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END OF EMPIRE: Hegemonic shifts in global power

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END OF EMPIRE: Hegemonic shifts in global power
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Over the past two weeks, the world’s media has been transfixed by two images that would have been unthinkable until recently: the image of an American president at war with his G7 allies and another one showing him basking in a delirious bromance with a ruthless North Korean dictator. What does one make of these images, of the deluge of daily news about global developments that are so overwhelming that it’s often hard to keep up, let alone understand?

Besides the twittering outbursts and theatrics of the unpredictable President Donald Trump and the great power rivalries within the teetering Western alliance and with a towering China (which seem to be slipping into fierce trade conflicts), world news headlines are dominated by an endless cacophony of catastrophes in various world regions: the endless wars, migration crises, and human rights abuses and atrocities committed by intolerant governments, terrorist organisations, and fundamentalist civil society zealots.

There are, of course, other powerful stories and forces, slow, subterranean and structural, which are upending the current global order with profound consequences for national, regional, and world political economies. They include the rise of dangerous populisms and the recessions of democracy, the generation of unprecedented wealth and deepening inequalities, the development of planetary consciousness and growth of political tribalisms, and the contradictory trajectories of the digital revolution that is simultaneously unleashing remarkable economic productivity and social connectivity while threatening to overwhelm humanity with the transformative powers of artificial intelligence, robotics, and the Internet.

I would like to suggest that some of the current global developments that flood the media, especially the growing tensions among and within the major global and regional powers and their respective alliances, can fruitfully be understood in the context of hegemonic shifts and contestations that occur periodically in world history. Hegemony comprises both hard power (military and economic dominance) and soft power (cultural and ideological supremacy). During moments of hegemonic transitions, intra-hegemonic rivalries and struggles between the declining hegemons and rising hegemons tend to intensify, often leading to regional and global wars, both hot and cold.

As a historian, I am only too aware that history doesn’t repeat itself in exact or predictable patterns, but neither is any moment including ours immune from the familiar rhythms of historical change. This is to suggest the need to go beyond the pronouncements or shenanigans of particular leaders, or momentary trends that may seem temporarily consequential but end up sinking in the quicksand of history without much trace. Students of world history and the world system have identified various conjunctures in the constructions, contestations, and transitions of regional and global hegemonies going back millennia.

Moments of hegemonic shifts are often triggered or accompanied by economic and structural crises and escalating political and ideological competition and conflict. In the field of economic history, which is my specialty, there are fascinating historical accounts of economic crises going back millennia and some of the hegemonic upheavals they engendered, reflected, and reinforced. A few recent examples will suffice.

In the late 19th century, there was the shift in economic and military power in Europe, which was then the centre of the world system – from Britain as the world’s first industrial power to Germany following the latter’s unification in 1871. This shift occurred during, and was exacerbated by, the long global depression of 1873-1896. At the same time, the world drifted towards the New Imperialism, expressed geographically in the colonial conquest of Africa and parts of Asia, and geopolitically in the outbreak of World War I.

Moments of hegemonic shifts are often triggered or accompanied by economic and structural crises and escalating political and ideological competition and conflict.

Western Europe emerged from World War I devastated and exhausted, paving the way for the rise of two new hegemonic powers, the United States and the Soviet Union. The two countries’ march to superpower status was accelerated by the Great Depression of 1929-1939 and World War II, notwithstanding the economic hardships the Depression unleashed in the USA, and the trail of destruction left by WWII in the USSR. The decolonisation of Africa and Asia occurred in the maelstrom of the new global order and emergence of the Cold War between American-led and Soviet-led geopolitical alliances.

This underscores the fact that moments of hegemonic transitions create both dangers and opportunities for the peripheries. The hegemonic shift of the late 19th century among the European powers brought Africa and Asia the historic disaster of colonisation while that of the mid-20th century by the huge subcontinental states of the USA and USSR brought them the momentous promises of decolonisation. What will the current reconfiguration in global hegemonies portend for Africa?

At the heart of the current conjuncture is the emergence of a multipolar world, following the demise of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the erosion of the United States hegemony as the sole superpower since the early 2000s. It seems almost quaint to recall Francis Fukuyama’s triumphalist thesis on the “End of History”—the conceit that the great ideological struggles of history were over, vanquished by Western liberalism—which was proclaimed in the midst of American euphoria following the collapse of “actually existing socialism”. 9/11 and the rise of politicised religious fundamentalisms seriously dented this hollow ideological gloating. The rise of China and other emerging economies that claimed a growing share of the unevenly developed and highly unequal global economy put more nails in the coffin of American and Western supremacy.

At the heart of the current conjuncture is the emergence of a multipolar world, following the demise of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the erosion of the United States hegemony as the sole superpower since the early 2000s.

