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The ‘Othering’ of Somalis and How This Impacts Kenya’s War on Terror

15 min read. IBRAHIM MAGARA argues that instead of exploring opportunities to heal wounds, and mending ties in pursuit of the national interest, specifically national security, the Kenyan state has adopted counterterrorism approaches and strategies that are deeply divisive and historically and contextually insensitive.

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The ‘Othering’ of Somalis and How This Impacts Kenya’s War on Terror
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Since September 11, 2001, the war on terror and associated programmes, such as countering violent extremism (CVE), have been a major focus of attention among experts drawn from a multiplicity of sectors and disciplines. The “war on terror” has been an evolving yet controversial realm of academic inquiry and policy discourse whose implementation is characterised by controversial conceptual contours and dramatic practical turns, with important challenges both in the United States (its origins) and abroad. It is a war that remains as elusive in actuality as it is contested as a concept.

So far one cannot confidently point at any known example of a society that has waged and won this war and indeed there is scepticism as to whether any will for the simple reason that that the said war is unconventional. Perhaps the best-known way to win the war on terror is not to start one. But Kenya has, over the years, positioned itself as an unswerving ally of the West, particularly the US, in this war and as such the country is already deeply engaged in one.

This then raises the question about what we know about better ways, if any, of going about the war on terror and CVE. A lot of commentators on this subject have consistently argued for the need to focus on “winning hearts and minds”, particularly of members of the affected society – the so-called “at risk” groups – as a better approach to CVE programmes and addressing the menace of terrorism broadly understood. This entails, among others, the ability to create and diligently transact on a counter-narrative to sentiments of violent extremism with the aim of winning the confidence of the most affected communities in view of (i) dissuading those already engaged in this barbarism; (ii) reducing and hopefully eventually eliminating new recruitments and; (iii) recruiting and deploying the concerned and/or “at risk” community as an ally in the fight against the vice.

In the case of Kenya, and following the said logic, therefore, the Kenyan Somali community, given its strong national and cultural ties with Somalia (the base of Al Shabaab), is a major player which must be constructively and meaningfully engaged if the country is to make any significant gains in as far as the so-called war on terror and CVE programmes are concerned. However, I argue that there is a little problem here given the fact that the Kenyan state and the Somali community have historically not enjoyed good relations, hence raising the question about how such antagonism negatively impacts Kenya’s CVE programmes and its approach to the war on terror in general.

The cost of terror

Having suffered numerous attacks, stretching from the 7 August 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi by elements linked to Al Qaeda to this year’s attack on the dusitD2 hotel complex in upmarket Nairobi, Kenya has undoubtedly paid a huge price with regard to terrorism, just as it has had its share of challenges related to CVE. Even as the country marks the 21st anniversary of the 1998 bombing that claimed over 200 lives, the risk of terror lurks, its smell lingers with its dangers obviously palpable as are its scars.

In the case of Kenya, and following the said logic, therefore, the Kenyan Somali community, given its strong national and cultural ties with Somalia (the base of Al Shabaab), is a major player which must be constructively and meaningfully engaged if the country is to make any significant gains in as far as the so-called war on terror and CVE programmes are concerned.

The impact of Al Shabaab’s reinvention and sophistication was first felt in Kenya and indeed the world during the Westgate mall attack on 21 September 2013 that left 68 dead and more than 200 wounded. Before this incident, Al Shabaab was associated with arguably low-level attacks, such as hurling grenades and/or improvised explosive devices (IEDs) at groups of people in public spaces, such as churches, mosques, markets and bus stops, coupled with incidents of hijackings and kidnappings, especially in the north-eastern and coastal regions of the country.

After Westgate, two other complex attacks have been executed by Al Shabaab that not only led to loss of life, but also caused untold pain to Kenya and Kenyans. These were the Garissa University attack on April 2, 2015 in which 147 people, most of them students, were killed and the dusitD2 hotel complex attack on 15 January this year that left 21 dead. Such attacks have raised questions about Kenya’s preparedness, its ability to deter such attacks and/or deal with them, and most importantly, whether there are assurances of non-recurrence.

The number of Kenyans who have since died as a result of Al Shabaab attacks is certainly staggering. While this is the case, the Kenyan government has arguably not put in place measures to ensure and assure its public and the world that such horrifying attacks will not happen again. Furthermore, the number and frequency of low-level attacks, especially targeting security personnel in the north-eastern region, is worrisome. Even more disturbing is what I call the “kawaidaness” (near normalisation) with which a section of Kenyan society is increasingly greeting the news of the latter kind of attacks.

