The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.” ― Søren Kierkegaard
About a month before the 8 August 2017 general elections, the business community of the famous Nyamakima area in downtown Nairobi sealed the lower (southern side) of Charles Rubia Road that connects with Kumasi Road and part of the lower side of River Lane for a private function. All the people who conduct their business in this area were asked to close their premises as a gesture of goodwill, and primarily because they were all invited guests at the function.
The private function was a pre-presidential election party held in honour of Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta, the presidential candidate of the Jubilee Party who was going to face Raila Amolo Odinga aka Baba, the nominee for the opposition outfit, the National Super Alliance (Nasa).
Goats had been slaughtered and crates of “Ruaraka Waters” aka East African Breweries Limited (EABL) beer had been carted there and flowed in plenty. Those who preferred brandy and whisky were also taken care of. The afternoon weather was super, the participants were ecstatic – lots of cheer and laughter rented the air as the Kikuyus – both men and women – danced and waltzed to mugithi and one-man guitar lyrics. The bash went on till late into the night.
“Nimekumenya ni mahoya na ti urogi.” They will know its prayers and not sorcery, shouted the crowd. The revellers were prepping themselves for a second stab at Uhuru’s presidential two-term uncontested win. “Nimekumenya matioi.” They will know, they hardly know. They were referring to Raila’s fervent supporters and Raila himself. “Reke Uhuru aingere…tugutonga mamake,” Kamwea, one of the younger businessman, was later to excitedly tell me. Let Uhuru bounce back into State House…we’ll really grow rich, we’re going to astound them. To prove their loyalty to and undying support for Uhuru Kenyatta, the businessmen and women had come together and collected money for the Jubilee Party presidential kitty worthy of Nyamakima’s name and fame.
Later, when jolted by the Supreme Court of Kenya’s “adverse” ruling on 1 September 2017, which revoked Uhuru’s win (which they viewed as a temporary setback) they doubled their efforts: they printed loud banners and hung them mostly on roads in downtown Nairobi. “Nyamakima Business Community supports Uhuru Kenyatta,” read one banner…. “Gaberone Road Business People supports Jubilee Party’s President Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta,” read another. Still, Du Bois Road Business Community Says Tano Tena.
The Supreme Court set the second fresh presidential election for 26 October 2017, a date that fell on President Uhuru’s birthday. “Kai atari Jehova…muthamaki aumaga kuri ngai.” It’s the workings of the Almighty God, they mused. (How else could you explain this coincidence?) A king is anointed by God.
Befuddled and shaken by the Supreme Court’s unprecedented decision, the Nyamakima business community nonetheless rallied – now more assiduously than ever before – for Uhuru’s second presidential cause, which they took personally to be their own. “Ngai ndatiganagiria andu ake.” The good Lord doesn’t forsake his people, they consoled themselves.
“Nikumera ta thuraku,” (this time around) we must come out like safari ants, the Nyamakima traders exhorted the Kikuyu traders and every other Kikuyu. “Tano Tena” five more, hollered the business people moving around with loudspeakers in downtown Nairobi, like possessed preacher men. In the intervening period between 1 September 1 and 26 October, Tano Tena become the standard greeting of the Kikuyu people in Nyamakima and practically everywhere else they lived. High-fiving in the air on the streets of downtown Nairobi became the norm.
Nyamakima is a Kiswahili word meaning minced meat. In the 1950s, during the colonial emergency period that lasted for seven years – from 1952 to 1959 – there was an African restaurant in the present Nyamakima area. But the old women who sold cereals in the area…could not eat bone meat either because they did not have strong teeth or they did not have teeth at all. So the restaurant owner came up with a plan: why not mince the meat for the old ladies who could chew it with their gums?
Nyamakima traders are not averse to holding bashes: in January 1988, on hearing that Kariuki Chotara, the combustible Nakuru Kanu politician, had died, they momentarily closed their businesses, stormed into pubs, drank themselves silly and toasted to his death. They reminded each other, “gutiri utuko utakiaga”, which meaning every night has its dawn.
But what the Nyamakima Kikuyus (as indeed Kikuyus in Naivasha and Nakuru, where they also celebrated Chotara’s death) were observing is that nothing lasts forever. If Chotara thought he could torment his fellow kinsmen forever, he had another thought coming. Chotara had been the Nakuru District Kanu chairman, who took over from Kihika Kimani, a man who had tormented Vice President Daniel Toroich arap Moi in the 1970s. Chotara, who became President Moi’s political courtier and a court jester, was much loathed by Kikuyus countrywide.
