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SIR VIDIA’S DARKEST SHADOW: V.S. Naipaul (1934-2018)

16 min read. Naipaul’s racism appears to have been transactional right-wingery by one who knew there was a cash-paying audience that loved that sound. By A.K. KAIZA

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SIR VIDIA’S DARKEST SHADOW: V.S. Naipaul (1934-2018)
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The first and only time I saw him, Sir Vidia looked frail. Face like a mask, pudgy fingers suspiciously handling the microphone, and eyebrows firmly chiseled in place, he looked as though he had been dragged to school on a day he would have rather stayed home in bed. That day, Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was at Makerere University, replaying the character he had played four decades earlier, as misanthrope in residence. The Naipaul event was immediately after lunch on a late March afternoon. The sun was beaming down directly over the equator and I remember the hall being hot with precipitation.

It’s a decade now since that March 2008 afternoon. Looking back, it seems that V.S. Naipaul, sitting there in Makerere University’s Main Hall, looked like a piece of wood carving. Like one of those giant Chinese wood reliefs, there was his grand magnificence. The brilliance of his finish was outstanding. And this magnificence, this brilliance, was all the more magnified because he was forever on the verge of becoming, tantalising the audience with the possibility that this rendering might come alive.

Arrested in 2D by a physique in distress, Naipaul’s dyspeptic mien marked the entire afternoon. He kept sinking into his chair, till at the end of the event we could only see his head and shoulders. Perhaps he had come expecting a hostile audience. Perhaps it was the heat and the stuffy air. Maybe he had been unwell. Maybe it was the sight of us, a room full of black people.

A farcical afternoon. Exhibit A: What was Naipaul doing in Makerere? Who comes to Makerere anymore?  Even ten years before that, when I had been a student there, we had not thought we could rate a writer, even a third-rate one. And here was a Nobel laureate, Sir Vidia, in person.

Had he come to mock us – again? But seated there in plain sight, Mr. Naipaul looked done with mockery. He had mocked Trinidad. He had mocked India. He had mocked Africa. He had found Ugandans disgusting. He had been the founding CEO and majority shareholder of the flourishing global literary corporation of jibing sneers.

That was back in the day when he looked chipper, when Makerere – the university – had been of enough value to make a killing out of mocking.  By 2008, Makerere (“Maka Ray Ray” as Naipaul reportedly pronounced it) was too far gone for anybody to be interested in mockery or disdain. By 2008, the mocking of black people for profit had been tarnished for a while, which meant that the days of Naipaul’s unqualified standing as a brilliant truth teller were behind him. “Controversial” had replaced “brilliant”, “controversial” being what you call an oaf you are too fond of to let go despite mounting evidence of his oafishness. Even in its time, “brilliant” had been used by certain British right-wing media in a way that you felt meant Naipaul gave the n****rs what they deserved.

We, the few hundreds of us, and Naipaul, who we had all come to stare at, could not have been more mismatched. Right there you could understand why the first time round in the 1960s, Mr. Naipaul had been unenthused about actually having to live in Makerere.

We, as no doubt our fathers’ generation had been then, were not very impressive specimens. Too black for our own good, we were too frayed around the racial edges. We squatted at the university, unable to fit in with the masonry and the woodwork, which had been cut for Europeans.  Unaware of the value of glass windows and flush toilets, we had run down a once famous university. We came from the bush to line up for maizemeal and boiled beans in dining halls built for three-course meals with salad dressing.

There was everything imperfect about us. We had not invented the wheel. We had never manufactured steam locomotives. We still imported, rather than made, paper, which meant that we were still attempting to beat out novels on drums. Yes, we still did that, make drums, and still beat them. Civilisation was wasted on us. And outside the hall, footpaths crisscrossed the once immaculate green lawns laid out in the 1930s and 1940s by Oxbridge visionaries. Six decades after Prof. C.S. Turner transformed the technical school founded in 1922 into a university, tribalism had long become the most important criterion for staff appointments.

Naipaul’s coming hence, four decades since he had last been, could have been for any number of reasons. Self-flagellation would not have been the least of possibilities. Material for a new book? Why? He was a brilliant writer. Could he not have invented some sordid tales about us from England, where they had been inventing marvelous things (and steam engines) for centuries?

His was a complexity of prose, rather than of ideas, so why the effort? If he was gathering material for a book, why fly so far when he was already in his 70s?

Naipaul’s coming hence, four decades since he had last been, could have been for any number of reasons. Self-flagellation would not have been the least of possibilities. Material for a new book? Why? He was a brilliant writer. Could he not have invented some sordid tales about us from England, where they had been inventing marvelous things (and steam engines) for centuries?

