The peeping game
In 2017, some sharp-eyed IT managers at the African Union (AU) realized that bugging devices had been planted in the computer servers and conference rooms of the shiny new headquarters building. It was only inevitable that the Chinese were to be seen as prime suspects, given that it was them that had so kindly met the cost and physical labour of putting up the building.
In the ensuing debates, only then incoming AU chairperson, Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame, was unbothered.
“I don’t think spying is the specialty of the Chinese. We have spies all over the place in this world,” the chairman said. His only concern was that Africa had not got its act together. “We should have been able to build our own building.” but even then, he mused: “if you bring people to build for you, they may still spy on you.”
Such candour was refreshing, and brings another context about the mutual accusations of spying, subterfuge and intrigue being exchanged between the regimes of Rwanda and Uganda.
Mid-August regional media reports –to the extent that they can be relied upon, given the greatly partisan atmosphere- tell us that the mounting tension in the Uganda-Congo-Rwanda border region may have finally spilled over into open fighting, with Rwanda seeking to eliminate what it has been saying is an armed threat from a Uganda-backed rebel group based in the Democratic Republic of Congo (again), and led by former Kigali insiders.
A source close to the Kigali regime recently assured me that reports of the Rwanda Special Forces decimating a significant encampment of Rwandan National Congress (RNC) rebel forces are completely true, based on photographic evidence he claimed to have seen.
Since then: a frosty diplomatic process facilitated by the state of Angola, has sought to de-escalate tensions, by coaxing the presidents of the two countries into signing a 21st August Memorandum of Understanding. Its key points are: respecting mutual sovereignty; no acts of subversion in the territory of the other party, as well as third countries (read Congo); do nothing to create the impression of an interest in such destabilization, thereby eliminating all factors that may create such perception; and respecting the civic rights and freedoms of each other’s visiting citizens.
A source close to the Kigali regime recently assured me that reports of the Rwanda Special Forces decimating a significant encampment of Rwandan National Congress (RNC) rebel forces are completely true. His assertion is based on photographic evidence he claims to have seen.
The last clause is critical here. It clearly refers to the many Rwandan citizens that Kigali says are and have been held for long periods of time –some up to two years- by Uganda intelligence operatives, and subjected to inhuman treatment.
The Rwandan state, and its regional media allies point the finger squarely at Uganda’s historically notorious Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI).
The facts are that the CMI acquired this fearsome reputation well back in the early days of President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) 1986 ascension to power. Known then as the Directorate of Military Intelligence (as its Rwanda counterpart is now called), it was the grinding stone against which many a rebellion, coup attempt and even simple civilian political agitation was ground to dust by very brutally efficient methods of murder, torture, deception, intrusion, and intimidation.
This accusation comes weighed down with a most striking irony: in those early days, the Directorate’s deputy Director was one Paul Kagame, still incarnate as an officer of the NRA.
All this tells us quite a few things.
First, that the accusation that CMI is illegally apprehending and then torturing Rwandans is entirely credible, given its history, particularly of the early days of basically physically crushing the armed resistance that had spring up in northern Uganda. These episodes are not particularly well-known, as the global human rights NGO police, and rising Ugandan corporate feminist movement and the Western diplomatic community seemed to see many opportunities in the freshly-minted NRA regime, and chose to simply “not see”, what was going on. In addition, in the subsequent decade, many of the regime insiders in Uganda who were to become leading opposition voices after the falling out, also seem to have difficulty in making specific references to this foundational period of the regime. This could well be because they were in positions where they were much better informed than others back then, to now claim ignorance.
This focus on Rwandans could even be considered an act of inclusivity, given that CMI stood accused of torturing everyone else in the days when it was heavily staffed by Rwandans of various citizenship.
Secondly, it is entirely possible, and in fact quite logical, that Rwanda’s government would seek to maintain an information-gathering network inside Uganda. Given President Kagame’s reaction to the AU scandal, it would be naïve to assume that he did not see a need to also build a Rwandan “back door” in the Ugandan intelligence outfit he helped to build. This, as the AU chairman pointed out in that context, is how the spying game works.
By the same token it would be entirely logical and natural to assume that if the Rwanda regime is in fact deploying its spies to Uganda that the Ugandan regime’s security apparatus would endeavor to seek out and apprehend any such person.
