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SHIA VERSUS BIDHA’A: How the Seeds of Islamist Radicalisation Took Root on the Coast of Kenya

17 min read. Lamu, home to the Islamic tradition that is most resistant to religious extremism in the region, has become a battleground in the longstanding global Sunni-Shia conflict. By PAUL GOLDSMITH

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SHIA VERSUS BIDHA’A: How the Seeds of Islamist Radicalisation Took Root on the Coast of Kenya
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The Embassy bombing of August 1998 and the twinned attack on a Kikambala tourist hotel and Israeli charter flight in 2002 led to the designation of the coast of East Africa as a primary theatre in the war on terror. Lamu featured prominently in the events that followed the emergence of homegrown terrorists. The new state of affairs was as unexpected as it was counterintuitive. For those who know the archipelago and its people, a remote and peaceful society like Lamu became associated with radical Islam defies the imagination. How this came about is a long story.

Religion and revivalism in the Lamu Archipelago

For people living in a place like Lamu scanning the horizon becomes a habit. For over two millennia, the triangular sails that with clockwork regularity appear in the distance near the end of the kaskasi winds brought new influences and exotic visitors who settled and became part of the Swahili coast’s hybrid mélange. Swahili language and culture evolved out of the long-term dynamic of cosmopolitan interaction interrupted by the occasional system-modifying disruption.

Islam, a source of stability that provided the template for the numerically small Swahili communities dealing with the vagaries of the outside world, took centuries to take root and flourish. During the eighth century C.E., political conflicts associated with the Sunni-Shia schism propelled small groups of Muslim refugees to the coast of east Africa. Islam spread slowly during the following millennium, integrating along the way influences from the hinterland like the kuzungusha ng’ombe and sorio purification rituals that the scholar Gunther Schlee identifies as originating with the proto-Rendille/Somali cultural complex.

The integration of such local practices congruent with Biblical and Quranic traditions apparently synched with the Swahili coast’s legacy of orthodox Islamic scholarship. According to a 16th century report credited to the Qadhi of Mecca, Lamu’s ulama religious council could hold its own in theological discussions with anyone. Lamu prospered as the archipelago’s main harbor, but remained under the control of Pate, which for centuries was the most powerful city-state between Mogadishu and Kilwa.

Pate went into decline after an internal war of succession broke out following the death of Fumo Omari, Pate’s Sultan in 1807. The long poem Al Inkishafi, the most powerful exemplar of classical Swahili poetry, contrasts images of the once powerful Sultanate’s former opulence with Pate’s ruinous state several decades later to illustrate the transient nature of the material world.

According to a 16th century report credited to the Qadhi of Mecca, Lamu’s ulama religious council could hold its own in theological discussions with anyone. Lamu prospered as the archipelago’s main harbor, but remained under the control of Pate, which for centuries was the most powerful city-state between Mogadishu and Kilwa.

The nineteenth century was a period of political turbulence across the Muslim world that prompted a rethink of Islam in Cairo, Istanbul, Mecca, and other centres of Islamic scholarship. Developments opened the door for the pan-Islamic political ideologies of religious rationalists. Reformers like Mohammed Abdul and Jamal Din Al Afghani advocated for Islamic education based on open inquiry and the search for knowledge over slavish commitment to medieval interpretations of Islam. In other areas, where Sufi traditions of experienced based religious knowledge were strong, reform focused on the personal internalization of Islamic values. One scholar writing about the Hadhramaut, a strong source of Islamic influence on the coast of East Africa, described the focus of religious renewal as “a shift from doctrine to praxis – i.e. as an attempt to bring to others the ‘tools’ for proper, good life, for ‘inner’ ability to separate right from wrong.”

The Ba’Alawiyya is Sufi tariqa established by descendants of the Prophet over a thousand years ago in the Hadhramaut. It became known later for championing the expansion of religious education while retaining its emphasis on Sharifite lineage. The Hadhrami diaspora that accelerated during the 1700s spread Ba’Alawiyya influence across the Indian Ocean from Java to East Africa. Several generations of Hadhrami scholars based in the Comoros and Zanzibar had through their scholarship and personal example promoted the quest for personal purity through the study of Islam’s original Quranic sources and traditions. This saw ulama religious councils in Zanzibar and the Comoros displace the influence of those of Lamu and Mombasa as the region’s ranking centres of religious knowledge.

The arrival of the charismatic Jamil al Layl Sharif, Habib Saleh from the Comoro Islands subsequently sparked the revival of Lamu as a centre of Islamic knowledge.