And us? Why did we turn up? We had never been enthralled by any of the things he had said about us. The admiration we had for his prose style outstripped our love for his books. But we had admired him because we wished that the people with power liked us as much as they liked him. We wanted his good luck (which can look like agreeing with him). Were we self-flagellating too? Could we not have simply read his comments from the safety of our houses? Or was some sado-masochist strain still alive within us?

The collision was utterly unavoidable, a true literary crash. A room filled with the undesirable, coming to an unwanted event to see an unpleasant guest. And that, more rather than less, summarises Naipaul’s oeuvre. In this iteration, hostile questions from the audience: a university lecturer asking a clever question about Tagore, and Naipaul, sensing his Indian roots intruded upon, rapidly slaps it down. Poor chap, he had spent his life teaching V.S. Naipaul books, and had stayed awake all night choosing which question would be best for the event. Next, a Ugandan of Asian descent takes too long with the mic, speaking up too fondly, getting on Nadira’s nerves and deserving what was coming his way; Lady Naipaul cuts him cold and says, next question?

If nothing else, this ping-pong moment was it. Naipaul was in town, game on. Right on cue, Lady Naipaul took charge. She had become the moderator, leaning forward all afternoon while Naipaul slunk back in his chair. The real moderator must have wondered if he had come to the wrong stage.

Naipaul murmured his responses. One thing he said still rings clear in my memory. He said “Africa came to me intuitively. It was not by searching.”

And then the hall emptied. Naipaul shuffled out. The thick entourage that had brought him in taking him out.

Like everyone else present, my journey to that afternoon had begun long ago, albeit in my case, not far away from that hall. Two decades earlier, I had gone to secondary school at Makerere College School, tucked inside the university itself, and read my first Naipaul book there. On the morning of his visit, I had packed my copies of Naipaul’s books, just like you do when you go to a speaking event and the author will be present, and afterwards you line up and confess your besotted heart, and the author, having to wear a droll, heard-it-all-before face, nonetheless signs the books with a flourish. I looked at my collection: a 1957 edition of The Mystic Masseur that I had procured from a flea market and the still fresh-smelling Enigma of Arrival reissued after the Nobel Prize of 2001. I recollected the contents of that, and of another book, Sir Vidia’s Shadow (hatchet job on Naipaul by one-time disciple, the American writer, Paul Theroux).

I then remembered how the opening of The Middle Passage had alerted me to something alarming about Naipaul that only expanded in later books and became all you saw in him. Some things not even magnificent prose could conceal.

I left the books on the top of the workbench in my workshop and headed out for Makerere. Naipaul’s wife Nadira and the university’s literature department staff staged a praetorian guard around him, an impenetrable phalanx of reverence. Asking him to sign books was impossible. Naipaul looked like he would suffer a mental breakdown if an African spoke to him. By day’s end, he looked like he needed to see a doctor. Still, he might have persevered and signed the books, and you would have had to throw them away later.

There was something terribly Naipaulish about the university that stuffy afternoon. Eighteen years before, at the age of 14, when my journey to that afternoon commenced, I had read my first Naipaul, Miguel Street, on Makerere hill at Makerere College School. The edition I read had a foreword by Laban Erapu that mentioned Naipaul’s time in Uganda. I had assumed then that Naipaul was Ugandan.

Miguel Street – that sardonically cheerful primer, of which there had not been that many copies in the school – had exchanged hands many times among us kids and we talked much about it. It had been something of a staple. You had to know Miguel Street. Elias and the posse of Bogart et al, their comical putter, the mother with as many husbands as children.  A sing-song toned collection of stories, curious names, absurd accents. Miguel Street was the book from a man who had a twinkly view of life as a thing to be had to the full. We related to these tales. We laughed.

It was in this mind-frame that five years later, in 1995, I had picked up from the university library an old copy of A House for Mr. Biswas. I half-expected to find in this book the loveable characters from Miguel Street. Certain things were similar. Mohun went off to England, to study, as Elias had dreamt.

Back in the 1990s, with Empire still within striking cultural memory, we too had dreamt of going to English universities. We were starting off from the same place as Naipaul, his clutch of characters so recognisable to us, their sense of the future our own. You understood that fever in A House for Mr. Biswas.