Nyamakima is a Kiswahili word meaning minced meat. In the 1950s, during the colonial emergency period that lasted for seven years – from 1952 to 1959 – there was an African restaurant in the present Nyamakima area. But the old women who sold cereals in the area – many of whom were from the Rwathia area in Murang’a District – could not eat bone meat either because they did not have strong teeth or they did not have teeth at all. So the restaurant owner came up with a plan: why not mince the meat for the old ladies who could chew it with their gums?
Hence, Nyamakima, over and above everything else, is famously and popularly known for these Murang’a women whose specialty for the last 60-plus years has been trading in cereals. Today, those cereals come all the way from the border of Malawi and Tanzania, in the Mbeya region and Kabale, Soroti and Tororo regions of Uganda. In the 1950s, the women thrived in business because they were too old to be arrested, unlike their sons, many of whom were arraigned and harassed by the colonial police. When the emergency ended, the young men joined the old ladies to do what they knew best: engage in trading hardware businesses.
The Murang’a folks were not generally interested in land per se, but in commodities’ businesses. That is why their women came to Nairobi and would buy the merchandise, then as now, from wherever they could get them. Likewise, the Murang’a young men have been socialised to believe in business and not so much in acquiring land or even advancing or excelling in academic and formal education, unlike their counterparts from Nyeri and Kiambu. That is why so many of the electronic and hardware shops in Nyamakima are run by Murang’a lads.
Nyamakima also become a famous and popular stage for Kikuyus from South Kinangop because many of them who were settled in the area hailed from the greater Murang’a area. The only place they knew in Nairobi was Nyamakima because that is where their kith and kin lived and worked. So, when visiting their families and friends in Nairobi, they would ask to be dropped at Nyamakima. To date, Nyamakima is the terminus for people travelling to Kinangop, Molo, Naivasha, Ng’arua, Njoro, Nyahururu, Nakuru, Narok and Sopili.
It is a wonder that Charles Rubia Road was not named after Kenneth Stanley Njindo Matiba. Although both were great friends and both came from the then greater Murang’a District, it is the mercurial Matiba, the better known of the two politicians, who used to frequent Nyamakima (the bastion of his political support in Nairobi) just after the country returned to multiparty politics in 1991. He even used to get his hair cut in a barbershop at Nyamakima area, which was called “Little Murang’a”.
No more Tano Tena
Last week I visited Nyamakima, where I walked the length and breadth of Charles Rubia Road, ending up at River Lane, where I ate kamuchere na tuchahi (rice and turtle beans) at Wa-Michelle’s ramshackle joint. “Nii ndiuwe tukurora nako.” I tell you I don’t know where we’re headed, Wa-Michelle told me. “Biashara ni gukua ira kua….tarori kutire andu akuria irio.” Businesses are slowly dying off…look, for example, there are no people to eat my food.
It was lunchtime but there were only two customers (including me) at Wa-Michelle’s place. “Barely two years ago, by 3.00 pm, I’d sell all these food and more and I’d be out of here to go and engage in another business…Now I make little food, because I can’t afford to make losses,” said the food seller. “The price of foodstuff has gone up: I used to buy white flour for ugali at Sh80, now it’s Sh120, Wheat flour at Sh110, now it’s Sh130. The price of grains such as white and yellow beans have equally gone up. When I pushed some of the burden to the customers, they didn’t like it, but what could I do? That’s also why some of them stopped coming. I don’t fault them.”
Nineteen months after the second presidential election that handed Uhuru Kenyatta the presidency with even less votes, the Tano Tena mantra has been reduced to a whimper, a sob story. For most of the Nyamakima traders on Charles Rubia Road and River Lane, businesses having gone south.
I asked her what had been happening to the famous Nyamakima businesses. “We don’t know…we don’t know…business premises are just closing down…didn’t you walk up River Lane to see for yourself traders who have closed shop and vacated the premises?” (I had.) Once thriving electronic business premises have closed shop and now all one can see is white paper notices plastered on the grill doors announcing premises for letting out and “no goodwill asked”.
