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MANNA FROM HELL: How the church in Kenya became a refuge for scoundrels

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MANNA FROM HELL: How the church in Kenya became a refuge for scoundrels
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“Christianity began as a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. When it went to Athens, it became a philosophy. When it went to Rome, it become an organisation. When it went to Europe, it become a culture. When it went to America, it become a business.” – Anonymous.

In the last few weeks, Deputy President William Ruto, who has made it known to all and sundry that he has clearly set his sights on the presidency come 2022, has made troubling theological statements which cannot stand biblical scrutiny. And all this while the church’s leadership across Kenya has been eerily mum on these utterances that border on both fallacy and heresy.

At a church function in Kiambu County on June 17, 2018, feeling sufficiently sanctified to be within the precincts of a Catholic church – the most influential and powerful religious institution in the country – and after contributing what he must have considered to be an amount that would please God and the church’s coffers, Ruto was audacious enough to later claim that his cash donation was tantamount to future “risk” investments in the hereafter. After the church fund-raiser, the Deputy President met some religious leaders at the Blue Post Hotel in Thika, where he is reported to have stated: “Some people condemn me for going around raising money here and there and in church. It is up to them. I’m investing in heavenly matters…some people invest in funerals, let them continue…”

The utterances at St Benedict’s Church in the Ngoingwa suburb of Thika town were followed exactly a month later by another stupendous statement by Ruto, clearly indicating that he was confident that he was on uncritical and all-embracing grounds. On July 15, 2018, he was the chief guest at the African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) Patanisha, in Kayole, a populous suburb 10km south-east of Nairobi city centre, where he gave Sh2.5 million (about $25,000) to the church and said: “They say I’ve been purchasing seats for the churches. And because we do not ask them why they take their money to witch doctors at night, they should leave us alone to give money to church for the work of God.”

To date, no church leader – Catholic or otherwise – has found it necessary to correct his misleading statements and to remind the Deputy President that his contributions to different churches are in no way a measure of his Christian virtues, neither are they a passport to eternal bliss or a favour to churches and Christians. But the church leaders have been quiet, perhaps hoping that he will tone down on his quasi-religious utterances as they continue to reap from his humongous cash donations.

According to a July 22, 2018 Daily Nation report, in a short span of just six months, Ruto’s generous spirit has led him to dish out amounts totalling Sh60 million (roughly $600,000), most of it in cash, to various churches. The distribution of Ruto’s cash donations to Catholic churches and institutions in Central Kenya and Nakuru County are as follows: Kairuri Catholic Parish, Embu County, Sh5 million (during the fundraiser, Ruto pointed out that the contribution was a joint effort between him and President Uhuru Kenyatta); Mary Immaculate Primary School, Nanyuki, Laikipia County, Sh3 million; Holy Cross Catholic Church, Nakuru County, Sh2 million; a Catholic church project in Njoro, also in Nakuru County, Sh2 million; Baricho Catholic Church, Kirinyaga County, Sh1 million; and Murugu Catholic Church, Nyeri County, Sh1 million. (Interestingly, Nyeri town constituency is represented by the rookie MP, Wambugu Ngunjiri, the de facto leader of Central Kenya MPs, most of whom are also first-timers and who are opposed to the perception of Ruto as the Jubilee Party’s automatic presidential flagbearer after President Uhuru Kenyatta’s term ends in 2022.) This adds up to Sh14 million solely given to Catholic churches.

According to a July 22, 2018 Daily Nation report, in a short span of just six months, Ruto’s generous spirit has led him to dish out amounts totalling Sh60 million (roughly $600,000), most of it in cash, to various churches.

If we add to this the contribution to Murang’a High School, which received Sh15 million for the construction of a multipurpose hall, Ruto’s total donation to Central Kenya and Nakuru counties amounts to Sh29 million, or roughly half of his total contributions. The Catholic churches on their own have gobbled 23 percent of Ruto’s harambee donations.

At the function, where Cardinal John Njue was present (Embu County is his ancestral home), the presiding Embu prelate, Bishop Paul Kariuki, egged on Ruto, telling him: “This is the time to do what you were told, kutanga tanga (to roam). Do not be afraid because to those who will start visiting us in 2022, we shall ask them where they have been and didn’t loiter earlier. In 2022, I shall write a letter banning politics in the church.”