What drove Naipaul’s characters was what drove us. Empire had emptied its subject populations of their subjective selves and their metaphysical heritage, which had been replaced by England, Oxford, high tea, biscuit and crumpets, Piccadilly. An equal opportunity impoverisher, the British Empire had left penury and hurt in so many parts of the world that a book from any of these parts tended to speak to all parts. What a Sir Hathorn Hall committed in Aden, or Trinidad, he repeated in Uganda – serial murderers leaving tell-tale signatures of their deeds dotted along the grim, imperial trail.

Naturally, we got Trinidad.

What drove Naipaul’s characters was what drove us. Empire had emptied its subject populations of their subjective selves and their metaphysical heritage, which had been replaced by England, Oxford, high tea, biscuit and crumpets, Piccadilly. An equal opportunity impoverisher, the British Empire had left penury and hurt in so many parts of the world that a book from any of these parts tended to speak to all parts.

Empire had taught us to believe in the same things and we had come to believe in them. We dreamt of red letter boxes. Oh, but these lucky red letter boxes lived in London.

As I read deeper, I began to protest. A House for Mister Biswas got heavy. Some leaded weight pulled down the mirth of Miguel Street to darker places. Still you soldiered on, expecting some lift, a sliver of sunlight. Yes, you would always remember Mrs. Tulsi. One day I thought I found her running a bakery in Kampala. And then I thought I met Mr. Biswas himself nursing big-time literary ambitions as a sourpuss editor in a newsroom.

The darkness in the novels was piling up, getting heavier, in that way readers know when the plot has advanced to that point where you size up the remaining pages and determine them too few for the story to work its way back to a different tenor.

I was young and not entirely appraised of what novels were capable of. As young readers tend to, I simply thought I had landed on the wrong novel. Another Naipaul might bring back that Miguel Street thing. In the meantime, A House for Mr. Biswas was teaching me just how serious novels could be. They could also detail stark-real ugliness. The novelist did not have to imagine, as a pot boiler author had to; he could simply observe. Mr. Naipaul made you see how it was possible to weld art into social reality. He made half a millennium of globalising history his material.

Naipaul could be called the Anti-Jane Austen. Miss Austen had examined the same history; you must see through her writing to know it is detailing crimes of history. But she had seen only the other side: the English manors, the indolence, the unbelievable wealth that the slave trade had made possible in the English countryside. She never questioned where the wealth of the characters in her novels came from. She never asked what those young men in need of a wife did when they went overseas. Naipaul laid out the exhibits.

The exhibits – the deformed progeny of Empire’s victims, the craven, the dehumanised – were his material (a Naipaul word). He looked with the dispassionate temper of a forensics expert. These novels were not for escapist reading. It seemed to me that this was as serious as writing would ever get. Naipaul’s craft made everybody else seem to be winging it, wanting it, sleight-of-hand bathos that quickly drained you of interest. Others write so their brilliance could be praised. Naipaul? His was meditation, a haloed temple of letters. He had convened a one-man caucus and solely written a constitution of looking. To have not seen the world as Naipaul had seen it was to have been guilty of sheer unconstitutional acts. The writer was chief justice, high priest.

There had been Graham Greene; but he could be unconvincing in the role, and he tended to overdo the disgust. There had been Joseph Conrad, but he had tended towards sentimentality. Ernest Hemingway had haunted the same geography as Naipaul. Against what Naipaul had to say, the American was a mere flower girl. Hemmingway loved Kenya; he just never saw Africans (natives, savages) the entire time. Naipaul saw Africans; he was grimly aware of us.

At the age of 20, when I read A House for Mr. Biswas, I could not as yet tell what that thing was, what had made Naipaul’s voice so stately, for I was sure that it was a stately voice. I had not found any of Miguel Street in it. Rather, I emerged from A House for Mr. Biswas overawed by grandeur. The plunge to pathos happened with the steadiness of a murderer strangling his victim. An unrelenting vision of dystopia.

There had been Graham Greene; but he could be unconvincing in the role, and he tended to overdo the disgust. There had been Joseph Conrad, but he had tended towards sentimentality. Ernest Hemingway had haunted the same geography as Naipaul. Against what Naipaul had to say, the American was a mere flower girl. Hemmingway loved Kenya; he just never saw Africans (natives, savages) the entire time. Naipaul saw Africans; he was grimly aware of us.

I was in my 20s when I got the full measure of Mr. Naipaul. By then, Uganda had begun to normalise; books were available once more and we had been liberated from borrowing dog-eared texts from friends and relatives. That was when I began to tell that the early books of Naipaul were fundamentally different from his later books, books of he wrote between his late 30s and into his 50s.

