If Thomas Joseph (TJ) Mboya was the young man that Kenya wanted to forget, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga is the grand old man who Kenya can never forget. Jaramogi and Tom Mboya were both were nationalists of great distinction from the Luo community who as seasoned politicians posed a threat to the founding president Jomo Kenyatta’s autocratic national designs. Tom Mboya died young, by an assassin’s bullet, on July 5, 1969. Jaramogi died an old man, a mzee, at the age of 82 years on January 20, 1994, after having been tormented by both Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi regimes effectively from 1969 after his fall out with Kenyatta and through the 80s and 90s during iron-fisted Moi’s reign. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga death anniversary on January 20th, twenty-five years since his passing, was marked quietly in a manner that diminishes his immense contribution to the Kenyan national project.
If Thomas Joseph (TJ) Mboya was the young man that Kenya wanted to forget, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga is the grand old man who Kenya can never forget
No history book on Kenya would be complete without his mention. Jaramogi was the vice president of the nationalist party Kanu when Kenya African Union (Kau) merged with Kenya Independent Movement to form Kanu on May 14, 1960. He was later to become the country’s first Vice President, after Kanu won the 1963 general elections under Kenyatta. When his friend Pio Gama Pinto was killed in 1965, Jaramogi knew he was a targeted man because of his ideological position. Pinto, then was a nominated MP and an avowed communist who was Jaramogi’s confidante. Jaramogi would form the socialist party, Kenya People’s Union in 1966, banned in 1969 leading to his detention under house arrest by his former ally Jomo Kenyatta.
I first set my eyes on Jaramogi on November 16, 1991. Bethuel Oduo my collaborator on this writing project and my senior, had met Jaramogi much earlier, but this day in November, remains fresh in our memories. It was the first licensed political rally organized by the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (Ford), the fledging opposition movement led by Jaramogi as the interim chair. Oduo and I attended the meeting held at the symbolic Kamukunji Grounds, a historic public space that hosted a number of significant nationalistic political rallies during Kenya’s pre-independent agitation struggles for freedom in the late 50s and early 60s.
This was my first time I was attending a political rally as an impressionable young man in my twenties. I had never seen such a mass of people in such diversity, gathered in one place for a common cause. The atmosphere was electrifying. I could feel the palpitations, as throngs of humanity waited anxiously for the address by the opposition leaders. 1991 was the year that Kenya restored political pluralism after being a de facto one party state since 1969. The old Kenya Lancaster negotiated constitution, previously criminalized a meeting of more than 10 people through Public Order Act 56, which was repealed, just like Section 2A, that proclaimed Kenya to be one party state.
I gathered that many people, young and old, had come specifically to see the legend Jaramogi, a man who had borne so much in the tumultuous and vicious climate of politics in Kenya. “I last saw and heard Jaramogi in 1969,” a man next to me said, “I wonder what he looks like today, but he’s going to talk to us today…what a great feeling.”
A group of emerging opposition politicians, christened the “Young Turks”, among them James Orengo, Paul Muite, Prof Anyang Nyong’o, Raila Odinga, Gitobu Imanyara banded together with veteran politicians Martin Shikuku, Masinde Muliro among others in what was threatening to be an unprecedented opposition coalition set to end Moi’s dictatorial 14 year rule. The force behind this movement was the enigmatic Oginga Odinga and the man of the moment.
Jaramogi was about to address his first meeting after 22 years of state imposed political isolation. Jaramogi spoke in a shrill voice. The microphone held by Prof Ouma Muga, one of the masters of ceremony for the event. The other master of ceremony was Kimani Wanyoike. Jaramogi seemed to voice my thoughts.
“I have never seen so many people gather in my lifetime,” said Jaramogi “This is the first time most of you are attending a political meeting out of your choice.” It felt like he was talking directly to me and he had my full attention as he launched into a 45 minute address.
“Why is Kenneth Matiba not with us today? Why is George Anyona, Edward Oyugi, (Augustine) Njeru Kathangu, Rumba Kinuthia, Koigi wa Wamwere, Ngotho Kariuki and many other freedom fighters not with us?”
“Why are our sons and daughters still in exile? Why are brilliant people who can teach in our universities wasting their lives overseas? Why was Robert Ouko murdered? Was he murdered for speaking about corruption? Was he murdered for speaking his mind in the cabinet? Why was (Alexander) Muge murdered? Was it because he exercised his freedom to preach the word of God to condemn sin and corruption?” He had captured the mood in the country in distress and the masses of people were beyond ecstatic.
Of the six ford movement founder members, Jaramogi Oginga, Philip Gachoka, Ahmed Bahmariz, Martin Shikuku, Masinde Muliro and George Nthenge, only Nthenge is alive today. George Nthenge who became Kamukunji constituency MP in the first multiparty elections in 1992 recalls the moment. “Jaramogi was an old man and he knew that if he brought nine other elders together, the government would not risk international condemnation by arresting us. This is how Masinde Muliro and Martin Shikuku were sent to recruit me. Ahmed Bahmariz was also recruited, but we could not get three other elders to bring the total to nine.” Today Nthenge still runs his curio shop at the City Market, a shop he has maintained for well over four decades.
Jaramogi was not only the doyen of opposition politics in Kenya. He was a noted Pan Africanist and his credentials remain unquestionable. In January 1992 during an interview with the Nairobi Law Monthly magazine, Jaramogi spoke of his relationships with people like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Nelson Mandela, who had just been released from prison in 1990. “Kwame lived before his time. He had seen Africa through and through. And he lived as if Africa was one country. He was very diligent, hardworking and a person that one could admire. He was instrumental in dedicating me to struggle for Kenya. He told me: ‘you fight in your own country for Kenyatta, Kenyatta is in London, but he is a nationalist of the first order’”.
Although exiled in Guinea in 1966, Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s former President was very close to Jaramogi to the extent that he still found time to pen a foreword to his book Not Yet Uhuru, Kenya best political treatise to date.
On Nyerere, Jaramogi had this to say: “I know Nyerere as a very intelligent person and great nationalist. He refused a big salary and lived on the minimum that he could…Nyerere actually considered public opinion important.”Jaramogi himself would later talk of how he could not justify earning a salary, (making reference his role as VP in the independence cabinet) while his duties had been distributed to other cabinet ministers, in a bid to punish and tame him. So he quit government.
Jaramogi considered many global leaders and Pan Africanists as close friends. The list included Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Milton Obote, President of Uganda, Ahmed Sekou Toure of Guinea, Ahmed Ben Bella former Prime Minister of Algeria and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia.
In the Nairobi Law monthly interview, Jaramogi also spoke on the icy relationship that had existed between him and Tom Mboya before his violent death. “Mboya was for the West and had a liking for America. On my part, I had been to the Soviet Union, China and Japan and generally the East to find out what went on there. People took this to mean I was the ‘good boy’ of the East and Mboya of the West.” The politics of the Cold War, the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union had ramifications on Kenyan politics.
Jaramogi was detained at Hola detention camp, a remote town on river Tana, Tana River county between 1970-1972. Former chief justice Willy Mutunga who spent a stint in Hola after the abortive (August 1st) 82 coup, remembers occupying the same cell as Jaramogi. “Jaramogi was a selfless nationalist, who was never interested in self-aggrandizement and Pan Africanist, who truly loved his country and continent,” observed the former chief justice.
After his release from detention in Hola, Jaramogi remained under house arrest in Kisumu until Kenyatta’s death in 1978. President Moi on assuming the power attempted to rehabilitate Jaramogi by appointing him the chairman of the Cotton Lint and Seed Marketing Board in 1979. It was a way of telling him to revive the cotton farming, which had collapsed after his disagreement with Kenyatta. Jaramogi said as much in the Nairobi Law Monthly interview: “The cotton industry had really gone down and Moi needed somebody to bring it up. I did my best and people actually saw that the cotton industry was coming up.”
