Over the course of his career, Professor Yash Pal Ghai has had the opportunity to act as a visiting professor in a number of countries, teaching law across Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, India, Singapore, South Africa, Canada, Fiji, and Italy. It was during one such visiting appointment in 2000, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, that Ghai received one of the most important calls of his career.
When the phone rang, Ghai was sitting with Bill Whitford, his longtime friend, in Whitford’s home in Madison. It was Amos Wako, Ghai’s former student, then the Attorney General of Kenya. “Come home,” Wako said to a stunned Ghai. His initial reaction was disbelief. “Are you really serious?” he asked Wako. “Yes,” Wako explained, “Everyone wants you to come home, and President Moi wants you to write the new constitution.”
Ghai’s initial reaction was, unsurprisingly, one of hesitation. “The government had never shown any interest in me, and I still felt bitter about the way I had been treated.” His hesitation was compounded by a feeling of detachment. Although he had been home sporadically in the intervening years, it was never for more than a few days at a time; he did not have a strong sense of what was happening politically. “I said no,” Ghai says. “I didn’t know what was happening, my experience had been bad and I didn’t know how sincere they were.” Indeed, Ghai had missed the years of political turmoil that preceded this moment. He had been away while the Kenyan executive gradually consolidated power and eroded democratic rights; he had missed the decades of struggle for constitutional reform.
Over the next few days, however, he consulted with old friends, including Pheroze Nowrojee and Willy Mutunga, who advised him to visit and survey the landscape before making a final decision. “Then one day my secretary rings from Hong Kong and says, ‘This man who rang has called again and wants to see you. Can I give him your details in America?’ The next day, Wako arrived in Wisconsin. He spent time with me and said things had changed and that I should give it a chance.” Cottrell Ghai also recalls it clearly. “Wako actually went to Madison. It was most extraordinary.”
As Ghai considered the offer, many of his contacts in Nairobi told him not to accept. The country was deeply divided, and the thinking around constitutional reform was concentrated in two opposing camps, one led by the Moi government and the other led by a coalition of religious leaders and civil society organisations, known as Ufungamano. Many in civil society did not trust that any real change could come through government-led efforts, and they believed that the focus should remain on deposing Moi from power. Mutunga was relatively alone among Ghai’s closest friends in his support. “He had written constitutions all over the place in the Commonwealth. He was honoured by the Queen for it. As a patriot, writing one for Kenya would be a great accolade. He had his doubts, but as a human rights activist we urged him to take up the task, notwithstanding the challenges.”
After some initial thought, Ghai agreed to visit Kenya and survey the landscape without necessarily committing. First, however, he had to return to Hong Kong, which he did via Papua New Guinea, where he had some work. Ghai was relatively cut off for the duration of his short assignment, but by the time he returned to Hong Kong, Wako had (falsely) announced that he had accepted the position, a move that would eventually come back to haunt Wako.
When Ghai made his first visit to Kenya in December 2000, it was a momentous occasion. Wako and Raila Odinga, who was at the time representing the Langata constituency in parliament, personally met and welcomed Ghai home. He used this initial visit to meet with key players and get the lay of the land, eventually deciding to take the position but only on his own terms. When he returned to Hong Kong, though, the University was unwilling to allow Ghai to accept the assignment. A few days after the refusal, Ghai received a call from the Chancellor. “He said he hadn’t been able to sleep,” Ghai remembers. “He had raised this with the Council and they said they felt a bit bad. After all, it was a chance for me to go back to my country. So they said, ‘Ok, but this is the last time you can go.’ We felt it wasn’t right for Jill to also leave so she stayed back.”
Whitford remembers Ghai’s hesitation. “He didn’t need that job. He just felt this tremendous loyalty to Kenya. He always travelled on a Kenyan passport even though he could’ve gotten a British passport. That was a real pain in the ass, but he did it. It was just important to him to play that role. It was about the chance to do something for his country.” Mutunga agrees, saying, “Kenya remained his constant North.” It had been more than three decades since Ghai had been a young student, standing on the steps of Lancaster House, watching the Kenyan delegates arrive to negotiate an independence constitution. This was a chance for him to contribute to the next phase of that mission – to lend the wisdom he had gained through years of service to other countries to his own homeland.
When Ghai returned to Nairobi, now ready to begin work in earnest, he was under no illusions. Moi was under pressure. He wanted someone who would get it done and get it done quickly. “I told Moi I wasn’t ready to accept. I would only take it if all the key groups in the country were involved in this process. I didn’t want to come and talk to a few politicians. I made it clear that it had to be a very participatory process. I said, ‘If you are willing on that basis, I will consider it.’ ” Ghai told Moi he required two to three months to merge the Ufungamano and government groups and create one united constitutional process. Ghai then embarked on what many consider to be one of his crowning achievements, the process of bringing the two sides together. So committed was he to achieving unity that he refused to take the oath as Chair of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC) unless there was one, unified process.
In addition to the divisions between the government and Ufungamano, Ghai quickly found that he would also have to address divisions within the Ufungamano group itself. According to Zein Abubakar, who represented the Safina Party at Ufungamano and who also became a commissioner of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission, a “radical” wing of the Ufungamano process saw Ghai as someone who undermined the revolutionary path. Indeed, a radical minority group remained opposed throughout, branding those who participated as “sell outs.” At the same time, Abubakar explains, it was understandable; the government had never kept its word in the past and the fear of betrayal was very real.
Ghai was aware of the divisions. “At that time,” he remembers, “civil society were very divided about my coming. They had already formed their own commission. They had already started going from town to town to talk about the constitution. I didn’t want to sabotage them.” Indeed, John Githongo, who was the head of Transparency International at the time, remembers being highly suspicious of Ghai. “I’ll be very honest. I was very concerned and completely opposed to him. I’ve never told him this, but we were very, very skeptical of a person brought by Amos Wako, even though the Ghai brothers had a sterling reputation as academics. Yash was bright and super-brained, but our attitude was that there’s no way he’s going to get our politics. He’s been away too long.” Abubakar agrees, explaining that Ghai – despite his international reputation – had no legitimate standing with local civil society and religious leaders.
His commitment to achieving unity greatly impressed skeptics in the Ufungamano group. Abubakar says, “One of the things we appreciated was his position that there can only be one process, which was principled. One of the things that bothered a number of leaders was that if you had two processes, apart from divisiveness, how would you implement the outcome of either one? The country was split 55-45 in our favour. It’s very difficult to have a constitutional order that is not supported by half the country. There was also potential for violence and reversal of some of the democratic gains that people had paid for and won by then. At a strategic level, we said that it is better to negotiate a unified process.”
Ghai’s style, based on an objective and open attitude, impressed key players. Abubakar remembers, “The first thing he did was to listen to various sections of society and the listening process allowed him to understand that this process was deeply dividing the nation. Based on those initial consultations and listening, he decided not to take the oath as Chair. That also helped build bridges with the religious sector and the other side, because he was seen as credible and as someone who is not showing any bias. He was willing to listen to everyone who had an opinion.” Githongo agrees, pointing to Ghai’s refusal to take the oath as one of the key factors in shifting the tide in his favour. “His credibility started very low with progressive forces. He was seen as Moi’s man, Wako’s man. I remember all of us sitting around, discussing. People said, ‘No, no. This is a hatchet man for Moi, a waste of time.’ But then he refused to take the oath. Yash’s credibility was first built on that – his unwillingness to take the oath until the two sides came together. It was a very slick move, very well executed. In fact, he doesn’t talk about it or show it but he is a very politically wily operator. After that, all of a sudden, people took him seriously.”
