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Visionary or False Prophet: Why Did Raila Odinga Agree to Drink from the Poisoned Chalice?

14 min read. Raila Odinga has always fashioned himself as a visionary. This idea that he is driven by a larger common good, like Mbeki and Nkrumah, is what has earned Raila a following, especially within the intelligentsia, including at times when he hasn’t been able to articulate his ideas and ideological standpoints with coherence. But what Raila must not have been aware of as he went about his politics of deal-making is that others even greater than him have fallen because of the bad choices they made at critical moments.

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Visionary or False Prophet: Why Did Raila Odinga Agree to Drink from the Poisoned Chalice?
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‘‘Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories….’’
– Amilcar Cabral

On 1 February 1979, the political world’s attention was fixated on a chartered Air France plane flight number 4721 flying from Paris to Tehran, Iran’s capital. Aboard the flight was an unlikely passenger, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was returning to his home country from a long stint in exile and who had emerged as the de facto leader of the January 1979 Iranian Revolution. Khomeini was returning to Tehran after living in forced exile for almost 15 years. First sent to Turkey, where he detested the country’s overt secularism, he moved to Iraq, where he stayed for over a decade. Saddam Hussein kicked him out on allegations of regime change. Khomeini’s last base was at the Neauphle-le-Château on the outskirts of Paris, where he arrived in 1978, barely a year before the revolution.

Raila Odinga returned from a trip to the United States on 17 November 2017, right in the middle of agitations for electoral justice. The toll of the election protests, according to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, had left scores injured and about 100 civilians dead, including ten children, among them a six-month-old infant.

One hundred and twenty international journalists accompanied Khomeini on the flight as insurance, fearing that if he flew alone, the plane could become a target. He had sustained Iran’s revolutionary embers by ceaselessly sending home handwritten periodicals, which saw his popularity grow both at home and abroad. When Khomeini landed in Tehran, the airport was packed with thousands of Iranians yearning to catch a glimpse of the spiritual figure who had come to symbolise his people’s struggles and their eventual victory against the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. It became extremely difficult for Khomeini to leave the packed airport, prompting his handlers to resort to a change of plan more than once. Despite the pushing and shoving, Khomeini managed to make his way to central Tehran, where in a symbolic gesture of solidarity with fallen Iranians, he visited the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery – the burial site of those killed during the revolution – giving his first address to the country, signifying complete victory for Iranians.

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Raila Odinga returned from a trip to the United States on 17 November 2017, right in the middle of agitations for electoral justice. The toll of the election protests, according to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, had left scores injured and about 100 civilians dead, including ten children, among them a six-month-old infant. Hundreds of supporters thronged Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to receive the opposition leader. The intention was to escort Raila’s convoy to Uhuru Park, the historic grounds meant to host a much-anticipated homecoming rally at a time when opposition supporters were eager for a way forward. There was consensus within the opposition ranks that the Uhuru Kenyatta regime was illegitimate, thanks to a flawed electoral process that had resulted in the nullification of the 8 August 2017 election by the Supreme Court, followed by the 26 October 2017 vote that was boycotted by the opposition for fear of repeat irregularities courtesy of a non-reformed electoral commission.

With Uhuru’s wobbly regime in panic mode, hundreds of heavily armed security personnel were deployed at the airport and throughout downtown Nairobi. Defiant opposition supporters pushed against police guns, tear gas and water cannons, insisting that Raila had to enter Nairobi in triumphant fashion with supporters in tow. The windscreen of Raila’s bulletproof Range Rover was shot at and there were reports of several deaths and widespread injuries. The confrontation between the supporters and the police lasted throughout the day, a day that the Kenyan masses declared, like Winnie Mandela, that there was no more fear left.

Forming a human ring around Raila’s vehicle and those of his opposition colleagues, protesters pushed against charging anti-riot police for kilometres, scenes that had not been witnessed in Kenya since the mass protest “Second Liberation” rallies of the 1990s. The penultimate push was at the roundabout joining Haile Selassie Avenue and Uhuru Highway, where police unleashed the most lethal force – high-pressure water cannon sprays, unrelenting tear gas, bullet shots in the air, all of which the crowd pushed back against, refusing to yield. Upon overpowering the police once more, and emboldened by the mantra that the state can kill some of them but not all of them, the protestors proceeded towards the Uhuru Park entrance, shielding Raila’s SUV using their tired, scarred, beaten down and sweaty bodies.