But as fate would have it, in April 1981, Jaramogi’s tongue ‘slipped’ during a fundraiser in Mombasa when he sensationally claimed Kenyatta had been a land grabber and that is why they had differed with him. Subsequently, Moi relieved Jaramogi of his position. It is rumoured that the inner circle of Moi’s cabinet that included the powerful attorney general Charles Njonjo engineered the sacking. A retired politician from that era who requested anonymity recalls Njonjo allegedly telling Moi. “’If indeed it’s true you are following the footsteps of Kenyatta, is Odinga saying therefore, you are also a land grabber?” When Moi took over from Kenyatta, after his demise on August 22, 1978, he broadly proclaimed ‘Mimi nitafuata nyayo za Mzee, (I will follow in the footsteps of Mzee Kenyatta) and in a sense he had to save political face. That sacking essentially meant that Jaramogi was back into “political Siberia.”
In 1981, the then MP for Bondo, Jonas Ochieng Ougo suddenly tendered his resignation, occasioning a by-election. The truth of the matter was that he was hoping to pave way for Jaramogi, to be elected as the next MP. The Siaya Kanu sub-branch on orders from Moi effectively barred Jaramogi from contesting and that is how William Odongo Omamo aka Kaliech found his way back as the MP for Bondo. Ougo had been Jaramogi’s student at Maseno who would later teach Raila Odinga at Maranda School before moving on to become the head teacher at Friends school Kamusinga, in Kaimosi, Bungoma county.
When Moi took over from Kenyatta, after his demise on August 22, 1978, he broadly proclaimed ‘Mimi nitafuata nyayo za Mzee, (I will follow in the footsteps of Mzee Kenyatta) and in a sense he had to save political face. That sacking essentially meant that Jaramogi was back into “political Siberia
The idea to form another party came to Jaramogi after his attempts to re-enter parliament had hit a brick wall. The following year in 1982, teaming up with George Anyona, the firebrand politician from Gusii land, Jaramogi and Anyona walked to Sheria House and asked the registrar of political parties to register their party, the Kenya African Socialist Alliance (KASA). John Khaminwa had written Kasa’s constitution. This would mark the genesis of Khaminwa’s reputation as the lawyer for detained Kenyans; become a marked man by Moi’s regime. Indeed after the August 1982 abortive coup de ’tat, he was detained alongside politicians and university dons, considered rebels by Moi. Jaramogi’s son Raila would also begin his long spell of detention for his role in the coup but also as many believed for the sins of his father who Moi could not detain.
Always a paranoid man, Moi could not fathom another party rivaling KANU. It was the fear of Kasa that drove Moi to ask Parliament to pass one afternoon a bill that later become law stating that changed Kenya from a defacto to a dejure one party state.
With the return to plural politics in December 1992, Jaramogi was elected the MP for Bondo constituency in Siaya, while his son Raila was elected the MP for Langata constituency in Nairobi. For the first time, a father and son were both elected MPs. A year later, Jaramogi was dead and his first-born son Oburu Odinga replaced him. The two Odinga brothers were duly elected MPs of the August House.
Always a paranoid man, Moi could not fathom another party rivaling KANU. It was the fear of Kasa that drove Moi to ask Parliament to pass one afternoon a bill that later become law stating that changed Kenya from a defacto to a dejure one party state.
When the Luo people migrated from Uganda and Sudan and landed on the other side of Lake Victoria in the 15th century, they were led by one Ramogi Ajwang, who is believed to be the patriarch of the Kenyan branch of the Luo. That is how Oginga Odinga acquired the name ‘Ja-Ramogi’. ‘Ja’ is a prefix which means ‘he who belongs to.’
In his life time, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga came to assume a persona that was larger than life and sometimes stranger than fiction. Mzee Odungi Randa, Jaramogi’s former handyman told us in Kisumu.
“Jaramogi was labelled many things by his detractors,” “Communist, dissident, rebel, tribalist, trouble shooter, rogue element, yet he remained firm and resilient and focused on his nationalist ambitions.”Although wealthy by all standards, he never flaunted it and throughout his life, he embodied the philosophy of egalitarianism, said Randa.
By the mid 1940s Jaramogi had formed Bondo Thrift and Trading Corporation. As the company grew, he toyed with several names to rename the expanding corporation. In 1947, he settled for Luo Thrift and Trading Corporation (LUTATCO). Jaramogi said he named the company Luo Thrift, because he wanted the Luo people to feel the company was part of them, hence proud of it.
“Kenya People Union was formed after Jaramogi felt those who risked their lives for Kenya to attain independence had been short changed and sidelined by the very same people they had fought colonialists together,” observed Randa. “It was the case of the Mau Mau freedom fighters versus the home guards that was repeating itself.”
In Nairobi, we went looking for Jaramogi’s one time neighbour at his Jerusalem estate houses in Eastlands. Thomas Onyango Daniel, now his late 40s, grew up in the same block that his family shared with Jaramogi. He remembers a quiet old man with an aura of wisdom. “It was not easy to see him leave or come to the flat,” recalls Onyango. “He remained an elusive figure to my mind until 1990, when the clamour for multiparty started in earnest. All of a sudden, Jaramogi’s house became a beehive of important people coming to see him”. Despite his elusive character, Onyango remembers Jaramogi as a kind man. “When he was around, he would invite us children to the house to drink brown uji (porridge).
Jaramogi had two houses near Jerusalem shopping centre: one on the ground floor and the other up the stairs. “When around, he spent most of the times in the upstairs one, that is where he would meet and entertain his guests,” said Onyango. “I remember him always dressed in a khaki shorts and his signature trademark, the akala (rubber sandals made out of motor vehicle tyre) shoes. All the time he was there, there was a constant stream of people flocking to see him.” To date, the matatu stage near his houses is referred to as Kwa Jaramogi.
Thomas Odoyo 65, from Agoro Nyakach recalled the year 1966 when there was a heated campaign rally in Pap Onditi, as two contestants went for each other’s neck.“Yusto Nyamolo Okal was running against Jaramogi’s candidate Ondiek Chilo. At the rally, fracas ensued between Okal’s supporters and Jaramogi’s youth wing led by Ndolo Ayah.” Odoyo described Ayah as Jaramogi’s ardent supporter. He could not stand Tom Mboya whom he had fundamental personal differences with.”
Interestingly, Ayah had been a student at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda in the early 60s. Together with him was Pamela Odede, the daughter of Walter Odede, the late freedom fighter and member of the Legislative Council (Legco). Ayah and Pamela were an item in college. On the invitation of the Makerere Students Guild, Tom Mboya, went to give a talk at the university campus. Pamela, who attended the inaugural lecture, was smitten with the young flamboyant politician from Kenya. TJ persuaded her to abandon her studies at Makerere, to become one of the pioneers of the 1961 airlift which TJ had organized. In her group, were Wangari Muta Mathai, Ojwang K’Ombudo, Muthoni Muthiga, Beth Mugo and Nicholas Mugo. Nicholas married Beth and Tom married Pamela and Ayah never forgave TJ.
It is at the Pap-Onditi rally that Jaramogi’s mystical powers came to light. “When the two opposing crowds became really hostile Jaramogi pointed at Nyamolo Okal with his left hand and told him in Dholuo, “Nyamolo Okal in ema iketho bucha kamae, wanane ka nine od bura?” (Nyamolo Okal, you are the one who is messing up my rally, we shall see whether you will see Parliament). After the confrontation, the rally aborted and people dispersed cursing the ‘spoilers.’ Nyamolo became a marked man in Jaramogi’s political terrain. Nyamolo was the first Kenyan to head Kakamega High School after graduating from Makerere.
“For being anti-Jaramogi Okal acquired Equatorial Printing Press located in Nairobi’s Industrial Area. The business was the first African owned commercial printing facility. He was rewarded by being single sourced to supply books and stationery to the then Kenya School Equipment Scheme,” said Odoyo. And true to Jaramogi’s word Nyamolo never saw the gates of Parliament. “He unsuccessfully contested the Nyakach constituency seat in 1966, 1969 and 1974. After the assassination of Mboya, things started going south for Nyamolo Okal. His business empire collapsed and he eventually died a poor desolate soul.” According to Odoyo, Jaramogi’s curse ‘his left hand’ had come to pass.