It is no secret that Al Shabaab still remains a huge threat to Kenya and the region. The terror group appears to have been able to manipulate religion and other historical dynamics, such as Kenya’s troubled internal divisions and worsening political and economic fragmentation along regional and ethnic lines, to further its cause, making it a resilient monster and most importantly an enemy from within whose rise can be seen, in part, as a direct result of the Kenyan state’s (in collaboration with foreign allies) approach to CVE and the war on terror.

The problematic framing of CVE

Following the recent wave of white supremacist attacks in the US, some minority groups, particularly Muslims, including those from Somalia, have continued to express their displeasure with the profiling that is associated with the US’s CVE programmes. Such programmes have been criticised as being vehicles for profiling and criminalising Muslims and other marginalised communities. Similar programmes in the UK under “Prevent” among others, requires all public workers (for example, every public school teacher) to report on radicalisation, solidifying what can be seen as a new channel of “the school-to-prison pipeline” largely affecting immigrants, especially from countries that are predominantly Muslim and Arab.

These kinds of skewed CVE and war on terror programmes and approaches are certainly deeply problematic since they not only create resentment but also provide a clear path through which the targeted communities’ vulnerability to violent radicalisation may actually increase, hence ultimately becoming counter-productive. These kinds of programmes, disguised as security measures, are not by any means new in the world. For example, in the US, there has been the so-called Black Identity Extremist (BIE) programme that has historically been used by the FBI to portray black activists as terrorists and a violent threat to law enforcement, thus creating a dangerous nexus of CVE and BIE with black Muslims as the target of close monitoring and containment.

Some commentators have argued that BIE, Prevent and similar CVE programmes, particularly in the West, are never designed to counter-violence. On the contrary, they are directed at suppressing dissent from marginalised communities, hence their focus is on individual acts rather than the systemic roots of violence. As such CVE programmes are not only ineffective but actually possible avenues of breeding and exacerbating different types and levels of violence, including what is conceived as violent extremism, radicalisation and terrorism in many jurisdictions, including both in the global North and the global South, including Kenya.

Another problem that is closely related to these constructs and approaches is the “othering” associated with how the states in question decide who is “at risk” or who are the “concerned communities”. For example, looking at one of the CVE programmes in Boston, it is interesting to note that it outlines and documents social and economic trauma faced by the Somali community. Then it proceeds to lay out as one of the key solutions to such a social problem the establishment of opportunities and platforms through which the local police spend time with Somali youth aged between 13 and 17 years. It becomes difficult to ascertain if and how this is less humiliating and insulting than other programmes that, for instance, target similar sections of society with mental health support. This is for the simple reason that such programming has already judged and, in most cases, condemned, albeit covertly, a certain group of people as being dangerous, hence in need of help; otherwise they are terrorists, at least in potency.

Some commentators have argued that BIE, Prevent and similar CVE programmes, particularly in the West, are never designed to counter-violence. On the contrary, they are directed at suppressing dissent from marginalised communities, hence their focus is on individual acts rather than the systemic roots of violence.

In short, what runs across such conceptions and praxis is a thoroughgoing governmentality with a long history of criminalisation of marginalised communities, which unfortunately is not an answer to violence but a tool to constantly exclude and then justify the suppression of official state-sanctioned oppression on the grounds of those groups being potential producers of insecurity and/or disruptors of peace and harmony. This is exactly what is happening in Kenya with the securitisation and militarisation of the Somali territories operating within a complex context of historical marginalisation based on contested Somali identity.

The history of the problem

As pastoralists scattered across the vast “wastelands” in the north-eastern part of Kenya, Somalis have historically largely survived in immense isolation, often under deplorable social and economic conditions away from the public domain and far from the centre, neither contributing much to national development nor sufficiently benefitting from economic and political gains that the country has been making since independence. This is, however, changing significantly, given the Somalis’ current ventures into and gains from business and trade.

