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Uhuru and the Kikuyu Question: What Can We Expect in 2022?

12 min read. Unfulfilled expectations and the prospect of a Ruto presidency in 2022 have increased levels of despondency and confusion in Central Kenya. DAUTI KAHURA gauges the political mood in President Kenyatta’s stronghold.

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Uhuru and the Kikuyu Question: What Can We Expect in 2022?
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On Sunday June 16, 2019, President Uhuru Kenyatta woke up to a bad day. While attending a public meeting called by the Akurinu, a religious denomination, at Moi International Sports Centre in Kasarani, he let down his guard, lost his cool and went ethnic on an event beamed live on a nationwide television channel.

To be fair, this was not the first time the president was exposing his soft underbelly; he has been angry before, railing against his real and perceived enemies, swearing and threatening to deal with them at an appropriate time. But on this day, unable to contain himself, he went ballistic, switched to his vernacular Kikuyu language, shouted and presumably talked down to the people he was addressing. He was visibly piqued, a sign that the president has of late been increasingly irritable, a veritable shortcoming for a leader who holds the highest office in the land.

So what provoked this outburst? Let us briefly recap the events of the day. The Akurinu, a Kikuyu religious entity (the Akurinus are not a homogenous group) were holding their annual general conference. President Uhuru honoured their invitation and attended. In 2018, he did not attend; Deputy President William Ruto presided over the event. President Uhuru arrived before his deputy and was warmly received by the Akurinu leaders. Whatever his reason, or reasons, for arriving after the president, Ruto, when he showed up, received a warmer reception than the president.

Two things stand out. One, by arriving after the president, the deputy president had obviously stood up to Uhuru. The louder applause he got from the delegates upstaged the president’s own lukewarm reception. Two, and more fundamentally, the powerful yet subtle message from the Akurinu was that they held the deputy president in higher esteem than the president. Could this have been the trigger for President Uhuru’s fulmination in the Kikuyu language?

It is claimed that in 2018, when Deputy President William Ruto attended the Akurinu meeting, he gave them Sh10 million and a six-acre piece of land. As he is wont to do to buy loyalty and votes, he allegedly promised them more cash and more land. For the longest time, the Akurinu have been looking for suitable land to build a college to train their own clerics.

The Akurinu are a conservative, traditional Kikuyu sect whose religious faith is a fusion of Kikuyu cultural norms and Christian beliefs. They are often referred to as African Sikhs because of the white turbans they wear. The first Akurinu church was started in 1922, ostensibly after Mwene Nyaga (God) spoke to the first Mkurinu and asked him to pray for his land. The “apparition” led to the formation of a religious movement, the Akurinu Church. Since then, the Akurinu believe it is their prayers that have been holding this country together.

It is claimed that in 2018, when Deputy President William Ruto attended the Akurinu meeting, he gave them Sh10 million and a six-acre piece of land. As he is wont to do to buy loyalty and votes, he allegedly promised them more cash and more land.

“Apparently, when the president failed to attend their meeting last year, his deputy seized the moment and rose up to the occasion,” said a Jubilee Party politician and former MP from Central Kenya, who did not want to be named because he is not authorised to speak on behalf of the party. “This has been the crux of the matter: the president has always seemed to take a back seat on some of the more important duties and obligations. Every time we had an audience with him, throughout his first term, we reminded him of his obligations to the nation and his Kikuyu people in particular. We told him he had a deputy who was very proactive and politically agile. He therefore needed to be on top of his game and firmly in control, but he always brushed aside our concerns…now he is reaping the fruits.”

The politician said that instead of President Uhuru scaring away the rebels in the Jubilee Party, he had emboldened them. “What was all that anger the president exhibited at Kasarani about? Who was it directed at? Why had the president used a public podium to address intra-party squabbles?” The ground had shifted, or was shifting. The president’s centre seemed not to hold right before his own eyes and the clock was ticking away, added the politician.

Thiong’o Gichuhi, a Mkurinu friend, told me that the Akurinu have not been happy with President Uhuru’s leadership. “Since 2017, the Akurinu leadership had been trying to reach President Uhuru and Mama Ngina Kenyatta to tell them that God is not happy with the Kenyatta rulership and all not well in the House of Mumbi,” said Thiongó.

“The Akurinu worship and believe in the God of the Agikuyu, even though they regard themselves as Christians,” said Thiongó. “You may not know this, all Akurinu churches are built in a way that if you are kneeling down to pray, you face Mt Kenya.”