“Yes it is true that Jaramogi’s left hand was shorter than the right one, but really, did it have extra-ordinary powers to condemn people to political oblivion?” posed Mark Otieno. Otieno narrated a story about Jaramogi and his political son James Orengo. “One day in the mid-1980s, Jaramogi was in a good mood, so Ajimmy (as he referred to Orengo) asked Jaramogi whether it was true his left hand had magical powers and if he pointed at anyone with that hand, he would remain cursed. Jaramogi laughed sarcastically and replied ‘Mano ji ema wacho ok an” (It is hearsay and not from me).’”During this period, both Jaramogi and Orengo were constant victims of state humiliation.
“ Orengo took his frustrations to Jaramogi: ‘Ka en adieri, kare Moi machandowani ok isieme gilwetino chieng’moro owere kodwa.’ (If it is true about (Jaramogi’s hand), why then don’t you use it on Moi, who is giving us trouble, so that he can leave us alone?) Jaramogi ended that discussion by stating, ‘Piny nonene nyasaye ema ong’eyo’. The world (in reference to Moi) will deal with him…it is God who knows.)” Otieno said that was vintage Jaramogi: people tendered to build mystery around his personality. “Just like his son Raila, he was considered an enigma of sorts and invisible. Many of his staunch followers believed it was not easy to harm him in any way.”
Orengo was Jaramogi’s legal adviser and Jaramogi treated Orengo like his real son. Jaramogi knew Orengo’s dad, Apollo Orengo Onunga, who was a police inspector. That is why Orengo, being a son of a cop has on numerous times said he does not fear the police, because he grew up in a cop’s homestead. Still, Jaramogi’s dotted on Orengo because of his sharp legal mind.
“At the age of 29, Jaramogi made Orengo an MP for Ugenya constituency,” narrated Otieno nostalgically. “Jaramogi one day during the campaigns came to Ugenya, he didn’t get out of his car, but people gathered around it. He told them: ‘you know I’m not allowed to speak, so I was just passing by, but, by the way, when you see that son of Apollo, please pass my regards.’ The people quickly understood what Jaramogi had told them. Orengo was voted in overwhelmingly. His son Raila, somehow took over that mantle and whenever he endorses you, consider yourself elected.”
Mzee Solomon Owino told us that Jaramogi would deliberately give nicknames to some of his political friends and loyalists. “He coined names like Ondiek‘Chilo’Miguda, Okuto Bala (the former ambassador to Russia), Achieng ‘Nyakech’Oneko. Ondiek is the Luo word for hyena, okuto is salty rock and nyakech is an antelope or a gazelle. He nicknamed Oneko nyakech, because of his tall slender body frame. Jaramogi said some of his supporters in their great support for him were like the vicious hyenas. They would stop at nothing in his defense.”
Among the Young Turks, Jaramogi also had a special nickname for Paul Kibugi Muite: Obiero –the true son of the home. But the literal translation of Obiero in English language is placenta. “Jaramogi was fond of Muite because he would tell him he had the dark complexion of a Luo man,” opined Mzee Owino. Jaramogi surrounded himself with emerging young and versatile oppositionist politicians, who were quickly given the moniker Young Turks by the Kenyan mainstream media. They included, Gitobu Imanyara, James Orengo, Kiraitu Murungi, Mukhisa Kituyi, Paul Kibuge Muite, Prof Ayang’ Nyong’o and Prof Ouma Muga.
Achieng Oneko was a bosom buddy of Jaramogi. It is Achieng Oneko who introduced him to Jomo Kenyatta in 1952 in Kisumu for the first time before he was detained. They had a closed meeting at Maseno Store, a big shop that was part of LUTATCO initiative.
Elated by Kenyatta’s visit to Maseno Jaramogi would later write him a “thank you” note in his book Not Yet Uhuru.
“You can’t imagine the happiness I derive from your one day visit to Maseno on Tuesday. I really enjoyed your company heartily and hope we will have more moments like this in the coming days of our self-government. In this, I am your disciple to the hilt. You were so much at home and felt so very native to the house, as if Maseno had been your home Kikuyuni. I will never forget that memorable day…when you return again to us in August as you have promised to do. I hope to attend many meeting with you and give you as much assistance as will be possible from nationalist and businessman.
I remain, always,
Your disciple in nationalism.”
That meeting could possibly have been the first where the Luo-Kikuyu unity was mooted. In that meeting, Kenyatta told Jaramogi: “We must get to know one another. The Kikuyu must know the Luo thoroughly. The Luo should select 12 influential elders to tour Kikuyu country, to travel as far as Mombasa and that 12 influential Kikuyu elders would travel to Luo country. The conclusion of the two delegations would be inevitable; that we are Africans, one and the same. United, we would be formidable. I have lived with these people (whites) in Great Britain, I know they fear unity.”
Scholar David Odemba from Kaksingri in Mbita believes the silent but often times open rivalry between Tom Mboya and Jaramogicould have been a blessing in disguise. “The divergent ideological approaches helped advance academic achievement among the Lake people. Both the protagonists were competing to send as many students as possible to Europe and America,” pointed out Odemba. “The airlifts to the East and West were the foundation upon which the latter Luo youth found role models whom to date they emulate. Mboya and Jaramogi emphasized the need to acquire higher education as a form of social security. They saw the gift of formal education as the future community’s insurance in its sustainability. They are both credited with the deliberate glorification of academia in Luoland.”
Newspaper vendor Okungu Kerry of Kisumu, remembers Jaramogi fondly: “Jaramogi saved the Nyanza sugarbelt area from being grabbed by outsiders. The areas around Koru, Songhor, Muhoroni, Chemelil and Miwani were once occupied by Indian sugar cane farmers or white settlers. Through legislation on resettlement of landless Africans, Jaramogi ensured victims of floods from Kano plains were given first priority after Kenya’s first El-Nino rains of 1961.My grandfather was settled in Kibigori after their home was destroyed by the same floods.”
Many of his Jaramogi’s followers believe his political persecution led to the ‘Luo’ cash crops being targeted and profiled for destruction. “Either by design or default, cash crops grown in Luo land became political crops. Because of this the Luo farmer suffered greatly. This was a deliberate, quiet and systematic dispossession of their only source of livelihood. Cotton which was the agricultural mainstay of the Luo was the first to be wiped off. All the ginneries closed down and farmers were rendered paupers. Sugar remained the crop the people could rely on. Sisal had earlier succumbed to global technological changes that brought in synthetic fibre,”
Many Luo people believe that according to their ethnic epistemology, only one person can inherit a father’s strong genes and possibly mystical powers. There is a stark difference between the two surviving Jaramogi sons, Oburu Oginga and Raila Odinga. The first born Oburu is a colourless and uninspiring politician. “Oburu has never persuaded anyone that he is his own man,” said an observer of the Jaramogi dynasty.“One wonders whether he could ever survive politically without his younger brother Raila.”Plucked from a civil service job as a provincial planning officer and living in a humble Mosque estate in house in Kisumu, Oburu has remained in Raila’s shadow since 1994, when he replaced Jaramogi as MP for Bondo.
Jaramogi’s legacy will continue to be felt for a very long time especially in Nyanza where several iconic institutions have taken up his name. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Referral Hospital and Oginga Odinga Road are just some of the main landmarks that will forever keep his name alive.
Like his father Jaramogi, Raila has developed own his international networks making him known beyond Kenya. Twenty five years down the road, many of Jaramogi’s believers said his political fervour and determinism has been kept alight by his son Raila Odinga.
Jaramogi and Raila are political enigmas that very often defy easy classification and political analysis. Each personality comes with his own nickname. Jaramogi was initially named Obadiah Adonijah. In Not Yet Uhuru he says “I never liked the names. I never used them though in those days it was important to be known if you were Christian by your baptismal name”. He instead adopted Ajuma Oginga Odinga but the first name ‘Ajuma’ also fizzled out with time leaving the double ‘O’ intact. Raila is variously known by his nicknames like Agwambo, Tinga and RAO.
Jaramogi’s legacy will continue to be felt for a very long time especially in Nyanza where several iconic institutions have taken up his name. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Referral Hospital and Oginga Odinga Road are just some of the main landmarks that will forever keep his name alive.
Whether the spirit of Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi has influenced the current working relationship between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila, their respective sons is a story for another day.
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Do You Know What Is on Your Plate?
You may not know it but you’ve probably been ingesting carcinogenic, mutagenic and neurotoxic chemicals along with your ugali, sukuma wiki and kachumbari.