On the day that President Barack Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, I wrote an essay on my blog, The Zeleza Post (closed in 2012), which was subsequently included in the collection of essays, Barack Obama and African Diasporas (2009). In the essay I stated that the challenges facing the new administration “are immense indeed: ending two foreign wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have depleted the nation of treasure and trust…; managing the economic crisis and administering an effective stimulus package that will halt the economic recession and restore growth; expanding access to health care and improving the quality of education and overcoming the inequities of the prison industrial complex that have devastated African American and other minority communities; pursuing sound and sustainable domestic and global environmental policies; and promoting smart foreign policies and allegiance to multilateralism. The biggest challenge facing President Obama is how to manage the relative decline of American global supremacy in a world of new and emerging powers…”

The Obama administration tried to manage this challenge through existing multilateral institutions by roping in the emerging economies, championing such important global causes as climate change by signing the Paris Climate Agreement in April 2016, containing nuclear proliferation by signing, in July 2015, the 5+1 Iran nuclear deal (officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran and the permanent members of the UN + Germany), and trying to contain rising China by creating the Trans-Pacific Partnership that was signed in February 2016.

All these and other domestic and international policies and achievements of the Obama administration have been or are being undone by the Trump administration. This should not come as a surprise. As I wrote on the day after the 2016 election: “It is no prediction to expect that America’s slide into global ignominy will accelerate under Trump’s predictably inept leadership and the country’s apparently irreconcilable tribal polarisations…Obama’s legacy will be dismantled by his nemesis…. For the world at large, Trump’s looming presidency elicits different fears, perspectives and expectations. There are fears that postwar internationalism will be upended by isolationism…International trade agreements, the structural face of neoliberal globalization, are under threat from a potentially protectionist administration. The recent global compact on climate change, upon which the very future of humanity and our fragile little planet rests, will face renewed obstacles from one of the world’s greatest polluters. Some predict an apocalypse triggered by the Trump presidency that will lead to the demise of the West as we have known it. Some even doubt the future of the NATO alliance under President Trump with his ‘America First’ doctrine.”

Unfortunately, some of the worst predictions about the Trump presidency have come to pass, whether in terms of undermining domestic institutions and the aura of the presidency itself through wanton corruption, ineptitude, and perverse narcissism, or with regard to international institutions and diplomatic niceties through insufferable bluster, bombast, and boorishness. The proverbial stereotype of the “Ugly American” has become a veritable monstrosity in an American leader who despises allies and adores dictators that have historically threatened American interests or self-image.

But the challenges go beyond Trump. He was elected and channels the ideological impulses and interests, however misguided, of his constituents among the electorate and the establishment—the racism, tribalism, chauvinism, xenophobia, jingoism, and protectionism of the “America First” assault on the world. Those wedded to the rules of the crumbling order are deeply alarmed, even apocalyptic. Some hail from the Global South, including Africa. But as one Indian academic noted on Al-Jazeera, the Western order under assault from the Trump administration was not constructed to benefit the Global South, so it’s rather rich for the wealthy countries of Western Europe to expect support or solidarity from the emerging economies of the Global South in the intra-hegemonic battles of EuroAmerica.

But the challenges go beyond Trump. He was elected and channels the ideological impulses and interests, however misguided, of his constituents among the electorate and the establishment—the racism, tribalism, chauvinism, xenophobia, jingoism, and protectionism of the “America First” assault on the world.

The Trump administration’s contempt for America’s allies was on full display at the G7 Summit and the Summit with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. To the indignation of the six leaders of the G7, Trump refused to sign the final agreement, claiming annoyance at the statement by the Canadian Prime Minister that he would not allow his country to be pushed around. The bone of contention in President Trump’s political and economic tantrums has ostensibly been about trade, the misguided belief that the USA has been exploited by its major trading partners, and that it can easily win any subsequent trade war.

In reality, at stake is the viability of the post-World War II order that the USA itself created and has disproportionately benefitted from. It reflects a beleaguered hegemon unable to control the world it has bestrode for seventy years as a superpower and as an undisputed colossus since the demise of the Soviet Union. That world has been vanishing, and as often happens in such moments of declining hegemony, the padded ideological gloves of soft power give way to the bare-knuckled fists of hard power, which only succeeds in accelerating hegemonic decline.

The challenges and ills confronting the world evident in the current intra-hegemonic rivalries and conflicts in the Western Alliance, in the face of rising new hegemons, especially China, are of course not an isolated American phenomenon. Nativism, nationalism, and distrust of the elites, experts, and the establishment have gone global, giving succour to populists, strongmen and dictators, even in so-called democracies.

Overarching the intra-hegemonic tensions in the Western Alliance is the escalating inter-hegemonic rivalry between the West and China. As the Trump presidency tarnishes the sheen of American democracy, China’s meritocratic model of “selection plus election” for the leadership acquires a new and competing ideological gloss. One Chinese scholar boasts that because of this model, and “despite its many deficiencies, the Chinese polity has delivered the world’s fastest growing economy and has vastly improved the living standards for most Chinese.” The Chinese model of governance and of selecting leaders, he continues, “makes it inconceivable that anyone as weak as George W. Bush or Donald Trump could ever come close to the position of the top leadership.”