“Unlike God,” said Ruto, defending his generous hand towards the church, “….none of us is being asked to give more than we can.” In separate church fund-raisers, Ruto has reiterated that he has been giving “cheerfully and proudly”. Outside of the Catholic churches, which cumulatively have received the largest amount from Ruto’s largesse, the single biggest contribution to a church has been to the All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi. He gave the church Sh8 million and pledged to deliver another Sh2 million. Apart from contributing to Catholic and Anglican churches, Ruto has also given Sh3 million to Evergreen Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) in Nairobi.

“Churches in Kenya have become – for all practical purposes – sanctuaries for politicians to do as they feel,” proffered an evangelical pastor, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Priests and pastors alike have rendered themselves manipulable to the politicians because of their runaway greed, political partisanship and because of their corrupt, unethical lifestyles.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in the evangelical and Pentecostal churches, added the pastor. The rise of the evangelical/Pentecostal churches in the last 30 years or so in the country has led to a proliferation of churches, many of them independently run by individuals who claim they have a calling to serve God and who in the strictest sense of the word are not trained theologians i.e. they are not schooled at recognised theological institutions or seminaries.

“Many of these pastors are careerists who run the church as personal enterprises and fiefdoms – to be passed onto their wives and children – hence they are driven by a great desire not to serve as shepherds but to use their positions … as platforms for acquiring riches,” said a pastor who ministers with one of the Nairobi Chapel/Mavuno Churches in Nairobi, and who asked that I conceal his/her name for the sake of not offending his/her fellow Christians. “Other than peddling drugs, the surest way of becoming a multimillionaire in Kenya today is starting a church. The majority of such pastors fall under the banner of the evangelical/Pentecostal churches. Is it a wonder that many of them are easily compromised [by politicians], because they have no scruples and all they are interested in is amassing enormous wealth and living large? But above everything else, they have no sound theological grounding and training to anchor their scriptural command and understanding.”

The gospel of prosperity

The rise and proliferation of these evangelical churches that were weaned off mainstream churches, such as the Catholic and Anglican Churches (with their theology of moral righteousness, sin and repentance) came with it a new Gospel teaching: the so-called prosperity gospel.

The institutional churches – the Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA), the Baptist Church and the African Inland Church (AIC) – all brought to Kenya by white missionaries – proselytised the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the local people by asking them to repent their sins and to accept the Lord if they hoped to inherit the Kingdom of God. This was the Gospel of obeying and trusting God to meet all their needs. However, the white missionaries did not preach to the local people that their faith would lead them to greater wealth.

The prosperity theology of the modern Pentecostal movement has its roots in the Bible Belt of the United States. This theology frames earthly material gain as a sign of divine blessing and unrelenting faith in Jesus Christ.

The prosperity gospel, also known as the health and wealth gospel or the Word of Faith movement, is a skewed interpretation of the Synoptic Gospel that claims that God rewards those Christians that continually increase their faith in him. Anchored in the belief that one’s (proper) faith must lead to great health and wealth, prosperity gospel proponents present the gospel as the panacea for a Christian’s earthly material needs, which include plenty of cash in the bank, multiple houses, several motor vehicles, acquisition of land and generally posh living.

The prosperity theology of the modern Pentecostal movement has its roots in the Bible Belt of the United States. This theology frames earthly material gain as a sign of divine blessing and unrelenting faith in Jesus Christ.

Paul Gifford, religious emeritus professor at the School of African and Oriental Studies, in his book, African Christianity: It’s Public Role, published in 1998, points out that, “African Christians believe that success is determined by your faith.” He says that prosperity gospel preachers have moved beyond traditional Pentecostal practices of speaking in tongues, prophesying and healing to the belief that God will provide money, cars, houses and even spouses – in response to believers’ faith.

According to Gifford, the prosperity gospel arrived in Kenya in the mid-1980s. After the failure of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) imposed by the Bretton Woods institutions (the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank), Kenyans lost confidence in the stringent austerity policies executed through the government by these two Washington-based bodies. The social recovery safety nets and the government’s purported ability to bail them out failed. A notoriously religious society, Kenyans turned to the new revivalist churches that were now fervently preaching the prosperity gospel.