I had never really given much thought to what I ate and how it was produced. That is until, in the early 90s, an outbreak of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy – BSE, more commonly known as mad cow disease – led to the slaughter of 4.4 million head of cattle in the United Kingdom in an effort to contain the disease, and to a decade-long ban of British beef exports that ruined that country’s beef industry. The BSE outbreak is thought to have been caused by the practice of supplementing cattle feed with meat-and-bone-meal (MBM) rendered from the remains of other animals. The disease soon crossed over to humans through the consumption of BSE-contaminated beef, a new version of the neurological Creutzveld-Jakob Disease (vCJD) that took its first victim in May 1995 and has killed 177 people to date. In 2013 researchers reported that one in 2,000 people in the UK are carrying the human form of mad cow disease.
That same year, in February, a government livestock inspector was assassinated outside his home in the Belgian Flanders; Karel Van Noppen had been investigating the illegal trade in synthetic growth hormones that unscrupulous beef farmers were using to speed up the fattening of beef cattle and turn a quick profit. The use of synthetic growth hormones in cattle rearing has been found to have adverse effects on human health. I was living in Belgium at the time and I started asking myself what I had been eating. I wasn’t the only one; by the end of the decade, astute beef farmers were turning a tidy profit from the sale of organic beef to consumers like me who had become wary of the factory methods of production that had led to the BSE crisis.
With the appearance of organic beef on Belgian supermarket shelves, other organic produce soon followed and the shelf space dedicated to organic foods steadily grew. IFOAM-Organics International defines organic agriculture as “a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic Agriculture combines tradition, innovation, and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and good quality of life for all involved.”
Today, in the West at least, it is perfectly possible to eat, drink and even dress only organic; but you must have deep pockets because organic produce is more expensive than conventionally grown produce.
The right to adequate food is recognised in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is enshrined in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of which Kenya is a signatory. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations clarifies that the right to adequate food implies that food must be available, accessible and it must also be adequate, meaning that “the food must satisfy dietary needs . . . be safe for human consumption and free from adverse substances, such as contaminants from industrial or agricultural processes, including residues from pesticides, hormones or veterinary drugs . . . .” The irony is that even though produce that is certified organic meets all of these requirements, it is not produced in sufficient quantities and where it can be found, it is beyond the reach of most consumers, whether they are in the West or here in Kenya.
Having jumped on the organic consumers’ bandwagon back in Brussels after the 1998 dioxin- contaminated chicken crisis finally convinced me to abandon conventionally-grown produce, I was keen to maintain the lifestyle once back in Kenya, only to find the limited choice of produce that is certified organic prohibitively expensive. I did the next best thing and decided to grow organic fruits and vegetables, both for my own consumption and for sale to the end consumer, and thus did I come into close contact with the world of farming.
City girl born and bred, and never having grown so much as a blade of grass, I needed all the help I could get and turned to Mr John Wanjau Njoroge, founder and director of the Kenya Institute of Organic Farming and a pioneer of the organic movement in Kenya. Mr Njoroge sent me a recently graduated young couple who set me on the road to organic farming. It has been a steep learning curve; after a first successful crop of greenhouse tomatoes, bacterial wilt decimated the second one.
Kenyan smallholder farmers produce 80 per cent of the 400,000 tonnes of tomatoes produced annually — representing 7 per cent of all horticultural produce grown every year — but commercial production of the fruit is fraught with difficulties; if it isn’t tuta absoluta, it is fusariam wilt, or if you’re really unlucky, it is both. And so, to control these and other pests and diseases, farmers reach for chemical pesticides and fungicides.
The trade in pesticides in Kenya is largely in the control of private sector distributors and retailers who import and distribute the products to the Kenyan end-user, but there appears to be a training deficit in the safe use of these chemicals. Farmers rely on agrovets and agricultural extension officers for information on pesticides, yet the Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN) has reported that “they are recommending pesticide products that are toxic to human health, bees and fish”.
An analysis of pesticide residues in tomatoes and french beans from Murang’a and Kiambu counties found the presence of omethoate in tomatoes, an active ingredient whose use in vegetables is banned in Kenya, suggesting “poor pesticide handling practices by some tomato farmers in the two counties”.
And the situation is not much better in Laikipia County where a 2019 study of pesticide application and pesticide residue levels in kales and tomatoes in the Ewaso Narok wetland found that the majority of farmers had no training in the use of pesticides. The study also found chlorpyrifos and diazinon residues in the tomatoes sampled; both these active ingredients are banned in the European Union.
It is particularly worrying that chlorpyrifos — a pesticide that is harmful to the brains of foetuses and young children — can still be found on the Kenyan market. Chlorpyrifos was banned in the EU in February 2020 but it is also one of the seven active ingredients in the pesticides and fungicides that were found by KOAN to be in use in Kirinyaga and Murang’a counties.
KOAN reports that “The pesticides withdrawn in Europe are mostly used on tomatoes (15 active ingredients), followed by kale (14), maize (14), cabbage (10), coffee (10) and french beans (6). Since tomatoes, kale, maize and cabbage are part of the daily Kenyan diet, there is a real and significant threat to food safety.” The study found that tomatoes had the highest toxicity score, followed by kales and maize, all foods eaten by Kenyans daily.
It is particularly worrying that a pesticide that is harmful to the brains of foetuses and young children can still be found on the Kenyan market.
But even more worryingly, KOAN reports having found high residue levels of acephate and methamidophos in the tomatoes sampled. Acephate, which has been withdrawn in Europe, is registered by the Pest Control Products Board for use on roses and tobacco. Methamidophos is not registered for use in Kenya.
The reason why active ingredients which have been withdrawn in the EU (or whose use is restricted) find their way to Kenya is because of the so-called Double Standard; EU Regulation EC304/2003 allows EU companies to produce and export to other countries pesticides that are banned or restricted in the EU, effectively protecting EU citizens while exposing non-EU citizens to the ravages of dangerous chemicals and infringing on their right to food that is safe for human consumption. Indeed, the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on Toxic Wastes and the Right to Food have found that “widely divergent standards of production, use and protection from hazardous pesticides in different countries are creating double standards, which are having a serious impact on human rights.”
And while the Rotterdam Convention requires an exporter based in an EU member state to indicate their intention to export banned or severely restricted chemicals to a non-EU country so that the latter is alerted, this arrangement is hypocritical and merely serves to enable EU companies to continue manufacturing dangerous chemicals for sale in non-EU countries while providing them with the ready excuse that importing countries are aware of the nature of the chemicals they are bringing in.
Domesticating the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 43 (1) (c) of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 states that, “Every person has the right to be free from hunger, and to have adequate food of acceptable quality.” In line with this last requirement, and in the face of the dangers presented by the poorly regulated trade in pesticides, the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI), Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya, Kenya Organic Agriculture Network and Resources Oriented Development Initiative petitioned the National Assembly in September 2019 to withdraw harmful pesticides from the Kenyan Market.
In their petition, they reported that there are products on the Kenyan market which are classified as carcinogenic (24), mutagenic (24), endocrine disrupter (35), neurotoxic (140) and many others which have been shown to have an effect on reproduction (262). The petitioners argued that, while the volume of imports of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides had grown 144 per cent between 2015 and 2018, there was no data available concerning pesticide use and its impact on food and the environment, and also noted that the increase in pesticide use had not been accompanied by the necessary safeguards to control their application.
The petitioners also said that by failing to publish information in its possession on the levels of pesticide residues in food samples collected, and to put in place a monitoring system, the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) was acting in contravention of Section 15 of the Pest Control Products Act. The petitioners also accused the Pests Control Products Board (PCBP) of failing to adhere to the international codes of conduct of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
In its report on the petition tabled a year later in October 2020, the National Assembly’s Departmental Committee on Health responded that a blanket ban “without due consideration or risk assessment will not help, especially in the tropical conditions and areas experiencing an invasion of pests and diseases throughout the year.” The committee also argued that “severe limitation of the number of products available . . . will make sustainable use of plant protection products difficult, particularly managing the development of resistant pest populations.” The committee claimed that such a ban would threaten food security, lead to expensive food and reduced farmer incomes due to insufficient production.
