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Reading Our Ruins: Post-colonial stories that float from afar

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READING OUR RUINS: Post-colonial stories that float from afar
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Mea maxima culpa. I have not engaged with the idea of the post-colonial before. Not overtly. I didn’t notice it, you see. And that is the politest way of putting it. But I have heard about it in dribs and drabs, as one hears about people from a distant and fascinating culture that point at the moon before they start a meal. I wondered if I should amplify the retelling of the big stories you know so well: the 1884-5 Berlin Conference, a euphemism for a cynical collusion by the then-powerful nations to launch wars under banners to justify a violent land grab of a continent from its nations and people, the causal reality and root of an epoch that would eventually settle under the label of “post-colonial”. I wanted to understand how to tell post-colonial in a reality where narratives to explain the use of extreme and murderous violence on nations, cultures and peoples are still written without consequences by the same forces responsible for the long war and occupation season now known as the colonial period.

Yet for the most part, today we assert our “post-coloniality” and frolic in its imagined sounds, lyrics and images to the rhythm of assorted independence anthems. But independence from what precisely? What distinguishes colonialities when the existential violence visited on entire peoples and nations remain unexorcised, unquestioned, unnamed? The infrastructure and systems of the aberration in human relationships that is the accepted “colonial experience” have mostly remained intact. For the most part, in African countries, amidst the debris of the uneasy post-coloniality, the ancient and unassailable structures are those that channel Africa’s raw material (not its human) resources to leave nations; the diamonds and dying miners are African, the profits are unquestionably European and American to this day.

What distinguishes colonialities when the existential violence visited on entire peoples and nations remain unexorcised, unquestioned, unnamed?

This is a survey of ruins. It co-opts the ruin (paraphrasing Christopher Woodward) as a realm of “dialogue between an incomplete reality and the imagination of the spectator/observer”. Ruins, created by acts of time and/or violence are, also, arguably, the material equivalent of that most compelling and equalising of human presences, a corpse. There is an oft-quoted sign in Latin installed in the doorway of many morgues: “Here is the place that death rejoices to teach the living.” The forensic pathology processes and options that invite such lessons begin with a word that I have become excessively fond of, and feel should have wider and wilder use: autopsy. Autopsy, means to see for oneself. It invites the human being to a humble inhabiting of a situation in order to speak from a place of experience, observation and encounter. Within “autopsy” are notions of a naked, visceral going deep to witness and access unseen perspectives that reveal another facet of the truth about the human condition.

There. That is my excuse for poking into intangible holes, including the holes of and in memory – to see for myself the unseen “post-colonial” story. To speak post-coloniality is to seek to address a corpse that has somehow managed to perpetuate its existence through an unending drawing out of its juices by assorted and mostly external parties. Those who have to inhabit its being are like those numerous creatures that make a corpse a thriving Cosmopolis. The ruins I explore with you include the embodied ones that pass down generations and cultures looking for a reckoning and acknowledgment—a witnessing. I scour these ruins in the hope of a more complete vocabulary of past, future, present, of me, of us, of other, of Kenya, of Africa, of the Commonwealth, of the world.

We children were privy to our parents’ private conversations of denial and heartbreak; we glimpsed the public happy face, the stiff upper lips, the wounded collective body, the private griefs of so many denials of excellence because someone in authority objected to their creed, their race, their tribe, their way of speaking, their history or their leader.

The prevailing world lexicon is incapable of naming and bearing all our immense nows. We circle each other with old, small and weary words to speak to and about our realities, words that fall short of all our experiencing, our feeling, our hurting, and our hoping. The prevailing lexicon is also subject to ruin- making forces and is incapable of diagnosing its own inadequacies.

Fortunately, there are poets like Warsan Shire among us who point a way:

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered
where does it hurt?
it answered
everywhere everywhere everywhere.”

And now an examination of a sliver from the results of an informal post-colonial autopsy session: I was born in post-independence Kenya. I was mostly formed by the season of the phase that Achille Mbembe, in his paper “Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive” refers to as the post-colonial “negative moment”. My Kenya story (apart from a bleep of luminosity in the asylum in 2002) is that of an unending cycle of hoping for a glimpse of the proverbial Canaan followed by crushing disillusionment.

