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The Grapes of Wrath: A Case for Boycotting Israeli Wines from Occupied Territories

12 min read. A consumer boycott of wine produced from the economic exploitation of Palestine by Israeli occupation is a form of resistance that must be employed to fight discriminatory and unjust systems. By FARAH MANJI

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THE GRAPES OF WRATH: A Case for Boycotting Israeli Wines from Occupied Territories
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“Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians.”Nelson Mandela

Bethlehem, 2013: On Christmas Eve, I was among the crowds flocking to Bethlehem, the Palestinian city known as the birthplace of Jesus. Following festivities in the city’s famous Manger Square, I embarked to see how the Israeli occupation is still alive, away from the throngs of tourists. I headed to the separation wall, which encloses the West Bank in concrete, and is covered with vivid graffiti in protest. This segment of the wall houses some of Banksy’s famous works of art, and in 2018, a mural of Ahed Tamimi, the Palestinian teen who has become the face of resistance to the Israeli occupation, also cemented its place on it.

Nairobi, 2018: Wandering around the Bizarre Bazaar craft fair in Nairobi’s Karura Forest, one particular vendor caught my attention: Baraka Israel. Their booth was teeming with people sampling wines against a bold backdrop that read “Golan Heights Winery”. The sourcing of wines from a region under illegal occupation by Israel wasn’t new to me – my graduate work focused on the history and politics of the Middle East– but seeing these grapes being sold in my backyard was disturbing. And it didn’t stop there; Eliad olive oil was also being sold. Christmas was soon approaching and in keeping with the spirit and Biblical symbolism, wine and olives “from the holy land” were intended to entice. Barely holding my breath while pondering which olive groves this oil was sourced from, I was transported to a passage from Susan Abulhawa’s novel, Mornings in Jenin:

“As the dark sky gave way to light, the sounds of reaping that noble fruit rose from the sun-bleached hills of Palestine. The thumps of farmers’ sticks striking branches, the shuddering of the leaves, the plop of fruit falling onto the old tarps and blankets that had been lain beneath the trees. As they toiled, women sang the ballads of centuries past and small children played and were chided by their mothers when they got in the way.”

My foraging revealed that Eliad olive oil also originates from the occupied Golan Heights. This becomes more unsettling in the context of the occupied territories, where violence by Israeli settlers increasingly includes attacks on olive groves and farmers. In 2016, more than 1,500 Palestinian olive trees in the West Bank were damaged or uprooted by settlers; this was in addition to the 2.5 million trees uprooted since 1967.

Research carried out by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) uncovered a shift towards agricultural and price tag attacks by settlers that involve destroying property and vandalism, including racist graffiti. An Israeli soldier’s 2013 testimony from Hebron, recorded by the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, uncovered how these attacks are carried out:

“There was one incident where already the night prior, they said a ‘price tag’ action was going to be carried out. And the next morning, a whole grove of olive trees was discovered chopped down. To chop down 60 trees you’d need something like eight hours of work and three saws…I don’t believe that the military, with all its observation points on an olive grove located on the main road, didn’t see that taking place.”

The decision to buy unethically sourced products, which are increasingly making their way to our shelves, is a topic worth discussing as a nation. The Profiteers, the investigative documentary unearthing Kenya’s role in contributing to the conflict in South Sudan, jumpstarted conversations about how Kenya was being used to commit atrocities beyond its borders. A segment of activists and concerned citizens took to the streets, calling for greater accountability in how the Kenyan government and financial institutions facilitate the transfer of arms and resources used to wage war on civilians.

My foraging revealed that Eliad olive oil also originates from the occupied Golan Heights. This becomes more unsettling in the context of the occupied territories, where violence by Israeli settlers increasingly includes attacks on olive groves and farmers. In 2016, more than 1,500 Palestinian olive trees in the West Bank were damaged or uprooted by settlers; this was in addition to the 2.5 million trees uprooted since 1967.

And the support of many Kenyan activists, writers, and well-wishers to the Ugandan musician-turned-politician, Bobi Wine, during his detention is another example of conditions being ripe for a discussion on what it takes for Kenyans to be on the right side of history. The consciousness to do better by all peoples, regardless of nationality, is critical. We can no longer pretend that events outside our borders have no bearing on our lives or are unworthy of our attention and solidarity. Edward Said captured this well when he said, “Humanism is the only – I would go so far as saying the final— resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.

Resisting the force of politics of money from outweighing principles of humanity and justice needs to be sustained. Our government may be succumbing easily to foreign money, but we need to safeguard our interests and public assets, and ensure that our moral compass is not lost. This may be a struggle when also faced with the large military-industrial complexes of today. And you don’t have to look far to see how big money is behind war. Despite its size, Israel is believed to be the eighth biggest arms exporter in the world and the largest one per capita. Kenya is among the growing African nations using Israeli-manufactured weapons, especially aircraft, artillery, and communications equipment.

Settler colonialism is not dead

2017 marked half a century of Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian Territories, including the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as the Golan Heights, which was grabbed from Syria. Much light has been shed on the expansion of Israeli settlements— the cities, towns, and villages built on occupied land. In 2017, Israel began building the first new settlements in two decades, moving further into the heart of what is legally Palestine. At least 160 government-approved settlements and 100 unofficial outposts are home to more than half a million Israelis living in colonies beyond the recognised borders of their state. And the population of Jewish settlers in the West Bank has grown four times faster than Israel’s itself since 1995. Although settlements violate international humanitarian law (under the Fourth Geneva Convention, an occupying power cannot transfer parts of its own population into the territory it occupies), they are authorised and subsidised by the Israeli Government.

This disturbing development has historic parallels closer to home: Advertisements by the British colonial government also sought to entice settlers to move to Kenya, and thousands responded.