Somalis have equally been victims of state-led violence of atrocious nature committed across the years, including during the irredentist Shifta War and a number of massacres, such as the Wagalla and Garissa massacres, which collectively saw the killing of over 8,000 Somalis

Somali territories have historically remained highly securitised and militarised. It only takes a road trip from Garissa – just across the Tana River – to Mandera and you will easily appreciate this fact. I recall that during my frequent travels to the region between 2016 and 2018, my driver often jokingly said that “sasa tumevuka mpaka wa Kenya” once we crossed the security check, which is curiously right on top of the Garissa Bridge.

As pastoralists scattered across the vast “wastelands” in the north-eastern part of Kenya, Somalis have historically largely survived in immense isolation, often under deplorable social and economic conditions away from the public domain and far from the centre, neither contributing much to national development nor sufficiently benefitting from economic and political gains that the country has been making since independence.

There are numerous accounts by experts tracing the history of the rise of Somali nationalism in the 1950-60s, the subsequent Kenya-Somalia border controversy and the associated cessation ideology and Shifta War. The systematic historical and contemporaneous alienation of the Somalis is traceable to the rise of Somali nationalism beginning towards the end of the 19th century into early 20th century. This was around the time of the advent of European colonisation and the partitioning of Somali-inhabited territories between Western powers.

The partitioning of the Somali nation between the British, the French, the Italians, and the Ethiopians was a critical moment in the political history of Somalis in the Horn of Africa. The permanent fragmentation of the Somali key grazing areas, which occurred when the British handed over the Somali-dominated, and still contested, Ogaden in 1948 and Hawd areas in 1954 to Ethiopians, was to follow. This set in motion not only one of the most disputed border areas in the Horn of Africa that renewed Somali resistance regionally, but also lay the foundation for Somalis’ later notions of “ambiguous citizenship in Kenya

The years leading to independence for both Somalia and Kenya were epitomised by intensified Somali political disturbances, which were repeatedly echoed in various means. The growth of nationalistic ideology led to the establishment of political parties, such as the Somaliland National League (SNL) and the Somali Youth League (SYL), with goals of furthering Somali nationalism

The quest for Somali unity does not fall too far from Al Shabaab’s dubious claims to unite the Somali people, especially the youth, and guard them against external (particularly Western) corruption, which resonates well with ideologies of Boko Haram in Nigeria and ISIS in the Middle East.

We should not forget that before undergoing the two dramatic transformations that have led to the lethal terror group that Al Shabaab has become, the group was originally a youth militia associated with the relatively moderate Islamic Courts Union (ICU) that rose to power in Somalia in early 2006 with the aim of establishing an Islamist state in Somalia.

Perhaps the only nuance in the historical clamour for a Pan-Somali ideology is an emphasis on the need for the said Greater Somalia to be an Islamic state, which was always a factor anyway, although it was not as heavily pronounced back then as it has been in recent years. It is an ideology that Al Shabaab has continued to exploit and package in religious propaganda in furtherance of its terror activities. To this end, I think, we cannot dissociate the historical clamour for Somali unity with Kenya’s current challenges with the war on terror for the simple reason that the search for an all-inclusive Somali state was an unwelcome idea for the Kenyan authorities and had to be quashed at all costs and by adoption of all means, as was witnessed during the Shifta War.

The Kenya-Somalia border dispute was one of the earliest post-colonial border controversies and one that presented unprecedented challenges for the newly independent state, with Kenya adopting a militaristic pacification approach to quash the ideology. Revisiting such history is important, especially at a time when Kenya is again locked in an escalating territorial dispute with Somalia

While Somali leaders believed in the unity of the Somali people irrespective of the flags under which they lived, the Kenyan leadership, on the other hand, perceived the demands by the Somali population as an outright act of aggression on its territorial integrity. However, this is not a creation of the governments of independent Kenya since, in many significant ways, the strained relations between the Kenyan state and the Somali community is an inheritance from the colonial state’s blunders, including a referendum held in 1962 in the Northern Frontier District (NFD) regarding the political future of the inhabitants of the area, whose results the colonial government did not follow through, particularly due to opposition by Kenyan leaders who were serving in the colonial government, notably Jomo Kenyatta and Ronald Ngala

Expectedly, under Kenyatta, who had argued that no inch of Kenyan territory should cede, the newly-established post-colonial Kenyan state threw a cordon sanitaire around Somali territories of the country the same way the colonial government did. This meant that social, economic, cultural, and political activities of Somalis were seriously curtailed and human rights abuses against them intensified, marking the beginning of a bitter resistance (the Shifta War) whose consequences were historically disastrous and whose scars, particularly among the Somalis populations, remain to date. This became a major turning point in the “othering” of Somalis in Kenya, with far-reaching implications, especially as regards current CVE and war on terror. 