God-fearing dictatorship

There was another reason why Kenyan turned to these churches: The tightening of political freedoms of speech and movement under the stranglehold of the one-party dictatorship of KANU and President Daniel arap Moi led to the emasculation of people’s rights, and with this came the rule of fear and despondency.

The Bible-toting Moi is a fervent born-again Christian and a member of the African Inland Church and of the evangelical/revivalist persuasion that had swept the East African region from Uganda at the beginning of the 20th century. The Dictionary of African Christian Biography describes the Tukutendereza Yesu (We Praise You Jesus) as the revivalist movement within the Anglican Church of Uganda that began in the Kingdom of Buganda, hence Balokole (Luganda for the saved people). Today, the term Balokole has been embraced beyond Buganda as a movement of saved or born-again Christians across the East African region. Likewise, the Luganda hymnal song, Tukutendereza, has become the theme song of revivalist Christians throughout East Africa.

Moi reached the pinnacle of his dictatorship in the late 1980s, just when the revivalist churches were entrenching themselves in the country. To further keep the people in check and continue running a tight ship as he maintained an iron grip on the state, Moi would invite international prosperity gospel evangelical preachers to Kenya to hold massive crusades.

Two of the better known preacher men who visited Kenya in the late 1980s and early 1990s were Morris Cerullo from America’s southern Bible Belt and the German Reinhard Bonke. Both were friends of Moi and their first port of call was the State House. The undertone of their preaching then was that Moi was a God-fearing, divinely-ordained leader like the kings of the biblical yore and it was only through unwavering faith in the Almighty that the people would count and reap their blessings in abundance.

Moi reached the pinnacle of his dictatorship in the late 1980s, just when the revivalist churches were entrenching themselves in the country. To further keep the people in check and continue running a tight ship as he maintained an iron grip on the state, Moi would invite international prosperity gospel evangelical preachers to Kenya to hold massive crusades.

These new churches preached the gospel of materialism and miracles. Burdened by economic woes and spiritual poverty occasioned by the devastating austerity measures of the SAPs, Kenyan Christians turned to these apostles and prophets in the hope that they would alleviate their suffering and offer them earthly happiness. As fate would have it, prosperity gospel thrives in Kenya because it resonates well in societies that are economically afflicted and are hostage to spiritual powers, believing these powers control the fortunes of all.

The churches’ leaders had appealing fancy titles to announce their arrival: apostle, prophet, visionary. They offered utopian hopes to disillusioned and dispossessed poor people through miracles and promises of prosperity. Gifford, in his essay, “Expecting Miracles: The Prosperity Gospel in Africa” (www.christiancentury.org published in 2007), observed that the churches equally had fanciful names, such as Jesus Breakthrough Assembly, Triumphant Christian Centre and Victory Bible Church.

According to theologians and experts in the scriptures, there is probably no religious phenomenon today that has attracted as much controversy and varied interpretations as the prosperity gospel among Christian believers. Efe Ehiogae and Joseph Olanrewaju, in their essay, “A Theological Evaluation of the Utopian Image of Prosperity Gospel and the African Dilemma” (https//pdfssemanticscholar.org), argue that the African continent, alongside Latin America, is considered to be the richest hunting ground for evangelical Pentecostalism, one of the fastest growing religious movements globally. There are some religious leaders who today argue that the ancient practice of selling the blessings of the church has been subsumed by the prosperity gospel.

For many Christians, theology is a vague and an oblique academic notion. It is true many people consider theology to be the science of religion, and rightly so, but oftentimes they associate it with the quaint branches of academic disciplines, like numerology, that few people today take seriously.

Liberation theology

One enduring fact is that Africans as a whole have continued to suffer defective Christian theologies. One such theology – the remnants of which persist to date – is white theology, a carry-over of the white missionaries’ gospel teaching of doom and gloom, of trust and obey (for there is no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey). That white theology, instead of contextualising the people’s developmental needs vis-à-vis their spiritual growth, has continued to create frightening doomsday scenarios of sinners eternally roasting in balls of hell-fire and brimstone.