Naturally, it would also be quite logical that the human resource of any such network would comprise Rwanda nationals, Uganda nationals of Rwandan descent, and of course even other Ugandan nationals seeking pecuniary or other gain.
So, for any Rwandan national to now find themselves captive of a Ugandan organization designed in part by his or her president, this is a very ironical kind of homecoming indeed, as clearly, those institutional habits did not begin only after (now President) Paul Kagame left.
Thirdly, given the long public record established by President Museveni in reneging on agreements -and also President Kagame’s knowledge of this from his time as a high-level enforcer of Museveni’s will during his own time as a Uganda regime apparatchik- observers would be wise to see the Luanda MOU as the latest stage in a continuing feud, as opposed to the beginning of its end.
The intelligence, combat and diplomatic shenanigans are therefore neither a cause nor a solution to this game; they are merely details in a game still being played out. We need to look deeper.
The labelling game
Since the difference between Ugandan and Rwandans –from throne to commoner- have never really been as real as the current Kigali-Kampala standoff have made it, there can be perhaps no greater illustration of the appearance of Birds fighting their reflection in a window pane. If anything, the dispute is a critical example of how similar the two political cultures –old and new- are.
The concept of Rwandan immigration to “Uganda” is a rather fluid one. Rwanda existed long before Uganda ever did, and before either colony was created. In some sense, anyone in south western Uganda could be considered Rwandan just as anyone in certainly northern Rwanda could be considered “Ugandan”.
And Rwandan indigenous communities are organized along lines followed also by communities in south and south-western Uganda, not to mention Burundi, right down to often having the same clans. There are families -some now quite prominent- in what is now south-western Uganda, whose ancestry can be traced to migration from Rwanda as far back as the 16th Century.
Perhaps we should therefore see the colonial project, and this neo-colonial one now being held together by these bickering presidents, as an interruption and distortion to those historical relations.
The concept of Rwandan immigration to Uganda is a rather fluid one. Rwanda existed long before Uganda ever did, and before either colony was created. In some sense, anyone in south-western Uganda could be considered Rwandan just as anyone in northern Rwanda could be considered Ugandan.
Subsequent to colonization, there were groups of people who migrated to Uganda, who were now being called Rwandan. The first known such group was a group of embattled aristocrats from the Rwandan royal court, who had to leave following an internal political upheaval. The eventually settled in Namutamba, mid-western Buganda.
There followed a few waves of economic migration, due to the growth of Uganda’s colonial economy. It should be noted that it was the district authorities in Western Uganda that first passed laws restricting migration from Rwanda, followed eventually by the colonial government as a whole.
The migrations culminated in the almost exclusively Tutsi influx that followed the 1959 Hutu “revolution” mentioned in part II.
Many prominent Ugandans can be traced to all these developments.
The actor-playwright Deborah Asiimwe, proprietor of the Kampala International Theatre Festival once told me of her grandmother whose speaks very fluent Luganda as a result of having lived in the Buganda royal court in the 1930s, where she had been expected to become a wife to then Kabaka Daudi Cwa, whose reign ended in 1939.
The late Dede Majoro (d. 1995), perhaps the most gifted guitarist this region has ever seen, also lived for a while in Buganda royal court in the reign of Kabaka Edward Muteesa (1939-1966), along with many of his siblings. Kabaka Muteesa provided them sanctuary after their father Silas Majoro (and former schoolmate at Buddo), a senior advisor to the deposed Rwandan King Kigeli (1936-2016), who had been assassinated by Belgian agents in their process of actively supporting the Hutu “revolution”. Dede’s sister, Grace Kaboyo was until recently one of President Museveni’s district commissioners.
Mr Robert Kalumba is a very visible public relations officer at Kampala City Council Authority, whose grandfather was granted a tidy parcel of land in Buganda by the sister of Edward Muteesa.
Another member of the Rwanda royal family who also fled to Uganda and married a Ugandan woman. They were to have a son who went on to marry one of Edward Muteesa’s daughters. He went on to become a very senior immigration officer. I went to school with him.
They were to have a son who went on to marry one of Edward Muteesa’s daughters. I went to school with him.
The deposed King Kigeli himself took refuge in Uganda for a while. As a child, I recall our mother pointing out to us his very tall frame walking along the street, as she drove us passed the apartment block he lived in, near the city centre.