Nineteen months after the second presidential election that handed Uhuru Kenyatta the presidency with even less votes, the Tano Tena mantra has been reduced to a whimper, a sob story. For most of the Nyamakima traders on Charles Rubia Road and River Lane, businesses having gone south. It is a far cry from the scene of the “Uthamaki ni witu” (political leadership is ours [Kikuyus’] bash, where the traders dined and wined liberally, wiggling their bottoms in unbridled ecstasy.
Two years ago, it would have been unheard of that a Nyamakima business premise – whether on the ground floor or inside a building – was being rented out and that the landlord did not demand goodwill. But the traders have fallen on hard times; they can no longer afford the rents which are between Sh80,000 and Sh100,000 per month for strategically located premises, mostly on the ground floor. If by happenstance a renting trader was vacating a premise, the owner of the premise would ask the next tenant for a goodwill fee ranging between Sh1 million and 3 million and the place would be snapped up like a hot cake.
“Thuraku cia itererio maguta ma tawa,” (after we voted for the second time), the safari ants met their calamity, Wa-Michelle said to me half in jest, half in sadness. “Uhuru arateng’eria aici aa njugu agatiga aa ruwa.” President Uhuru is apparently busy chasing petty thieves, while the real thieves are walking scot-free. Wa-Michelle spoke to me in idioms. Metaphorically, she was saying that the president had resorted to harassing Nyamakima traders who dealt in small-time businesses, while neglecting to deal with the real corrupt Kenyans who were pilfering the state coffers.
In Kikuyu culture, a person who stole ruwa (animal skin), as opposed to the one who stole njugu (grains), was considered a more dangerous and vicious thief because he was stealing your entire livelihood. A grains thief most likely stole your grains because he or his family was hungry and therefore did not steal to spite you.
The shops owners whose shops had wound up, said Wa-Michelle, belonged to young Kikuyu men, who basically dealt in electronic goods imported from China. Now the goods were being confiscated by the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), ostensibly, because they were considered counterfeits. “Realising there was a loophole to make a killing, the KRA officials had turned to blackmailing and preying on the electronic goods’ traders,” opined Wa-Michelle. “They have been haunting the traders to pay up humungous bribes, failure to which, they raid your shops.” Prayers had turned into witchcraft, the anointed one had turned to tormenting his people and it has turned out that, in fact, it is the Kikuyu people who actually did not know that they indeed did not know.
‘How can Uhuru do this to us?’
I looked for Mwangi, who has been a trader for many years in Nyamakima. For many years, he ran a hardware shop but around 15 years ago, he also started importing electronic stuff from Guangzhou, China. His story sounded both bitter and confused. “I’ve been in this business for long, possibly longer than many of the traders in this area, but I’ll tell you this, I don’t remember business being so difficult and so down,” he said.
“As we speak, my goods have been detained at the government’s Embakasi warehouses, because KRA alleges they are counterfeit,” bemoaned Mwangi. “The goods are in a 40-foot container and it has been at the warehouses since December 2018. I don’t know when it’s going to be released, if it’s going to be released at all. Everyday the goods spend a night at the warehouse and I’m surcharged $40 (Sh4,000). My clearing agent has been telling me that the KRA officials have been sending mixed signals about the release of the goods, which he tells me, he can’t clearly interpret.” Mwangi said that there are about 2,000 40-foot containers of 70 cubic meters volume detained at the warehouses.
He admitted that he was among those businessmen who had contributed money to the Jubilee Party, but President Uhuru’s second term was turning out to be a nightmare for the Nyamakima traders. “I frankly don’t know what’s happening, we are at a loss. How can Uhuru do this to us?” Mwangi thought aloud as I spoke to him outside his shop. It was a clear testament that business was doing so badly that he could even afford to find time to speak to me. “My friend had business been flowing the way it did two years back, trust me, I’d not have found time to talk to you. Look, how many customers have you seen coming to the shop since we stood here talking?”
“If the government doesn’t want us to be importing goods from China, it should set up its own factories. We’re always ready to do business, because that’s our life,” pointed out the businessman.
“President Uhuru’s government is telling us traders that we are importing counterfeits as well as contraband,” said Mwangi angrily. “Hell knows we’ve been importing these goods from China all these years. Yes, it true, the goods we import are cheap and not of great quality – they are meant for mwananchi. But this new government story that the goods are counterfeit is boggling our minds.” Mwangi said that by the time traders were importing the goods, the government was aware because the declaration form they fill indicates all the types of goods they are bringing into the country.