“Settle in Kenya, Britain’s youngest and most attractive colony. Low prices at present for fertile areas. Its valuable crops give high yields due to the high fertility of the soil, adequate rainfall, and abundant sunshine. Secure the advantage of native labour to supplement your own effort.” – From Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya by Caroline Elkins

While Israeli settlers live in fenced and gated communities, Palestinians are effectively barred from staying in them. Palestinians’ movement is further restricted by roadblocks, checkpoints, and settler-only roads. Some of these discriminatory policies, as well as the exploitation of land and resources by a settler movement, are reminiscent of Kenya’s experiences under British colonial rule. Kenyans moving around segregated cities were required to wear an identity pass around their necks, which were designed to keep Africans out of European and Asian areas. Fast forward today and Palestinians in the occupied territories must carry their ID cards for internal travel between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and into East Jerusalem and Israel. These ID cards are colour-coded depending on where Palestinians reside and they affect everything from freedom of movement to family unity.

While Israeli settlers live in fenced and gated communities, Palestinians are effectively barred from staying in them. Palestinians’ movement is further restricted by roadblocks, checkpoints, and settler-only roads. Some of these discriminatory policies, as well as the exploitation of land and resources by a settler movement, are reminiscent of Kenya’s experiences under British colonial rule.

In colonial Kenya, many Africans were moved to free up fertile land for colonial plantations. The Jordan Valley and the northern part of the Dead Sea are among the most fertile areas in the West Bank; 40 per cent of the dates produced in the occupied Jordan Valley settlements are exported to the European Union, and Israeli companies generate around $3 billion annually from the sale of Dead Sea minerals. Contrast this with the discrimination leveled against Palestinians in the provision of water and other resources: More than 70 per cent of Palestinian villages in Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli civilian and security control and home to most of the settlements, are not connected to the water network.

In Kenya, as explained by Caroline Elkins in her book Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, the British settlers’ self-interest was “based on a perception of profound racial superiority, and the foundation of the settler community was the alienation of African land. Seeking to expand their numbers and increase the value of their land, they pushed for continued immigration into the colony.” Today, Israel continues to fund Birthright tours and to encourage the immigration of Jews into the country. However, the initial refusal to allow a group of Ugandan Abayudaya Jews to visit Israel on a Birthright tour showcased that not all Jews are equal in Israel’s eyes. Examples of the racial prejudice documented against Africans by the state of Israel are ubiquitous. In 2018, Israel was forced to backtrack on a plan to expel thousands of African migrants to Rwanda and Uganda. And ironically, though rejected, Britain’s proposal in 1903 allocated land for a Jewish state in the British East African Protectorate.

Colonisation in connection to wine

The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, a non-violent movement founded in 2005 to pressure Israel to comply with international law and end its occupation and human rights abuses, was inspired by international sanctions imposed on the apartheid regime in South Africa. Given that settlements thrive on economic exploitation at the expense of the natives, the movement calls for a global boycott on settlement products. Airbnb, bowing to pressure, recently announced that it would remove properties in Israeli settlements built on occupied Palestinian territories in the West Bank.

Unsurprisingly, there is a countermovement that includes Israeli wineries “proudly” displaying the Israeli flag on their products. The BDS Wine Club, for instance, features wines from “Judea and Samaria” (what we know as the occupied West Bank) and their retail selection also includes wines from the Golan Heights Winery—the source of wines imported and sold in Kenya by Baraka Israel. The company brazenly markets this winery and its products as “Israel’s finest”. They have a noticeable presence at Nairobi’s wine-tasting events, as well as in restaurants and bars. Yummy magazine, Nairobi’s food and drink guide, featured Baraka Israel’s entry into the Kenyan market in 2017. It announced that “Israel has been a wine-making country over the last 3,000 years…and the diversity of Israel’s terroir makes it suitable to grow a variety of grapes.” Any further elaboration or exploration of the origins of their wines was conveniently or perhaps unknowingly omitted.

According to a 2015 UN General Assembly resolution, Syrians in the occupied Golan, the majority of whom are Druze, depend heavily on agricultural income but are disadvantaged by restricted water supplies and fewer economic opportunities. They also face throttled land access, building restrictions, and property destruction. The UN’s displeasure has not stopped Israel from building settlements, wineries, and even a ski resort in this territory. The region is strategically significant, agriculturally rich, and draws millions of tourists. And the Israeli wine industry, which benefits from accessible land, tax benefits, and other government incentives, is catching on. Settlers have discovered that the wine industry is a tourist magnet, bringing in additional income while normalising the settlement enterprise.

Over ten Israeli wineries, mostly founded between the late 1990s and early 2000s, are based in settlements in the occupied Syrian Golan and produce their wine from grapes grown in the occupied territory. In Kenya, the most common wines from this region are those produced by the Golan Heights Winery under the labels Yarden, Gamla, and Golan. The oldest of the wineries based in the occupied Golan, the Golan Heights Winery, was founded in 1983 in the settlement of Katzerin where it operates to this day. Owned by four kibbutzim and moshavim (agricultural and cooperative communities), it produces around 5.4 million bottles of wine annually.

Over ten Israeli wineries, mostly founded between the late 1990s and early 2000s, are based in settlements in the occupied Syrian Golan and produce their wine from grapes grown in the occupied territory. In Kenya, the most common wines from this region are those produced by the Golan Heights Winery under the labels Yarden, Gamla, and Golan.

Planting the seeds of BDS

The BDS movement made headlines again after Ilhan Omar, the recently elected U.S. Congresswoman who spent some of her childhood in a refugee camp in Kenya, voiced her support for the movement. On home soil, although BDS campaigns have yet to be established, there is a solidarity movement, Kenya na Palestine, which raises awareness of the movement and promotes educational activities during the global Israeli Apartheid Week.

They may seem innocuous, but profits from millions of dollars’ worth of settlement products exported internationally, including to Kenya, sustain the discriminatory policy of settlements, which also unlawfully appropriate natural resources. Common exports from Israeli settlements include cosmetics, fruits and vegetables, honey, olive oil, and wine. Israel’s wine industry is part and parcel of the settlement and colonisation project, and this is raising eyebrows worldwide: Yarden, Gamla, and Golan wines featured on lists of products boycotted by student groups at UK universities, for instance, and a major department store in Japan cancelled the participation of an importer specialising in wine from the Golan Heights at a wine fair last year.