Ghai also made it clear that he was willing to walk away from the process if it did not live up to his standards. Unlike many others who had been competing for the position of Chair of what would be the review commission, Ghai had no personal ambition to win the position. Abubakar says, “He was willing to walk away and that was important in terms of people’s willingness to sit and talk.”
Finally, Ghai’s connections to all sides greatly facilitated communication and eventual cohesion. “He opened back channels to government and to opposition leaders,” Abubakar says. “I think the insistence then of both Ghai and Raila supporting Ghai is what reluctantly convinced Moi to agree to a common process. If it had been Ghai alone, it wouldn’t have happened. It had to be Ghai and Raila. Ghai then said if there is no willingness to unite the country in a process and make sure the process is credible, he was willing to walk away.”
After nearly five months of negotiations, Ghai achieved unity. The two sides came together, and now the real work began.
As Chair of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC), Ghai created and implemented a citizen-centred methodology based on his decades of experience. The CKRC set up local offices around the country, canvassing public views and educating Kenyan citizens about the process. The Commission also travelled extensively, in multiple rounds, to hold public hearings so that they could listen to what people wanted with regard to the key issues. It was important to Ghai to create a publicly-owned constitution, one that addressed people’s longstanding grievances and that offered equal empowerment and protection to all. He personally travelled to public hearings, further demonstrating his deep commitment to and investment in the work. Githongo says, “I was very impressed, and I grew to have a great fondness for him. He was not only giving intellectually. He believed deeply in the work.”
Indeed, the Ufungamano groups had already begun the process of canvassing public opinion, and Ghai was able to carry that initial momentum forward. “Many places were new to me,” Ghai remembers. “I had never been to so many places. In the beginning, it was not easy. My Swahili had deteriorated a lot, but I still enjoyed it and found it very interesting. I had never seen so many different Kenyans, different styles of dress and ways of life. I enjoyed getting people’s views, getting concrete feedback from the people.” Abubakar recalls Ghai’s personal touch on these journeys. “He has a willingness to learn from others, to talk to people, just ordinary people who flock around him. I had the occasion of him accompanying me to a number of public hearings. He has an ordinary touch with people. He has an ability to inspire people. He connects with young people, ordinary people, people from all different stations in life – from leaders all the way to people who don’t know where the next meal will come from. One time, we were driving to a hearing and he saw people walking on the side of the road. He said, ‘Stop the car and ask these people where they are going.’ They said they were going to the hearing. And then he asked for arrangements for them to be dropped there. And he’s in his element that way.”
The Commission was extremely successful, and by the end of the process, it had collected over 37,000 public submissions on a full range of issues. In its 2002 report to the country, the CKRC highlighted 13 main points from the people. Examples of these included a desire for a “decent life”, fair access to land, a request to have more control over decisions which affect daily life, leaders who meet a higher standard of intelligence and integrity, respectful police, gender equality, freedom of expression for minorities and accountable government. There was a clearly expressed demand to “bring government closer to us.” The CKRC was deeply moved by the public participation, commenting on how “humbling” it had been to see “people who, having so little, were most hospitable to the Commission teams, and [who were] prepared to raise their eyes from the daily struggle to participate with enthusiasm in the process of review.” Githongo calls this public consultation process the second pillar of Ghai’s credibility. “The process he defined and described helped people see that he was serious. He became a people’s hero.
Ghai’s commitment to his work generated massive amounts of attention. Abubakar says he respects Ghai for his ability to remain “down to earth.” He says, “Prof. [Ghai] didn’t take big security. The only time that he took it was when the government insisted and that was periodic.” This was in sharp contrast to other commissioners, who insisted on 4-wheel drive cars and who even refused to share vehicles with Secretariat staff. Mutunga agrees, recalling, “They wanted him to drive a big car; he refused. Moi even announced that Yash was being too lax about security, and we all thought it meant he would be bumped off! One of the reasons why he became so popular was because of his humility.”
At the end of public review, the CKRC moved on to drafting, producing a draft constitution in September 2002. Ghai then broke his team into thematic groups, each responsible for refining and improving specific portions of the draft. He called in experts from around the world to assist and offer comparative knowledge. He also courted diplomats, many of whom were so impressed that they offered to help fund the process. “But I said, ‘no,’” remembers Ghai. “I wanted it to be a Kenyan process.” Three days before the debate on the draft was to begin, however, President Moi dissolved parliament. Since all MPs were part of the National Constitutional Conference, the body legally mandated to adopt the new Constitution, things could not proceed. In December 2002, Kenya held landmark elections. Moi, who had been in power for nearly a quarter of a century (24 years), finally stepped down, ceding power to the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), headed by President Mwai Kibaki. One of NARC’s key campaign promises was the promulgation of a new constitution within the first 100 days in office. Once in office, Kibaki stalled. “When people talked about presidential and parliamentary systems, Kibaki used to say that we are opposed to an imperial presidency; we want a parliamentary system. Once he realised that he could be president, that all changed. There was a lot of this opportunism. Even Raila to a certain extent – once Raila realised he wouldn’t be president, he split away.” Indeed, speculation was rife that the aging Kibaki’s reluctance to move ahead with the Constitution was due, at least in part, to a provision that would prevent him from running for a second term.
In April 2003, four months after the elections, the process again got underway, this time at the Bomas of Kenya. Ghai remembers, “When we moved to Bomas, I told the people there that we are going to take over and we need six, seven months. This is going to be hundreds of people. I felt that people should have time to think about their own positions. The mood got better and better. People got to know each other. By the end, people who didn’t know each other had become good friends.” At the same time, however, there was increasing factionalisation amongst the delegates, each making decisions purely based on political self-interest. At one point, during a break in drafting, the government attempted to stop the process from continuing. “I don’t think I have ever seen him so apoplectic,” Githongo recalls with a smile. “Prof. started leading demos of delegates in the streets to demand entry into the Bomas, and that was against guys with guns and dogs,” recalls Abubakar.
Soon thereafter, Ghai was alerted that Kibaki was planning to take the CKRC to court and allege that the entire process was illegal. Upon hearing of the impending court case, Ghai moved quickly to finalise a draft. At this point, however, Ghai remembers that “the only people left in the constitution-making body were from Raila’s side. Others were told to boycott. Kibaki and the DP walked out ostentatiously at one point when they saw they wouldn’t get the vote they wanted.” Particularly contentious to the government were provisions for a parliamentary system and some aspects of devolution. He resolved to work hard to finish. “I had only ten or eleven days to finish and get an endorsement. We had to do so much so quickly, and that’s why some parts are not so good.” Kibaki succeeded in court, and the CKRC was prevented from passing its draft to the government. “That he was able to get the Bomas draft approved by the delegates before the reactionary forces disbanded the conference was a miracle,” says Mutunga.