“If the government doesn’t want us to be importing goods from China, it should set up its own factories. We’re always ready to do business, because that’s our life,” pointed out the businessman. “These goods are also used by the Chinese people…but it seems to the government…what’s good for the gander is not good for the goose. We’ve been asking ourselves how and when the government decided the goods are fake. It cannot be that the government has just woken up to the fact that we’ve been bringing in substandard goods for all these years. Why it has decided to punish us we’re yet to comprehend.”
The businessman said that the irony of this government exercise is that if after one year your goods remain uncollected at the warehouses, it can auction the goods to interested bidders. “On the one hand, the government says the goods are fake, but on the other, to offset the charges and create room at the warehouses, it offloads the goods to a willing buyer – to do what with them?” Many traders unable to pay the mounting KRA fees waited for the auction to take place,in order to buy back their goods, said Mwangi. It was an irony, but one that the businessmen have to contend with.
The more he talked about their plight the more Mwangi was getting furious. “This is a government that is telling us not to import goods from China, yet it is borrowing from the same country…Why is President Uhuru very quick to receive Chinese money, but won’t allow us to import their goods? President Uhuru has been talking about Agenda Four; he seems to be consumed with an imaginary legacy than working for the people. Who, for example, told him we want to be built houses?”
The businessman observed that “the government had now come up with a scheme that nobody understood what it was all about. This Huduma Namba is very suspicious: the government has already messed up with our businesses, now it wants to mess up with our privacy. Why does Uhuru want to know about our private details? So that he can create more avenues to eke out more money from us?”
Mwangi, just like Wa-Michelle, had confided to me that many Nyamakima traders had kept off the Huduma Namba registration. “We’ve got more urgent matters to attend to than be preoccupied by insidious people who want to mine our personal and secretive details for their use.”
Kamau, a property owner in the Nyamakima area and a staunch supporter of President Uhuru, has been suffering panic attacks off and on: He simply cannot believe that his beloved President is killing their businesses. During President Mwai Kibaki’s tenure, he acquired three buildings, did some clever renovations and soon he was in good business. He could afford to service his bank loans and business life looked very promising. In the past one and half years, he confessed to me that his real estate business has never received such a beating. “Traders have been vacating my premises because they simply cannot afford the rents because their goods have been confiscated and so they also have nothing to sell.” He said if he doesn’t regularly service his loans, the banks would come for him.
One businesswoman told me that Kikuyus are of the view that they would rather suffer under a brutal leader who is their tribesman rather than be ruled by a good leader who is not of their ethnic group. It is God who gave them that leader – it is also the same God who will know how to deal with him, they argue.
Both Mwangi and Kamau could not bring themselves to lay the blame squarely on President Uhuru: “It is the people surrounding him that are advising him wrongly,” they both separately said to me. It was an argument with its obvious weak strand that explained the true dilemma of many Uthamaki believers – they will not be openly caught criticising President Uhuru. To do that is to go against the grain; it is to accept that they made a wrong choice in their voting; it is to repudiate the cardinal rule of their tribal teaching on electoral voting: you must always vote for one of your own – irrespective. But more significantly, is it not true that a muthamaki is chosen for the people by God? Is this not what their Christian faith teaches them? Is this not what they have been repeatedly taught by their church leaders? If they criticise muthamaki, would they not, by extension, be finding fault with the almighty God?
One businesswoman told me that Kikuyus are of the view that they would rather suffer under a brutal leader who is their tribesman rather than be ruled by a good leader who is not of their ethnic group. It is God who gave them that leader – it is also the same God who will know how to deal with him, they argue. “We leave everything to God, in the meantime. Ours is to pray and ask God to not forsake us,’ said the businesswoman. Wa-Michelle told me Kikuyus could be suffering (even after twice voting for their man) because they had turned their back to God. “We’ve really sinned and come short of the glory of the Lord. We’ve forgotten that we live and prosper because of his dutiful mercies. It is incumbent we rediscover God.”
Mwangi said Nyamakima and the downtown Kikuyu businesspeople in general are planning to demonstrate and protest against President Uhuru’s draconian measures against their businesses. “President Uhuru seems only to understand the language of protest. Last year, we organised ourselves and marched to Harambee House and the Office of the Deputy President and presented them with our memoranda of grievances. For some time, the harassment eased off, but not for long.”
In the meantime, the businesses in Nyamakima will continue to suffer losses.
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.
“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.
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”?
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.
“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).
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.
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.
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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