Israel continues to face censure from its trading partners. For instance, while short of a boycott, European Union members can mark products coming from Israeli settlements. South Africa also adopted regulations to prevent the labelling of goods from settlements as being produced in Israel given that this misleads consumers. Thus, there is a growing sentiment that business activity in settlements entrenches discriminatory systems. If the Government of Kenya won’t ban settlement products for fear of jeopardising bilateral relationships, as citizens we should boycott these products and advocate that they be labeled correctly. Israeli wine, olive oil, and other such products being sold by Baraka Israel are highly substitutable by the Kenyan consumer even when it comes to quality. Further, these products are not integrated into value chains in the country and can be easily replaced.

Israel continues to face censure from its trading partners. For instance, while short of a boycott, European Union members can mark products coming from Israeli settlements. South Africa also adopted regulations to prevent the labelling of goods from settlements as being produced in Israel given that this misleads consumers.

Israel is joining the scramble for Africa

From a diplomatic perspective, Israeli-Kenyan ties have been growing stronger over recent years and are centred on security, religious and development cooperation. Two recent visits by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu represent a push to improve ties with Kenya, among other African countries, and to open up markets to Israeli products.

These economic efforts are also intended to improve Israel’s diplomatic position by getting African countries to stop voting against Israel in international forums. In late 2018, upon recommendations by the UN’s Special Political and Decolonization Committee, the General Assembly voted in favour of nine resolutions on Palestine and the Syrian Golan Heights, urging an end to settlement construction. Kenya voted in favour of all resolutions and it is this voting record at the UN that Israel is hoping to sway.

However, Kenya did not participate in the UN vote that rejected U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The official reason given was the closure of the Kenyan mission for the holidays, but this may have been tactical given President Donald Trump’s threat to cut aid to countries that voted against the U.S. Despite international condemnation, Kenyan diplomats were among representatives from 33 countries that nonetheless attended the opening of the U.S embassy in Jerusalem in May 2018.

The arms trade

Israel’s weapons trade in 2016 included a 70 per cent jump in sales to Africa. In 2017, its defence exports reached a record $9.2 billion, mostly comprising military hardware, such as missiles and aerial defence weapons.

Though details often remain opaque, it is no secret that security and intelligence cooperation between Israel and Kenya remains strong. This has grown in the aftermath of terror attacks, including the targeting of Israeli tourists at the Paradise Hotel in Mombasa and the attempt to down an Israeli airliner taking off from the coastal city in 2002. And in the wake of the 2013 Westgate mall attack, there were local and foreign media reports of Israeli advisers and security personnel assisting Kenyan security forces in their operation to end the siege.

Israel has been among the top 15 arms exporters for decades, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Arms sales are integral to the Israeli economy, accounting for possibly as much as 8 per cent of GDP. Israel’s occupation has also gone global: Revelations emerged that Israel was sending weapons to Myanmar in defiance of a U.S. and European arms embargo, thereby abetting the persecution and massacre of the Muslim-minority Rohingya, who have also been subjected to “apartheid-like conditions” in Rakhine, as detailed by Amnesty International.

Israel has also been selling weapons and military services to human rights violators on the continent. A 2015 UN report found that Israeli arms were fuelling the civil war in South Sudan, and a retired IDF General was recently found to have used an agricultural company as cover for the sale of weapons to the government. Kenya is not lagging behind: From 2006 onwards, Kenya transferred large quantities of arms, including T-72 tanks from Ukraine, to South Sudan. These transfers only became public when Somali pirates hijacked a ship carrying some of the tanks in 2008. In 2013, the South Sudanese government used the tanks to quell protests and destroy homes.

Israel has been among the top 15 arms exporters for decades, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Arms sales are integral to the Israeli economy, accounting for possibly as much as 8 per cent of GDP.

Netanyahu has now befriended Chadian President Idriss Deby, one of Africa’s longest- serving leaders. Security sources say the country has acquired Israeli equipment to help battle rebels in the country’s north. Kenya too uses Israeli-manufactured weapons and is a recipient of military training and counterterrorism support. Inside Kenya’s Death Squads, an investigative film by Al Jazeera, found Israel complicit in the perpetration of extrajudicial killings in Kenya by counterterrorism police through its intelligence and training of the General Service Unit to eliminate suspects. And in keeping with its approach of building walls and barriers in the name of security, Israel has pledged to help Kenya speed up the construction of a wall along its border with Somalia.

A growing tribe: The ethically-conscious consumer

The rise of a consumerism culture in Kenya may present economic opportunities but it is also fraught with challenges. There is a market in Kenya for fair-trade products, as well as ethically and sustainably sourced products, including those that don’t harm the environment, animals, and I would add to this list, human beings. Consumers are rightly demanding more transparency from businesses and companies, and the latter are slowly responding. Green Spoon, the online store in Kenya targeting consumers “who care about what they eat”, stocks products and brands supporting local producers and communities. These include unadulterated pork from farms near Mount Kenya, free-range chickens from the highlands of Tigoni, and craft-beer made from 100 per cent spring water. Their philosophy emanates from the need to no longer worry about the “source of the food, how it was made, who made it, and what went into it”. It may come as a surprise that Baraka Israel is among their featured producers, “bringing Israel’s finest quality products to Kenya”. Whether this is aligned with their philosophy is a question they and their consumers need to contend with.

Information about supply chains can be an inspiring part of a brand, but this information can also be hidden and spun. Yesterday Romans made slaves crush grapes by foot; today Baraka Israel will selectively educate you about their ancient wine-making culture, playing to the ignorance of many. As citizens we have voiced our indignation about the mercury-laden sugar we have been consuming and the poor quality tilapia imported from China. As we advocate for quality products that don’t poison us, we should likewise refuse to consume products that explicitly harm others.