Salih bin Alawi, or Habib Saleh as he came to be known, was born in 1853 on the island of Grande Comoro. At the age of 18, the young Sharif followed his uncle Abdalla bin Alawi to Lamu to study with its Islamic scholars. After a sojourn in the Comoros he returned to Lamu, declaring that Lamu was the only place where he felt spiritually at home.

The arrival of the charismatic Jamil al Layl Sharif, Habib Saleh from the Comoro Islands subsequently sparked the revival of Lamu as a centre of Islamic knowledge.

During the last decade of the nineteenth century Habib Saleh acted on his belief that religious education should be available to everyone. The town’s stratified social order was already being challenged by the growing number of Hadhrami immigrants, Bajuni settlers from the archipelago’s outer islands, and freed slaves who settled in the area now known as Langoni. Habib Saleh built the original Ryadha mosque on a sandy hill above the expanding area of new settlement and went on to establish a mosque college modeled on the ribats established in the Hadhramaut by the previous generation of Alawi scholars. Ryadha offered religious instruction to all at a time when religious knowledge was still central to the power relations in Swahili settlements.

The Ba’Alawiyya taught that a religious leader should seek out obscurity in place of popular recognition, avoid material manifestations of wealth and power, and that they should keep a low public profile while continuing to offer advice to the community in religious matters. Habib Saleh personified these qualities. He also established a new Maulidi, the religious ceremony celebrating the birth of the Prophet, that featured litanies composed by one of his mentors, Al Habshi, recited to the accompaniment of the twari, a percussion instrument similar to the tambourine.

Habib Saleh’s educational pluralism put him into conflict with Lamu’s power establishment based in the old stone town, who tried to curb his activities. When this failed agents of the old order attempted to sabotage his growing influence by starting a fire in the Ryadha area of Langoni. According to the folklore, Habib appealed to his mentor in the Hadhramaut, Al Habshi, who intervened by using his mystical powers to miraculously extinguish the fire from afar.

These events coincided with the turbulent events accompanying the establishment of British imperialism in East Africa. As the archipelago’s pivotal role on the Swahili coast began to ebb, Kiwa Ndeo, the ‘Proud Isle’ as Lamu was known in Swahili verse, emerged as the center of a new Islamic movement that was to gradually spread beyond its coastal base. The town’s two religious streams coalesced after the success of Habib Saleh’s religious education revolution. His sons and grandsons proceeded to extend Lamu’s religious influence across the coast and into the interior of East Africa after the Saint’s death in 1938.

When I took up residence in Lamu in 1974, the Ryadha Mosque College buzzed with activity and housed students from as far away as Zaire, Tanzania, and the Comoro Islands. Lamu’s annual Mauled festival attracted Muslims from diverse backgrounds, including delegations from southern Arabia and Sudan, becoming one of East Africa’s major cultural events in the process. Wealthy Arab and Asian businessmen from Nairobi and beyond used the occasion to donate funds to the academy.

The festival had at some point expanded to include traditional Swahili dances that were performed in the large open area in front of the mosque. Elders from Pate and Ndau performed the slow moving Goma parade in immaculate white kanzu while the youth fought mock battles in the kirumbizi stick-fighting dance to the rapid cadence of the high-pitched zumari. After the conclusion of the Ishaa evening prayers, Miji Kenda gyrated to the rhythm of their ndurenge and mwanzele, the Pokomo did their mwaribe, and the wagema, the specialists in climbing the tall coconut palms to harvest the nuts and tap its sweet sap, performed their distinctive uta dance.

Lamu’s annual Mauled festival attracted Muslims from diverse backgrounds, including delegations from southern Arabia and Sudan, becoming one of East Africa’s major cultural events in the process. Wealthy Arab and Asian businessmen from Nairobi and beyond used the occasion to donate funds to the academy.

Not everyone accepted this exemplar of the Swahili coast’s tolerant and cosmopolitan Islamic culture. A small minority of Wahhabi influenced reformers objected to the use of the twari during the recitation of the Maulidi in Lamu mosques and the non-Islamic performances during the festival. Lamu religious leaders dismissed the complaints by stating that the Maulidi celebrated Habib Saleh’s tradition of inclusion, and that it attract new converts while maintaining positive relations with their non-Muslim neighbors.