In short, the problem has never been the presence of Rwandans in Uganda as such, since there have always been Rwandans in Uganda even before Uganda became Uganda (and then took parts of what was independent north Rwanda with it). The problem is the political culture that comes with that presence, given the historical record that continues to show that the biggest single persecutors and killers of Rwandans have always been other Rwandans.
In his play A Time of Fire Uganda writer Charles Mulekwa reflects on the common failing of political peoples fleeing war and persecution of actually bringing the causes of the war with them. It is a case of a refugee and migrant community that has “learned nothing, and forgotten nothing”, as was said of the early 1800s French Bourbon dynasty exile who, having taken back power in France, then proceeded to replicate all the political mistakes that had caused them to lose power in the first place.
It is a challenge of political culture of Rwanda. Of the stubbornness of old habits, which, as is said, die hard.
But where did it start?
The imposter game
In the biblical tale of Naboth’s vineyard, an unwitting King finds himself in possession of a vineyard he has coveted for a long time. It belonged to his neighbour Naboth, who had declined to sell it, as it was part of his own inheritance from his father, and according to Jewish custom could not be disposed of in such a way.
Wife Jezebel had her own plan to cheer up the frustrated monarch. She had Naboth framed, murdered, and his property seized. The King learns of this only when confronted by the Judges of his Kingdom. For them the real sacrilege is that beyond the murder, the perpetrator then assumes the place of the victim, in the form of claiming to be the rightful owner of his inheritance. This is the true meaning of the verse: “Have you killed and also taken possession?” (Kings 21:19), now colloquially known as the syndrome of “Naboth’s vineyard”.
In his play A Time of Fire, the Ugandan writer Charles Mulekwa reflects on the common failing of political peoples fleeing war and persecution to actually bring the causes of the war with them. It is a case of a refugee and migrant community that has “learned nothing, and forgotten nothing”…
In the biblical story, the King repents and atones. In the real world of African politics, many a murderous usurper has simply soldiered on regardless, with this disastrous game.
But now, the moment of truth is fast arriving, and we are all about to be found out.
With Uganda, the fraudulent nature of the three-decade-old government is better known and a lot more explicit.
In the case of Rwanda, we must begin with a similar usurpation, by one Kanjogera, dowager in the Royal House of Rwanda in 1896, who conspires with the encroaching Germans to have the then monarch murdered in favour of Musinga her own biological son. This is an event replete with the kinds of abominations that shocked the judges in Naboth’s case.
One Muhumuza, mother of the murdered monarch led the initial resistance to this usurpation.
Despite it having been seen as a movement among very ordinary people, Muhumuza became an adherent of the Nyabinghi movement.
Nyabinghi was the sovereign of the 16th Century kingdom of Karagwe, which name now lives on as a district in northern Tanzania.
She was murdered by her husband Ruhinda, king of the Mpororo just to the north, in his attempt to take over her throne.
Her spirit was to haunt him and his accomplices for years afterwards, and became the foundation of a “cult”, that passed it down the generations through initiating young women into its priesthood. The Nyabinghi belief-system soon spread to neighbouring regions, and was taken up by persons nursing deep grievances against existing authority, making it a target for state repression.
This became a particularly acute problem in pre-colonised Rwanda -which included what is now parts of south-western Uganda- where the various Kings had tried to stamp it out.
She can be said to be the African patron saint of the betrayed.
Naturally enough, the anti-colonial sentiments in Rwanda, sparked by Kanjogera’s allegedly German-backed coup, found a home among the Nyabinghi movement.
Having been inducted into the Nyabinghi priesthood, Muhumuza became the incarnation of the spirit of the long-dead queen. This set the stage for the showdown that sucked in the German, British and later Belgian colonial authorities.
“These fanatical women are a curse to the country.” One colonial official reportedly complained.
This was nothing unusual, except for the times it was dealing with. It is something of a tradition here to literally channel a long-passed on leader’s spirit when faced with an extreme leadership challenge.
During the 1953-1955 British exiling of Kabaka Muteesa, a man called Kiganira declared himself the reincarnation of Kibuuka, Buganda’s Achilles-like war-spirit, and began agitations that led to his arrest and execution.