Speaking emotionally atop his SUV about two hundred metres from Uhuru Park, where a portion of protestors had gathered, Raila announced Kenya’s “Third Liberation”, reiterating that the country had reached a point of no return, and repeating three times that Canaan, the metaphoric political Promised Land, was near. He castigated Uhuru Kenyatta, calling him a delinquent who had resorted to unleashing state terror on civilians.

As if entering Uhuru Park signaled the ultimate collapse of Uhuru Kenyatta’s government, the police rallied in desperation – shooting, throwing stones, deploying tear gas in a series of extrajudicial tactics that saw them succeed in dispersing the protestors. Vehicles were stoned and shot at, with tear gas canisters lobbed into some of the crowd. As Raila and his colleagues sped past, the message was clear to Kenyans watching the protest on live TV that Kenya had turned a corner. Never in the history of Kenyan resistance had the masses offered their fragile, hungry bodies as human shields in a day-long protest, walking right into imminent danger and refusing to budge. That day more than any other, Raila, who had earned a reputation for his tenacity in the liberation trenches for decades, earned the highest honour as the ultimate symbol of Kenyan resistance, a coronation of sorts as the Supreme Leader. There had been many protests before, but none resembled those that took place on that day. Protestors were willing to lay down their lives for Raila Odinga.

Speaking emotionally atop his SUV about two hundred metres from Uhuru Park, where a portion of protestors had gathered, Raila announced Kenya’s “Third Liberation”, reiterating that the country had reached a point of no return, and repeating three times that Canaan, the metaphoric political Promised Land, was near. He castigated Uhuru Kenyatta, calling him a delinquent who had resorted to unleashing state terror on civilians.

“Today I have a lot of anger,” Raila said, speaking in Kiswahili. “But first I want to thank you for coming to receive me at the airport…I am angry because of that boy called Uhuru Kenyatta. I have come back home but instead of a proper reception he is lobbing tear gas at me. Shooting at my people. Isn’t this barbaric?…Today is an important day in the political calendar of Kenya because we are announcing the Third Republic. I shall elaborate later. But today you have seen the signs, the signs of a collapsing government. Tell Uhuru goodbye.”

The anger and disappointment in Raila’s voice was palpable, making it clear that the man shared in the pain of the protestors who were desperate to reclaim their country and dignity. After the events of 17 November, everyone expected Raila to up the ante and exert more pressure on the state through the electoral justice movement, seeing that he had witnessed the sort of hardball Uhuru Kenyatta was willing to play. The masses, in standing in resolute solidarity with him, believed that Raila had the blueprint of what was shaping up into a people’s uprising against electoral authoritarianism, hoping and trusting that Raila was going to lead them towards complete liberation.

Was it naïve to have so much faith in a single individual?

On 30 January 2018, after weeks of hesitations and postponements, Raila was dramatically sworn in at Uhuru Park as the “People’s President” in a direct challenge to Uhuru Kenyatta’s government. Once again, thousands of wananchi threw caution to the wind and attended the event that had earlier been declared treasonous by the regime’s Attorney General. The event resulted in an anti-climax of sorts. Raila took the oath hurriedly before vanishing from the dais, after giving an equally rushed speech. His supposed equals within the opposition ranks were absent, possibly another red flag.

The swearing-in ceremony was followed by a crackdown on Raila’s lieutenants, which climaxed in the violent deportation of Miguna Miguna to Canada, where the lawyer had fled to in the late 1980s. Miguna, a Raila ally-turned-foe-turned-ally, bore the greatest brunt from the state response to the swearing-in.

Then all of a sudden, in the middle of the chaos, Raila appeared on the steps of Harambee House on 9 March 2018 accompanied by Uhuru Kenyatta. They shook hands, announcing what they christened as Kenya’s rebirth, as originally envisioned by their fathers. It was as if Khomeini had arrived in Tehran and in the midst of the chaos, gone forth to cut a backroom deal with the Shah in the name of giving Iran a rebirth.

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One of the watershed moments of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, barely a year after the Shah’s overthrow, was when university students sympathetic to Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution cordoned off the American embassy in Tehran, taking 52 U.S. diplomats hostage. It is widely reported that among the students was the future Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. On hearing about the siege, which apparently was planned and executed without his knowledge, Khomeini instructed the students to step down. But before the message was publicised, Khomeini was advised that the majority of Iranians supported the siege, and so for the sake of courting public opinion and consolidating the revolution, Khomeini was asked to reconsider his stand against the students, and instead support them.