Mandela’s words, alluding to the collective importance of achieving freedom for the Palestinians, serve as a reminder to fight discriminatory and unjust systems at home and abroad. And this resistance can begin in the pantry or cellar. Wine and food lovers may have revelled in the innocence of consuming these products but these products’ sinister history and continued tainting is inching upwards from the vines, blossoming, and will soon be harvesting on your tongue. Will you be ready?

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Farah Manji is a freelance writer based in Nairobi whose work focuses on social justice, development and foreign policy.

Politics

The Rebels Within: The Politics of Kieleweke and Tanga Tanga in Central Kenya

12 min read. Dissent is brewing in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Kikuyu strongholds, which has allowed Deputy President William Ruto to gain support in the region.

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The Rebels Within: The Politics of Kieleweke and Tanga Tanga in Central Kenya
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The fracas that took place in Gitui Catholic Church in Murang’a County on September 8, 2019, is a harbinger of the political battles that are going to be fought in Central Kenya and the larger Mt Kenya region by the fractious Jubilee Party antagonists.

“The battle for the soul of the Kikuyu vote is on and what we witnessed in Murang’a was a proxy war being waged by two factional camps, split by succession politics that are intent on capturing the Kikuyu vote ahead of the 2022 general elections,” said a Central Kenya politician who requested for anonymity.

The camps are led by President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy William Samoei Ruto. Fronted by their respective protégés, the factions are known by their signature monikers – Kieleweke (it shall [soon] be evident) and Tanga Tanga (the roving group). Although President Uhuru has not come out openly to associate with the @Kieleweke group, which is being fronted by one Ngunjiri Wambugu, the flip-flopping Nyeri Town MP, his deputy, no doubt, has made it known that he is the de facto Tanga Tanga leader, a label he proudly carries.

The church lent itself as a perfect scene on a Sunday afternoon for the antagonists to outdo each other as they sought to prove to their respective masters that were ready and willing to wage a proxy battle on their behalf. As it will soon be evident, Murang’a County, sandwiched between Kiambu and Nyeri counties, is the very ground where the battle for the much-coveted Kikuyu electorate will be viciously fought.

If the Kieleweke group has smelt dissent and infiltration of enemies in what they consider to be their unrivalled turf, the Tanga Tanga group, in its roving mission, has stumbled upon a restless electorate, anxious and willing to be wooed by a ready suitor. The electorate has sniffed a one-time opportunity to prove (to its sister counties) that it too can also ascend to the highest echelons of political power and it should not be taken for granted.

The Kieleweke group, this time led by nominated MP Maina Kamanda – a man who now carries the label KYM (kanda ya moko, Kikuyu for a hatchet man) – “sneaked” into Kiharu constituency, an unacceptable political tourism into another MP’s territory without his prior notice. As Uhuru’s man on the ground, he had carried Sh1 million to be donated to the church on behalf of the president. Getting whiff of Kamanda’s meandering into his constituency, Ndindi Nyoro, the greenhorn Kiharu MP, who today is described as the “Murkomen” of Central Kenya, burst into the church to let Kamanda know that he was the sheriff in town and that others could not appear in his turf without his prior knowledge and permission.

“The ensuing kerfuffle between Nyoro and the elderly Kamanda inside the church was, as unfortunate, the proxy battles being fought elsewhere in the country by the Jubilee factional wings,” said a Mt Kenya politician who has known Kamanda for well over three decades. “We were with Kamanda in the opposition politics in the 1990s and one time I and another Central Kenya MP went to bail him out in Embu town after former President Daniel arap Moi ordered that he be locked in a police cell for his utterances.”

If the Kieleweke group has smelt dissent and infiltration of enemies in what they consider to be their unrivalled turf, the Tanga Tanga group, in its roving mission, has stumbled upon a restless electorate, anxious and willing to be wooed by a ready suitor.

The politician told me he has been calling Kamanda’s mobile phone number to no avail. “He has refused to pick my call…just as well…because I wanted to tell him that the September 8 ugly scene was beneath him. As a senior politician, he should have known better than to engage in such like shenanigans.”

But the Mt Kenya politician reserved the harshest barbs for both the Catholic Church’s leadership and the parish priest, Fr John Kibuuru. “That priest is a vagabond. For him to have allowed the politicians to desecrate the offertory was a cardinal sin to, especially us Catholics. The offertory is where we go to offer our supplications, it is a sacrosanct place – how dare he let vagabonds like him defile the holy sanctuary?”

The politician, a staunch Catholic known for his morning mass and an unfailing Sunday service attendance wherever he is, reminded me: “I have never conducted my politics inside the precincts of the church for all the 30-something years I have been in politics. The Church can bare me out…you can bare me out. If and when I want to meet the electorate, who form part of the congregation, I ask it we meet outside the church, after the priest is done with the mass. I’ve always respected the sanctity of the church.”

It was useless for Bishop John (Maria) Wainaina, of Murang’a diocese who also oversees the Kirinyaga diocese to issue a belated decree the day after, ordering politicians to keep off the church’s sanctum, said the politician. “The pulpit should not, at all times, be a place for politicians to address the electorate – the politicians have their forums to do that – and the church’s rostrum is not one of them.” The politician accused Fr Kibuuru of being partisan on the current succession politics and for letting himself be dined and wined by politicians.

“For my church, I’m sorry to say it has lost its direction: the clergy is no longer the light of the laity. For that ugly scene to have taken place in a Catholic church shows you just how lowly the Catholic church leadership in Kenya has sunk. Priests nowadays do what they feel like doing. The bishops cannot reign in on the priests because they themselves are no better.”

He added that the Catholic Church has been infiltrated by ethnic baronial politics, which has chosen to serve the interests of political power brokers. The politician said the church in general, in Kenya has ceded ground to the politician because of greed for money and power.