Ghai returned to Hong Kong soon after finalising the Bomas draft. “I read in the papers that the High Court had declared the whole process and the constitution unconstitutional. I felt terrible. I think I issued a couple of strong articles saying that, based on the documents that started the process, we were legal. By that time, Kibaki had gotten enough support and bribed enough people. They dissolved parliament all together, and then there was nothing more for me to do.” Cottrell Ghai remembers the final push as particularly difficult. “They put huge pressure on the closing stages of the process. There was a sense of great satisfaction for having produced a document but he was disappointed.”
The government’s hijacking of the process became most clear at the end of the Bomas period, but Ghai faced enormous amounts of stress throughout the process. Cottrell Ghai remembers calling him every morning from Hong Kong, after reading the Kenyan papers online, to warn him about what he could expect that day.
Ghai had little say, for instance, regarding the team of commissioners he would lead, and it was clear that there were divisions. Some commissioners were little more than spies for the government side, sometimes purposely delaying progress, while others were more interested in using the opportunity for personal profit than for sincere constitutional reform. “After Yash had managed to unite the two sides, he found himself with a very difficult CKRC, riven with self-interest, corruption, people meeting with the president behind his back, people being paid off . . . which he had to mitigate on an ongoing basis,” says Githongo. Mistrust was so deeply embedded that Abubakar insisted on the verbatim recording of all meeting minutes. “It was the only protection against people who would change their views. Almost all our meetings were recorded verbatim with the exception of two to three of them, where it was so bad that people said to switch it off. Of course, that in itself was against what we had agreed.”
An early battle erupted over the Secretary of the Commission, who – according to both Abubakar and Ghai – was a severe alcoholic, incapable of discharging even the most basic of his duties. “The person was not fit for public office,” Abubakar remembers. When dismissal procedures started, however, Moi was against it, and he threatened to disband the entire CKRC. Ghai and others stood firm, making it clear that they were willing to walk away from the Commission if the Secretary was not dismissed. It worked. “It became so bad that when the other members realised that we were willing to disband, they backtracked and went to see Moi. They convinced him to give the Secretary a soft landing by appointing him to the Law Reform Commission,” Abubakar recalls.
Corruption and betrayal were significant issues, dogging Ghai throughout his time as head of the CKRC. Cottrell Ghai recalls this as a particular strain on Ghai. “Some of the commissioners were very nice, but others were lazy or corrupt. They were all a bit corrupt. That was all a big strain, constantly watching whether they were stealing. Yash would say, ‘I think I’m going to resign and then the next day, he would say, ‘It’s ok. I’ll carry on.’ The up and down was quite a strain.” Ghai agrees, attributing the onset of his diabetes to this period in his life.
Githongo also recalls Ghai’s stress and frustration. “Sometimes, he would rant and we would all sit and listen. And he would go on and on sometimes, talking about receipts and accounts, and then we would gently have to say, ‘Ok, let’s get back to the agenda.’ But he needed that outlet, that safe space to express himself.” Githongo explains that the kinds of problems he faced were new to him. “He is politically very savvy, but he had never functioned in a context where such avarice, corruption and greed were so blatant. It was even amongst people who were very respected legal scholars etc., and that seemed to really throw him. He was used to different types of problems.”
Abubakar remembers meetings in which members would try and build consensus around a certain issue. “Then you see a commissioner signal and leave the room. Then two or three people follow him. Then they would come back in and do a 180-degree turn on a position, or propose something that is inherently illegal. You could see from his facial expressions that he was angry, but there were few times when he would lose his temper. On a few occasions, he would just walk out of meetings.”
By the end, the process had taken a clear toll on Ghai. Recalls Githongo, “He has done some really difficult things. He has been in situations where guys would show up armed and he would have to negotiate with them to leave their AK-47s outside of the negotiation room. So he’s used to that, but this one is much more soul destroying. It’s avaricious, corrupt, deceitful and very money-oriented. That really threw him. He found himself interacting with some of the most respected law scholars, and he found himself completely stuck on issues like travel expenses. That took a toll. What was very clear to me is that Yash has not only put his whole mind and all his experience – which are both considerable – into this but he has put his whole heart into it. He would get very hurt by the betrayals, by the lies and by the realisation that he had been strung along.”
Ghai resigned in 2004, soon after returning to Hong Kong. Cottrell Ghai remembers being in Italy on vacation. “The internet was not that good. We had to use a dial-up connection, and after a lot of hassle he emailed his letter of resignation to the president from there.”
Despite all the challenges, Ghai does not regret accepting the job. “It meant a lot to me, especially because I had devoted a lot of my career to human rights.” He says that the chance to return home after having been “thrown out” was also significant. “In the long run, I feel it gave Kenya a new start. I don’t regret doing what I did. I met a lot of people, and I know so many more Kenyans than I would have otherwise known. It was really, really challenging, but I felt quite pleased in the end that I was able to bring some peace.”
There are still, however, elements that haunt him. “Our document was strongly parliamentary, and we were somewhat innovative about the role of the governor general in that context. I think people liked it. We were trying very hard to build a non-ethnic political system and many of those provisions are still in. I think a parliamentary system is better and more participatory; you have to be more careful as prime minister. Also, we hadn’t quite finished what we had wanted to do with devolution. I regret these two things very much indeed. The people who are now saying to change these elements are the ones who had not wanted it back then.”
In spite of the significant problems faced by Ghai and the CKRC, the Constitution of Kenya – finally promulgated in 2010 – is based largely on Ghai’s Bomas draft. For this reason, Ghai continues to be known as the “guru” and the “father” of the Constitution. One of his proudest achievements, and indeed one reason why the Constitution receives such widespread, international praise, is the Bill of Rights. “I am very proud of it,” Ghai says. “I think it’s a good document. It’s very people-oriented. There are a lot of methods through which they can take action, which they must be allowed to do. And I am particularly pleased about the Bill of Rights. If we are failing, it’s our fault. Our politicians have absolutely failed us, and now it’s up to us to solve it.”
Katiba Institute co-founder Waikwa Wanyoike agrees, describing the Bill of Rights as a personal reflection of Ghai’s thinking on human rights. Says Wanyoike, “He has a very strong connection to it. Even in terms of newer constitutions, I don’t think that we have any constitution that surpasses the Kenyan constitution, especially in terms of rights.” Wanyoike also credits Ghai for what he calls the uniquely “transformative” aspects of the Constitution. “What you get is an overthrow of the political order and the installation of a completely new political order which clearly spells out values and principles. That element of transformation is even more defining than any single chapter of the Constitution, and that was because of the design that he and the CKRC put in place, which was very, very participatory. It’s now very hard for the political class to try and trash what has been done.”
Mutunga agrees, especially with regard to the Bill of Rights. “Our Bill of Rights is the most modern in the world. It has borrowed from the progressive development of human rights from the world over . . . I am proud of it, too. In my writings I have called the jurisprudence envisioned by the Constitution ‘indigenous, rich, robust, progressive, decolonised, and de-imperialised.’ I see the constitution as rejecting and mediating the status quo that is unacceptable and unsustainable in its various provisions. If implemented, I have always argued, it could put the country in a social-democratic trajectory and act as a basis of further progressive social reform . . . if we have the political leadership committed to its implementation. It seems, however, that Kenyans as parents have given this ‘baby’ to a political leadership that cannot be trusted to grow and breathe life into it.”