In that decisive moment, Khomeini listened to the people’s voice and quickly retracted his earlier rebuke. The siege lasted 444 days, ruining U.S-Iran relations to date. In retrospect, the siege became one of the factors that consolidated the Islamic Revolution and Khomeini’s grip on power, against U.S. imperialistic adventures and asserting Iran’s sovereignty.

Apart from the imminent need to consolidate the revolution, Khomeini understood that as the de facto leader of a people, there comes a time when one stops making decisions based on self-interest, but instead surrenders to the people’s aspirations, despite the high stakes and risks involved. Khomeini was taking his leadership of the revolution seriously, a measure of a man who had been preparing for that moment for ages while exiled.

To his credit, much as he had his own ideas of what he wanted Iran to look like, Khomeini withheld them until such a time when the Shah was completely out of the picture, understanding that securing the revolution from counter-revolutionaries was as significant as the revolution itself. He had revolutionary discipline, and even though he became the most powerful individual in Iran, a near deity, Khomeini maintained an austere aura, living in a modest, barely furnished apartment and refusing to take office as either President or Prime Minister. Khomeini played a religious role, despite being the man wielding ultimate state power. In that sense, he managed to secure the Islamic Revolution as its chief vanguard, opting to stay in the shadows, which made him appear disinterested in the trappings of power in the eyes of Iranians, in a sense rising above everyday politics.

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By no means did anyone expect Raila Odinga to become Khomeini, even though he had his many Khomeini-esque moments. The issue at hand is how Raila unceremoniously deserted the electoral justice movement, which raises the question of whether he fully understood the amount of trust and weight of expectations opposition supporters had placed on his shoulders. One wonders whether for Raila, it was politics as usual – looking to get ahead of the pack in complete disregard for the electoral justice brigade.

Yet, whatever the spin in Raila’s favour, there is no denying that millions of Kenyans who coalesced around the electoral justice movement – on the streets, on social media or by donating money to the cause – felt a heavy sense of personal and collective loss when Raila, without the benefit of an open and transparent negotiation process, embraced Uhuru, who Raila had described as the embodiment of the problem with Kenya’s electoral justice system.

There is debate among his supporters as to whether Raila betrayed the people who were killed and injured during the protests, despite the counter-argument that everyone who showed up to the protests did so on their own volition, with a clear understanding of the attendant risks. There are those who say Raila betrayed the people’s movement. The counter-argument is that nothing was set in stone other than the swearing in, which Raila fulfilled, and the Third Liberation, which he may be pursuing in ways only he knows best.

Yet, whatever the spin in Raila’s favour, there is no denying that millions of Kenyans who coalesced around the electoral justice movement – on the streets, on social media or by donating money to the cause – felt a heavy sense of personal and collective loss when Raila, without the benefit of an open and transparent negotiation process, embraced Uhuru, who Raila had described as the embodiment of the problem with Kenya’s electoral justice system.

It was, of course, within Raila’s right to decide whichever way he wanted to play his politics. At the end of the day, he is just a politician with personal interests and shortcomings just like any other, despite his struggle credentials. In fact, history is replete with tens of liberation struggle heroes who turned out to be huge disappointments once they assumed power, or in their pursuit of power.

Raila, therefore, in his pursuit of power, has more than once made political deals whose actual benefit to the people of Kenya and their desire for a fully democratic state remains debatable. In a sense, throughout his political career, Kenyans have placed “Baba” Raila on a pedestal as a radical ideologue, and sometimes revolutionary, but time and again, Raila has chosen to play the moderate card. There is a school of thought that believes that Raila Odinga has been nothing but a political deal maker, a political entrepreneur of sorts. Even though Raila’s history is populated with a culture of perpetual deal-making, it can be argued that none of his previous deals have proven as politically monumental as his latest one.

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In 1996, when he opted out of his late father’s FORD-Kenya after failing to wrestle the party from an almost subdued Michael Kijana Wamalwa, the party shrunk, but it didn’t die. The grand march to State House, as Wamalwa liked to put it, continued until his ascendency to the Vice Presidency in 2003. Raila shifted to the National Development Party (NDP), under which he cut a deal with President Daniel arap Moi in 1998, merging his party with Moi’s KANU in 2002 to form New KANU. Again this time round there were no major casualties since Raila’s NDP family migrated with him wholesale.

