce between 2,400 and 3,000 tonnes of general waste every single day, an estimated 20 per cent of which is plastic waste.
“People don’t want to stop using plastic. It is cheap and easy to use so I understand why people like [it]”, says Kinuthia, an unlicensed collector in Uthiru.
A consumer culture that creates an ever-increasing demand and use of plastic products ought to be overhauled, reimagined, and refashioned.
Even within economic circles, the focus on GDP as a measure of economic progress while ignoring the social, ecological and cultural impacts is increasingly frowned upon. As far back as the late 1980s, the World Bank President Barber Conable recognised that the ecological cost of economic production has to be accounted for. “Current calculations ignore the degradation of the natural-resource base and view the sales of nonrenewable resources entirely as income . . . A better way must be found.” he wrote.
Kenya’s plastic producers and importers have to begin to consider how to shift the society away from plastic products and integrate the alternatives in the marketplace. Kenyans have the opportunity to have a national conversation around local plastic producers and importers, if we are to work effectively towards phasing out all plastic products sold in the market.
With imports valued at an estimated US$883 million, Kenya’s plastics sector has a critical duty to phase out plastic products so as to, at the very least, ensure that the end-user does not have to choose between affordability, disposability, and sustainability of the packaging when making a purchasing decision.
The plastic waste crisis calls for Kenyans to design products with their life cycle and their end in mind at the outset. Therefore, designing products with their utility and disposal in mind is critical. For example, utilizing snap-together parts in appliances minimizes the use of screws, making the end product easier to disassemble, recover, and recycle at the end. This evolution in design proactively shapes the journey of a product in order to ensure that as much material as possible is recycled back into the production conveyer.
Even within economic circles, the focus on GDP as a measure of economic progress while ignoring the social, ecological and cultural impacts is increasingly frowned upon.
On 24 March 2021, Kenya’s Centre for Environment Justice and Development (CEJD) held a consultative forum with 24 grassroots Civil Society Organisations in the waste management sector with support from Break Free From Plastic. The members used the existing legislative framework that bans single-use plastic carrier bags in the country to launch the CSOs for Zero Plastics in Kenya network that integrates the input of stakeholders in the affected sectors. Still, this push by CSOs towards a wider ban seems to have created a policy tension between the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and multi-nationals that rely on plastic products for packaging.
In 2018, NEMA tried to extend the ban on plastic carrier bags to single-use plastic containers such as bottles made of PET. However, the companies involved in the production of PET products instead proposed a self-regulated, industry-led solution under PETCO.
Despite NEMA’s pledge in 2018 to make PETCO membership mandatory for all plastic industry players, its membership remains voluntary. This lapse has slowed the acceptance of membership by stakeholders and by industry players and minimized compliance. Kenya currently has eight PET converters, but only one of them is a PETCO member. Moreover, an estimated 900 bottling plants use PET containers but only eight (1 per cent) are members of PETCO.
The future of a post-plastic Kenya requires consolidation of existing industry efforts, ramping up scientific research on alternatives, a shift in consumer behaviour and robust incremental policies in enforcing the bans and restrictions. Only then can Kenya secure its ecology, manage the diverse interests of the stakeholders involved and still manage its ecological health with posterity in mind.
Microplastics: the Destruction of Marine Life and the Blue Economy
Even as Kenya’s land-based resources continue to shrink because of a rapidly growing population, microplastic pollution of Kenya’s Indian Ocean is putting in jeopardy the country’s maritime resources.
Five scientists, Joyce Kerubo, John M. Onyari and Agnes Muthumbi from the University of Nairobi, Deborah Robertson-Andersson from the University of Kwa Zulu Natal, and Edward Ndirui Kimani from the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI), undertook a research study last year that returned a harsh verdict of a high presence of microplastics (MPs) in Kenya’s Indian Ocean.
MPs are plastic pellets, fragments, and fibres that enter the environment and are less than 5mm in dimension. The primary sources of MPs are vehicle tyres, synthetic textiles, paints, personal care products, and plastic products that have disintegrated into tiny particles because of environmental turbulence.
The study by the five scientists, Microplastic Polymers in Surface Waters and Sediments in the Creeks along the Kenya Coast, Western Indian Ocean (WIO), identified four polymer types in Kenya’s Indian Ocean. High-density polythene is the most abundant at 38.3 per cent, followed by polypropylene (34.6 per cent), low-density polythene (27.1 per cent), and medium density polythene (17.1 per cent). The research findings were published in the European Journal of Sustainable Development Research on 18 October 2021.
The concentration of MPs in the surface waters along the Kenyan coastline was higher compared to other parts of the world, the study warned. The findings of the study also confirmed those of previous studies on the presence of MPs in Kenya’s Indian Ocean.