Githongo also laments the nature of Kenya’s leaders, who he believes are incapable of implementing the Constitution with any sincerity. “On paper, our Bill of Rights is extremely progressive, but life is breathed into the Bill of Rights by leaders agreeing to be accountable and surprising their people by saying, ‘I can’t do this because it is wrong.’ Our guys make every effort to show that the Bill of Rights doesn’t apply to them. If you are poor, then you can die anytime; the Bill of Rights doesn’t apply to them. It hasn’t come to life for the majority of Kenyans.”
On the other hand, Githongo believes that Ghai’s work on the Constitution ensured that – despite everything – it continues to offer hope. He says, “We still have a hugely corrupt and dangerous elite that will do anything to continue looting and raping this country, but Yash wrote this Constitution so they can’t mess with certain things.”
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East or West? What Africans Think of China and America
A majority of Africans favour democracy over other forms of governance but an authoritarian system with a capacity to deliver public goods rapidly on a vast scale cannot be dismissed off-hand.
That a major contest has kicked off between the US and China over their influence in Africa is now abundantly clear, an integral part of the monumental spat between the two superpowers that blew out into the open under President Trump — partly articulated in America’s 2017 National Security Strategy — but whose essentials are clearly being retained by the Biden administration. China is now considered America’s most significant geopolitical competitor and threat, a posture that is reciprocated by Beijing.
Still, it is also obvious that the US is racing to catch up with a China that has dramatically deepened and expanded its relations with Africa since the early 2000s. Ironically, just as the US was checking out of Africa in terms of trade and development and focussing instead on security — and in particular on the so-called “war on terror” — China shifted gear, especially through its giant Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). According to the conservative American Enterprise Institute’s China Global Investment Tracker, China has made a total value of US$303.24 billion in investments and construction in Sub-Saharan Africa since 2005. Indeed, by 2019 one in five major infrastructure projects in Africa was financed by China and one in three was being constructed by Chinese companies. China is now Africa’s biggest trading partner and, under President Xi Jinping, the country has rapidly expanded its cultural, social, military and other relations with African countries. In typical Chinese style, this scale-up has been both huge, efficient and rapid.
In East Africa, it is estimated that 55 per cent of all large-scale construction projects are undertaken by the Chinese who also finance a quarter of them. There has been considerable controversy about the extent to which these projects have contributed to a deepening debt crisis on the continent. The opacity and alleged corruption that surround the accumulation of this debt have also been the cause of deepening concern for policymakers and citizens alike. That said, the infrastructure projects align most closely with the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) — currently our biggest “existential project” as Africans. The relationship between Africa and China is complicated. Indeed, relations with all great powers are complex and difficult for developing countries.
The Chinese model
A majority of African countries are aspiring democracies in one form or another. This democratisation stated after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and by 1995, multiparty democratic constitutions had been promulgated across the continent. The US was a prominent driver of this process and at that point, the West’s push converged with the will of a majority of Africans exhausted by the single-party regimes and dictatorships that had ruled since independence. Today we can agree that the quality of this democracy varies considerably from country to country.
What is increasingly referred to as the “China model” is most obviously not a liberal democracy. All serious polling done by respected organisations such as Afrobarometer confirms that a majority of Africans continue to favour democracy — despite its messiness — over other forms of governance. I should think that this is in part because between independence and the early 1990s, Africa tried a wild assortment of authoritarian models of governance. These were stifling at best and disastrous at worst, especially when led by military cabals who had taken power through violent coups.
By 2019, one in five major infrastructure projects in Africa was financed by China and one in three was being constructed by Chinese companies.
The freedoms that have come with our democracies have in turn become embedded in our broader governance DNA, with our young population unable to conceive of a time when their basic freedoms of thought, speech, association, movement, etc., could be dramatically curtailed. And yet, the “China model” of an authoritarian system that combines a high level of state capacity to deliver public goods such as health, education, etc., to the majority of its people rapidly and on a vast scale cannot be dismissed off-hand.
On the African continent, the Rwandan and Ethiopian models have been compared to the Chinese model. The engagement with China, including its controversial debt-related aspects, has been transformative, especially in regard to the development of critical infrastructure. This cannot be argued with. And this transformation has taken place with unprecedented speed, changing skylines across a continent which has some of the world’s fastest growing cities and the world’s youngest, most rapidly growing population.
Still, the opacity and corruption that sometimes seems to typify the accumulation of commercial debt has been particularly troublesome in a range of developing countries around the world. This is still playing out and African countries are in the middle of a delicate diplomatic balancing act between a risen China, a giant and often thin-skinned partner, and a West that is now in aggressive competition with China. We are caught in between. Western nations are also increasingly vociferous in their complaints about human rights abuses in China. The human rights situation vis-à-vis minorities such as the Uyghurs of Xinjiang Province and the peoples of Tibet has for decades been the source of intense advocacy among human rights activists. The recent governance overhaul backwards in Hong Kong and apparently upcoming one in Taiwan have caused similar distress. Understandably, African policymakers have been profoundly circumspect about joining in these calls. This is despite the fact that African states have over the last 30 years gradually become less tolerant of gross human rights abuses on the continent. Coups are generally a no-no in this day and age, and a state that deliberately seeks to destroy an ethnic group would cause even the usually politically judicious African Union to voice strong opposition. This is in part because orchestrated mass violence against particular groups in one country inevitably spills across our fake borders. The 1994 Rwandan genocide was, and remains, profoundly chilling.
China has been steadfast in its policy of non-interference in the governance of other nations, a stance which is deeply appreciated by an Africa that is finding its voice. Supporters of democracy point out that this approach can sometimes end up propping up some of the most incompetent and dictatorial regimes on the continent. The West has its list of similar clients too though. Suffice it to say that China also retains currency among African elites because it has never been a colonial power on the continent despite China’s Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho) and his fleets visiting the East African coast several times between 1405 and 1433. China’s engagement with Africa back then contrasts starkly with Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama’s blood-soaked expeditions in the region from 1497 as he sought a plunder route to India. From the 1950s onwards, China also contributed significantly to African liberation struggles, often in direct opposition to the US and its allies.
From the language and tone over the last few years, one would be forgiven for believing that the US is ready to adopt a Cold War posture with China. There is nothing that causes greater nervousness among African policymakers than the continent finding itself forced into the kind of stark polarity President George W. Bush encapsulated on the 20th of September 2001 when he told the world, “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”. This time around however, the relationship between China and Africa is very different from the one Africa had with the Communist bloc in the period after independence. Whereas ideology and the practicalities of the struggle for independence were at the heart of the Cold War relationship, for African elites in particular, China today is first and foremost a development partner. Besides, the Cold War posture was also generally bad for basic freedoms.
From the language and tone over the last few years, one would be forgiven for believing that the US is ready to adopt a Cold War posture with China.
Part of the challenge the US faces as it ramps up the contest with China is one of perceptions: the “shithole” countries, as President Trump called them, aren’t that shitty to other countries that have travelled the difficult development road we are on. For urbanised African youth with access to the internet, the America they view and read about today isn’t necessarily the one America’s unrivalled soft power juggernaut, Hollywood, portrays. A significant amount of bandwidth is instead taken up watching black people being murdered by a clearly systemically racist police force and the ensuing consequences. However, it is also part of the fundamental dynamism of US democracy that President Biden and his team have made so many progressive policy U-turns since taking office 100 days ago. Since he took office Biden’s administration has overseen the vaccination of over 130 million Americans – half the population!