In 1969, I was a few months old when my parents had to flee at night from their first post-independence home in Limuru, in what is called the Central Province of Kenya, after all our lives were threatened by a state-sanctioned neo-Mau Mau gang who objected to our family’s ethnic origins following the state-anointed murder of the Minister of Economic Planning, Tom Mboya. My late father would only say very many years later that we were the lucky ones. He did not qualify his statement; it was sufficient to read the terrible bleakness in his eyes.

A baby probably holds the sensations and effects of a dangerous season. The story of my unease with Kenya’s post-colonial experiment started then, with an undercurrent of consciousness that the state could eradicate your family and culture and guarantee your non-belonging for spurious and intangible reasons that play out to this day. I grew up surrounded by the suppressed and whispered disappointments of my parents’ generation; they were the witnesses of the escalating betrayals of independence dreams, the refusal by leaders to lead new citizens to the promised land. Instead these leaders moved in to occupy the deserted palaces, acres, factories and farms that the colonial governorship had held, seizing for themselves mines and beach fronts and using the same forces of violence and alienation to achieve their purpose.

We children were privy to our parents’ private conversations of denial and heartbreak; we glimpsed the public happy face, the stiff upper lips, the wounded collective body, the private griefs of so many denials of excellence because someone in authority objected to their creed, their race, their tribe, their way of speaking, their history or their leader.

Our morally wounded post-colonial elders gingerly tread the silences of the ruins of so many nation-building dreams. There is no space within the fractures to whisper the names of their failures, the shame of betrayals, the rejection by one’s own people, the horrible realisation that the face of the demon that kills, maims, destroys and consumes is ours.

My most abiding experience of the meaning of independence was when as a child, our house help, my sisters and I hid in fear, trembling under the living room sofas as outside, above the skies, Kenya Air Force planes screeched past and army tankers rolled by on roads, the independent state displaying its power and threatening its own citizens after the tortured and brutalised body of yet another luminous minister, J.M. Kariuki, had been found. This home-grown brutalisation of inconvenient bodies and behaviour continues to this day. It now targets the ordinary citizen. A lawyer named Willy Kimani, his taxi driver and his bicycle taxi-owning client walk out of court and turn up bound, gagged and drowned. In the post-colony it is an offence to dare to seek truth, justice and hope. You do not call the overlord’s exposed bum “nakedness”.

So where and when does colonial becomes post-colonial when the inheritors of a state who perform independence are of your race? When those who perpetuate offensive systems and refuse to unmake the violence are of your culture? When the ones who rob other peoples of their land and resources are of your creed? And when those who oppress, marginalise and socially and economically exclude amplify their monopoly of violence to legitimise control, and evolve ethno-chauvinistic supremacy narratives to excuse their plunder are your compatriots? What is the resolution of the story offered to the post-colonial citizen when those who offend and afflict are of her earth and hearth? Is it to make excuses for the disordered state of the nation because the chaos makers are our own?

We, the children of the immediate “post-colonial” have inherited our parents’ delusions and the ceaseless circling of the scene of the crime—this is not a metaphor; this is a metonym for “nation”. The Hobbesian mindscapes post-colonial frontline elders imagined they could conceal from us are ours now.

True, there are those among us who have been invested in to perpetuate the illusions, and are groomed to take over the seats at the lever of the ghastly “ancien régime”. Meanwhile, many more wrestle with and are bruised by the phantoms of our relationships with the imagination of sovereignty, nation, citizen and state. We are called to scream our defence of something that has no faith in us, no loyalty, no interest, and quite frankly, outside of the tourist brochure, no meaning. Our morally wounded post-colonial elders gingerly tread the silences of the ruins of so many nation-building dreams. There is no space within the fractures to whisper the names of their failures, the shame of betrayals, the rejection by one’s own people, the horrible realisation that the face of the demon that kills, maims, destroys and consumes is ours.