The overriding themes of the early books is escape from the colony. The barbs of later years were already there, the mockery, the casual racism; except back then Naipaul thought of them as jokes. The later books are about settling in, and once that project got underway, the books became about the world, its expansiveness. But also about sharpening. Mr. Naipaul begins to grind and file and sand his prose, the sharp defining of edges, the details focused on. His prose knows what to search for, with just the right emphasis, a few strokes that hint at a larger form without overstating. He was becoming a master craftsman.

The novels carry something extra, a certain uncheerful enjoyment even. Ralph Singh, the protagonist narrator of The Mimic Men, has that quality. The Mimic Men signalled the arrival of the man who would later write The Enigma of Arrival.

And then there were the travel writings. The Middle Passage brings to life the Caribbean in ways you, as an outsider, are grateful to Mr. Naipaul for, even though you have a pile of indictments against him. Then in India, in An Area of Darkness, Naipaul goes for broke. He writes with an urgency he has hitherto not displayed, nor will again. One feels, reading the travelogue, that Mr. Naipaul writes faster than he sees. He arrives in Bombay like a tightly-packed grenade, the ejector of a lifetime’s hearing, reading, expecting, ready to go off. This book defined Naipaul like no other. In comparison, there is something processional about The Middle Passage, a processionalness you find in his Caribbean books, novels and travelogues. Explosions, of theme and prose, don’t go off. But they contain the toxins and poisons that came out of Naipaul whenever he met black people.

Naipaul went out of his way, beyond necessity, in a Trumpian gratuitousness, to mock black people even when there was no discernible literary gain. He made no effort to engage with black people. He treated Indians with less contempt, but the derision was still there. It might look like he gave some thought to Ramnath the “steno” in An Area of Darkness, or to Jivan, but no. It is fascinating how decidedly uncurious Naipaul’s brand of curiosity was.

His first book on India may have been his most connected (Naipaul was drawn to India), but it was written by a man trapped in a certain view of colonial peoples. Even from the depth of Africa, we could tell that Naipaul failed to see that India was a bigger place than his commentaries offered. Jivan’s refusal to stop sleeping on the pavements despite having a job and owning a taxi is interpreted by Naipaul as India’s foolhardy attachment to the Gita, Hinduism’s religious text. To the rest of us, Jivan was displaying an imperviousness to colonialism’s and capitalism’s crass anti-metaphysics. For me, this vignette of Jivan was too two-dimensional. After all, by the 1960s, Naipaul’s view of “conquered” peoples was already antiquated, even amongst the ranks of colonial anthropologists, who had a more nuanced view of colonised peoples.

Naipaul went out of his way, beyond necessity, in a Trumpian gratuitousness, to mock black people even when there was no discernible literary gain. He made no effort to engage with black people. He treated Indians with less contempt, but the derision was still there. It might look like he gave some thought to Ramnath the “steno” in An Area of Darkness, or to Jivan, but no. It is fascinating how decidedly uncurious Naipaul’s brand of curiosity was.

In Naipaul’s world, we Africans are “Negroes” with “physique”, “nursing racial injustice”. There is always the hint of violence towards us when we appear in his books. In The Mimic Men, we show up at the British Council, garishly dressed up, the gold-rimmed spectacles Naipaul places on us are there so that they can clash against the darkness of our skins. We expect “sex” like a tribute, a right, because we are racially wronged. But that’s in the diaspora. In Africa, in A Free State (so now we come to Uganda, although the reason Mr. Naipaul came to Uganda in the 1960s was so he could write The Mimic Men), we are deeply indolent, with our bush ways and our lazy eyes. We are a backdrop to Europeans lives, and often the backdrop to breaking European marriages.

Deep into his career, Mr. Naipaul, like Ganesh Ramsumair in The Mystique Masseur, adopted the identity of an Englishman with an Oxbridge accent that replaced his Caribbean intonation. Ganesh, the shape-shifting artist, remains an enigma in Naipaul’s oeuvre. Who is he? What does he mean? What indeed do these middling characters in Naipaul mean? They people his writing entirely, the Jimmy’s of Guerrillas, the characters upon whom instances are mounted? As if of necessity, the author is decidedly nasty to these sorts. They are de riguer (a la Naipaul), angry, pretentious, dangerous, always without fail, dark-skinned. Naipaul is afraid of them. He is also violent towards them.

Is understanding these mid-level characters key to understanding the politics of Naipaul? Why is Naipaul afraid of them? One clue, but no overall explainer, is that they have a politics. They are confronting Empire. They are the reverse of the Naipaul hero, if that is not an oxymoron. They are not enthusiastic about Oxbridge accents. They are not changing names from Ganesh Ramsumair to G. Ramsay Muir (a typical Naipaul joke of the earlier books). They are changing names from James to Haji or Ngugi.