Then in 2002, at Uhuru Park, despite having made separate deals with the likes of Simeon Nyachae, Raila held Mwai Kibaki’s hand and unilaterally said “Kibaki tosha”, making the opposition’s quest for a joint presidential candidate a fait accompli. Raila was later to become a Cabinet minister, after failing to secure a proposed role of Prime Minister. Raila’s lieutenant, James Orengo, had warned against supporting Mwai Kibaki, who he considered unprincipled. It did not take long before Raila got the short end of the stick, resulting in rising political temperatures that culminated in the 2007 post-election violence after a hotly contested 2005 referendum, which saw Raila and company exit government.

It has been argued that the hurried Kibaki tosha declaration fueled ethnic strife in Kenya. Kibaki’s 2003 presidency fermented the 2007/2008 post-election violence, after which Raila entered into possibly his only structured deal as Prime Minister.

The 2007/2008 post-election violence was the genesis of the Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto solidarity that assumed power in 2013 supported by Kibaki’s men. Raila described their victory as an electoral coup. The duo controversially retained power in 2017, and despite the controversies, Raila has made a deal with Uhuru Kenyatta. Looking at all this deal-making, conclusions can be drawn about whether these deals serve a bigger purpose other than seeing Raila’s personal and political star rise. In fact, an argument is made that Raila has become an eternal prisoner to these deals, since one deal heralds the next. The merger with Moi led Raila into a deal with Kibaki later in 2002, which led into a second deal with Kibaki in 2007, which then resulted in the new deal with Uhuru Kenyatta. Will there be more deals?

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Ordinarily, the relationship between fathers and sons is complex. Therefore, one can only imagine the sort of predicament which befalls sons like Uhuru and Raila, whose fathers were political colossi in their own right. Pressure persists for them to either protect their fathers’ legacies or to carve out their own fresh ones. Alternatively, there may arise a need for the son to make peace with the father’s enemies, for the sake of perpetuating the family name, or protecting family wealth. In this highly patriarchal world of fathers and sons, it is said that the sins of the father belong to the son, suggesting that sons cannot escape their father’s shadows.

When Raila and Uhuru made peace, the one thing that was apparent as the overarching theme in their joint sparsely-worded communique was that they were deeply convinced of the need to invoke the spirits of their fathers as a way of addressing Kenya’s perennial challenges. The two sons, therefore, revisited the ghosts of rivalry between Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and the country’s first vice president, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. Their fathers started out as friends before becoming adversaries. The sons started out as rivals, and were now seeking to become allies.

Is the fulfillment of a long-standing obligation from a son who seeks to complete his father’s original journey pushing Raila to make compromises in his quest to lead Kenya? Conversely, Raila could be his own man with his own sense of purpose; his aim could be to cast a shadow larger than his father’s by succeeding where Jaramogi couldn’t. It may also be a concoction of the two, where the son’s ambition meets his father’s unfinished business, what some may find to be an even more blinding sense of mission. On his part, Raila always insists that he is his own man, best illustrated whenever he attempts to debunk the view that he and Uhuru are products of Kenya’s political dynasties. In the end, it may not matter whether Jaramogi is an influencing factor, since Raila will be judged by his actions.

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Raila Odinga has always fashioned himself as a visionary. This idea that he is driven by a larger common good, like Mbeki and Nkrumah, is what has earned Raila a following, especially within the intelligentsia, including at times when he hasn’t been able to articulate his ideas and ideological standpoints with coherence. But what Raila must not have been aware of as he went about his politics of deal-making is that others even greater than him have fallen because of the bad choices they made at critical moments.

In his book, Thabo Mbeki: The Rise and Fall of Africa’s Philosopher King, the Nigerian academic, Professor Adekeye Adebajo, examines what he calls the contradictions and paradoxes of Thabo Mbeki, considered one of his generation’s most important intellectual leaders in Africa. Adebajo contrasts the village boy who grew into a somewhat Black European in mannerisms with the radical Marxist who adopted conservative economic policies as South Africa’s president, and the intellectual giant who went against science in his HIV/AIDs denialism, which resulted in the premature deaths of an estimated over 350,000 South Africans. In Mbeki, Adebajo sees a young Kwame Nkrumah, a man with a vision for an Africa that holds its head high, yet who is flawed in terms of the faulty policy interventions and methods he deployed in governing his country. Quoting Kenyan scholar Professor Ali Mazrui, who famously remarked that “Nkrumah was a great Pan-Africanist but not a great Ghanaian”, Adebajo wonders whether Mbeki will be remembered as a great Pan-Africanist but not as a great South African.