The Akurinu have been “revolting” against President Uhuru’s rule, even though they have not been public about it, said Thiongó. “Although the Akurinu at Kasarani praised President Uhuru publicly, I can tell you they have been seething with anger for apparently assuming and neglecting their entreaties.” Was President Uhuru then, also projecting his anger at the Akurinu for “disrespecting” him, by “stomping their feet,” when the Ruto arrived, well after the president?

“All that diatribe by President Uhuru at Kasarani was directed at the Central Kenya (rebel) MPs, who have refused to kowtow to his plethora of demands, among them, to stop hanging out with the DP,” said one of the rebel MPs, who spoke in strict confidence and who sought anonymity because of fear of a backlash from Jubilee Party mandarins allied to the president. Among the MPs from Central Kenya considered to be “rebellious” include Kimani Ichungwa, the MP for Kikuyu constituency in Kiambu County, Ndindi Nyoro, the MP for Kiharu constituency in Murang’a County, and Alice Wahome, the MP for Kandara constituency, also in Murang’a County.

On July 23, Ndindi Nyoro posted the following on his Facebook timeline: “In their desperate machinations to silence all perceived DP William Ruto’s supporters, they are arranging to ‘deal’ with some of us using all manner of issues. It has dawned on Uhuru that he is an outgoing president…an outgoing president has no stranglehold on MPs whose fates are clearly no longer tied to his ending presidential favours. His fury and veiled threats against Central Kenya MPs are neither here nor there…any sensible politician from Mt Kenya knows that his 2022 fortunes are not with President Uhuru, but with the next probable leader, whose chances of ascending to the presidential seat are practical and predictable.” (That probable leader to them is Deputy President Ruto, who they have openly backed.)

It is a paradox that President Uhuru now does not want Jubilee MPs from Central Kenya to associate with Deputy President Ruto, said the MP, “yet in his first term, he encouraged the opposite thing. That is the person we were asked to work with, it is the person we have worked with since 2013. We know him, we understand him, but above all, he has also worked with us. It is rather a bit late to introduce a new person to us. In any case we have not found any fault with him.”

In a surprise twist, the Central Kenya MPs in Ruto’s camp are now castigating President Uhuru’s rule and finding fault with his current political modus operandi. “I will tell you this, and this is a fact – Uhuru today would not be president were it not for Ruto – it is just as straight forward as that and it is something we want to drum into our people,” the MP said. “It is also a fact, the president, also, several times in his first term reiterated to us that he would be succeeded by Ruto once he finishes his tenure. He would not only be succeeded by Ruto, he told us, he would publicly campaign for him. If there is anything that has changed, he should explicitly communicate it to us.”

The handshake

President Uhuru, in an abrupt deft manoeuvre, made peace with his chief opponent, Raila Odinga, on March 9, 2018. Prior to the political handshake, the president had hurled tongue-biting insults at Raila during the campaign period.

“President Uhuru did not tell us about the handshake, but we took it in our stride,” said the MP. “To date, many of us do not understand that handshake, shrouded in secrecy as it is, but then, why is the president unhappy with our association with Ruto. Is the DP not a member of the Jubilee Party, unlike Raila? When did associating with a fellow party member be considered a crime and doubling in oppositional politics?”

In a surprise twist, the Central Kenya MPs in Ruto’s camp are now castigating President Uhuru’s rule and finding fault with his current political modus operandi. “I will tell you this, and this is a fact – Uhuru today would not be president were it not for Ruto…”

The MP said the president did not tell the truth when he pointed out that were not for his help, some of the Central Kenya MPs would not have won their parliamentary seats. “That is not true at all: The president did not help any Central Kenya MP get to his current position – not in 2017. In 2013, it is true, any politician who wanted to win a seat in Central Kenya had to align himself with Uhuru Kenyatta. But it is a fact in 2017, some former MPs, governors and senators lost their seats because of his apparent lackadaisical attitude during the Jubilee Party nominations.”

It is now patently evident that President Uhuru’s tenure has been defined by incompetence – some structural, but many self-inflicted, observed the MP. “The self-inflicted exceed the structural difficulties. President Uhuru was negligent about his social habits. He let those habits interfere with his presidential responsibilities. He assumed a hands-off policy and became nonchalant while the deputy president has always remained politically active and pointed to his ambitions.”

No less than politicians such as Onesmus Kimani Ngunjiri and Moses Kuria have publicly pointed out President Uhuru’s shortcomings and his apparent and sudden about-turn on his deputy. In a video clip that went viral in June, 2019, Ngunjiri, the Jubilee MP for Bahati constituency in Nakuru County, rails against the president for his seemingly laissez-faire attitude towards presidential politics. “If it were not for Ruto, let me tell you before my God in heaven Uhuru would not be president today…he has no time for campaigning…Ruto is sober.”