Meanwhile, the post-post-colonial, mostly technologically savvy generation – those post-independence parents’ grandchildren – have, for the most part, opted out and stopped believing in God or nation. Weary of waiting for nirvana, many post-post-colonials have fled the crime scene to restart lives elsewhere; and without a sense of irony, that elsewhere is more likely than not the country of the architects and designers of the-colony-that-became-a-nation – Great Britain, France, Belgium, or Canada, Australia, the United States, the lands of eternal alienation and occupation. Many post-post-colonials take steps to obtain a second passport. They know that when anthems have quieted, and fireworks fade, and patriotic noises accompanied by the prerequisite outrage at the numerous badness and madness of “former colonial masters” have been exhausted, more often than not, to be left to confront the reality of what is imagined as home is also to contend with compromise, disappointment and decay, a stasis of order, dreams, ambitions, imagination, future and community.

Many post-colonials leave “home” to seek and find the unrealised ideal of belonging. The home left behind can then becomes rosier, better, softer and prettier the further one is from it. You see, away, there are no genocidal bogeymen. Leaving is liberation from unrequited yearning for a country called home. Those of us who still stay do so with the knowledge that we breathe uneasy in the national wounds daily anaesthetised by a debilitating hope for a nation. Yet in our lunatic faith, we are made co-conspirators in a collective existential traumatic drama. We listen, paralysed, to puerile and stupid conversations that are painted with a nationalistic hue.

An example. A few months ago, in a narrative that was amplified during the last election season, this lot now entrusted with keeping Kenya’s national dreams alive occupied their private-school educated minds with contemplating how much more a man was rendered more male and more virile – and, therefore, properly anointed by God – for leadership by virtue of the existence or lack thereof of a foreskin. This mulling was done in a public arena and explored with immense emotion in both traditional and social media across generations. Is it a wonder that post-colonial women such as I must now wonder how and where to situate ourselves in a realm of such erudite musings? Moreover, who knew that when the Union Jack was lowered in Nairobi in 1963, almost sixty years later, the great post-independence Kenyan imagination would be exercised by a public contemplation of the state of men’s willies?

How many of our post-independence belongings here are forged by similar roilings?

I have no memory of halcyon days. Halcyon moments, yes: like reading Anne of Green Gables or reciting Wole Soyinka’s Telephone Conversation in Nairobi’s July cold. But I do not recall halcyon days. The undercurrent of unease and barely suppressed impending violence is the theme song of my post-colonial being. So where exactly is the line of delineation between colonial and post-colonial? It was certainly not drawn at that midnight point when the Union Jack was lowered and another flag was hoisted under fire-lit skies.

In Kenya, I suspect that our post-colonial discomforts are caused not only by unresolved antagonisms and competing myths about who has the right to rule a horribly incompetent but brutal deep state that evolved out of the cynical manipulation of post-independence hopes, but also by a most uninspiring emotion: ennui.

In Kenya recently, the post-colonial project was placed under a microscope. On Saturday, March 26, 2016, a columnist’s heading pronounced: “Kenya is a Cruel Marriage; It’s Time We Talk Divorce.” Public intellectual and economist Dr. David Ndii’s type of questioning is taking place elsewhere in so many forms. The post-colonial hot soup in a world wounded by the omnipotence of global corporations and the rise of demagogues like Le Pen and Donald Trump, where the very odd Nigel Farage proclaims Brexit Day as Britain’s Independence Day. As an aside, it was in England that I was informed that to say “post-colonial” was to refer to the rest of us, not to Britain. It was in 2000 that I suggested, a bit mischievously, that Britain was a post-colonial state suffering from the pangs of having had, loved and lost its colonies/conquered states.