The othering of Kenyan Somalis

The othering of the Somali community in Kenya is perhaps one of the single most important factors fanning the historical marginalisation and current identity contestation. This othering is characterised by stereotyping, with symbolically fixed boundaries including popular narratives about the Somali community’s inability to integrate. It takes a simple observation of the patterns of the Somali lifestyle in urban set-ups like Nairobi to determine that they indeed live in same and specific locations, do business in specific spaces etc.

The historical disavowal of Kenya’s Somalis is based on several fetishes of differences relating to their language, culture and religion, but also with its own poetics, deeply invested in power as a product of discursive and hegemonic practices well theorised in mainstream discourse analyses. Under colonial rule, Somalis were stereotyped as “hostile”, “warlike” or “warriors”, concepts that the Kenyan government and the non-Somali Kenyan public seem to have easily accepted without question; they are assumed and adopted as true representations of Somali identity. This has come with a huge cost, as experienced through the so-called “violence of decolonisation” and indeed current struggle with homegrown extremist violence, which the majority of the Somali youth are perceived as highly exposed to.

The othering of the Somali community in Kenya is perhaps one of the single most important factors fanning the historical marginalisation and current identity contestation. This othering is characterised by stereotyping, with symbolically fixed boundaries including popular narratives about the Somali community’s inability to integrate.

The lack of integration of the Somali community and lack of interaction between them and the non-Somali populations in Kenya exist in and furthers relations of mutual suspicion. But since the government is seen as controlled by the non-Somali communities, the Somalis are simply victims of asymmetric relations in which they are viewed by the rest as troublesome. It takes a little attentiveness to the public mood and you will tell that such sentiments are heavily pronounced every time there is a terror attack. In such times, suspicion of the Somalis seems to surge and a lot of ordinary non-Somali Kenyans create a narrative that is openly aggressive to Somalis but somehow, with the help of the posture and conduct of the state, such aggressiveness is normalised.

It reminds me of an incident in 2015 after the Garissa attack when I attended a function in Nairobi in the company of a Somali driver who was wearing a kanzu. At some point after midday, he wanted to go for prayers in a mosque across the road and so he came to where I was to inform me about it. As he walked away, someone remarked, albeit jokingly, if “we were safe”, a statement that I found offensive, not only to my colleague but to Somalis and any reasonable person really. Of course, I raised my concern over the same, to which the said person casually apologised. This was especially annoying given the stature of the person in question and the nature of the event. It goes to show that as a society there is a prevalent perception about Somalis that we have been reluctant to interrogate in relation to the bigger discourse on terrorism.

The othering narrative discursively accentuates the distorted imagery of the Somalis as “warlike” or as the “enemy of the Kenyan state” and even birthed the derogatorily yet normalised stereotype of “wariah”, which is a rather unconscious continuation of the colonial representation of their identity as “warriors” by the public. This stereotype of Somalis has undoubtedly influenced the Kenyan government’s perceptions and handling of the Somalis but also positions the wider public against the Somali community.

It should not be lost on us that by the time the NFD was handed over to the post-independent Kenyan government, stereotypes of “warlike” Somalis contributed to the beginning of anti-Somali sentiments, with an emergence of more derogatory repertoires mutating and normalised over time, ranging from “shiftas”, “wariah”, “bandits’,jangili”, “Al Shabab”, “Al Shabaab sympathisers”, and most recently, “cash points”. Such images, real or imaginary, have continued to influence the Kenyan authorities’ behaviour towards the Somalis, leading to gross violations of human rights, for instance as was witnessed during Operation Usalama Watch that followed the Westgate attack. The historical othering was discursively articulated by portraying the Somali quest for independence as “secessionist” and its people as being anti the Kenyan state.

It is simply the nuanced formulation of such configuration that justifies the current narrative that associates Somalis with terrorism, or at least as sympathisers of Al Shabaab, and hence collectively perceived and dealt with as a threat to national security. Regardless of the political rhetoric of unity, the actions of the government and the mood of the general public regarding the place of Somalis in the wider scheme of CVE and the war on terror are that the community is a “problem to be fixed” – the same logic employed by the CVE programmes in the West, particularly in the US and the UK.