On January 10, 2019, Ngunjiri was recorded telling the president that if he was tired of ruling, he should give way to his deputy, or call a presidential election so that the people could vote for William Ruto. He accused the president of worsening the economic wherewithal of the Kikuyu lot by his retroactive policies.

Kuria, the MP for Gatundu South, President Uhuru’s rural constituency, equally, in a video clip shot in July, 2019 states categorically that it is because of Ruto standing firmly by Uhuru’s side – both in 2013 and 2017 – that Uhuru defeated his chief enemy to become the president. Everything else, said Kuria, is a sideshow.

Hostile territory

A former MCA from Nyeri County observed that as it is right now, the president is not sure of venturing into Central Kenya. “The ground is hostile and the electorate is currently not feeling him. They feel hugely disappointed by him, mainly because of the economic downturn and the political uncertainties that go with the economic slump.”

According to the politician, the Central Kenya people feel they have not been sufficiently told what the March 2018 handshake is really all about. “I am always on the ground, and all I hear about from the people is, if the handshake is about creating extra political seats, they will not support a referendum that is being ostensibly pushed by the Building the Bridges [an initiative that came out after the rapprochement between President Uhuru and opposition leader Raila Odinga].”

A former MCA from Nyeri County observed that as it is right now, the president is not sure of venturing into Central Kenya. “The ground is hostile and the electorate is currently not feeling him. They feel hugely disappointed by him, mainly because of the economic downturn and the political uncertainties that go with the economic slump.”

The politician opined that on four occasions, the president had planned to visit Central Kenya, and all four times he has deferred the visits since being re-elected on October 26, 2017. On July 11, Nyeri Governor Mutahi Kahiga, on Inooro Radio, said that the president had three weeks before a planned visit to his county, but postponed it at the last hour: “I want to tell the president that he is most welcome to visit my county, any time he is ready and we will heartily welcome him.”

The president has been itching to address the Kikuyu populace as he dresses down some of the Central Kenya MPs who have not been towing his political line, said a Jubilee Party politician from Kiambu County. So, the Akurinu meeting at Kasarani provided a perfect platform for President Uhuru to admonish the rebel MPs, as he sought to reassure the electorate that he still their president and has their interests at heart, from a controlled crowd and safe grounds as it were.

“With an electorate that feels thoroughly let down by his politics, and unsure of where he may be leading them, the president at Kasarani turned to the time-tested ploy of ethnicising national politics,” said the politician. “The president, by seeking to reassure his base, through speaking to them in vernacular, was implicitly reminding them to be cognizant of their (privileged) ethnicity, to dissuade them from questioning his nothing-to report-home-about performance.”

The pleasure and pain of Uthamaki

The last seven years of President Uhuru’s reign have brought both pleasure and pain to Uthamaki followers: Pleasure when they elected him in 2013 – and even in 2017 – but pain in between the two terms. In Uhuru’s second and last term, the pain in the Uthamaki kingdom has been deep and severe. Across Uthamaki land, the people have been hurting and they have come to the realisation that the politics of pleasure go side by side with pain.

If President Uhuru can cause them so much grief, they rationalise, then no politician is good – they are all bad. President Uhuru is bad because Raila is worse and Ruto has never been any good, so he is no better than either of them. But, because the deputy president has worked with President Uhuru, he can be tolerated. For the Kikuyu people, if Uhuru has failed to make a good president, no Kenyan politician can. Therefore, because all politicians are bad, let us just stick with Uhuru.

I have been repeatedly told by Kikuyus across the spectrum that they are done with voting – that voting for Uhuru in the second fresh presidential election held on October 26, 2017, was their last. Why is this so? Why did they not stop at the first presidential election that took place on August 8, 2017? It is because when they look ahead to 2022, instead of seeing light at the end of the tunnel (to use a cliché), they only see darkness. Darkness to them means they do not have a dependable and probable Kikuyu (male) politician that they can confidently bank on and vote for come 2022.

For now, they must perpetuate the political fiction that they are not looking to voting in the next general election because President Uhuru, their Muthamaki, has let them down terribly. If President Uhuru can let them down, then which president won’t let them down? In the logic of the Kikuyus, the failures of President Uhuru sum up the imagined failures of all the forthcoming presidential candidates. Hence, they will not waste their time again by waking up at 2am to line up for a non-Kikuyu.