Some African commentators are attracted to the Chinese model (which recently resulted in the removal of term limits for China’s leader). They argue that Africa can beneficially borrow from some of the model’s elements, such as the fight against corruption, while others regard it with alarm as “an unwelcome gift for African despots who can now point to China as justification for their authoritarian tendencies”.

Overarching the intra-hegemonic tensions in the Western Alliance is the escalating inter-hegemonic rivalry between the West and China. As the Trump presidency tarnishes the sheen of American democracy, China’s meritocratic model of “selection plus election” for the leadership acquires a new and competing ideological gloss.

Of course, the two current dynamics of intra- and inter- hegemonic struggles are only a part of much wider transformations the contemporary world is undergoing. There are other mega trends that reflect and reinforce the hegemonic shifts addressed in this essay. There’s an avalanche of popular and scholarly studies that provide fascinating (although not always accurate) or compelling diagnoses and prognoses of the global condition that bring hope to some and fear to others. The trends include some already mentioned, such as the apparent erosion of democracy, the rise of populisms, and the growth of global inequalities that feed into the politics of anger and political tribalism. Others include the unfolding economic, social, cultural, and political disruptions of technology and profound demographic changes.  Then there are the changing dynamics of the world population marked by ageing populations in some regions, especially in the Global North and even in China, and the youth bulge in others, most dramatically in Africa. There are also the shifting patterns of global migrations, most graphically captured in the death traps across the Mediterranean.

Among the books I’ve particularly enjoyed reading to make sense of our infinitely complex, contradictory, and rapidly changing present (notwithstanding my disagreement with some of their premises, methodologies, or analyses), the following stand out. On the rising recession of democracy, Dambisa Moyo, the renowned Zambian economist, gives us her customary trenchant analysis in her recently published book, Edge of Chaos: Why Democracy is Failing to Deliver Economic Growth (2018). Other intriguing reflections on the growing global democratic deficits and the destabilising effects of populism, political tribalism, and anger include Yascha Mounk’s, The People Vs. Democracy: How Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It (2018), Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die (2018), the riveting Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations (2018) by Amy Chou, and the philosophically sophisticated Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017) by Pankaj Mishra.

On wealth and inequality, there’s Thomas Piketty’s brilliant 2013 bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, that spans the past 250 years, while Walter Scheidel’s 2017 tome, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, attempts an even more ambitious treatise.

On the impact of technology and the future of humanity, there are the incisive and provocative reflections by Yvan Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2017), Rachel Botsman’s Who Can You Trust?: How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart (2017), Gideon Rose’s The Fourth Industrial Revolution: A Davos Reader (2016), and focusing on my own sector, Robert E. Aoun’s Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Era of Artificial Intelligence (2017).

While demography is not destiny, and given that the ameliorative powers of technology to rescue ageing societies from economic stagnation cannot be underestimated, Africa’s demographic explosion could turn out to be a developmental and geopolitical asset. The continent is expected to have more than 2 billion people by 2050 (25% of the world’s population) and over 4 billion people in 2100 (40% of the world’s population). For this boon to materialise, massive investments need to be made in the development of the human capital of the youth as a matter of urgency – now! – otherwise the continent’s potential demographic dividend will turn into a demographic disaster as uneducated, unskilled, and unemployed youth terrorise their societies into cesspools of impoverishment, insecurity, and instability.

While demography is not destiny, and given that the ameliorative powers of technology to rescue ageing societies from economic stagnation cannot be underestimated, Africa’s demographic explosion could turn out to be a developmental and geopolitical asset.

We live, to use an old cliché, in the best of times and the worst of times. One thing for certain is that massive changes will continue to confront the multiple and intersected worlds of the 21st century, which will be marked, as all historical processes are, by the structures of historical geography and political economy, and the social inscriptions of class, race, ethnicity, gender, and religion.

In this most complex and demanding of times, Pan-Africanism ceases to be an affective good for African countries and peoples and becomes – as its founders and purveyors, from W.E. B. Dubois to Kwame Nkrumah to Thabo Mbeki, always understood – a historical and geopolitical imperative in an era of shifting global hegemonies. African governments, businesses, civil society, intergovernmental agencies, think tanks, and academia must mobilise the continent’s geopolitical thought leaders to properly decipher the implications of this most challenging of global moments in order to minimise its perils and to seize its opportunities.

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Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is a Malawian historian, academic, literary critic, novelist, short-story writer and blogger. He is the Associate Provost and North Star Distinguished Professor at Case Western Reserve University.

Politics

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.

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Of Election 2022, the EAC And Completing the Circle
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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.

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Politics

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.

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The Myth That Is Plastic Waste Recycling in Kenya
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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.

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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.

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Microplastics: the Destruction of Marine Life and the Blue Economy
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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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