Gitui Catholic Church is on your way to Kangema and some of the congregants told me that Kamanda’s coming to Kiharu without notifying Nyoro was disrespectful and uncalled for. “Kamanda should know we have an MP whom we elected ourselves, he shouldn’t stomp here like it’s his area, Nyoro is young, but he is ours.” The Kiharu residents let it be known to me that “after all, Kamanda is not from here, he is from Nyandarua, if he wants to be elected, there is Nyandarua for him if Nairobi has become too hot for him to handle.”

The 36-year-old excitable Ndindi Nyoro has been riding on the crest of a popular wave since that hullabaloo with Kamanda. His electorate right now think of him as a local hero for standing up to Kamanda and for expressing his political stand – which at the moment gels with the electorate: dissatisfaction with President Uhuru’s disastrous politics.

Ndindi’s Kiambugi Mixed Secondary schoolmates remember him as a feisty young man who dreamt of one day being an important (wealthy) man. A relative of Ngenye Kariuki, Ngenye refers to Nyoro as his grandson. He campaigned for Ngenye in 1997 when he run for the same Kiharu seat, as a student. “He was very active, organising for Ngenye’s supporters to be ferried in trucks to his rallies and exclusive meetings,” said one of his schoolmates. Ngenye won the seat on a Safina ticket and Ndindi four years later transitioned to Kenyatta University. Kiambugi Mixed Secondary School later on was transformed into a boys’ only high school.

Between 2013 and 2017, Ndindi Nyoro, served as the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) manager for Kiharu under Irungu Kangata. When Kangata decided to go for the senator seat, there was understandably a mutual agreement between them that Nyoro should “take over” from Kangata. Today, Nyoro has publicly identified his politics with those of Deputy President William Ruto, claiming that he is the best suited to “take over” from President Uhuru who is serving his last second term. His Kiharu constituents seem to largely agree with him…for now.

The Matiba factor

Kiharu constituency is famous for being at one time represented by the irrepressible Kenneth Stanley Njindo Matiba, the rambunctious politician who was detained by President Moi in 1990 and never recovered from his stroke till his death in April 2018. Matiba still evokes nostalgic emotions from Murang’a residents, who still view him as the president they never had. It is a “grudge” they carry against their cousins from both Kiambu and Nyeri counties, albeit surreptitiously.

The general election of November, 1979 called by a new President Moi, who had taken over from Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, who had died on August 22, 1978, saw an energetic, bold and young Matiba enter the race for Kiharu, then known as Mbiri, armed to the teeth with the latest statistical data on the constituency. Fresh from being the managing director of East African Breweries Limited (EABL), Matiba waged a political battle pitted against the “mighty” Gikonyo Kiano, which Kiano, until his death in April 2003, was never to recover from.

In an era when statistics as an effective campaign tool was unheard off, Matiba came to Mbiri with data that laid bare the geographical, socio-political and economic facts of the constituency: gender composition, household incomes, number of graduates, population density, the area’s topography, voting patterns, I mean…name it. With these facts, Matiba, with military precision, combed the length and breadth of Mbiri, and floored Gikonyo, the first post-independence Minister of Trade and Commerce, in a battle royal that is the stuff of political legends.

When the son of Njindo entered the presidential race in 1992, it was not the same Matiba who, more than a decade before, had entered constituency elective politics as a corporatist, dare-devil, intelligent and sharp man. Although the presidential race was won by the incumbent Moi, Murang’a people to date believe that Matiba won that election, in which he ran alongside Ford Kenya’s Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and the Democratic Party’s Mwai Kibaki.

However, it was Kibaki’s entering the presidential race in 1992 that still rankles the Murang’a folks: Had he not run, the Kikuyu vote would not have been split and, therefore, Matiba would easily have romped home, many of them believe. It is something they will not say loudly, but it is still a chip on their shoulder after all these years.

Kiharu constituency is famous for being at one time represented by the irrepressible Kenneth Stanley Njindo Matiba, the rambunctious politician who was detained by President Moi in 1990 and never recovered from his stroke till his death in April 2018. Matiba still evokes nostalgic emotions from Murang’a residents, who still view him as the president they never had.

“The people of Murang’a County break no bones when they insist they have supported both Kiambu and Nyeri people to ascend to the presidency. But those same people have yet to reciprocate the gesture,” said a former Nairobi city councillor from Dagoretti. “This feeling of ‘abandonment and betrayal’ by their cousins, was aggravated in 2017, when the Murang’a moguls ceded control of Nairobi to a ‘lay about and nonentity’ through Uhuru’s carelessness and cowardly politics.”

The former councillor, who keeps tabs with the Rwathia Group, the influential and richest group of Kikuyu men who since independence have controlled the business and politics of Nairobi city, said the moguls seethe with anger against President Uhuru for the loss of the Nairobi County governor’s seat to Mike Mbuvi Sonko in 2017. “That is all we had asked from Uhuru, to allow us to have Nairobi, but even that he could not deliver,” confided the moguls to my councillor friend.

“The Murang’a people have smelt an opportunity and they are ready to seize it,” said the former councillor. “Uhuru is not going to be a factor insofar as 2022 succession politics are concerned: no Kikuyu voter, much less the political elite, is going to listen to him – he has done his call of duty and as it is, they are not amused with his performance,” the former councillor said.

The Raila factor

The anger against President Uhuru among the Kikuyu electorate makes Ruto seem like the only viable alternative. “It is going to take a near miracle for President Uhuru to persuade the Kikuyus to listen to him. The Kikuyu rebellion against the Kenyatta Family this time is real.”

The Kikuyus are plotting to vote for William Ruto as a protest vote and teach President Uhuru a lesson, said one of the richest magnates in Murang’a. “Raila will never rule this country. If Uhuru thinks we will be swayed by his belated shaking of hands with that ‘mad man’, he has another thing coming. Uhuru has overseen the systematic destruction of the Kikuyu economy – he was supposed to protect it, instead, what has he done? He has presided over its deliberate collapse. Is that not why he is sending Kamanda to us? Because he cannot dare venture into Central Kenya or anywhere near Mt Kenya region?”