Africans still overwhelmingly support the democratic model but feel the relationship with China is a win-win for Africa.
Other critical rising powers
While there has been considerable focus on China, India, Russia, Turkey and other rising nations have raised their profiles in Africa as well. They have done so without much fanfare but in a manner that has afforded local elites policy choices that were unthinkable as recently as the 2010s. The Russia-Africa Sochi Summit in late 2019, for example, was part of an accelerated engagement by Russia with Africa over the past decade especially in the extractive sector and military trade. Today Russia is by far the continent’s largest arms supplier, accounting for almost half of all military sales to Africa. In 2019, 12 African ministers of foreign affairs visited Russia, and that country’s long serving minister of foreign affairs, Sergei Lavrov, and his deputy Mikhail Bogdanov, held talks with nearly 100 top African politicians between January and September 2019 alone. Bogdanov is said to maintain sustained intensive interactions with African Ambassadors in Moscow. While Russian policymakers emphasise a deepening of “political cooperation” with Africa, they have indicated heightened interest in economic relations — especially in the extractive sector, agriculture, health and education. The speed with which Russia developed its Sputnik V vaccine was startling and its “vaccine diplomacy” in Africa has been more aggressive and successful than that of any other region. Welcome to our new multi-polar world.
What Africans think of China
As I said, Africans still overwhelmingly support the democratic model but feel the relationship with China is a win-win for Africa — with China winning more of course — being qualitatively different from the relationship with the West.
Afrobarometer recently polled African attitudes towards China in 22 countries including Ethiopia, Kenya, Senegal, Ghana, Guinea, Uganda, Nigeria, Angola, Namibia, Zambia among others. In the 22 countries, an average of 33 per cent of those polled thought the US was the best model for development. Twenty-three per cent felt China was the best model of development followed by former colonial powers at 11 per cent and South Africa at 10 per cent. China is emphatically the preferred model for development in Benin, Burkina Faso and Mali. In Liberia, Angola, Sierra Leone and Cape Verde the US is by far the preferred model. In Kenya 43 per cent of respondents prefer the US model compared to 23 per cent who prefer the Chinese model.
Importantly, 62 per cent of all those polled across Africa felt China has a largely positive economic and political influence on their countries while 60 per cent felt the same for the US.
Indeed, the main takeaways of the Afrobarometer report released in February 2021 include the fact that Africans feel generally positive about China. Significantly, according to the researchers,
“Though new on the block, the attractiveness of China’s development model is second only to the US (especially among older adults). Perceived Chinese influence is on a par with that of the US and well above that of the former colonial powers. Chinese economic and political influence is seen in largely positive terms. Respondents who feel positively about the influence of China also tend to have positive views of U.S. influence as well – suggesting that for many Africans, U.S.-China “competition” may not be an “either-or” but a “win-win” proposition. Popular awareness of China as a lender/giver of development aid to African respective countries is unmatched by the common place talk of Chinese “debt trap” diplomacy in Africa… Be that as it may, a plurality of Chinese loan aware Africans perceive fewer strings attached to those loans/development compared to other donors. Awareness of repayment obligations to Chinese loans/aid is however high among those who know about Chinese loans/aid to their country – suggesting the need for more information sharing about Chinese aid. Indeed, awareness of Chinese loans to the country generally goes hand in hand with expression of concern about the entailed indebtedness…”
The former top Singaporean diplomat, academic and author of Has China Won?, Kishore Mahbubani, argues that the COVID-19 pandemic has confirmed the shift of global power from West to East. He points out that from 1AD until 1820 the world’s largest economies were India and China and that the last 200 years of Western domination are a historical aberration. All aberrations ultimately end. We are living through these tectonic changes. Exciting times. Nothing expresses the contradictions that this means in our daily lives than the way our urban youth use their mobile phones and American platforms such as Twitter and Facebook as instruments of accountability in a complex age.
It is ironic too that the murder of George Floyd by a white policeman that caused such powerful global outrage last year was filmed by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier using her iPhone made in China and uploaded onto American social media platforms not allowed in China, provoking a powerful reaction that continues to reverberate around the world.
Do You Know What Is on Your Plate?
You may not know it but you’ve probably been ingesting carcinogenic, mutagenic and neurotoxic chemicals along with your ugali, sukuma wiki and kachumbari.
I had never really given much thought to what I ate and how it was produced. That is until, in the early 90s, an outbreak of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy – BSE, more commonly known as mad cow disease – led to the slaughter of 4.4 million head of cattle in the United Kingdom in an effort to contain the disease, and to a decade-long ban of British beef exports that ruined that country’s beef industry. The BSE outbreak is thought to have been caused by the practice of supplementing cattle feed with meat-and-bone-meal (MBM) rendered from the remains of other animals. The disease soon crossed over to humans through the consumption of BSE-contaminated beef, a new version of the neurological Creutzveld-Jakob Disease (vCJD) that took its first victim in May 1995 and has killed 177 people to date. In 2013 researchers reported that one in 2,000 people in the UK are carrying the human form of mad cow disease.
That same year, in February, a government livestock inspector was assassinated outside his home in the Belgian Flanders; Karel Van Noppen had been investigating the illegal trade in synthetic growth hormones that unscrupulous beef farmers were using to speed up the fattening of beef cattle and turn a quick profit. The use of synthetic growth hormones in cattle rearing has been found to have adverse effects on human health. I was living in Belgium at the time and I started asking myself what I had been eating. I wasn’t the only one; by the end of the decade, astute beef farmers were turning a tidy profit from the sale of organic beef to consumers like me who had become wary of the factory methods of production that had led to the BSE crisis.
With the appearance of organic beef on Belgian supermarket shelves, other organic produce soon followed and the shelf space dedicated to organic foods steadily grew. IFOAM-Organics International defines organic agriculture as “a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic Agriculture combines tradition, innovation, and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and good quality of life for all involved.”
Today, in the West at least, it is perfectly possible to eat, drink and even dress only organic; but you must have deep pockets because organic produce is more expensive than conventionally grown produce.
The right to adequate food is recognised in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is enshrined in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of which Kenya is a signatory. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations clarifies that the right to adequate food implies that food must be available, accessible and it must also be adequate, meaning that “the food must satisfy dietary needs . . . be safe for human consumption and free from adverse substances, such as contaminants from industrial or agricultural processes, including residues from pesticides, hormones or veterinary drugs . . . .” The irony is that even though produce that is certified organic meets all of these requirements, it is not produced in sufficient quantities and where it can be found, it is beyond the reach of most consumers, whether they are in the West or here in Kenya.
Having jumped on the organic consumers’ bandwagon back in Brussels after the 1998 dioxin- contaminated chicken crisis finally convinced me to abandon conventionally-grown produce, I was keen to maintain the lifestyle once back in Kenya, only to find the limited choice of produce that is certified organic prohibitively expensive. I did the next best thing and decided to grow organic fruits and vegetables, both for my own consumption and for sale to the end consumer, and thus did I come into close contact with the world of farming.