In Kenya, I suspect that our post-colonial discomforts are caused not only by unresolved antagonisms and competing myths about who has the right to rule a horribly incompetent but brutal deep state that evolved out of the cynical manipulation of post-independence hopes, but also by a most uninspiring emotion: ennui. The citizens’ riot for rights thing? Storming the Bastille? Done. Devolving power? Done. Democracy through ballot magic? Done. With new technology, the process is so hackable that the winner of the next election can be programmed in the year of a present election cycle. A revised, celestial constitution to save us from ourselves? Enshrined. Yet the threat of extreme violence and election-related deaths, like unholy ritual sacrifices, persists. The idea of nation and state in Kenya has turned into an albatross. And this, the previously unimaginable idea, has emerged. Ndii’s article offers us a consideration of the end of Project Kenya, as the historian Professor Ogot had previously suggested. Ndii uses this Gikuyu phrase: Reke tumwano: Let us divorce. In other words: let us unplug ourselves from this thing already.

The public reaction has been mostly that of catatonic shock, screeching, but also a sort of resignation. Ndii’s article is still being referenced in so many forums— including this one. Yet in that proposition, there is a hint of grief, the reality of having to abort the stillborn dreams of a nation. To be invited to contemplate the loss of the national project is terrifying. We have grown accustomed to the fiction of its life and prefer to confuse the frenzy of movement within it with progress.

Visiting Britain does not necessarily clarify post-coloniality: in its dazzling capacity for amnesia or re-patterning of memory, the mnemonics of the histories of our encounters and attempt to dialogue with it must fall away. The preferred conversations, if they happen, tend to be from within the lexicon of the fig leaf of “development”, “Third World” and “participatory paradigms” on the one hand, and the character of corruption or AIDS in “Africa”, on the other. For the ex-premier David Cameron, to be able to ingenuously tut-tut about Afghanistan’s and Nigeria’s corruption is case enough for a desperate requirement for the UK to undertake what Catholics would call “an examination of conscience”.

Few blink at the fact of a world that has turned human suffering into a complex economy. Instead we accept euphemisms: “Guantanamo Bay”, not American concentration camp crafted to incorporate elements from Auschwitz, including medical experiments on humans; “collateral damage”, not the wholesale slaughter of innocent people; “military contractors”, not predatory war scavengers.

Serendipitously, I came across a short article that is worth reading in full, in which Neil MacGregor, the former head of the British Museum now helping to create a German equivalent in Berlin, interviewed by the Guardian’s Tim Adams, spoke of memory, atrocity, history and remembering. He noted other important things, and I quote:

“The thing I find striking is that in the centre of Berlin you keep coming across monuments to national shame. I think that is unique in the world. … There is still no appetite to look hard at British behaviour in Ireland. What I find so painfully admirable about the German experience is that they are determined to find the historical truth and acknowledge it, however painful it is. You can’t be an informed adult – or an artist – in Germany without doing that.”

On drawing our attention to the deeds of Islamic State today and its connection with the habits of nations, he observes: “At one level, the IS destruction has been about just shocking the world and terror. But part of it has been the deliberate reordering of history that is common to all wars.”

I suggest that the real First World War did not occur in 1914, but in 1884-5 after the so-called Berlin Conference whose amphitheatres were the countries and peoples of the world upon whom war was declared under the guise of the export of civilisation and values — I think it is called the export of democracy these days— to independent peoples, the majority of whom fought back hard and were then defeated, occupied, and restructured. The lexicon of the reasons the National Socialists used to wage war on and conquer Europe is not dissimilar to that used to justify the war on nations facilitated by the Berlin conference; and is not dissimilar to the phrases and words that are used today to justify invasions of sovereign states: regime change, democracy, collateral damage, sharing our values, removal of dictators, saving the people, mission accomplished.

Given the blood and shadows among our nations that remain unacknowledged, the clattering of the bones of shared ghosts, it remains a puzzle how the architects of the trials in Nuremberg that put Germany and its World War II conscience on trial, are still unable to delve within and memorialise the horrid dimensions of their own engagement with the world.

The post-colonial state, for the most part, has merely systematised and perpetuated the long arc of violence on peoples, resources and nations. The habit of hagiography and whitewashing of grubby deeds by the state is entrenched in many of the nations represented here: concentration camps, detaining opponents, extra-judicial murders, arbitrary slaughters, mass displacement of peoples, cultural and religious impositions, disappearances. Does the post-colonial creature admit to being infused by a specific wounding linked to the character of the nation? Would the post-colonial confess to inheriting relationships with absences, loss, the missing, the unspoken, the defeated, and the dead? Given this, is to be post-colonial to live the fall-outs from century-old wars that have never really been acknowledged or called off?