The relationship of antagonism between the state and the Somali community causes anxiety and uncertainty, especially at this critical moment when the state desperately needs genuine input from the Somali community if its CVE programme and the wider war on terror is to “succeed”. While there is a need for a sense of national unity and pride (patriotism) in the campaign against terrorism and extremist violence, the Somali othering obstinately negates the sense of that value by revealing the ambivalences of the Kenyan state as a stable unified entity, which creates fault lines that continue to be exploited to the advantage of terrorists, particularly Al Shabaab.

It should not be lost on us that by the time the NFD was handed over to the post-independent Kenyan government, stereotypes of “warlike” Somalis contributed to the beginning of anti-Somali sentiments, with an emergence of more derogatory repertoires mutating and normalised over time, ranging from “shiftas”, “wariah”, “bandits’,jangili”, “Al Shabab”, “Al Shabaab sympathisers”, and most recently, “cash points”.

Furthermore, this othering continues to be reinvented and redeployed as a tool for Kenya’s own precarious constitution as a “nation” but also as a justification for the perceived Somali revolt against their own country, including their indifference to the war on terror and government’s CVE programmes.

Which way now for CVE and war on terror?

Now that Kenya is already deep in the problematic war on terror, it is imperative to keep up the tempo of counterterrorism operations in order to eliminate threats and degrade the capabilities of militants, particularly Al Shabaab. Indeed, nothing can justify terrorism and violent extremism, but we must also acknowledge that they do not arise in a vacuum. As the United Nations Secretary-General (UN-SG) rightly notes, “actual or perceived injustice and promised empowerment become attractive wherever human rights are being violated, good governance is being ignored and aspirations are being crushed.” He particularly singles out state violence and abuse of power as “tipping point” for terror.

If the Kenyan state is to make and/or consolidate its gains, if any, on the war on terror, it must deeply reflect on its positionality in regard to the conception and approaches that it has since adopted and experimented on. This includes, but is not limited to, a genuine appraisal of how the state’s perception and handling of the Somali community undermine the country’s own efforts against extremist violence.

To address any type of violence, society must focus on the structures that disadvantage certain groups, including historically marginalised communities – not just obvious physical violence, but also structural violence, such as that related to and sustained by inequities. This is for the simple reason that violence, including terrorism, emerges and survives in environments of identity contestation, hence ultimately insurgencies are best defeated by political legitimacy.

In its attempts to tackle the drivers and enablers of extreme violence, Kenya needs to open a political conversation on the county’s painful history and create a platform through which to forge a future that promises opportunities for all its people. This is one of the pathways to enacting in its people the sense of patriotism and national unity that are vital ingredients in the struggle against insurgency and the ever-changing terrain of security challenges. This calls for re-imagination of ingenious and pragmatic approaches in forging solidarity in addressing the pressing security concerns of our time.

Unfortunately, instead of exploring opportunities to heal wounds, as suggested by the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC), and mending ties in pursuit of the national interest, specifically national security, it appears that the war on terror and approaches to CVE that the Kenyan state continues to adopt are deeply Western and historically and contextually insensitive. Hence they actually contribute to reproducing and deepening antagonism between the state and a section of its own society, thereby significantly undermining the former’s security objectives.

One then wonders if and how Kenya’s current CVE programme and counterterrorism strategies, tilted to Western framings and laden with American bias, will succeed. It certainly is a problematic issue area, especially when the CVE within the purview of the war on terror is perceived as nothing other than a violent return of the colonial past, with its split geographies of “us” and “them”; “civilization” and “barbarism”; and “good” and “evil”.

Without any intention whatsoever to validate such grave claims and conspiracies, one would want to seriously consider the implication of certain narratives that are prevalent in Kenyan society, especially during and around terror attacks. Issues, such as claims of Al Shabaab discrimination during attacks and/or conspiracy theories such as that there was word among Somalis about the impending attack at the Garissa University College, calls on experts to reflect deeply on such matters and place them in their historical-political context as they wrestle with the process of meaning-making of Kenya’s prospects as far as the war on terror is concerned and the positionality of the Somali community in these complex dynamics.

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Ibrahim Sakawa Magara is a PhD student at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom where he researches on security regionalisms and regional conflict management in the Horn of Africa.

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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