The scientists also cautioned that the documented information on the specific polymeric composition of these particles in seawater and in the sediments along the Kenyan coast was insufficient. The findings, the study offered, demonstrated the extent of exposure to MPs in Kenya’s ocean ecosystems, therefore justifying policy intervention in the management and disposal of plastic waste, and the protection of the ocean’s rich biodiversity for sustainable development.
It drew testing samples from three creeks: Tudor and Port Reitz in Mombasa County and Mida in Kilifi County. Tudor Creek covers an area of approximately 20 square kilometres and is fed by two seasonal rivers—Kombeni and Tsalu—that originate around Mariakani, about 32 kilometres northwest of Mombasa. The two seasonal rivers collect runoff containing plastic and other waste from the mainland and discharge it into the creek.
Surrounding Tudor creek are several densely populated informal settlements that include Mishomoroni and Mikindani that may add MPs to the ocean. According to the study findings, the majority of the MPs were fibrous materials from textiles and ropes, probably from wastewater from washing clothes and from fishing activities.
Other key facilities that could contribute to the pollution include shipping activities at the Port of Mombasa, meat processing at Kenya Meat Commission (KMC), Coast General Hospital, Container Freight Stations (CFSs) and Kipevu Power Station. Before it was rehabilitated, Mombasa County Government dumped a lot of waste at Kibarani, near the two creeks and just next to the ocean.
Tudor Creek recorded the highest pollution, also as a result of rain runoff from Kongowea market and Muoroto slums, and Mikindani sewage effluent. Moreover, according to the study, which could, however, not determine the proportions, many industries on Mombasa Island release their effluent into the sea, increasing MPs in sediments.
Mida Creek was used as a control in the study as it does not have river inflows. In addition, the creek is in a marine reserve that forms part of the Watamu Marine National Park and Reserve. However, MPs from different polymers were found in sediment and surface water samples from all the sites—including Mida Creek which is within Watamu National Marine Reserve—which the researchers had thought to be safe from pollution by industrial effluent, sewage disposal, and fishing activities.
Many industries on Mombasa Island release their effluent into the sea, increasing MPs in sediments.
The study attributed the pollution at Mida Creek to high tourism activities, boat and dhow fishing activities, densely populated villages such as Dabaso, Ngala, and Kirepwe and the mangrove vegetation cover of tall trees that binds soil particles thus favouring the accumulation of MPs.
According to a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report released in March 2019, plastic—which makes up a sizable proportion of marine pollution—can now be found in all the world’s oceans, but concentrations are thought to be highest in coastal areas and reef environments where the vast majority of this litter originates from land-based sources.
In Kenya, daily plastic consumption is estimated at 0.3 Kilograms per person. In 2018, Kenya imported between 45,000 and 57,000 metric tonnes of plastic.
Earlier in 2020, KMFRI had carried out its own study—Microplastics Pollution in Coastal Nearshore Surface Waters in Vanga, Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu, Kenya—that painted an even gloomier picture of MP pollution.
The four sampling locations represented the South coast, Mombasa and the North coast of Kenya’s coastal nearshore waters, and looked into considering fishing, recreation, and industrial activities, as well as the municipal effluent that finds its way into these target areas.
The objective of the study was to assess the abundance MPs and their composition in Kenya’s coastal near-shore waters during the two rainy seasons at the Kenyan coast: the north-east monsoon which runs between November and March, and the south-east monsoon which runs from April to October.
The results showed a widely varied distribution of MPs between the two seasons, with the overall highest concentrations occurring during the south-east monsoon when surface runoff from rainwater and from effluent from the major towns is high.
As confirmed in other research studies, the concentrations recorded by KMFRI, were quite high compared to other parts of the world. This provided baseline data for MPs, showing that population, anthropogenic activities and seasonal variations a play key role in influencing pollution by MPs.
Total MP concentrations in all the study areas during the north-east and the south-east monsoon seasons ranged between 83 MPs/m³ and 8266 MPs/m³ and between 126 MPs/m³ and 12,256 MPs/m³ respectively, with a mean of 3228 MPs/m³. The highest microplastic levels were found in Mombasa at 12,256 MPs/m³ during the south-east monsoon season, where runoff and effluent due to heavy rains are thought to be the primary source. The next highest levels were found in Malindi, occurring during the south-east monsoon season, because of inflows from River Sabaki.
Boat activities and tourism during the north-east monsoon season and runoff from the town during the south-east monsoon season mostly affected Lamu, while fishing activities, as well and runoff from the town, could be responsible for the abundance of MPs recorded in Vanga.