Today, we humans are living in a season of frenzy for the control of diminishing resources in a progressively overheating world; we are witnessing the rise and rise of opaque and abhorrent transnationals who roam the world unfettered, like Satans looking for anything to devour. We are in a world that demands the diminution and commodification of humanity. We know the games of bloodthirsty gods of war turning our landscapes into infernos, all offered in slick messaging that shows how cool it is that humanity can destroy itself. We tolerate asymmetric wars and war-vulture enterprises — the idea that one set of humans justify the destruction of civilisations for the purposes of growing their home economies by, among other things, securing reconstruction contracts, is a scene that comes straight out of hell.

To misquote my new compatriots, “We live in interesting times.” But think about it; maybe in most of Africa, to be post-colonial is to be Chinese.

Few blink at the fact of a world that has turned human suffering into a complex economy. Instead we accept euphemisms: “Guantanamo Bay”, not American concentration camp crafted to incorporate elements from Auschwitz, including medical experiments on humans; “collateral damage”, not the wholesale slaughter of innocent people; “military contractors”, not predatory war scavengers. We are co-opted by media outlets who frame narratives to excuse intentional evil, like the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya, and then squirm in silence at the abhorrent murders of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi under the banners of justice and democracy.

Regime Change is good, we tell ourselves and comfort ourselves with the assurance that the International Criminal Court is reserved for only brown, black and Eastern European villains. Even after the Chilcot report, it is unlikely that Tony Blair will be tried for extreme crimes against humanity. From there it is a small step to demonising migrants escaping wars created to feed flailing world economies. We now outsource murder to machines to appease putrid conscience. No one is responsible for the desecrated corpses of a hundred million nameless, mostly black- and brown-hued peoples stranded on far-away beaches. Our oppression of nature persists; the weather has changed and the large tuskers are facing extinction. We know that our human moral infrastructure is gutted, but treat those who demand a new ethical imagination as fruitcake heretics. As old certainties die, nobody seems to know what to say or do. Our lexicon is shattered by the weight of what we have become. But frankly, before the terrible witness of this epoch, silence is probably the most informed position.

A secondary character has now entered our post-colonial fray. The “Better Africa Future” set pieces are now being constructed in or by China. Given this reality, and I suspect the situation is not too dissimilar in other places of the world, the more accepted greeting is “Ni hao.” Please do not read me the wrong way; I am an awestruck admirer of China and the vision it has realised for itself. My concern is that a manual for becoming Sino-African has not yet been developed. Should we form a club where we can exchange confidences in Mandarin? Despite the reality of 1.5 million new influential African citizens of Chinese origin, which we are all still rather shy to talk about, if the future of Africa is written in Beijing skies what does this mean for the life of the Commonwealth in Africa? There is no point protesting: the bastion has been breached. No shots were fired.

China built the African Union headquarters. All they did was hand over the keys to our erstwhile kings. It is impressive, this Chinese phallic symbol piercing African skies. To misquote my new compatriots, “We live in interesting times.” But think about it; maybe in most of Africa, to be post-colonial is to be Chinese.

Unacknowledged evil perpetuates itself and extends its diabolic presence, sometimes in seemingly innocuous ways; ways that are not and would never have been accommodated if the desecrated, wounded and broken bodies had not been black.

A brief ode to Commonwealth-ness, especially after Brexit: I am from Nairobi. We do clubs. I am not an uninfluenced observer. We love clubs. The more Great Britain-connected, the better. Clubs are a community-creating process for us. We understand the indispensability of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. tea. Being Commonwealth is a secure space to soothe the occasional sweet anguish of nostalgia for might-have-been pasts and could-have-been futures. With the Commonwealth we can pretend that we are important to the world and our admonitions cause a pause in the flow of world history. We even observe other people’s elections draped in our Commonwealth mantles of dignified neutrality. To be Commonwealth is to set apart our Englishes from those of the United States of America. There we adjust to the how-now-brown-cow English variety in order to bewilder them. It amuses us when they ask us to translate “dustbin” or “pavement”. When they ask, as they invariably will, why you speak English as you do, it is the single time one admits with a touch of vanity that “we were colonised by the English”.