The committee did however recommend that the PCPB develop regulations to ensure that only licensed and registered persons run agrovet outlets, and that the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries undertake an analysis of the products on the Kenyan market in order to exclude those that are carcinogenic, mutagenic, neurotoxic and endocrine disruptors, and recommend the withdrawal from the Kenyan market of harmful and toxic pesticides. All this was to take place within 90 days.
Well, I visited two agrovets in our little township here in Nyandarua County who both told me that PCPB inspectors came calling last year to ensure that licence fees were paid and to ascertain that the products on their shelves had the PCPB logo indicating that they are authorised for sale in Kenya. Neither has been informed of any changes in the PCPB list of pest control products registered for use in Kenya and I could have bought pesticides and fungicides containing all but two of the active ingredients that KOAN found on produce in Kirinyaga and Murang’a counties: chlorpyrifos, which as I have mentioned above is harmful to the brains of foetuses and young children; diazinon, a neurotoxic organophosphate; permethrin, a neurotoxin that is also highly toxic to animals, particularly fish and cats; bifenthrin, which has been classified as a possible carcinogenic; and carbendazim, a mutagenic fungicide that can cause birth defects and damage fertility. These active ingredients — all of which are banned in the EU — are among the top ten most harmful ingredients in terms of toxicity for humans and the environment.
Route to Food, which has done a study on pesticide use in Kenya, notes that, “Pesticides can persist in the environment for decades and pose a global threat to the entire ecological system upon which food production depends. Excessive use and misuse of pesticides results in contamination of surrounding soil and water sources, causing loss of biodiversity, destroying beneficial insect populations that act as natural enemies of pests and reducing the nutritional value of food.”
If we are agreed that access to safe food is a human right, then we must reject food production methods that endanger our health and put our lives in peril, that pollute our water and our environment and jeopardise our biodiversity, methods that put the profits of the shareholders of companies domiciled in foreign countries before the wellbeing of Kenyan consumers.
It is ironical that Kenya goes to great lengths to meet the phytosanitary conditions and Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) imposed by the EU – Kenya’s main market for horticultural exports – while at the same time exposing its own citizens to the dangers of toxic pesticides manufactured in the EU.
If we are agreed that access to safe food is a human right, then we must reject food production methods that endanger our health.
We are not condemned to remain on the path of industrial agriculture, which has proven to be so devastating to the environment and to human health. As Daniel Maingi notes, “Perhaps it is time we looked to nature and farmers’ know-how in using another branch of science called agroecology” which, as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has recognised, is “holistic, balancing focus on people and the planet, the three dimensions of sustainable development – social, economic and environmental – while strengthening the livelihoods of smallholder food producers.”
We must therefore be vocal in our support of the endeavours of organisations such as the Route to Food Initiative, Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya, the Kenyan Organic Agriculture Network and Resources Oriented Development Initiative, in order to ensure that the recommendations of the National Assembly’s Departmental Committee on Health do not remain a dead letter but form the basis of a fundamental change in the way we produce the food we eat.
How Biotechnologies are Shaping Kenya’s Food Ecosystem
Kenya has severally taken the top spot in “enabling the business of agriculture” annual rankings, opening its doors to patent-protected biotechnologies that could lead to the effective loss of our food sovereignty.
It has been said that he who controls the food, controls the people. But others have added that he who controls the seed, controls the food system. The race by multinational corporations (MNCs) to own and register patent protection on seeds and genetic traits, including DNA sequences, has led to a hierarchy of big players who now dominate the global markets through national and international legal instruments.
We have reached the stage where only four corporations dominate the global seeds and genetic traits markets, as they roll out patent-protected biotechnologies to both large and smallholder farmers worldwide. This is seen as a critical step in shaping food ecosystems here in Kenya and elsewhere in the world.
Power relations and roles in the biotech industry
During the last three years the world has witnessed spectacular mergers and acquisitions amongst the biggest actors in the industry — DowDuPont now Corteva, Bayer-Monsanto now just Bayer, and Syngenta/ChemChina. Together with BASF, these merged MNCs now control over 70 per cent of the global seed and pesticides market.
Their far-reaching wealth and power has been enabled by states and government actors working with global organisations such as the WTO (World Trade Organization) and UPOV (Union for the Protection of New Plant Varieties). The consequences have been a concentration of market share and influence, capital accumulation, and unprecedented economies of scale which have led to the marginalisation and the disinheritance of our common seed and genetic resources. The process of agricultural investment in so-called biotech innovation has come to be known as “the Green Revolution” or, increasingly now, the “Gene Revolution”.
Green Revolution (GR) is best understood as the wide-scale adoption and use of disruptive agricultural research and various technologies, including biotech, that are intended to increase agricultural productivity. Green revolutions therefore effectively convert farming and agriculture into an industrial system, because of the extensive adoption and use of new high-yielding seed varieties that often must be accompanied by the intensive use of mechanisation, large volumes of water and expensive irrigation infrastructure, pesticides, and fertilisers. The seed is a critical piece of GR and is the first portal to creating large-scale bio-economies, and imposing and enforcing patent and breeders’ rights protection through national and binding international laws.
The larger GR endeavour was initiated by Norman Borlaug. With funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, Borlaug helped develop high-yielding dwarf varieties of rust-resistant wheat. The Green Revolution’s early success in India was led by the agricultural scientist M. S. Swaminathan. He is known as the “Father of Green Revolution in India” for his role in introducing Borlaug’s dwarf varieties of wheat and rice in India. One of the impacts of this green revolution was that the yields of wheat and rice doubled, but the production of other food crops such as indigenous rice varieties, sorghums, millets, and pulses declined. This led to the loss of distinct indigenous varieties from cultivation and also caused the extinction of others.
Seed biotechnologies have profoundly changed consumption patterns over the years; the dietary diversity of India’s population has decreased as Indians eat more wheat and rice devoid of nutritive value. Studies have shown that traditional coarse cereals (complex carbohydrates, high protein) have been permanently replaced by more white wheat and polished rice diets (simple carbohydrate, low protein), with the accompanying effects of obesity and malnutrition. An overweight population (BMI>25) has emerged as a new public health challenge, and this is most evident in large-landholding households, especially in the high-input agriculture areas.
In Africa, the first green revolution was a failure and efforts have been underway for a relaunch. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) was founded in 2006 to bring high-yield agricultural practices and biotechnologies to millions of smallholder farming households. Bill Gates has an absorbed relationship with the wonder of computers and technologies. Fascinated by the possibilities of big data and biotechnologies as the centerpiece for a new disruptive revolution in Africa’s agriculture, Bill Gates, through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, together with partners including the Rockefeller Foundation, have collectively pumped more than US$1 billion in funding to the Nairobi-based AGRA.
Indians now eat more wheat and white rice devoid of other nutrients that used to come from the inclusion of sorghum, millet and mung beans in traditional diets.
To the delight of agribusiness corporations, GR means an expansion in the use of new biotech seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and, of course, irrigation infrastructure and the related mechanisation. To ensure that new seed technologies are adopted and used on a larger scale, Bill Gates has also channeled significant funding to entities such as the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), African Seed Trade Association, Kenya’s seed trader associations, and private companies. The goal is to influence and catalyse the transformation of agriculture policies and legislations and open up Kenya for commercial agriculture.
Together with the World Bank, the Gates Foundation has funded local stakeholders to lobby and advocate for reforms to remove “obstacles” in policies, laws, and regulations in agriculture, in what they term as “enabling the business of agriculture” (EBA). The annual ranking of countries is closely watched by investors and used by the World Bank, USAID, DfID, and other bilateral donors, to guide their funding. As a result, EBA drives the race to deregulate. Governments in poor countries compete with each other to “reform and change their agricultural laws” so that they can be ranked among the “Doing Business” best performers. Kenya’s performance in these rankings is also keenly followed by pro-biotech advocacy lobby groups.
The technology is the seed
Seeds carry the genetic traits or DNA sequences claimed as proprietary rights by the breeders or corporations that control them. The technology is in the seed and is the seed. Through stewardship agreements, farmers purchase seed, promise and sign on the dotted line that they are merely renters of the biotechnology and not owners. As such, they cannot multiply that seed for replanting; new seed must be purchased. They can also not store, give to others or even sell their harvested seed. Failure to adhere to these terms is a violation punishable by national and international laws. This means that MNCs are effectively controlling what food ecosystems emerge once a country decides to rely on biotech-gene seeds. It is an effective loss of food sovereignty and an abuse of farmers’ rights to seed, including the right to food at the household level.