The Murangá magnate said, “The Kikuyu people will frustrate Raila’s presidential efforts until he grows so old that he will not have the stamina to run. We are waiting for that Uhuru to come and tell us about the handshake. We will tell him our minds.” If by supporting Ruto, the Murangá people can attempt a stab at the presidency so be it, said the tycoon. He said that President Uhuru spent half of his presidential campaigns demonising Raila, so much so that, to now point the Kikuyu people to his direction is to really mock them. “Has Uhuru come back to the Kikuyu people to undo the damage?” he asked.

The many forays by Deputy President Ruto’s team into the heartland of the Kikuyu domain is because he has established that the people are divided and are not speaking in one voice, said a one-time senior civil servant from the Mt Kenya region. “He knows the President’s core constituency is bitter with him and because he [Uhuru] is unsure of their retribution against him, he has dilly-dallied going home. So the DP has taken advantage of this lacuna to make inroads into the region and is consistently preaching a message that entrenches their hatred for Raila Odinga.”

A poll survey conducted recently by a professional research group showed that if presidential elections were to be held today, William Ruto would win by 45 per cent countrywide, and in the Mt Kenya region, he would garner a very strong support. The poll’s sample size, significantly larger than the usual 3000 people, was picked across the 47 counties. The somewhat surprising poll results dissuaded the firm from publishing its findings and making them public. Ruto is considered an incumbent, and therefore a frontrunner, and the only person who has explicitly said he would be gunning for the presidency come 2022. His is not only a brand name, but he has name recognition across the country.

To tame the deputy’s presidential ambitions and to curtail his perceived inroads into Central Kenya and the larger Mt Kenya region, his political nemeses in the Jubilee Party have been making his interlocutors lives’ in the region, difficult.

The Kikuyus are plotting to vote for William Ruto as a protest vote and teach President Uhuru a lesson, said one of the richest magnates in Murang’a. “Raila will never rule this country. If Uhuru thinks we will be swayed by his belated shaking of hands with that ‘mad man’, he has another thing coming…”

“The hauling of the Kiambu governor to court and making him spend some days in police cells over corruption charges is part of the handshake’s efforts to throttle the DP’s penetration of the area,” said the former senior civil servant. “When he was thrown into custody at the Industrial Police Station cells, Ferdinand Waititu (Kiambu Governor) was visited at night by a Jubilee Party mandarin allied to President Uhuru’s wing who mocked him by telling him ‘to now call the DP’ to bail him out.” The mandarin allegedly warned Waititu that he was going to pay for his cavorting with the Deputy President.

Governor Waititu apparently is not the first Central Kenya politician to be “punished” by the “handshake team” for not toeing the line: “The first to be tamed was the deleterious Gatundu South MP Moses Kuria, who immediately after the swearing-in of President Uhuru Kenyatta for his second term in November 2017, was seen as Ruto’s point man in Central Kenya. He was slapped with an unpaid tax accumulated over the years that effectively cooled his heels,” said the former senior civil servant.

Yet, according to the senior civil servant, it was Governor Ann Mumbi Waiganjo, formerly known as Ann Waiguru, who had to be quickly nipped in the bud because she was thought to be running ahead of herself. Immediately after being confirmed as the Governor of Kirinyaga, after a protracted court battle filed by her opponent, former Gichugu MP and 2013 presidential contender, Martha Wangari Karua, it is alleged that Governor Ann Mumbi Waiganjo went around telling and whispering to anybody who cared to listen that she was primed to be Deputy President William Ruto’s running mate come 2022.

“The Kirinyaga governor was therefore seen as a possible and viable teammate of Ruto in his search for a deputy from the all-important Mt Kenya region,” said the former civil servant. “To stop forthwith that talk that apparently was interpreted as rallying the larger Mt Kenya region in the direction of the Deputy President’s team 2022, the governor was aptly reminded of the National Youth Service (NYS) mega scandal that took place in 2016 when Ann Waiguru was the Cabinet Secretary for Devolution.”

The sudden change of tune by the Kirinyaga governor is not out of step, said my source: “That today she is singing the ‘handshake tune’ is not as a result of a Damascus moment, the realisation that after all, it isn’t a good idea to be a deputy president of Kenya. It is the flexing of power of the opposing sides within the Jubilee Party at play.”

Since her change of tune regarding local and national politics, the governor has had to face the wrath of some of her constituents: Last month, when she went to open a market in Kagumo town, she was jeered by a mob that she claimed was paid to do so. Paid to do so, because it told her off over her support of “the handshake” and the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).

Kagumo town in Kirinyaga Central constituency is the hotbed of Kirinyaga County politics. And this is not the first time the governor was being chased away from Kagumo: When she was campaigning for the governor’s seat, she was also one time ferreted out of the town. It took the intervention of Purity Wangui Ngirici, then campaigning for the Women Representative seat, to help her navigate around Kirinyaga County.

“It is Ngirici who held Ann’s hand in a manner of speaking and showed her the ropes in Kirinyaga,” said one of Karua’s chief campaigners. “Waiguru didn’t know the nooks and crannies of the county – it was Ngirici who showed her around. Remember Ngirici was always a William Ruto person: the helicopter she was campaigning in – which was emblazoned with her name Wangui – was lent to her by Ruto.” Purity Wangui Ngirici hails from one of the two most powerful families in Mwea: Mbari ya Douglas, (the clan of Douglas) and Mbari ya Mkombozi (the clan of the saviour). She is married to Ngirici, who is the son of the late spy master James Kanyotu.

Ngirici, who is in her late 40s, is the Women’s Rep, but by and large she controls the politics of Kirinyaga: three-quarters of all the elected MCAs owe allegiance to her. To checkmate her, the governor equally nominated her loyalist MCAs to counterbalance Ngirici’s force. Ngirici has trashed the handshake and has been telling the Kirinyaga electorate that the BBI’s motive is to unload Raila onto them by creating additional executive positions.