But do we have a right to be brutal in our assessment of Mr. Naipaul? He was born at a time when Empire looked like extending and consolidating, rather than crushing. How deep did the psychology of that go? For him to have written as he did, to see the world through only one measure (Britain, Europe) – a measure in which other races failed to measure up, a measure in which being African (“bow and arrow people”), Arab (“Mr. Woggy”) was failure in itself, speaks of something other than penetrative insight. To not allow for the validity of a different world is to have been immensely delimited. But might Mr. Naipaul have escaped it? Was it necessary for him to have been the writer and the man he was in order for him to see with clarity?

It would be simplistic to say that the need, indeed, the entire undertaking of having to fight for liberation, was too much for Naipaul. His position on the most important movement of the 20th century (independence from colonial rule) might be described as ambivalent, except, if you are ambivalent about freedom, then what exactly are your values?

It could be as simple as this: Mr. Naipaul was that all-too-typical, but special, victim of Empire, the favoured colonial subject. There was divide and rule – some colonised people were considered less savage than others, people who displayed almost-white qualities. These divisions marked the entire breadth of Empire, from the aristocrats of Buganda (convinced into collaboration by effusive British praise), to the Tutsi of Rwanda (whose position the Belgians tragically imperiled by calling them semi-white Africans), to the Singhala of Sri Lanka (treated more favourably than the black Tamils). In the Caribbean, the indentured Indian labourers were taken to the Atlantic, not as slaves, as the black Africans had been. It is very important to remember that. It was this thin substratum of Empire that tended to oppose liberation movements. They actively collaborated, often virulently, as in the case of Kenya, against fellow Africans, in the fight for independence.

It would be simplistic to say that the need, indeed, the entire undertaking of having to fight for liberation, was too much for Naipaul. His position on the most important movement of the 20th century (independence from colonial rule) might be described as ambivalent, except, if you are ambivalent about freedom, then what exactly are your values?

In Empire, this modicum of elevation from the bottom was very important and so when the British said you were not that dark, not that negroid, your status protected you against slavery and forced labour. This bred its own psychosis. We may want to describe Naipaul in elevated terms, but his own unease once in India (he finds the land of his forefathers too unhygienic) speaks of this. The elevated elite in Empire knew that once they accepted the bribe of racial elevation, they would become accomplices. It was hence in their interest to perpetuate colonial rule, for once it ended, their position would become terribly exposed. The liberation fighters whom Naipaul mocks were a threat against the collaborator class.

In Empire, this modicum of elevation from the bottom was very important and so when the British said you were not that dark, not that negroid, your status protected you against slavery and forced labour. This bred its own psychosis.

When the worst came, the bargain was to choose the racialist humiliation because the patronising treatment at least guaranteed some goods. Mr. Naipaul’s English reviewers perhaps understood this – a brown man acknowledging the hegemony, affirming that the Empire was appreciated by the middle races (hence at least intelligent) as civilisation. They praised his books at a time when they were fighting a losing battle against their black subjects.

You could understand the racism of Joseph Conrad. But Naipaul? The relationship of his narrators to Europeans is telling. It is always to prove how they are better than white people. There are the clueless young white people whom his narrators are proud to dominate intellectually. The white women in his books have to be degraded; the violence and contempt with which his characters treat them appears like the acting-out of suppressed rage. White people are his main audience and he must show them how he is neither Negroid nor Indian. These are the people who either granted or denied scholarships to the Eliases of Miguel Street.

It was thus easy to be bullied into calling V.S. Naipaul a brilliant writer. But you had to have occupied his very position – to have had an ambivalent position towards the colonial project – to have called him so.  What you needed was just that much politic education to see that the 20th century was changed by the men and women despised in Mr. Naipaul’s books. To understand the minds of those who imprisoned Nelson Mandela for 27 years, you have to absorb Naipaul. His was one of the attitudes that had to be defeated for people of colour to become free.

It was important for me to go through Mr. Naipaul’s books after his death. But the realisation that I was reading him the last time in this involved manner, with the heat with which I once did when the writing was not yet done, when he was still around, was hard.

Now Naipaul’s forced racism – for it feels like that – does not really feel like that. Rather, it appears to be transactional right-wingery by a certain savvy type who knew there was a cash-paying audience that loved that sound.

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A.K. Kaiza is a Ugandan writer and journalist.

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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