Like the annual arrival of the dhows, the Maulidi’s importance for Lamu’s economic cycle had grown as the latter declined, in part due to the arbitrary imposition of customs duty and harassment by government officials. The rest of the year, Lamu’s economy largely depended on the traditional maritime activities and farming. The once vibrant mainland agriculture, however, was suffering due to poor security. Mainland Bajuni, displaced by Shifta bandit attacks in the 1960s, tried to resettle in mainland areas like Magogoni but found the going rough. A friend of mine gave up his farm there after being raised in the air by an elephant and dashed to the ground in front of his terrified children.

The Maulidi gained additional traction during this period as an advertisement for Lamu’s tourism, attracting a growing stream of Western visitors and high profile celebrities. On different occasions I saw the likes of Robert Redford, Omar Sharif, and Mick Jagger walking down the waterfront unrecognized and undisturbed. The hospitality industry became an essential growth sector that compensated for the decline of other livelihoods while revitalizing the production of artisanal crafts and the town’s famous woodcarving tradition. The building boom in Arabia led to a spike in demand for mangrove poles, reviving the international dhow trade. Remittances and returnees from the Gulf and Saudia Arabia provided a boost. After eight decades of economic stagnation, the archipelago’s economy began to sparkle again.

The Maulidi gained additional traction during this period as an advertisement for Lamu’s tourism, attracting a growing stream of Western visitors and high profile celebrities. On different occasions I saw the likes of Robert Redford, Omar Sharif, and Mick Jagger walking down the waterfront unrecognized and undisturbed.

These were simpler times, although much was changing underneath the surface. The tensions fueled by religious dogma and historical divisions elsewhere in the Islamic world were a non-factor except for the running debate over the distinctive Maulidi celebration spearheaded by Kenya’s chief Kadhi, Abdalla Farsi, and other Mombasa-based reformers. This debate was of little import in Lamu. The only dispute of significance was the internal rift between the Ryadha Sharifs that came into the open during the early 1970s when two of Habib Saleh’s grandsons started an alternative madrassa at Sofaa, a new mosque modeled on Ryadha and financed by a patron from the old Mkomani elite.

The contest between the traditionalists and modernisers remained couched in battles over local issues like the debate over the introduction of the Al Habshi version of the Maulidi celebration in place of the more generic Barzanji recitation, and its validation of the sharifs’ elevated spiritual station. It was difficult to see divisions like the longstanding Sunni-Shia conflict arising among the local believers in these settings. But events conspired to make this happen after a small freighter dropped anchor in the Lamu roadstead on an otherwise unremarkable June day in 1985.

Shi’a versus Bidha’a on the Coast of Kenya

 The 1979 Iranian revolution upset the Islamic world’s political and religious status quo. The unanticipated strength of the events set in motion by Ayatollah Khomeini overturned both conventional and leftist concepts of the ‘grand march of modernization in the West, reviving religion as a driver of socio-political change for the first time since the Western Enlightenment.

One of the West’s most prominent academic authorities on Islam, Maxime Rodinson, had built a reputation by stressing that historically it was extremely difficult to find religious sources for Muslim responses to their situation: explanations should be sought in the “the social, cultural and ideological context of the age in which they operated than by their Muslim origin”. The country’s relative prosperity made developments in Iran all the more surprising for upending such theories. Analysts and policy makers were unprepared to assess the implications of what the Lebanese–born scholar, Fuad Ajami, termed “The Impossible Revolution”.

Internal Iranian participants in the upheaval also confused the broad spectrum of anti-government support that united under Khomeini, with the revolution’s Shia religious agenda. The centre did not hold. The Marxist Khalq Party was decimated. The interim Prime Minister, Mehdi Barzagan, didn’t last long. Khomeini banished any hope of accommodation by backing the students who took control of the US Embassy.

The broad spectrum of leftist groups and moderate middle class supporters who joined up with the religious opposition during the uprising could only rue their mistake. Like the many experts caught out by the events, they were left to contemplate Khomeini’s observation that “the Islamic revolution is not about the price of Persian limes.”

It was one of the seminal events of the Twentieth Century. Ayatollah Khomeini ended up on the cover of Time in 1979. The Saudi’s and their Western allies responded by backing Saddam Hussein’s doomed invasion of the contested Iraq-Iran border zone. The mutually calamitous military intervention morphed into a wider soft war to win the hearts and minds of the world’s Muslims, it was only a matter of time before the agents of this proxy battle showed up on Kenyan shores.