Unfortunately, there have been many incidences where seed corporations systematically replace indigenous seeds with their proprietary hybrids through “generous donations”. After a few seasons, faced with a lack of alternative sources, the users must purchase patent-protected seeds.
Such is the case of the recently rolled-out Bt. cotton hybrids in Kenya. Dubbed first-generation biotech crops, Bt. traits focused on increasing market share and profits to patent holders by promising to eliminate the need for pesticide sprays against a limited range of insects. Another GM crop resistant to Round-up herbicide sprays caused enormous increases in Bayer’s sale of its herbicide, resulting in massive increases in market dominance. Once these crops become entrenched in the market and food ecosystem, farmers are often faced with a serious challenge as there are no alternative versions from other competing companies. In Kenya — as in India — Bayer-Mahyco has absolute power and market control, a situation enabled by the government with little public discourse.
Through stewardship agreements, farmers must purchase seeds and promise by signing on the dotted line that they are merely renters of the seed and not owners.
In the second-generation biotech crops, there was a focus on the traits desired by farmers, and much of the research was funded by public-private partnerships, as opposed to being funded only by the private sector, as was the case for first-generation GMOs. Virus-resistant cassava and sweet potato, together with GM banana in Uganda, are candidates in the former category, which is seen as an attempt by MNCs to repair their public image with the help of philanthro-capitalists like Bill Gates. These Biotech crops are vegetatively propagated (not grown from seed), and are not amenable to traditional plant breeding, creating an opening for a GM approach. Critically, vegetative propagation also means that farmers do not need to repurchase seed every year. What effect these second-generation feel-good biotech crops will have on the food ecosystems is yet to be ascertained. Second-generation GMOs in agriculture include “functional” plants designed to produce pharmaceuticals, fuels, and industrial compounds. It is doubtful that these new biotechnologies will have a role in Kenya’s food ecosystem.
The future of GR in Kenya’s food system
In India, GR technologies were rolled out in 1967 when dwarf and rust-resistant wheat varieties were released. The results were so fast and so significant that, just three years later, Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 in recognition of his contributions to world peace through increasing food supply. It is claimed that he saved a billion people from starvation.
In Africa, it has now been 15 long years since the new GR was launched. AGRA pledged in self-declared milestones that it would double the earnings of 20 million small farmers by 2020 while halving food shortages in 20 African countries. A Tuft University study found little evidence of significant increases in productivity, income, or food security for people in the 13 main AGRA target countries, but rather, demonstrated that AGRA’s Green Revolution model is failing. Between 2013 and 2015, AGRA and CIMMYT released at least 25 water-efficient drought-tolerant maize hybrids (WEMA) for farmers in Kenya. To date, there have not been any magical yield increases as was evident in India when the hybrid wheat and rice varieties were released. Despite the widespread use of these biotech varieties, the increased use of pesticides and fertilisers, and the extensive use of tractors, GR remains a dream in Kenya’s food economies.
There have been many incidences where MNCs systematically replace farmers’ own indigenous seeds with their proprietary hybrid seeds by providing “generous seed and fertiliser donations”.
Why is it so difficult to ignite a green revolution in Africa? AGRA has funded projects and lobbied African governments for the development of policies and market structures that promote the adoption of Green Revolution technology packages. Kenya has taken the top spot in enabling the business of agriculture, opening its doors to these biotechnologies. It has won praise and accolades from donors and partners. What else is there to be achieved? It is highly doubtful that affixing Bayer’s Bt. insect toxin gene to the drought-tolerant WEMA (now TELA) trait will be the launch of Kenya’s green (maize) revolution. It is also highly uncertain that Kenyans will suddenly change their modern dietary habits and start eating biotech cassava, engineered, not for high yields, but to resist viruses.
There is a wave of “new genetic modification techniques” touted to lead to the third generation of GMOs. These include genome editing using various tools such as special enzymes to cut, repair, or even bring new segments into the DNA of living food organisms. Such technics appear to be science visioning, with biotech supporters saying that one will be able to delete allergy traits from the DNA of peanuts and make lactose-free milk to the joy of lactose-intolerant populations. These modification techniques have already been tested out in the current roll-out of mRNA-mediated covid-19 vaccines, and appear poised to make a thundering entrance into Kenya’s and Uganda’s food ecosystem through cassava that is protected against viruses. Noteworthy is that citizen resistance against this GMO technology will be met with a stern and stark reminder that it is the same GM technology that was used to protect us from the coronavirus and its associated mutations. The new GM technology skipped many important safety and risk assessments and the vaccines were released under public emergency orders worldwide.
In 1967, Norman Borlaug’s GR varieties undoubtedly averted food shortages albeit temporarily. But they were unable to deter poverty. In fact, GR technologies might have added to it. The high-yielding seeds demand expensive fertilisers and more water. In India, GR led to rural impoverishment, increased debt, social inequality, and the displacement of vast numbers of peasant farmers.
What then must we do to ensure a just and equitable food system in Kenya? What is the way forward for gene and green revolutions in Kenya? It appears that our experts and technologists have had every room and resource to make Kenya food-secure using all forms of modern biotechnologies yet there have been no significant results to phone home about. Perhaps it is time to cut our losses and shirk the industrial-agricultural model that is based on industrial principles. Climate change is not helping Kenyan farmers. Researchers have been unable to come up with solid biotechnologies that can sustainably overcome stresses from our unique harsh farming climates. Perhaps it is time we looked to nature and farmers’ know-how in using another branch of science called agroecology.
GR agriculture increased farmer debt, which resulted in increased social inequality, and the displacement of vast numbers of peasant farmers who had to make way for larger farms.
Agroecology encourages the building of resilience through crop and varietal biodiversity on the farm. Monocrops are to be avoided to reduce pests and diseases. Farmers and extensionists teach that planting mixed varieties of locally adapted maize on the same farm creates resilience against pests like stem borers and fall armyworms that GMO Bt. maize seeks to control. Farm-level diversity is the key to survival. Seeds with many traits – drought resistance, early ripening tendencies – make for greater ability to adapt to climate change. Relying on just a few varieties is dangerous and making unending royalty payments to the holders of those food varieties is worse as it undermines food sovereignty at the farm level.
Agroecology encourages the defense of farmers’ rights, the rights to nature, and demands the renegotiating of the contract between state and society as stipulated in our 2010 constitution. Farmers have a right to seed for food and livelihoods. They should be able to freely keep, further develop, sell or even gift their planting material as is culturally accepted. The government should be at the forefront of protecting their rights – and not creating skewed power relations between farmers and farm input providers.
Good agroecology practices further demand an accelerated shift towards local food production and short supply chains. The emphasis is on local food sufficiency that encourages ethical consumerism.
There is an urgent need to review, reform, and reconfigure the UN’s agri-food agencies to be more responsive to the poor and disadvantaged in the food system. The FAO (Food Agriculture Organization) and the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) have received funding from the World Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, swaying research and policy priorities towards more biotechnologies in our food systems. Dr Agnes Kalibata, President of AGRA and board member of the International Fertilizer Development Center, has been appointed as the UN Secretary General’s special envoy to the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit to be held in September 2021. This signals that the summit will be yet another forum that advances the interests of MNCs and agribusiness at the expense of farmers.
It is time to put the seed back into the hands of the farmers. Remember, he who controls the seed controls the food system. If Kenya is to take back control of its food system and reassert its sovereignty over its agriculture, its citizens — free from corporate influences — must be at the forefront of any restructuring of the food system. This is the only path to a just and sustainable food bio-economy that is not subject to the whims and fancies of corporate controllers of biotechnologies.
The Extraordinary Journey of J. P. Magufuli and Comparative Perspectives of Dog-Eat-Man Regimes
Tanzania and Kenya represent two of the continent’s more closely matched territories. But the contrast between the two countries remains among the most intriguing examples of post-independence Africa’s political comparison.