City girl born and bred, and never having grown so much as a blade of grass, I needed all the help I could get and turned to Mr John Wanjau Njoroge, founder and director of the Kenya Institute of Organic Farming and a pioneer of the organic movement in Kenya. Mr Njoroge sent me a recently graduated young couple who set me on the road to organic farming. It has been a steep learning curve; after a first successful crop of greenhouse tomatoes, bacterial wilt decimated the second one.
Kenyan smallholder farmers produce 80 per cent of the 400,000 tonnes of tomatoes produced annually — representing 7 per cent of all horticultural produce grown every year — but commercial production of the fruit is fraught with difficulties; if it isn’t tuta absoluta, it is fusariam wilt, or if you’re really unlucky, it is both. And so, to control these and other pests and diseases, farmers reach for chemical pesticides and fungicides.
The trade in pesticides in Kenya is largely in the control of private sector distributors and retailers who import and distribute the products to the Kenyan end-user, but there appears to be a training deficit in the safe use of these chemicals. Farmers rely on agrovets and agricultural extension officers for information on pesticides, yet the Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN) has reported that “they are recommending pesticide products that are toxic to human health, bees and fish”.
An analysis of pesticide residues in tomatoes and french beans from Murang’a and Kiambu counties found the presence of omethoate in tomatoes, an active ingredient whose use in vegetables is banned in Kenya, suggesting “poor pesticide handling practices by some tomato farmers in the two counties”.
And the situation is not much better in Laikipia County where a 2019 study of pesticide application and pesticide residue levels in kales and tomatoes in the Ewaso Narok wetland found that the majority of farmers had no training in the use of pesticides. The study also found chlorpyrifos and diazinon residues in the tomatoes sampled; both these active ingredients are banned in the European Union.
It is particularly worrying that chlorpyrifos — a pesticide that is harmful to the brains of foetuses and young children — can still be found on the Kenyan market. Chlorpyrifos was banned in the EU in February 2020 but it is also one of the seven active ingredients in the pesticides and fungicides that were found by KOAN to be in use in Kirinyaga and Murang’a counties.
KOAN reports that “The pesticides withdrawn in Europe are mostly used on tomatoes (15 active ingredients), followed by kale (14), maize (14), cabbage (10), coffee (10) and french beans (6). Since tomatoes, kale, maize and cabbage are part of the daily Kenyan diet, there is a real and significant threat to food safety.” The study found that tomatoes had the highest toxicity score, followed by kales and maize, all foods eaten by Kenyans daily.
It is particularly worrying that a pesticide that is harmful to the brains of foetuses and young children can still be found on the Kenyan market.
But even more worryingly, KOAN reports having found high residue levels of acephate and methamidophos in the tomatoes sampled. Acephate, which has been withdrawn in Europe, is registered by the Pest Control Products Board for use on roses and tobacco. Methamidophos is not registered for use in Kenya.
The reason why active ingredients which have been withdrawn in the EU (or whose use is restricted) find their way to Kenya is because of the so-called Double Standard; EU Regulation EC304/2003 allows EU companies to produce and export to other countries pesticides that are banned or restricted in the EU, effectively protecting EU citizens while exposing non-EU citizens to the ravages of dangerous chemicals and infringing on their right to food that is safe for human consumption. Indeed, the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on Toxic Wastes and the Right to Food have found that “widely divergent standards of production, use and protection from hazardous pesticides in different countries are creating double standards, which are having a serious impact on human rights.”
And while the Rotterdam Convention requires an exporter based in an EU member state to indicate their intention to export banned or severely restricted chemicals to a non-EU country so that the latter is alerted, this arrangement is hypocritical and merely serves to enable EU companies to continue manufacturing dangerous chemicals for sale in non-EU countries while providing them with the ready excuse that importing countries are aware of the nature of the chemicals they are bringing in.
Domesticating the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 43 (1) (c) of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 states that, “Every person has the right to be free from hunger, and to have adequate food of acceptable quality.” In line with this last requirement, and in the face of the dangers presented by the poorly regulated trade in pesticides, the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI), Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya, Kenya Organic Agriculture Network and Resources Oriented Development Initiative petitioned the National Assembly in September 2019 to withdraw harmful pesticides from the Kenyan Market.
In their petition, they reported that there are products on the Kenyan market which are classified as carcinogenic (24), mutagenic (24), endocrine disrupter (35), neurotoxic (140) and many others which have been shown to have an effect on reproduction (262). The petitioners argued that, while the volume of imports of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides had grown 144 per cent between 2015 and 2018, there was no data available concerning pesticide use and its impact on food and the environment, and also noted that the increase in pesticide use had not been accompanied by the necessary safeguards to control their application.
The petitioners also said that by failing to publish information in its possession on the levels of pesticide residues in food samples collected, and to put in place a monitoring system, the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) was acting in contravention of Section 15 of the Pest Control Products Act. The petitioners also accused the Pests Control Products Board (PCBP) of failing to adhere to the international codes of conduct of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
In its report on the petition tabled a year later in October 2020, the National Assembly’s Departmental Committee on Health responded that a blanket ban “without due consideration or risk assessment will not help, especially in the tropical conditions and areas experiencing an invasion of pests and diseases throughout the year.” The committee also argued that “severe limitation of the number of products available . . . will make sustainable use of plant protection products difficult, particularly managing the development of resistant pest populations.” The committee claimed that such a ban would threaten food security, lead to expensive food and reduced farmer incomes due to insufficient production.
The committee did however recommend that the PCPB develop regulations to ensure that only licensed and registered persons run agrovet outlets, and that the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries undertake an analysis of the products on the Kenyan market in order to exclude those that are carcinogenic, mutagenic, neurotoxic and endocrine disruptors, and recommend the withdrawal from the Kenyan market of harmful and toxic pesticides. All this was to take place within 90 days.
Well, I visited two agrovets in our little township here in Nyandarua County who both told me that PCPB inspectors came calling last year to ensure that licence fees were paid and to ascertain that the products on their shelves had the PCPB logo indicating that they are authorised for sale in Kenya. Neither has been informed of any changes in the PCPB list of pest control products registered for use in Kenya and I could have bought pesticides and fungicides containing all but two of the active ingredients that KOAN found on produce in Kirinyaga and Murang’a counties: chlorpyrifos, which as I have mentioned above is harmful to the brains of foetuses and young children; diazinon, a neurotoxic organophosphate; permethrin, a neurotoxin that is also highly toxic to animals, particularly fish and cats; bifenthrin, which has been classified as a possible carcinogenic; and carbendazim, a mutagenic fungicide that can cause birth defects and damage fertility. These active ingredients — all of which are banned in the EU — are among the top ten most harmful ingredients in terms of toxicity for humans and the environment.
Route to Food, which has done a study on pesticide use in Kenya, notes that, “Pesticides can persist in the environment for decades and pose a global threat to the entire ecological system upon which food production depends. Excessive use and misuse of pesticides results in contamination of surrounding soil and water sources, causing loss of biodiversity, destroying beneficial insect populations that act as natural enemies of pests and reducing the nutritional value of food.”