I know Boris Johnson had some illusion that by leaving the European Union, the Commonwealth glory may reassert itself, and those nations who call themselves Commonwealth shall bask in its restored gaze. Even though the old house is hollow and decaying, it is, however, a remarkable wreck. Old and new skeletons clutter its numerous sealed vaults, rusted pipes leak, some not-of-English-imperial-origin nations have been allowed in, the Booker Prize has been pawned to the rest of the world, the velvet is thin and frayed, and some members would like their crown jewels back, cobwebs gather amidst the bat dung and the butlers have not been paid their wages. Visits to the mother country are no longer free, and few in the world know why we exist.

I spoke earlier of crime scenes; our Commonwealth has not yet conversed with its ghosts, has it? At some point we will have to stand face to face and inhale each others’ fetid breaths and tolerate the stench and not flinch at our mutual suffering. At some point we will try again to hold each others’ gaze and struggle together to retrieve the human being from the debris of wars fought and lost, of unsigned armistices. We need to talk, really talk, about the things we need to talk about in a world failing with such violence to make sense of itself.

Here are the ruins of the post-colonial states scattered abroad – so many unwanted and destitute bodies, exports of the pathology of nations exposed for all to see. They are not far from the Mediterranean gravesite of many freely offered dark-skinned bodies that neither the Commonwealth nor the post-colonial African Union have bothered to mention, mourn or note, as if relieved that at least these have done themselves in.

Perhaps, then, to be post-colonial is also to adhere to the notion of “place as palimpsest”, we are occupants of “multiple realities in one moment”. Ruins. These are palimpsests, matrices for imagining and re-imagining realities, I think.

I will start easy. From Kinshasa, DRC. Two people meet. Heads touch.

“Mbote,” They might say.

The history of this gesture comes from a legacy of ruins by the world’s most foremost genocidaire and architect of atrocities, with his sidekick Henry Morton Stanley, whose atrocities have not been recorded in our world. No memorials to a catastrophe. No literature by and of doomed descendants. No descriptions of how a great and beloved kingdom was turned into a demonic abyss by a man and his nation who went on to industrialise human exploitation, murder, horror, anguish and suffering in the quest for matter.

The German scholar Patrick Hoenig noted, in a conversation I shared with him, how the abiding monument to the apocalypse that became the Congo are systems built to lead outward; everything of the infinitely wealthy Congo is up for grabs and the infrastructure to send these out, come war or high water, remain intact. I suggested to a journalist in a fit of pique that the refusal of the world to respond with abhorrence and outrage to the witness of human evil that was Leopold’s and Belgium’s Congo, despite photographic evidence of such abhorrent and unrepeated evil, helped sow the seeds of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Unacknowledged evil perpetuates itself and extends its diabolic presence, sometimes in seemingly innocuous ways; ways that are not and would never have been accommodated if the desecrated, wounded and broken bodies had not been black.

The Antwerpse handjes (biscuits or chocolates made in the shape of a hand) are the only un-ironic memorials to thirty million still-nameless citizens of the Kongo Kingdom who were murdered, chopped, incinerated, petrified. Only these chocolate frivolities speak to what evil befell our humanity through them. Otherwise there is nothing else. Not even a placard in the DRC. I am not an academic, so forgive my question if it is foolish, but what is the point of knowledge sought and acquired if it cannot infuse transformation at the site of its engagement? The so-called plantation concessions from Leopold’s era are in the hands of multinationals like Canada’s Feronia. The attitudes and behaviour of the new landowners, we are informed, are a continuation of the past and remain, again, uninterrogated. I ask: Is this where one will find the line that demarcates the colonial from the post-colonial?