Egypt was the first modern Islamic voice to influence Muslims south of the Sahara, and religion did not figure prominently in the message. Gamal Abdel Nassir used the Voice of Egypt to break the European control of the airwaves and focused on anti-imperialist themes reinforcing African aspirations for independence. Egyptian radio broadcasts of the 1960s eschewed the sectional interests of the region’s diverse Muslims and instead cultivated support for the non-aligned movement. But after Nassir’s death, economic power replaced ideology, and patronage links with Saudi Arabia took over as the primary conduit of external influence on the Islamic periphery.

The mutually calamitous military intervention morphed into a wider soft war to win the hearts and minds of the world’s Muslims, it was only a matter of time before the agents of this proxy battle showed up on Kenyan shores.

Most of their funds were transacted on the state level with a view towards cementing ties of economic cooperation while curbing Israeli influence. The rest went to support madrassa education and to train teachers. In Kenya, a new generation of scholars and Imams, many of whom were sponsored by the Saudis, were opposing superstitions like belief in the power of amulets, quasi-religious divination and magic, and other practices tolerated by the Sharifite establishment. But despite its decidedly non-Wahhabi orientation, Lamu’s Ryadha establishment also received Saudi support.

Although Saudi aid at that juncture highlighted secular principles, it was part of a longer-term strategy twinning cultivation of Wahhabi ideology with support for the Kingdom. The Iranian Revolution shook up this patrimonial status quo, and in Kenya, Iran’s new popularity complemented coastal Muslims’ antipathy for the ‘Arabs’.

During my early days on the coast I was frequently confused by the contradictions conveyed by the word “Arab.” As far as I could see, although only religious scholars and relatively recent Hadhrami immigrants actually spoke Arabic, many coastal Muslims aspired to a degree of Arab-ness through dress and language, while real and imputed connections to Arab lineages conferred prestige. Bajuni oral tradition, for example, states that these indigenous African Swahili originated in Mecca. I was naturally perplexed when a Bajuni friend remarked, “Arabs are the worst people in the world.

Other coastals who came from high status ‘Arab’ families expressed a similar attitude, claiming that the Arabs of Arabia are primitive and vain. Jokes about the Saudis in particular were common, especially among coastals returning from the Kingdom who found life in Arabia difficult and suffocating. The large number of coastals who migrated there in search of work found themselves treated as low status migrant workers. Merchants with important business connections sometimes echoed the negative attitudes prevalent among the Swahili and near universal among the Somali. “The Saudis are very nice when you meet them here,” one Mombasa tycoon told me, “but if you deal with them in Arabia they are the worst of savages.”

A convoluted mix of Arab-philia and Swahili cultural autonomy reflected the conservatism of many local scholars and Imams, who tended to steer a neutral line between the influence of internal reformers and external religious patrons. What they shared in common was their reluctance to address the political marginalization of Kenya’s Muslims.

This began to change after the 1979 revolution. Iran became a symbol of the fight back against Westernisation. Their efforts to promote Islamic moral renewal highlighted local grievances over historical injustices and other issues that were never championed by the Arabs and their political clients. For the first time since the late nineteenth century, coastal Muslims could look to a role model in Ayatollah Khomeini who combined religious integrity with political liberation. Pictures of the Ayatollah joined the pantheon of cultural heroes on the coast, sometimes sharing a wall with Bob Marley and Bollywood film stars.

A convoluted mix of Arab-philia and Swahili cultural autonomy reflected the conservatism of many local scholars and Imams, who tended to steer a neutral line between the influence of internal reformers and external religious patrons. What they shared in common was their reluctance to address the political marginalization of Kenya’s Muslims.

During the early 1980s the Iranians initiated efforts to exploit their religious capital by cultivating influence on the coast. They established an Islamic newspaper in Mombasa that discussed social problems and offered religious commentary. The Iranian Embassy sponsored delegations of local notables and sheikhs to visit Iran. Most returned speaking of Iran in glowing terms; the Saudis responded by flying many of the same individuals to Mecca and Medina. The narrative emerging out of these junkets confirm the reports of seamen who reported how they were welcomed as Muslim brothers in Iranian ports like Bandar Abbas but were treated poorly on the other side of the Persian Gulf—where Christian expatriates were received with open arms.

The Iranians’ efforts gradually brought some religious leaders under their influence, including Abdullahi Nassir, former leader of the pro-secession Coast Peoples Party, who was commissioned to deliver a series of lectures across the coast. In Lamu, the internal conflict between the Ryadha and Sofaa sharifs provided another entry point.