In 2015 John Pombe Magufuli became Tanzania’s accidental President. Colourful and charismatic, Magufuli charmed the masses during his five years in office. He demanded results and pulled off successes that were elevated to the status of minor miracles. He channeled his inner Julius Nyerere to revive Tanzania’s distinctive internal self-reliance-based identity.
The state was back, and the state was Magufuli. He used his campaign against the mabepari class to grandstand on a regular basis, and the coronavirus pandemic provided the former chemist with an opportunity to elevate his anti-imperialist credentials. His controversial stance won him approval across the region: several of my colleagues remarked that “Magufuli is the only African President to speak truth to the pandemic”.
Then his government ministers began getting sick. Magufuli disappeared from public view. After two weeks of rumour and speculation, Tanzania’s Vice President announced his passing due to a chronic heart condition. Corona or coronary? Magufuli’s outsized sending off soon overtook conjecture about the cause of his death.
It began with the usual laudatory speeches by his fellow African heads of state. The dead president then set off on a grand tour that took him across the country by land, sea, and air. The wananchi paid homage by throwing their clothes on the road in front of the motorcade escorting the casket. People lining the road chanted, “jeshi, jeshi!”
The lionisation of the dead president was a fascinating trope, amplified by the mellifluous High Swahili commentary accompanying the televised coverage of the Magufuli hegira. My wife had become a Samia Suluhu Hassan fan. She insisted that the TV remain tuned to the Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation channel.
The stature of Tanzania’s domestic Shujaa grew over the course of the week. Like the mythical wrestler Anteus, who grew stronger when he touched the ground, Hayati Rais appeared to be drawing new power from the landscape as the conquering hero’s body made the long journey from Zanzibar to Chato, his lakeside home.
By day three of the roadshow, Tanzania’s state media was praising the departed leader, as Jabali ya Africa, “the rock who stood up to the West”. But Twitter was providing an interesting counter-narrative; for Tanzania’s online opposition, the “Jabali” was “Jiwe”, the “stone” who terrorised his critics and pummeled the political opposition. Day four brought the claim by a Chama Cha Mapinduzi party sycophant that the Magufuli show was attracting an audience larger than that of the last two World Cups.
I was looking forward to seeing Chato, the village that during Magufuli’s tenure had been transformed along the lines of Houphouët-Boigny’s Yamoussoukro birthplace in Côte d’Ivoire, and Mobutu Sese Seko’s Gbadolite home in the Congo. I was not able to catch the end of the journey because of a close friend’s funeral. But I did witness the dead president’s final apotheosis, which led me to pause on my way out the door: “With due respect to our respective religions”, one of the TBC commentators was remarking, “it should be recognized that President Magufuli was a Nabii.”
The roadshow that followed was a skillfully executed event that provided the Bulldozer’s inner circle with the breathing room needed to ring-fence the new President.
Nabii is the Swahili term for prophet. The proof of his prophethood (unabii wake), the commentors went on to explain, lay in the fact that President Magufuli was the only world leader God sent to warn us that the pandemic is a crisis manufactured by the global elite to extend the hegemony of Big Pharma and other agents of the international capitalist order.
The real news for some of us was Vice President Samia Sulubu Hassan’s swearing in as the Republic’s sixth Head of State. Tanzania’s record of relatively seamless political succession was further enhanced by her status as a female Muslim from a minority community. My wife, who is from Lamu and has never seen anyone of her background in a position of power, declared, “Samia is my president.”
It is hard to envision a similar sequence occurring in Kenya, or for that matter in any other country in the Horn of Africa.
Dog eat dog versus man eat nothing
“No contrast, no information”, my field linguistics professor used to tell us. The large number of African states and the interesting dyads they form makes for a lot of information. Nigeria and Ghana, Mozambique and Angola, Egypt and Sudan, Guinea and Sierra Leone, are examples that come to mind. But the Kenya-Tanzania contrast remains among the most intriguing examples of post-independence Africa’s political comparison.
Tanzania and Kenya represent two of the continent’s more closely matched territories. They are linked by centuries of interaction on the coastal strip and a common history that gave rise to Swahili as the region’s lingua franca. Together they host the world’s most famous concentration of wildlife. Artificially divided into two countries by European powers, the modern nations created by imperial intervention were shaped by the same colonial model. Both gained independence under leaders inspired by the spirit of Pan-Africanism.
Tanzania’s record of relatively seamless political succession was furtherenhanced by her status as a female Muslim from a minority community.
Tanzania’s more uniform geography supported the intricately networked small-scale societal adaptations documented in Kjekjus’s classic study, Ecology Control and Environmental Management in East Africa. Kenya’s physical environment conditioned the country’s more complex ethno-economic composition diversity; late precolonial era migrations contributed to Kenya’s more variegated population of Bantu-, Nilotic-, and Cushitic-speaking communities.
Where the harshness of the German occupation in Tanzania inoculated the population with a healthy dose of anti-colonial consciousness, many Kenyan communities welcomed the Pax Britannica, in part due to the disruptions of the decade preceding it. Efforts to force peasants to cultivate cotton for export in Tanzania triggered the Maji Maji rebellion in 1905, and the movement rapidly spread across southern and parts of central Tanganyika until its brutal suppression.
The commercial economy introduced by Kenya’s colonial rulers created new opportunities and avenues for accumulation. The first stirrings of anti-colonial opposition only emerged after World War II. The ethnic base of the Mau Mau insurgency contrasted with the nationalist focus of Tanzania’s liberation politics. The new countries nevertheless came into existence driven by a common vision of the future and its possibilities.
It was a time of idealism and political experimentation. Shared orientations propelled Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda to form the East African Community soon after independence. The union represented a practical first step towards Kwame Nkrumah’s vision of a United States of Africa—before political liberation gave way to an era of competing ideologies, superpower patronage, and military coups. Much of the ideological superstructure of that period ended up either dissipating gradually or collapsing for reasons that have been rigorously documented.
Technically, both Kenya and Tanzania subscribed to the third path option championed by the non-aligned movement, but their economies were moving on diverging paths. The East African Community foundered, undermined by economic differentials fueled by Kenya’s colonial economic legacy and Tanzania’s Fabian socialism. The ideological bifurcation saw Kenya and Tanzania become proxies for the struggle between the world’s capitalist and socialist systems.
The clash between Jomo Kenyatta’s conservatism and Julius Nyerere’s idealism highlighted their contrasting political ideologies and the external support they attracted. In 1975 the submerged tensions between the two countries surfaced in an exchange of words between Tanzania’s President Julius Nyerere and Kenya’s Attorney General, Charles Njonjo. Nyerere referred to Kenya as a “dog eat dog” society; Njonjo retorted by describing Tanzania as a “man eat nothing economy”.
The ideological bifurcation saw Kenya and Tanzania become proxies for the struggle between the world’s capitalist and socialist systems.
There is a simpler explanation. Where Kenya retained the hierarchical Anglo-colonial template after independence, Tanzania adopted the more integrative Swahili model of nation-building. As Jomo Kenyatta once told his fellow East African presidents after Milton Obote adopted the socialist Common Man’s Charter in Uganda, “I cannot experiment with [the] lives of my people.”
Donor-mandated structural adjustment policies of the 1990s brought the countries’ economies into closer alignment. But the different trajectories pursued by Kenya and Tanzania continued to reflect their contrasting developmental strategies, and the delicate balance of competition and cooperation defining the two countries’ bilateral relations.
Kenya and Tanzania’s ideological differentials are sufficient but not necessary explanations of the two nations’ post-independence divergence.
Crawford Young’s seminal work published in 1981, Ideology and Development in Africa, confirmed as much for the two decades following independence. Young concluded that the strong ideological groundings informing Africa’s capitalist, socialist, mixed, and Afro-Marxist economic models, although important, did not significantly influence their performance. This is consistent with historical studies that show how countries within a geographical region tend to converge over time.
This trajectory appears to hold for the comparison examined here. Tanzania has recorded impressive economic growth under the neoliberal policy regime. Although Kenya is still East Africa’s strongest economy with an annual GDP of US$37 billion versus Tanzania’s US$28 billion, Tanzania’s per capita GDP is now only US$200 less than Kenya’s (US$1,600 vs. US$1,400). Some 50 per cent of Kenya’s population is below the poverty line in contrast to 33 per cent in Tanzania, which also performs better in several categories of social development.