White theology should be understood in context and especially in relation to its nemesis – black theology. In the United States, white theology was associated with racism, slavery and the oppression of African-Americans, but above all with white supremacy. This was also the case in Latin America and Africa where the gospel was proselytised by white missionaries who brought their white culture and biases with them. In South Africa, white theology was propagated by the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) to sanctify the segregationist rule of Apartheid.

Dr. James H .Cones, who died in April this year, and who was considered to be the father of the black liberation theology movement in the United States, invited Americans to understand the corrosive effects of white theology: “Christianity was seen as the white man’s religion…the Christian Gospel is not the white man’s religion. It is the religion of liberation, a religion that says God created all people to be free. But I realized that for black people to be free, they must first love their blackness,” he said. He defined black liberation theology as the interpretation of the Christian Gospel from the experiences, perspectives and lives of people who are at the bottom in society – the lowest economic and racial groups.

In the United States, white theology was associated with racism, slavery and the oppression of African-Americans, but above all with white supremacy. This was also the case in Latin America and Africa where the gospel was proselytised by white missionaries who brought with them their white culture and biases.

Emeritus Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town and the Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu is today remembered for his fearless fight against the Apartheid system in South Africa, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. What many people, particularly Christians, may not know is that for him to confront the all-powerful Apartheid state machinery that was spiritually sanitised by the Dutch Reformed Church, he had to confront the theology propagated by this church, which claimed that the principle of separate and unequal co-existence (segregation) of black and white South Africans was biblically ordained. Just as the African-American Christian leaders during the civil rights movements in the 1960s came up with black theology to fight the monster of racial discrimination, so did Tutu, who also came up with a black theology in South Africa to liberate his people.

In Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, where a great majority of the world’s Catholics lived, a different type of theology was taking shape: liberation theology. It was propagated by the likes of Archbishop Helda Camara and Leonardo Boff (then a Franciscan priest), both from Brazil, the Peruvian Dominican friar, Gustavo Gutierrez, and the Spain-born Jesuit priest, Jon Sobrino, who migrated to El Salvador where for many years he performed his major ecclesiastical work.

Liberation theology in Latin America was the fusion of Marxist teachings – class differentiation and means of production – and Catholic teachings, especially of the small Christian communities tradition (in Kenya known as jumuiya ndogo ndogo). It was Sobrino who in the late 1960s said that Latin America had reached a “theological boiling point”. In short, what Sobrino was advocating was a new theology to tackle debilitating poverty under military dictators who oppressed and killed their people. In his view, as indeed in the views of his contemporary like-minded Catholic priests, the theology of sin and repentance was not working.

Fr. Gutierrez, now 90-years-old, who is considered the father of liberation theology, argued in his book, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation, published in 1971, that there are two schools of thought on poverty and both are derived from the synoptic Gospels: The first talks of Christ’s sensitivity towards the poor and their sufferings. The second, that Christ himself “had lived a life of poverty, and so, Christians from their origin understood that in order to be his disciples, they also had to live a life of poverty.” Both of these schools of thought are true, pointed out Gutierrez, “but we interpret these two points of view on the bases of our historical context and of our lives.”

“The first perspective is found in Luke’s version of the beatitude of the poor (Blessed are you, for the kingdom of God is yours). The second is reflected in Matthews (Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven),” he wrote. “I think both lines of thought – poverty as scandal and poverty of spirit can be useful, although their meaning must be actualized in our historical context.” The Catholic priest argued in the book that poverty is not a result of fate or laziness but a result of “structural injustices that privilege some, while marginalizing others.” When Jesus said, “blessed are the poor,” emphasised Gutierrez, he did not mean, “blessed is poverty.”

The church and politics in Kenya

In Kenya, our Christian clergy may not have evolved any particular theology but the country nonetheless produced, in its heyday, fearless church ministers who were not afraid to speak the biblical truth as they understood it, to both the powers that be and to their flock. Such clergymen included the controversial Anglican bishop Alexander Muge, the fearless Reverand Timothy Njoya of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA), Anglican Bishop David Gitari and the mercurial and politically savvy Bishop Henry Okullu. (All are dead except for Njoya. The death of Muge in 1990 in a bizarre road accident is still shrouded in mystery.)