In 1983 Sofaa had recruited the assistance of the long-serving Mombasa politician, Sharif Nassir. The two factions typically supported different candidates in local elections, and this presented Nassir with an opportunity to leverage his support among the large Lamu community in Mombasa. The coast’s pre-eminent politician held a harambee at the Sofaa Mosque to raise funds to build a new madrassa and dormitory. Shortly afterwards the Iranians offered their assistance for the same project.

When I visited the mosque in May of 1984 I found a new over-sized version of the original Sofaa and a new educational complex erected on the plot behind it. A block of classes funded by Nassir’s harambee remained incomplete, like a testament to the old order. I was told that Mzee Mwenye, the head of the mosque and its Imam, Mwenye Omari, had embraced the Ithna Asheri school of Shi’ism. When I spoke to them, they said they were grateful to their new Iranian friends for improving the facilities but otherwise nothing significant had changed.

The mosques beautiful new calligraphy with its references to the Shia martyrs Hussein, Hassan, and the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, indicated otherwise. The conduct of prayers and most everything else was the same, although my father-in-law confirmed that the pro-Shia management had began using the Shia version of the call to prayers before the complaints of the neighborhood’s residents saw it discontinued.

East African Muslims are a multicultural community where until recently sectarian differences rarely served as a source of friction. Bohra, Ismaili, Ithna Asheri, and other Asian Shia Muslims lived among the Sunni majority in coastal towns and cities and even married Sunni wives occasionally. This explains why Sofaa’s Shia affiliation was, for most people in Lamu, more about the ongoing Ryadha-Sofaa feud than a break with Lamu’s Islamic tradition. My father-in-law and many other former regulars continued to pray at Sofaa despite the changes.

The conflict nevertheless began to ramp up over the following months as the two factions engaged in various battles for influence, beginning with the recruitment of children to attend their respective madrassa. My wife was perplexed when competing representatives of Sofaa and Ryadha had come to the house advising her to enroll our children in their respective Quran schools. They warned of the negatives that would result if they remained in their present chuo, which was not affiliated to either faction.

The Sofaa faction won a legal victory when they went to court to prevent the eviction of a popular female maalim based in a vacated Shi’a mosque that had not been used for decades. This was followed by a battle over selection of a new mosque for hosting Friday prayers. The traditional Mskiti wa Jumaa in Mkomani could no longer host the town’s growing numbers, forcing late arrivals to pray on the sidewalks and alleyways outside the mosque. When Sofaa lost their bid to be selected as the second Jumaa mosque, partisans chained the doors of the eight hundred year-old Pwani Mosque – identified with Lamu’s pre-Ba’Alawiyya ulama – that had been chosen instead. The District Commissioner, however, intervened on behalf of the anti-Sofaa clerics.

Lamu people discussed these developments in their usual jocular fashion, referring to the parties as Watu wa Shi’a and Watu wa Bidha’a, the latter being a reference to the criticism of the Maulidi who claimed it was the kind of religious innovation forbidden in the Quran. Most everyone I knew viewed the events as a family affair that had burst into the open with comic effect. No one took down their pictures of the Ayatollah, even though their take on the revolution had soured during the interim.

Prior to these developments, in 1982, a fire consumed a large area of Langoni. It started after a quarrel between a brother and sister ended with the brother setting the house on fire before dawn. The prevailing kuzi winds spread the flames across Langoni’s canopy of palm-thatched roofs, incinerating hundreds of the densely packed mud and wood houses and spreading to the coral rag stone structures lining the Msitu wa Mui, Lamu’s main street which the government had ineffectually renamed Kenyatta Avenue. When the fire moved uphill towards Ryadha, the mosque’s senior Imam, Sayyid Ali Badawy, came out of the mosque waving Habib Saleh’s flag. The wind died and the fire expired without causing further harm. I was upcountry at the time. When I returned to Kiwa Ndeo a week later, a posse of eyewitnesses confirmed this sequence of events.

International and Kenyan donors committed funds for rebuilding a new mabati (corrugated iron)-roofed Langoni, but the promised reconstruction of the homes dragged out. A year later many households were still camping in makeshift structures built on the ruined plots; after two years some victims on the list were still waiting for compensation. Most of the damage occurred on the Sofaa side of town, which ostensibly led to the mission of the mysterious freighter that arrived almost three years later.