Raila Odinga has always fashioned himself as a visionary. This idea that he is driven by a larger common good, like Mbeki and Nkrumah, is what has earned Raila a following, especially within the intelligentsia, including at times when he hasn’t been able to articulate his ideas and ideological standpoints with coherence. But what Raila must not have been aware of as he went about his politics of deal-making is that others even greater than him have fallen because of the bad choices they made at critical moments. For Raila, if his deal with Uhuru means he has effectively sold the country to electoral authoritarians – an unforgivable and possibly irreversible historical blunder – he may end up facing a tougher legacy predicament at home and across Africa.

Almost no one had the intellectual firepower to rival Mbeki’s within the African National Congress (ANC), and within Nelson Mandela’s and later Mbeki’s own government, where it is reported that cabinet ministers were intimidated by his brilliance. Yet, as Adebajo argues, despite his exceptionalism, Mbeki failed in many areas, including in making a connection with the South African masses who he wanted to serve. He was accused of being aloof, arrogant, and of operating within the proverbial ivory tower where he pontificated about his lofty “Africa Renaissance” aspirations.

It is under these circumstances that Mbeki committed some of his worst blunders, including creating a small group of ANC-affiliated black bourgeoisie businessmen (whom he later grew to despise) instead of adopting a broader economic intervention for the benefit of the majority black population. In the end, Mbeki was replaced by an intellectual underachiever, Jacob Zuma, who became a costly mistake for the ANC.

Raila Odinga had the masses on his side but instead he chose to cross over to Uhuru. Like Mbeki at the time of his unexpected removal from power, Raila is currently in a vulnerable position, left at the mercy of Uhuru Kenyatta’s fidelity to their deal, whose enforcement remains secret. In case something happened and Uhuru was to vacate the deal, leaving Raila exposed, it may result in the unceremonious end for Raila Odinga. Whatever the eventuality, whether he becomes President or Prime Minister or not, and whether he outperforms himself once he assumes any of these positions or not, history may remember “the handshake” on 9 March 2018 as a selfish short cut to power in exchange for forgiveness for merchants of electoral injustice against Kenyans.

By deserting the loose formation that had become the electoral justice movement and effectively exiting the opposition coalition without notice, Raila was communicating that he did not owe anyone anything, even if he had appeared to be making certain commitments to the masses along the way. At the end of the day, he seemed to suggest this was just plain old survival politics.

There are those who may argue that a lot was expected of Raila, and unfairly so. Yet there are many who for a long time believed that it was Raila’s personal responsibility – on his own behalf and on behalf of ordinary Kenyans – to ensure fundamental change happened in Kenya’s governance. The man was viewed as a messiah of sorts. Therefore, by choosing to become an everyday politician and seeking a backroom deal for himself – seeing that he went out alone in cutting a deal with Uhuru, devoid of any political structures – Raila was possibly reminding everyone, including those he may have deliberately or unintentionally led on, that he held brief for no one. People needed to stop projecting their political aspirations on him, and to allow him to be an everyday individual just like everyone else, with the leverage of making choices, including bad ones.

By deserting the loose formation that had become the electoral justice movement and effectively exiting the opposition coalition without notice, Raila was communicating that he did not owe anyone anything, even if he had appeared to be making certain commitments to the masses along the way. At the end of the day, he seemed to suggest this was just plain old survival politics.

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Isaac Otidi Amuke is a Kenyan writer and journalist.

Politics

Is Democracy Dead or Has It Simply Been Hijacked?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Populist idiocy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A civic ritual

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How Corruption and Greed Are Destroying Africa’s Forests

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

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

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

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

Land grabs and exploitation

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

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

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

The effects of foreign liberalism

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

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

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

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

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

Deforestation and greed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The impact of corruption on deforestation

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

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

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

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

Reforestation and other plans to restore Africa’s forests

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rise of monoculture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kenya conundrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small as the new big

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The release phase and agrarian transition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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