If we are agreed that access to safe food is a human right, then we must reject food production methods that endanger our health and put our lives in peril, that pollute our water and our environment and jeopardise our biodiversity, methods that put the profits of the shareholders of companies domiciled in foreign countries before the wellbeing of Kenyan consumers.
It is ironical that Kenya goes to great lengths to meet the phytosanitary conditions and Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) imposed by the EU – Kenya’s main market for horticultural exports – while at the same time exposing its own citizens to the dangers of toxic pesticides manufactured in the EU.
If we are agreed that access to safe food is a human right, then we must reject food production methods that endanger our health.
We are not condemned to remain on the path of industrial agriculture, which has proven to be so devastating to the environment and to human health. As Daniel Maingi notes, “Perhaps it is time we looked to nature and farmers’ know-how in using another branch of science called agroecology” which, as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has recognised, is “holistic, balancing focus on people and the planet, the three dimensions of sustainable development – social, economic and environmental – while strengthening the livelihoods of smallholder food producers.”
We must therefore be vocal in our support of the endeavours of organisations such as the Route to Food Initiative, Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya, the Kenyan Organic Agriculture Network and Resources Oriented Development Initiative, in order to ensure that the recommendations of the National Assembly’s Departmental Committee on Health do not remain a dead letter but form the basis of a fundamental change in the way we produce the food we eat.
How Biotechnologies are Shaping Kenya’s Food Ecosystem
Kenya has severally taken the top spot in “enabling the business of agriculture” annual rankings, opening its doors to patent-protected biotechnologies that could lead to the effective loss of our food sovereignty.
It has been said that he who controls the food, controls the people. But others have added that he who controls the seed, controls the food system. The race by multinational corporations (MNCs) to own and register patent protection on seeds and genetic traits, including DNA sequences, has led to a hierarchy of big players who now dominate the global markets through national and international legal instruments.
We have reached the stage where only four corporations dominate the global seeds and genetic traits markets, as they roll out patent-protected biotechnologies to both large and smallholder farmers worldwide. This is seen as a critical step in shaping food ecosystems here in Kenya and elsewhere in the world.
Power relations and roles in the biotech industry
During the last three years the world has witnessed spectacular mergers and acquisitions amongst the biggest actors in the industry — DowDuPont now Corteva, Bayer-Monsanto now just Bayer, and Syngenta/ChemChina. Together with BASF, these merged MNCs now control over 70 per cent of the global seed and pesticides market.
Their far-reaching wealth and power has been enabled by states and government actors working with global organisations such as the WTO (World Trade Organization) and UPOV (Union for the Protection of New Plant Varieties). The consequences have been a concentration of market share and influence, capital accumulation, and unprecedented economies of scale which have led to the marginalisation and the disinheritance of our common seed and genetic resources. The process of agricultural investment in so-called biotech innovation has come to be known as “the Green Revolution” or, increasingly now, the “Gene Revolution”.
Green Revolution (GR) is best understood as the wide-scale adoption and use of disruptive agricultural research and various technologies, including biotech, that are intended to increase agricultural productivity. Green revolutions therefore effectively convert farming and agriculture into an industrial system, because of the extensive adoption and use of new high-yielding seed varieties that often must be accompanied by the intensive use of mechanisation, large volumes of water and expensive irrigation infrastructure, pesticides, and fertilisers. The seed is a critical piece of GR and is the first portal to creating large-scale bio-economies, and imposing and enforcing patent and breeders’ rights protection through national and binding international laws.
The larger GR endeavour was initiated by Norman Borlaug. With funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, Borlaug helped develop high-yielding dwarf varieties of rust-resistant wheat. The Green Revolution’s early success in India was led by the agricultural scientist M. S. Swaminathan. He is known as the “Father of Green Revolution in India” for his role in introducing Borlaug’s dwarf varieties of wheat and rice in India. One of the impacts of this green revolution was that the yields of wheat and rice doubled, but the production of other food crops such as indigenous rice varieties, sorghums, millets, and pulses declined. This led to the loss of distinct indigenous varieties from cultivation and also caused the extinction of others.
Seed biotechnologies have profoundly changed consumption patterns over the years; the dietary diversity of India’s population has decreased as Indians eat more wheat and rice devoid of nutritive value. Studies have shown that traditional coarse cereals (complex carbohydrates, high protein) have been permanently replaced by more white wheat and polished rice diets (simple carbohydrate, low protein), with the accompanying effects of obesity and malnutrition. An overweight population (BMI>25) has emerged as a new public health challenge, and this is most evident in large-landholding households, especially in the high-input agriculture areas.
In Africa, the first green revolution was a failure and efforts have been underway for a relaunch. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) was founded in 2006 to bring high-yield agricultural practices and biotechnologies to millions of smallholder farming households. Bill Gates has an absorbed relationship with the wonder of computers and technologies. Fascinated by the possibilities of big data and biotechnologies as the centerpiece for a new disruptive revolution in Africa’s agriculture, Bill Gates, through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, together with partners including the Rockefeller Foundation, have collectively pumped more than US$1 billion in funding to the Nairobi-based AGRA.
Indians now eat more wheat and white rice devoid of other nutrients that used to come from the inclusion of sorghum, millet and mung beans in traditional diets.
To the delight of agribusiness corporations, GR means an expansion in the use of new biotech seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and, of course, irrigation infrastructure and the related mechanisation. To ensure that new seed technologies are adopted and used on a larger scale, Bill Gates has also channeled significant funding to entities such as the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), African Seed Trade Association, Kenya’s seed trader associations, and private companies. The goal is to influence and catalyse the transformation of agriculture policies and legislations and open up Kenya for commercial agriculture.
Together with the World Bank, the Gates Foundation has funded local stakeholders to lobby and advocate for reforms to remove “obstacles” in policies, laws, and regulations in agriculture, in what they term as “enabling the business of agriculture” (EBA). The annual ranking of countries is closely watched by investors and used by the World Bank, USAID, DfID, and other bilateral donors, to guide their funding. As a result, EBA drives the race to deregulate. Governments in poor countries compete with each other to “reform and change their agricultural laws” so that they can be ranked among the “Doing Business” best performers. Kenya’s performance in these rankings is also keenly followed by pro-biotech advocacy lobby groups.
The technology is the seed
Seeds carry the genetic traits or DNA sequences claimed as proprietary rights by the breeders or corporations that control them. The technology is in the seed and is the seed. Through stewardship agreements, farmers purchase seed, promise and sign on the dotted line that they are merely renters of the biotechnology and not owners. As such, they cannot multiply that seed for replanting; new seed must be purchased. They can also not store, give to others or even sell their harvested seed. Failure to adhere to these terms is a violation punishable by national and international laws. This means that MNCs are effectively controlling what food ecosystems emerge once a country decides to rely on biotech-gene seeds. It is an effective loss of food sovereignty and an abuse of farmers’ rights to seed, including the right to food at the household level.
Unfortunately, there have been many incidences where seed corporations systematically replace indigenous seeds with their proprietary hybrids through “generous donations”. After a few seasons, faced with a lack of alternative sources, the users must purchase patent-protected seeds.