Solid waste management remains an enormous challenge in coastal towns, with Mombasa County facing the biggest challenge due to a burgeoning population. Although most of the solid waste generated in the county is organic—largely from households, hotels, restaurants and agricultural produce markets, the largest being Kongowea and Marikiti—plastic takes up a significant share.
In its County Sessional Paper No 01 of 2019, Mombasa County estimated daily waste production at 2,200 tons, 68 per cent of which is organic. Approximately 18 per cent of this waste is plastics, cardboard, paper and metals.
Other inorganic waste such as e-waste, construction waste and junk makes up an estimated 14 per cent of the waste generated. Public and private health facilities generate an estimated 2 to 3 tonnes of biomedical waste daily.
Solid waste management remains an enormous challenge in coastal towns, with Mombasa County facing the biggest challenge due to a burgeoning population.
Most of the solid waste generated is disposed in undesignated open grounds—in VOK, Kwa Karama, Kadongo, Junda, Saratoga, and Mcheleni. It is disposed in the same form as it is generated without being recycled or reused. Disposal of solid waste in the open has continuously had a negative environmental health impact through the contamination of water sources.
Moreover, with the limited investment in solid waste recycling and recovery systems, disposal methods in the county have been a contributor to public nuisance.
There are two designated dumpsites, namely Mwakirunge in Kisauni and Shonda in Likoni. However, these dumpsites are poorly managed and do not respect the prescribed environmental health standards while Mombasa County government’s budgetary allocation for solid waste management is not sufficient to meet the desired results.
MPs are harmful to human health, experts say. The ingestion of MPs by species at the base of the food web causes human food safety concerns, as little is known about their effects on the food that finally lands on our menu.
The minuscule size of MPs renders them invisible to filter-feeding fauna, leading to unintentional ingestion. In a study published in December 2020 in the Africa Journal of Marine Science, W. Awuor, Agnes Muthumbi and Deborah Robertson-Andersson confirmed the presence of MPs in marine life. The study investigated MPs in oysters and in three species of brachyuran crabs.
They did sampling in eight stations distributed between three sites—Tudor, Port Reitz and Mida Creek—in January and February 2018, during low spring tide. The sample comprised 206 crabs and 70 oysters.
The study identified MP fibres of different colours—red, yellow, black, pink, orange, purple, green, blue—as well as colourless ones. Colourless fibres were the most prevalent, comprising at least 60 per cent of the total MPs. The mean lengths of the MP fibres were between 0.1 and 4.2 mm.
The study exposes MP pollution along the Kenyan coast and its uptake by marine fauna, and thus strengthens the case for better control of plastic waste in the ocean. “Marine plastic litter pollution is already affecting over 800 marine species through ingestion, entanglement and habitat change,” said the head of UN Environment’s coral reef unit, Jerker Tamelander, in 2019.
“Waste continues to leak from land, and coral reefs are on the receiving end. They also trap a lot of fishing gear and plastic lost from aquaculture. With the effects of climate change on coral reef ecosystems already significant, the additional threat of plastics must be taken seriously.”
According to UNEP, there remains a significant lack of knowledge on the true impact of plastics on the reef environment, including the level of concentrations of MPs across coral reef eco-regions in order to understand the scale of the issue in a standardised manner.
“Marine plastic litter pollution is already affecting over 800 marine species through ingestion, entanglement and habitat change.”
Concerns about ocean pollution have been raised at a time when the country is looking at the Blue Economy as the country’s next economic growth frontier. In effect, Kenya’s land-based resources have been shrinking because of a rapidly growing population and it is therefore prudent for the government to shift the focus to the country’s ocean resources spread over an area of 245,000 km², or 42 per cent of the country’s total land mass.
Kenya has from the outset not been keen on growing the maritime sector. Even Kenya’s first independence economic blueprint, African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya, published in 1965, failed to anchor the Blue Economy in the country’s economic growth agenda, despite its significant role in transporting 95 per cent of the country’s global transactions.
The Western Indian Ocean has resources worth more than KSh2.2 trillion in annual outputs, with Kenya’s share standing at about 20 per cent of this figure. The marine fishing sub-sector alone had an annual fish potential of 350,000 metric tonnes worth KSh90 billion in 2013. However, the region only yielded a paltry 9,134 metric tonnes worth KSh2.3 billion during that year.
In 2018, the then Agriculture Cabinet Secretary, Mwangi Kiunjuri, said that by failing to fully exploit the Blue Economy, Kenya was losing over Sh440 billion annually. But if the opportunities offered by the Blue Economy are to be exploited, a policy intervention in the management and disposal of plastic waste is urgently required to protect the ocean’s rich biodiversity for sustainable development.
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