Tanzania was catching up to Kenya in the Transparency International annual corruption rankings until Tanzania’s position improved slightly after Magufuli took office. His anti-corruption campaign saw hundreds of civil servants lose their jobs, but only a few cases of prosecution. The offensive targeting international investors and domestic business interests took up the slack. The state charged international investors and domestic businessmen in court for underpaying taxes and other violations.
Barrick Gold Corporation, the Canadian mining company that has helped make gold the country’s leading export commodity, received a notice claiming it owed US$190 billion in fines and unpaid taxes. Many of these cases resulted in negotiated settlements and revisions in the terms of their contracts. Barrick ended up settling by paying US$300 million and increasing the government’s stake in their operations to 50 per cent.
Some 50 per cent of Kenya’s population is below the poverty line in contrast to 33 per cent in Tanzania, which also performs better in several categories of social development.
Both of these campaigns, and Magufuli’s rejection of China’s debt diplomacy and IMF loans, enhanced the President’s reputation as the “Bulldozer”, but did little to effect the structural changes needed. Tundu Lissu, the head of Tanzania’s main opposition party, reported that many of the settlements were actually shakedowns initiated by the President’s CCM faction. Such behind the scenes venality accounts for Magufuli’s silencing of Tanzania’s media and the intensified persecution of the opposition during last year’s national elections.
Sources on the ground report a more complicated picture than the pumped-up legacy conveyed by state media. Although Tanzania joined the ranks of lower middle-income societies in 2020, the improved household income generated by the pro-market policies enacted by Magufuli’s predecessors is being eroded by the rising cost of living, while demographic growth is increasing pressure on the country’s land and natural resources.
Presidential activism failed to arrest the downward drift of conditions across Tanzania’s rural areas. Magufuli’s opposition to international capital limited smallholder access to the contract-farming arrangements that have enabled Kenya’s small-scale producers’ participation in global supply chains. While the benefits of contract farming are contested in academic circles, participation in out-grower schemes has led to improvement in producer terms in a number of cases, and improved access to inputs while diversifying livelihood options for many rural households.
The revival of the East African Community in 2010 was boosting both countries’ commodity exports to each other until tit-for-tat border disputes contributed to a drop to pre-2010 levels. Bilateral trade is a sub-set of the policy frame promoting regional integration, which has in turn triggered a scramble to upgrade the infrastructure facilitating trans-national linkages. This brings us to the governments’ penchant for mega-projects like Kenya’s grandiose Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport corridor project (LAPSSET) and Tanzania’s Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor (SAGCOT).
LAPSSET came to be viewed as a cash cow for Kenya’s state-based cartels before it stalled due to the withdrawal of once enthusiastic international investors. Analysis of the SAGCOT corridor indicates it has generated mainly just-for-show benefits while facilitating the entrance of large-scale agribusiness actors at the expense of local smallholder communities. Both countries are beneficiaries of economically dysfunctional Chinese railroads, contrasting monuments to that country’s contribution to regional linkages over the years.
Even in the presence of more comprehensive analyses of the two countries’ development, it is difficult to arrive at definitive conclusions about the efficacy of the Kenya and Tanzania models. They are more connected — Kenya-based companies are the second largest source of foreign investment in Tanzania — than at independence, yet seem even farther apart now with respect to their political sensibilities.
Local folk models provide more succinct perceptions of the differences. Talk to Kenyans and they will characterise Tanzanians as laid back, loquacious, and xenophobic; talk to Tanzanians and they will tell you their neighbors are arrogant, aggressive, and hopelessly tribal. But if you pursue the conversation further, most will show that they understand their neighbours better than formal analyses like the one above convey. Informants on each side of the border will probably concede that their governments have become dog-eat-man regimes.
Political theatre and executive revisionism
Is Magufuli’s hyper-nationalism at odds with Kenya’s constitutionally mandated federalism? In reality, each of these shifts from the previous status quo have been manipulated to reinforce the two states’ tradition of top-down governance. Both governments face an ongoing crisis of constitutionalism, and both have resorted to elaborate exercises of political theatre to camouflage their respective political elites’ strategies to remain at the top of the food chain.
Kenya’s Building Bridges Initiative began with the handshake marking the reconciliation between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, then morphed into a comprehensive gambit to revise the nation’s new constitutional order. Two years later the government released an eloquently worded BBI task force report that was long on promises to fix long-festering problems, but short on how they would be implemented.
Informants on each side of the border will probably concede that their governments have become dog-eat-man regimes.
The provisions to double the seats in the senate, create 80 new parliamentary constituencies, and create positions for a prime minister and four deputy presidents are hard to justify for a country that already expends 48 per cent of its budget on state salaries. Unlike his father, Uhuru Kenyatta is not averse to experimentation. But the circus orchestrated by the BBI’s political beneficiaries has worked to redirect attention away from such inconvenient details.
Since the handshake the Kenyan public has been subjected to an unrelenting procession of media publicity, traveling pep rallies, and tactics used to herd reluctant politicians into the BBI corral. The campaign has been an amped up version of the Moi playbook, featuring theatrics reminiscent of the anti-Nyayo charade the former President used to outmaneuver his opponents during his early days in office.
The rapid deterioration of Magufuli’s health clearly caught his CCM faction by surprise. The media coverage of the President’s elevation from politician to prophet contrasted with the opaque treatment of his last two weeks on earth — or was it actually one week, as the intelligence that he actually passed away on the 10th of March claimed?
The Nabii failed to prophesise his departure from the stage. The roadshow that followed was a skillfully executed event that provided the Bulldozer’s inner circle with the breathing room needed to ring-fence the new President, who receded into the background after her eloquent speech at the funeral. In the meantime, critics were pointing out how the new government’s key appointments violated the process mandated in Tanzania’s constitution.
These games, however cynical, are part of a larger contest being waged across the larger Horn of Africa region, pitting executive power at the centre against distributed governance. Museveni’s Uganda presidency has dynastic ambitions, Rwanda is a developmental dictatorship, and Farmajo wants to restore the same kind of centralised state in Somalia that led to its collapse in 1991. Ahmed Abiy’s ugly war in Tigray is linked to his ambition to reverse the devolution established by the 1994 constitution that declared all sovereign power resides in the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia.
The strategies to bolster control at the centre that we are witnessing in Kenya and Tanzania may be benign by comparison, but the actions taken to muzzle the press and critics of government policies, along with political impunity, and institutionalised corruption, are not. They differ from the efforts to recentralise the state elsewhere by degree, not in kind.
Reimagining the African state?
The trend is part of a wider global pattern. Since 2017 opposition to heavy-handed governments and their policies has erupted across the world, occurring mainly in authoritarian and authoritarian-leaning states. These surging protests correlate with the reversal of gains in democratisation, respect for human rights, and increased local autonomy across the world.
Liberalisation catalysed a universal movement towards self-determination and the deconcentration of political power. Twenty years ago, scholars were even predicting the end of the nation-state as we know it. In recent years the state has fought back with a vengeance. Recent African developments, for example, reflect the influence of the surveillance state in China that is now challenging the democratic values guiding the post-1945 world order.
There was near-universal belief in the monolithic state at independence, and in the assumption that Africa’s leaders would use its power for the benefit of their populations. By the end of the 1960s these beliefs and assumptions were in tatters. African nations’ largely trial-and-error efforts to balance the nation-building equation since that time still represent the prerogative to adapt the state to the continent’s unique initial conditions.
The unique combination of scholarship, deep historical inquiry, and political imagination that flourished during the post-independence period, at least in theory, remains a useful resource for navigating Africa’s developmental future. The reforms of the post-1989 period come over as dismal and devoid of spirit in comparison, incapable of generating the creativity and passion inspired by the ideas that preceded them.
Tanzania was one of the continent’s leading exemplars of that era’s critical thinking. To his credit, John Pombe Magufuli fought to establish an equitable relationship with international capital while his counterparts in Kenya were drinking the foreign debt Kool-Aid. Theory is useful but trial and error empiricism is the best teacher. We hope that President Samia Suluhu Hassan will use the information generated by the two countries’ contrasting experience to negotiate an adaptive middle path without too much fanfare.
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