When Jesus said, “blessed are the poor,” emphasised Gutierrez, he did not mean, “blessed is poverty.”

In 1975, as the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) bishop of Maseno South, Okullu published his seminal book, Church and Politics in East Africa, which soon become a bestseller and a guide for church leaders, church groups and students studying Christianity in the region. It was under Okullu, who was first elected as the chairman of National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) in 1976 and went onto serve for two terms, that the NCCK, during its annual general meeting in 1977, crafted the all-important statement regarding the central role of the church: “The Church being the conscience of the nation, should teach and safeguard intrinsic values of persons, knowing that all men and women are children of God. The church should endeavour to show, both in action and preaching, that it is not wealth, education or status that matter, but the individual’s intrinsic value.”

Dr. Okullu was a firebrand prelate. In 1998, I had the chance to meet him. Soft-spoken and cheerful, Okullu liked regaling one with stories. I remember him telling me how many Kenyans did not know that before rubbing the Kenyan political establishment the wrong way, he had locked horns with Ugandan President Milton Obote in the late 1960s when he served as the first African editor of the Church of Uganda-owned newspaper New Day. In 1967, Okullu had to come back to Kenya after he penned a scathing editorial on the one-party system, which Obote had introduced through the Common Man’s Charter policy document.

With the demise of these outspoken institutional church leaders, who in their own limited ways sought to speak truth to power, the mainstream churches’ leadership has been clipped and is a pale shadow of its former self. Even the elaborate voice of the Catholic Church, which used to be relayed through powerful pastoral letters, has been dead for a long time.

“The mainstream churches lost the plot in 2005,” said a Catholic priest from Kitale diocese. “That referendum [on the new constitution] split the churches along ethnic fault lines and they have never recovered to date.” The referendum that proposed a new constitution pitted the opposition, led by Raila Odinga, against President Mwai Kibaki. It was the first real test of Kibaki’s grip on state power. When Kibaki lost the referendum, the opposition knew it had rattled his power base.

“The mainstream churches lost the plot in 2005,” said a Catholic priest from Kitale diocese. “That referendum [on the new constitution] split the churches along ethnic fault lines and they have never recovered to date.”

“The church leadership, instead of stepping in and cautioning against the imminent ethnic battle lines that had been drawn out by the mini-election, which, if went unchecked, would definitely escalate into ethnic warfare, also entrenched its ethnic position that had informed how it had voted in the referendum,” said the priest. “Remember these leaders would openly canvass for their political sides to their respective congregations, which fell in place.” The priest said when the presidential election came in 2007, “all it did was accentuate the leaders’ ethnic positions”.

Since 2007, the story of Kenya’s church leaders has been the same: in 2013, they led their congregation to vote along ethnic lines. The same happened in 2017, observed the priest. “What Ruto is now doing is heavily infiltrating the churches’ leadership and exploiting their political differences and personal greed by dishing out lots of money, because everybody understands it’s their time to make hay while the sun shines.” Meanwhile, people facing hard economic times have been crying for help from their shepherds for moral courage and help, as well as guidance, but the clergy, unbothered and unconcerned by the “disconcerting noises” from their flock, continue with their privileged lifestyles.

The priest said the Deputy President has deliberately targeted the Catholic Church in Central Kenya because he reckons that this could possibly be one of the best strategies for penetrating and winning over the difficult Kikuyu constituency. “Even if he doesn’t win all of them, it would still be important if he got a foothold in the region.”

He said that in Kenya today, the church cannot speak in one voice and will not condemn institutionalised state corruption because it is fragmented and its leadership across the board has benefitted from that same corruption’s largesse. “It is not too difficult to see what is happening: The people are crying, the people are hurting, the people have been rendered poor and the Levite priest is on his way to Jerusalem.”

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

Is Democracy Dead or Has It Simply Been Hijacked?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Populist idiocy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A civic ritual

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How Corruption and Greed Are Destroying Africa’s Forests

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

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

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

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

Land grabs and exploitation

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

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

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

The effects of foreign liberalism

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

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

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

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

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

Deforestation and greed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The impact of corruption on deforestation

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

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

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

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

Reforestation and other plans to restore Africa’s forests

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rise of monoculture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kenya conundrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small as the new big

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The release phase and agrarian transition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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