Such is the case of the recently rolled-out Bt. cotton hybrids in Kenya. Dubbed first-generation biotech crops, Bt. traits focused on increasing market share and profits to patent holders by promising to eliminate the need for pesticide sprays against a limited range of insects. Another GM crop resistant to Round-up herbicide sprays caused enormous increases in Bayer’s sale of its herbicide, resulting in massive increases in market dominance. Once these crops become entrenched in the market and food ecosystem, farmers are often faced with a serious challenge as there are no alternative versions from other competing companies. In Kenya — as in India — Bayer-Mahyco has absolute power and market control, a situation enabled by the government with little public discourse.
Through stewardship agreements, farmers must purchase seeds and promise by signing on the dotted line that they are merely renters of the seed and not owners.
In the second-generation biotech crops, there was a focus on the traits desired by farmers, and much of the research was funded by public-private partnerships, as opposed to being funded only by the private sector, as was the case for first-generation GMOs. Virus-resistant cassava and sweet potato, together with GM banana in Uganda, are candidates in the former category, which is seen as an attempt by MNCs to repair their public image with the help of philanthro-capitalists like Bill Gates. These Biotech crops are vegetatively propagated (not grown from seed), and are not amenable to traditional plant breeding, creating an opening for a GM approach. Critically, vegetative propagation also means that farmers do not need to repurchase seed every year. What effect these second-generation feel-good biotech crops will have on the food ecosystems is yet to be ascertained. Second-generation GMOs in agriculture include “functional” plants designed to produce pharmaceuticals, fuels, and industrial compounds. It is doubtful that these new biotechnologies will have a role in Kenya’s food ecosystem.
The future of GR in Kenya’s food system
In India, GR technologies were rolled out in 1967 when dwarf and rust-resistant wheat varieties were released. The results were so fast and so significant that, just three years later, Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 in recognition of his contributions to world peace through increasing food supply. It is claimed that he saved a billion people from starvation.
In Africa, it has now been 15 long years since the new GR was launched. AGRA pledged in self-declared milestones that it would double the earnings of 20 million small farmers by 2020 while halving food shortages in 20 African countries. A Tuft University study found little evidence of significant increases in productivity, income, or food security for people in the 13 main AGRA target countries, but rather, demonstrated that AGRA’s Green Revolution model is failing. Between 2013 and 2015, AGRA and CIMMYT released at least 25 water-efficient drought-tolerant maize hybrids (WEMA) for farmers in Kenya. To date, there have not been any magical yield increases as was evident in India when the hybrid wheat and rice varieties were released. Despite the widespread use of these biotech varieties, the increased use of pesticides and fertilisers, and the extensive use of tractors, GR remains a dream in Kenya’s food economies.
There have been many incidences where MNCs systematically replace farmers’ own indigenous seeds with their proprietary hybrid seeds by providing “generous seed and fertiliser donations”.
Why is it so difficult to ignite a green revolution in Africa? AGRA has funded projects and lobbied African governments for the development of policies and market structures that promote the adoption of Green Revolution technology packages. Kenya has taken the top spot in enabling the business of agriculture, opening its doors to these biotechnologies. It has won praise and accolades from donors and partners. What else is there to be achieved? It is highly doubtful that affixing Bayer’s Bt. insect toxin gene to the drought-tolerant WEMA (now TELA) trait will be the launch of Kenya’s green (maize) revolution. It is also highly uncertain that Kenyans will suddenly change their modern dietary habits and start eating biotech cassava, engineered, not for high yields, but to resist viruses.
There is a wave of “new genetic modification techniques” touted to lead to the third generation of GMOs. These include genome editing using various tools such as special enzymes to cut, repair, or even bring new segments into the DNA of living food organisms. Such technics appear to be science visioning, with biotech supporters saying that one will be able to delete allergy traits from the DNA of peanuts and make lactose-free milk to the joy of lactose-intolerant populations. These modification techniques have already been tested out in the current roll-out of mRNA-mediated covid-19 vaccines, and appear poised to make a thundering entrance into Kenya’s and Uganda’s food ecosystem through cassava that is protected against viruses. Noteworthy is that citizen resistance against this GMO technology will be met with a stern and stark reminder that it is the same GM technology that was used to protect us from the coronavirus and its associated mutations. The new GM technology skipped many important safety and risk assessments and the vaccines were released under public emergency orders worldwide.
In 1967, Norman Borlaug’s GR varieties undoubtedly averted food shortages albeit temporarily. But they were unable to deter poverty. In fact, GR technologies might have added to it. The high-yielding seeds demand expensive fertilisers and more water. In India, GR led to rural impoverishment, increased debt, social inequality, and the displacement of vast numbers of peasant farmers.
What then must we do to ensure a just and equitable food system in Kenya? What is the way forward for gene and green revolutions in Kenya? It appears that our experts and technologists have had every room and resource to make Kenya food-secure using all forms of modern biotechnologies yet there have been no significant results to phone home about. Perhaps it is time to cut our losses and shirk the industrial-agricultural model that is based on industrial principles. Climate change is not helping Kenyan farmers. Researchers have been unable to come up with solid biotechnologies that can sustainably overcome stresses from our unique harsh farming climates. Perhaps it is time we looked to nature and farmers’ know-how in using another branch of science called agroecology.
GR agriculture increased farmer debt, which resulted in increased social inequality, and the displacement of vast numbers of peasant farmers who had to make way for larger farms.
Agroecology encourages the building of resilience through crop and varietal biodiversity on the farm. Monocrops are to be avoided to reduce pests and diseases. Farmers and extensionists teach that planting mixed varieties of locally adapted maize on the same farm creates resilience against pests like stem borers and fall armyworms that GMO Bt. maize seeks to control. Farm-level diversity is the key to survival. Seeds with many traits – drought resistance, early ripening tendencies – make for greater ability to adapt to climate change. Relying on just a few varieties is dangerous and making unending royalty payments to the holders of those food varieties is worse as it undermines food sovereignty at the farm level.
Agroecology encourages the defense of farmers’ rights, the rights to nature, and demands the renegotiating of the contract between state and society as stipulated in our 2010 constitution. Farmers have a right to seed for food and livelihoods. They should be able to freely keep, further develop, sell or even gift their planting material as is culturally accepted. The government should be at the forefront of protecting their rights – and not creating skewed power relations between farmers and farm input providers.
Good agroecology practices further demand an accelerated shift towards local food production and short supply chains. The emphasis is on local food sufficiency that encourages ethical consumerism.
There is an urgent need to review, reform, and reconfigure the UN’s agri-food agencies to be more responsive to the poor and disadvantaged in the food system. The FAO (Food Agriculture Organization) and the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) have received funding from the World Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, swaying research and policy priorities towards more biotechnologies in our food systems. Dr Agnes Kalibata, President of AGRA and board member of the International Fertilizer Development Center, has been appointed as the UN Secretary General’s special envoy to the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit to be held in September 2021. This signals that the summit will be yet another forum that advances the interests of MNCs and agribusiness at the expense of farmers.
It is time to put the seed back into the hands of the farmers. Remember, he who controls the seed controls the food system. If Kenya is to take back control of its food system and reassert its sovereignty over its agriculture, its citizens — free from corporate influences — must be at the forefront of any restructuring of the food system. This is the only path to a just and sustainable food bio-economy that is not subject to the whims and fancies of corporate controllers of biotechnologies.
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