When the fire moved uphill towards Ryadha, the mosque’s senior Imam, Sayyid Ali Badawy, came out of the mosque waving Habib Saleh’s flag. The wind died and the fire expired without causing further harm. I was upcountry at the time. When I returned to Kiwa Ndeo a week later, a posse of eyewitnesses confirmed this sequence of events.

The ship carried clothing for the victims of the Lamu fire donated by the Shi’a community in Kuwait. It spent a long time anchored off Manda Island while the Sofaa sharifs negotiated the cargo’s release. Several months later the goods were cleared, but because they were officially listed as charitable donations for the community at large, the Provincial Administration claimed that other religious actors should be allocated equal shares. As it turned out, the shipment contained many items of high quality, and distribution proceeded on a prejudicial basis. Some recipients reported that they found dollars and riyals in the pockets of donated kanzu; a fisherman showed me a Seiko watch he found in the ‘Kuwaiti’ gown he received.

For a while “umepata Kuwaiti gani?” became the first question people asked after the usual greeting. Many of the genuine victims received nothing. My brother-in-law, who lost more than most when his shop and home burned, missed out. The generosity of the foreign benefactors ended up generating more controversy than relief.

The issue was settled when, during Friday prayers a group of youth broke into the storeroom where the Kuwaiti cargo was kept. They made off with the remaining chests and footlockers. They broke them open on the waterfront, dumped out the contents, and ran off after taking the pick of the loot—which was mainly shoes. The public scrambled for what was left, all evidence of the heist vanishing before the faithful in the mosque uttered the final “Assalamu alaykum wa barakatuh” ending the prayers. The news spread fast.

“These guys committed a major sin!” one my neighbors declared.

“What’s so wrong about liberating what was supposed to be gifts for the poor?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said, clarifying that “it was bad because most of the best things went to the slackers who don’t attend Juma’a prayers.”

That was not the end of it. In the scramble for the footwear most of the pairs were separated. Several times a day someone would call hodi hodi from downstairs, walk up the stairs, and after the usual salutations produce a bag filled with unmatched shoes.

Uko na ndugu ya hiki?” invariable followed, as they placed a single Italian loafer or a fashionable woman’s stiletto on the mat.

The exercise continued for several weeks. Although I surmised many of the shoes were never united with their ‘brothers’, it helped restore a degree of normality to community after the antagonistic Shi’a versus Bidha’a interlude. Twice, women who were not on good terms with my spouse clunk-clunked up the stairs and politely made their enquiries, and I observed how the process resulted in the resumption of normal relations.

Things did not end well for the warring sheikhs. The infighting continued, and the resulting decline in status coincided with the rise of a new generation of more activist reformers with comparatively shallow educational and spiritual qualifications than their predecessors.

Assessing The Aftermath: The Kingdom Strikes Back

At the time I viewed this incident as a victory for local religious sensibilities over the forces of patronage and imported religious models. But the influence of the Ayatollahs’ revolution had opened the way for political Islam to take root in local conditions. No one anticipated the directionality of events over the next two decades.

The Iranian gambit ended up producing the opposite effect in respect to their political interests, with correspondingly negative implications for the Muslims of this region. Infatuation with the Islamic revolution declined as the Iranian government began to show its authoritarian nature, and the Saudis went on the offensive. Iran’s pan-Islamic activism in turn prompted Saudi Arabia to adopt a more aggressive role across the Islamic world. Over the course of the 1980s the Kingdom spent over $4 billion per year to spread the Wahhabi creed abroad. Private sources in the kingdom interpreted the Mujahedeen victory in Afghanistan as divine approval for their version of jihad, and extended their funding for radical Wahhabi movements across to virtually the Islamic world.

The gradual spread of Wahhabi influence provided cover for the proponents of the more extreme Salafi movement before the Embassy bombings of 1998 accelerated the convergence of the global Islamist narratives across the Horn of Africa region. This coincided with the spread of social media and internet-based transmission of Islamist ideologies, which gained ground at the expense of the transmission of formal Islamic knowledge through recognized schools of jurisprudence and the human exemplars of Sufi teachings.

We all know what came next.

The irony is that Lamu, home to the Islamic tradition that is most resistant to religious extremism in the region, has suffered disproportionately from the international cast of Al Qaida sleeper cells and Al Shabaab insurgents based across the Somalia border.

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Dr. Goldsmith is an American researcher and writer who has lived in Kenya for over 40 years.

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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How Corruption and Greed Are Destroying Africa’s Forests
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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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