A final ruin. On March 2015, I was part of a group of residents of the Rockerfeller Centre in Bellagio, Northern Italy, who had taken a day out in the very wealthy city of Como. In the piazza, amidst the contented citizens and goggly-eyed tourists, were post-colonials from Pakistan selling shirts, post-colonials from India selling selfie sticks, post-colonials from Nigeria being pimped by UNICEF to hawk images of African children with flies in their eyes, and post-colonials from Senegal offering Hare Krishna pamphlets on one side and Jehovah Witness materials on another. There was a post-colonial from Ghana selling food in a stall and five other post-colonial brothers from West Africa begging—the only beggars in Como. As a fishmonger muttered to one in our group: “Before the Africans, no beggars.”

Here are the ruins of the post-colonial states scattered abroad – so many unwanted and destitute bodies, exports of the pathology of nations exposed for all to see. They are not far from the Mediterranean gravesite of many freely offered dark-skinned bodies that neither the Commonwealth nor the post-colonial African Union have bothered to mention, mourn or note, as if relieved that at least these have done themselves in. Or maybe it is far too soul-shattering to have to confront the question of why the liberated African citizens would rather endure the seventy per cent chance of death than go through another day living under the glow of an enlightened post-colonial leadership. It would lead to far too many uncomfortable acknowledgments, wouldn’t it? To be post-colonial is to fake it, no?

There are scattered pieces of a story that beg to be seen and gathered in order to offer us a word that can shelter our unseen, unstated, unnamed experiences. There are stories beneath the stories we have heard and assumed to be true even though they sit oddly with reality and truth. There are stories in and of the in-between.

Anyway, as we traversed the cobbled streets of Como, my armpits were wet, my head lowered as if at any point I might be asked to explain Africa, our people, or why our most beautiful men were crouched in European corners playing the monkey to get a few coins. I wanted to assert, I am Kenyan. We don’t leave home. We don’t do exile. As I crossed the city in my special little group made up of an Indian artist, four white American professionals, a South Africa-based German scholar, also white, I happened upon another able-bodied African male – dark, tall, dreadlocked and with the face and large, dark eyes of a tragic Bob Marley, accosting people on the street, begging with aggression. I hastened my feet to speed away faster than the others, my eyes averted. Until from behind me he howled: “Sister from Africa, look at me. Please. Sister, look at me. Sister from Africa, see me!”

What do you want me to say? That I stopped?

That I looked back and saw a man? I didn’t.

I hurried on.

I did glance at shop displays, the back of my neck burning. He annoyed me. I needed his cry to be for someone else, not me.

None of our group mentioned that moment or man again. Yet, as you can see now, the man and his voice remain unforgotten.

The ghosts pursued me back to the continent where his voice was born. His words remain fresh, a public witness-bearing, in spite of my refusal to acknowledge the vision of my post-colonial woundedness revealed in a European public square. In his cry is a harsh invitation to dare to see for oneself, to look beyond the surface performance, name the unnameable, find the human being. So here is a slide without words for him. It is in the colour (brown, I think), that dreams choose when they fall apart.

There are still far too many fragments in the telling of our being, gaps in the soul and in the reading of our lives. There is an excess of ideas received without re-interrogations. There are scattered pieces of a story that beg to be seen and gathered in order to offer us a word that can shelter our unseen, unstated, unnamed experiences. There are stories beneath the stories we have heard and assumed to be true even though they sit oddly with reality and truth. There are stories in and of the in-between.

In reading ruins in imitation of those who look into stars and entrails for prognostications, I strain to see these for myself — these small autopsies — so that I might hear the memory of a past releasing its real name to the present and in the sound, the echo that speaks forth a future that suggests the best of us.

Amidst these figurative ruins, “there be corpses that rejoice to teach the living”. “See me!” – that invitation from a man, a body, on a far-off street – is a good enough place for me to look in a way that I could not before.

This essay is adapted from a speech by the author at the 17th Triennial Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS) Conference held in Stollenbosch, South Africa, in July 2016.  

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Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor is a Kenyan writer and the author of the much-acclaimed novel Dust.

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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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