In Ngirici, Ruto has a powerful ally in the county. It is, therefore, not improbable to imagine where Ngirici’s politics are headed: in 2022 Ann Mumbi Waiganjo will have a worthy opponent for the governor’s seat. And if all factors remain the same, it is also not too difficult to imagine whose drumbeats she will be beating: William Ruto’s.

On the peripheries of Mt Kenya region, other Ruto allies include the Kikuyu MP Kimani Ichungwá, Kandara MP Alice Wahome, Kiharu MP Ndindi Nyoro and Bahati MP Kimani Ngunjiri. “These are relatively young MPs (of course apart from Kimani) in age and politics. They are pragmatic enough to know where their political bread is buttered; not with Uhuru, but with Ruto…so it’s nothing personal,” said a Jubilee Party politician from Mt Kenya.

In an area where 70 per cent of the incumbent MPs are thrown out every five years, these MPs are closely reading the signs on the wall – and the signs on the wall currently in the Mt Kenya region are that William Ruto is the man to beat.

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Will the New Competency-Based Curriculum Lead to Declining Educational Standards in Kenya?

8 min read. The newly rolled-out education system will not live up to the aim of transforming education in Kenya. Collective efforts are, therefore, needed to save Kenya’s education system from vested business interests and international agencies with hidden agendas.

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Will the New Competency-Based Curriculum Lead to Declining Educational Standards in Kenya?
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Research findings recently released by the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) show that Kenyan schools are woefully unprepared to implement the Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC) that is set to replace the so-called 8-4-4 system. The report comes at a time when the country is grappling with issues of curriculum review and the reform process, teacher training and recruitment, the formulation and implementation of a national education policy and the implementation of CBC. The research, conducted by KNUT, looked into issues of teacher preparedness, the availability and adequacy of teaching materials, the level of engagement between teachers and parents, as well as the challenges faced by head teachers and teaching staff in implementing CBC.

KNUT concludes that the implementation of CBC has been hurriedly undertaken while the majority of teachers have not been sufficiently trained in CBC content and teaching methods. It adds that most pre-primary teachers, as well as those for grades one to three have not received any training whatsoever while those that did attend training workshops were inadequately trained by trainers and facilitators who were themselves incompetent in the delivery of the CBC approach.

The research also found that the training sessions were poorly conducted and that their effectiveness fell well below expectations, hindering the ability of teachers to design, assess, and evaluate the delivery of lessons and learners’ outcomes. The report also notes that the resources and infrastructure required for learning, assessment and capacity-building in the CBC approach—which are completely different from those in use in the current system—are non-existent or inadequate at best. Parents and other stakeholders have not been involved in the reform process nor have public awareness campaigns been conducted following the roll-out of CBC.

The CBC system and design

Formal education was introduced in Kenya during the British colonial era and between 1964 and 1985 the education cycle comprised seven years of primary school, four years of secondary school, two years of high school, and three years of university education. The 8-4-4 system of education—eight years of primary school, four years of secondary school and four years of university education—was introduced in January 1985 to address concerns that the basic education previously provided lacked the necessary content to promote widespread sustainable self-employment.

The Kenyan primary school curriculum is approved for all public schools and most private schools—with the exception of international schools, which usually offer the British or American curriculum. The subjects studied at the primary level are English, Kiswahili, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, Religious Education, Creative Arts, Physical Education and Life Skills. Pupils take a national examination at the end of the primary cycle with the results of the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) determining placement in secondary school.

In a major departure from the 8-4-4 system, the proposed CBC system was launched in 2017 and is designed to comprise two years of pre-primary education, six years of primary education, three years of junior secondary education, three years of senior secondary education and three years of university.

The Kenyan CBC is designed with the objective that at the end of each learning cycle every learner will be competent in the following seven core competency areas: communication and collaboration; critical thinking and problem-solving; imagination and creativity; citizenship; learning to learn; self-efficacy; and digital literacy.

CBC places emphasis on competence development rather than on the acquisition of content knowledge. This effectively means that the teaching and learning process has to change its orientation from rote memorisation of content to the acquisition of skills and competencies useful for solving real-life problems. Teaching methods include role-play, problem-solving, projects, case studies, and study visits, among other learner-centred strategies, and the teacher is expected to switch from the role of an expert to that of a facilitator who guides the learning process. Learners are expected to take responsibility for their own learning through direct exploration and experience while their teachers are expected to design effective learning activities geared towards the development of specific competencies.

Moreover, the revised curriculum requires teachers to frequently assess their students using assessment methods, such as portfolios, classroom or field observation, projects, oral presentations, self-assessments, interviews and peer assessments. Teachers are also required to change from a norm-referenced to a criterion-referenced judgment of learners’ capabilities or competencies to determine their progress. Finally, teachers are supposed to provide continuous, timely and constructive feedback to inform their students about the strengths and weaknesses of their performance since instruction and learning are reviewed and modified based on the feedback.

CBC places emphasis on competence development rather than on the acquisition of content knowledge. This effectively means that the teaching and learning process has to change its orientation from rote memorisation of content to the acquisition of skills and competencies useful for solving real-life problems.

It is clear, therefore, that the introduction of CBC in Kenyan schools calls for a comprehensive change in the instructional approach in terms of teaching, learning and assessment, and this requires changes in teacher training programmes in order to equip teachers (both pre-service and in-service) with the competencies that will enable them to effectively handle the challenges associated with CBC implementation in schools.

However, Kenya initiated the implementation of the Competency-Based Curriculum in 2017 in the absence of any research-based evidence on the effectiveness of the new system. Despite the challenges and shortcomings identified by the internal and external evaluations of the pilot study on CBC implementation, the government went ahead with the national roll-out of CBC in January 2019.