If President Uhuru can cause them so much grief, they rationalise, then no politician is good – they are all bad. President Uhuru is bad because Raila is worse and Ruto has never been any good, so he is no better than either of them.

“Just the other day in 2017, when Uhuru was campaigning, he went round Kikuyuland telling us the voters that we should not vote for Raila because he was a ‘kimundu kiu…mundu muguruki… an ogre…a mad man. Now he is full of praise of a ‘mad man’, parading him now as the best alternative for the Kikuyus. Has he stopped being an ogre, has he been cured of his madness?” asked a Central Kenya MP aligned to Ruto’s Tangatanga camp.

The politician told me that for the better part of the last 50 years, the Kikuyu political elite drummed into the Kikuyu voter to never forget that the Luo was his greatest enemy. That the Odinga family had a hideous agenda not only against the Kikuyu people, but against the country. The Luo and the Odinga family combined were a deadly threat to the existence of the Kikuyu. The cabal told the Kikuyu voter that Raila Odinga wants to be president so that he can “avenge” the mistreatment of his father Jaramogi, who was detained and harassed by Uhuru’s father Jomo Kenyatta.

“Ostensibly, that revenge the Kikuyu voter has been impressed upon is to be visited on him…it’s therefore incumbent upon him to jealously protect his survival by stopping his presidential ambitions,” said the MP from Central Kenya. “Now, in an about-turn, President Uhuru is asking Kikuyus very subtly that they cast their political net with the son of Jaramogi, Fifty years of socialising the people to view a particular family with political suspicion cannot be overturned overnight through political gamesmanship. Jomo Kenyatta’s quarrels with Jaramogi were nationalised by Jomo to draw in the entire Kikuyu community, in which, he persuaded them through secret oathing that the presidency was theirs and they should do everything in their power to protect it.”

At the height of the 2017 general elections’ heated campaigns, a diehard Uhuru supporter from Kiambu County told me unabashedly and matter of factly that Raila needed to be taken out for Muthamaki to rule effectively without hindrances. She outlined the hindrances as unnecessary oppositional politics, which always pushed back Uhuru’s efforts to develop the country.

As Kikuyus go through the politics of pain, they have been asking themselves conspiratorially and in hush-hush tones why Raila opted to shake Muthamaki’s hand, and hence joined the government. “Look now what is happening to politics and the government – it is because Raila is not in the opposition. There isn’t anyone to check the excesses of the government. They would not be as much theft as we are witnessing now because he would be calling out President Uhuru and his cohorts and shouting for all to hear about the runaway corruption.”

It is a twisted logic difficult to discern if you are not a typical Kikuyu: here are a people, schooled and socialised to embrace the politics of suffering (even with bitterness), yet to never ever think of imagining a president from outside of their ethnic circle. The logic goes something like this: If our own person can cause us all this suffering, what about a person from a different ethnic group? We will all be finished. So let’s stick with our own, who God will prevail upon to have mercy on us.

Inevitably, Raila Odinga, for all the time he has been in active and elective politics, was the political bogeyman of the Kikuyus. If Muthamaki was not performing, it was because of the oppositional noises generated by Raila and his group. When he helped form the Government of National Unity and became a non-executive Prime Minister in 2008, all the blame of President Mwai Kibaki’s failings were shifted to him. Then in March 2018, Raila recalibrated his politics and accepted to work with his political nemesis in the name of uniting a country that was on the brink of fracturing.

The logic goes something like this: If our own person can cause us all this suffering, what about a person from a different ethnic group? We will all be finished. So let’s stick with our own, who God will prevail upon to have mercy on us.

Not accustomed to political truths, Raila’s move confused the Kikuyus, who were denied a punching bag and smokescreen. They had no one who they could channel their political frustrations through and blame.

Now with the prospect of a Ruto (or Raila?) presidency in 2022, they have no one left to blame but themselves for believing the Uthamaki myth and betting on a horse that had a short shelf life, and which was not particularly interested in their plight. The chickens, it seems, are coming home to roost.

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

Is Democracy Dead or Has It Simply Been Hijacked?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Populist idiocy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A civic ritual

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How Corruption and Greed Are Destroying Africa’s Forests

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

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

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

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

Land grabs and exploitation

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

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

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

The effects of foreign liberalism

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

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

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

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

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

Deforestation and greed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The impact of corruption on deforestation

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

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

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

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

Reforestation and other plans to restore Africa’s forests

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rise of monoculture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kenya conundrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small as the new big

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The release phase and agrarian transition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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