Prior to its adoption and roll-out, no comprehensive survey of international best practices was conducted and nor was there any research to support the argument that the CBC framework is more effective than the current learning outcomes-based curriculum framework. The needs assessment was not properly conducted. The summative evaluation, which was conducted in 2009, cannot be the basis for reforming the curriculum in 2018. The entire process was dominated by foreign consultants with no experience in curriculum reform in Kenya. The involvement of teachers, university lecturers, and prominent local experts was minimal.

Moreover, an illegality was committed at the time of rolling out CBC for pre-primary and Standards One to Three as there was no Sessional Paper to guide the process and, furthermore, no review of the existing education system had been undertaken by an Education Commission prior to the roll-out. Pilot testing of the curriculum was hurriedly done over a few short months and without appropriate syllabus or pupils’ books and teachers’ guides.

It must also be pointed out that the introduction of technical and vocational courses in the school curriculum is a serious mistake as the purpose of basic education is not to train students but to make them trainable. Empirical studies show that competency-based models are mainly applicable to vocational education and training due to the emphasis placed on standards of competence in occupational sectors. Competence is the possession and demonstration of knowledge, understanding, skills, attitudes and behaviour required to perform a given task to a described standard. The concept is therefore more useful in vocational education since the emphasis is on the ability of the student to perform a set of related tasks with a high degree of skills, and a particular competency can be broken down into its component parts through task analysis.

Prior to its adoption and roll-out, no comprehensive survey of international best practices was conducted and nor was there any research to support the argument that the CBC framework is more effective than the current learning outcomes-based curriculum framework.

The adoption of CBC in Kenya—as in some other African countries, such as Botswana, Senegal and South Africa—may be explained in part by the current tendency of some international agencies to favour such pedagogies. In most of the countries concerned, however, attempts to institutionalise child-centred pedagogy in schools and teacher-training institutions have been inconclusive and, indeed, no country in the world has successfully implemented CBC. It is therefore a disturbing development that the member countries of the East African Community have—according to Sessional Paper No. 14 of 2012—adopted a common policy of harmonising education systems and training curricula that will shift focus from the standard curriculum design to the CBC and assessment approach.

Tanzania introduced CBC in secondary schools in 2005 and in primary education in 2006. Back in 2001 the Ministry of Education and Culture had asked for education to be treated as a strategic agent in the creation of a well-educated nation. The ministry anticipated developing an education system that would enable Tanzanians to be sufficiently equipped with the knowledge needed to competently and competitively solve the development challenges facing the nation.

However, a 2012 study on the implementation of the competency-based teaching in schools in Tanzania established that CBC had not been well implemented and more efforts needed to be devoted to the development of tutors’ and principals’ understanding of the CBC approach. Other studies conducted to assess CBC implementation in Tanzania have confirmed that there is very minimal use of the CBC teaching approach in schools and that more than 80 per cent of the teachers lack a proper understanding of the approach and continue to use traditional knowledge-based teaching and learning methods, with assessment methods remaining the same as those used in assessing knowledge-based teaching and learning, while the teaching approach continues to be teacher-centred.

Hidden agendas

The role of education in the development process cannot be over-emphasised. There is substantial empirical evidence of the crucial role of education in poverty reduction, human development, job prospects for individuals and the broader social-economic development of nations. In other words, education plays a key role in the transformation of societies. Unfortunately, the impact of education in sub-Saharan African countries has been minimised because African countries have often been put under pressure to adopt unrealistic reforms by a small number of nameless and faceless experts working in international organisations, such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank, who have a hidden agenda and normally exert their influence indirectly from behind the scenes.

Curriculum reform is necessary if we want to improve the quality of education in Kenya. However, curriculum reform should be based on the needs of learners and society and on best international practices and standards. It is an orderly, planned sequence in which curriculum specialists, teachers, university lecturers who have undertaken advanced academic studies in curriculum development and other local education experts—including the Ministry of Education professional staff who have extensive experience in curriculum development, implementation and evaluation—assist in conducting a needs assessment identifying a problem, finding a solution, conceptualising the required curriculum, planning and designing a reformed curriculum, pilot-testing the revised curriculum on a small scale, then implementing it nationally.

Unfortunately, the views of the Ministry of Education and the team of local consultants and foreign experts have tended to dominate decisions about the ongoing curriculum reform process. The prominent role of UNICEF—and not UNESCO—in the reform process raises fundamental questions about the agenda of the donor.

Curriculum reform is an improvement or change of the curriculum for the better. It involves the development and utilisation of the curriculum in new and unique ways that will enhance the attainment of higher levels of achievement for students. Curriculum reform is mainly concerned with changes in the content and organisation of what is taught. Many people and organisations, including teachers’ unions, professional bodies, religious organisations, students, teachers, curriculum specialists, quality assurance and standards officers, educational administrators and community leaders concerned with matters of education often seek to bring reforms to the school curriculum.

Curriculum reform is necessary if we want to improve the quality of education in Kenya. However, curriculum reform should be based on the needs of learners and society and on best international practices and standards.

In most African countries—and Kenya is no exception—curriculum developers are the gatekeepers who critically assess the different proposals for curriculum reform and make recommendations for the changes to be made to subject panels and academic boards. The authority for the decision to change the curriculum rests with the Academic Boards of Curriculum Development. Many educators, including those from Kenya, are now rejecting the externally-driven approach to education reform. They propose instead an interactive and participatory approach which involves—and begins with—an evaluation by classroom teachers and district education personnel. This ensures that the views of the people closest to the process of teaching and learning are taken into account.

Based on the findings of the research conducted by KNUT, it is fair to conclude that the implementation of CBC has not lived up to the aim of transforming education in Kenya. Collective efforts are, therefore, needed to save Kenya’s education system not only from vested business interests and local cartels, but also from international agencies and non-governmental organisations with hidden agendas. The Ministry of Education should commission highly educated and experienced curriculum developers and evaluators to produce a high-quality curriculum which is relevant to the Kenyan child and to the needs of the country.

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Is Democracy Dead or Has It Simply Been Hijacked?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Populist idiocy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A civic ritual

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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