The spirt of a long-dead Shona monarch Nehanda, also inspired the initial resistance to the British colonizing mission. It has been handed down to possess generations of women in particular family lines. At the time of the colonizing invasions, it was held by Charwe Nyakasikana, whose invocation of it was instrumental in the initial anti-colonial resistance, until she and her companion were captured by the British and hanged in 1898.
The colony of Rwanda comes into existence and is later inherited by Belgium. In that success, these imposed imposter states show that illegitimacy can be made to work. Kogonjera’s usurpation becomes an understanding of politics, and produces a form of white Pan-Africanism:
Muhumuza is captured by the colonisers and exiled to be held captive in colonial Kampala, until her passing in 1944.
The history game
The past matters. And this is why those in the present always seek to control it.
With the rise of later African nationalism, old tales of the initial German conquest, as well as current experiences of the apartheid system were mined to design a toxic mix of hate, and racist anthropology history which become an official mantra of PARMEHUTU, a party led by one Gregoire Kayibanda; a man until recently the private secretary to the Belgian head of the Roman Catholic Church in Rwanda. This Hate History lays the foundation of the Hutu “revolution” of 1959, that created the mass exodus of Tutsi into neighboring countries. Kayibanda becomes president, and Hate History remained taught.
His victory is cut short when his army chief of staff Juvenal Habyarimana, overthrows him and then allegedly has him and his wife starved to death while in detention (thus taking possession and then killing, in his case).
Similar betrayals dogged the rebellion organized from exile against this new set of imposters, and vicious, internecine conflict seemed to have characterized its journey all the way to victory over the Habyarimana regime.
With the rise of later African nationalism, old tales of the initial German conquest, as well as recent experiences of the apartheid system, were mined to design a toxic mix of hate, and racist anthropology-history, which become an official mantra of PARMEHUTU, a party led by one Gregoire Kayibanda, a man until recently the private secretary to the Belgian head of the Roman Catholic Church in Rwanda.
Historically, the monarchy had seemed to be the focal point around which all Rwandans within its ambit organised their various identities. There seemed to have been a push within the rebellion to put the monarchy question back on the table.
The standing accusation, best documented by the writer Timothy Kalyegira, is that those now in power in Kigali, first hijacked the initial rebellion, and the formation of RPF was in itself a usurpation of an earlier initiative organised by Rwandan exiles not embedded in the Uganda state, against the Rwandan Habyarimana regime that the current leadership of the RPF suppressed using their then high positions within the Ugandan NRA security apparatus. This initial initiative may have been known as inkotanyi.
This can be framed as a continuation of Kanjogera’s coup: usurpation upon usurpation, and a legacy of illegitimate political inheritances.
The most prominent example of this of course would be the assassination of (former NRA bush war veteran, and Uganda government deputy minister of Defence) Col. Fred Rwigyema who, as first field commander of the RPF invasion, suffered the ignominy of being shot dead within 24 hours of crossing into his country.
Illegitimate power cannot rule legitimately, and remains permanently insecure, in crisis or near failure.
It is often aware of this, and as a remedy, seeks to clothe itself with the garments of legitimacy. Kanjogera commits regicide, but then seeks refuge in a “neo-traditionalist” gambit of continuing the same monarchy in the form of her son, so as to hide behind the legitimacy of a throne, despite having just desecrated it.
And given the chance, imperial power will always seek to enter a society, and tilt the balance of power away from the most legitimate in favour of the least legitimate, which must then depend on it to one extent or another. This remains the story of Africa’s domination.
Nearly every historic victory of rebel organisations on our continent holds a record of being tempted by Western powers to reach for absolute power, where a peace-making coalition may have worked more in the mass interest instead.
In Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi’s minority Tigrayan People’s’ Liberation Front was able to militarily dominate the broader anti-Mengistu resistance, and subsequent regime, through the significant logistical resources delivered to it under the cover of Western famine relief, once the West realized that Mengistu’s days were numbered.
Museveni’s NRA dragged out the Nairobi 1985 Nairobi Peace TalkS for months on end while using material support channeled by the West through the notorious LONRHO corporation to increase the size of the army nearly ten-fold, before storming the capital.
All Africans are advised: look again at your resident liberators; how exactly did they come to power?
This is essentially a crisis of legitimacy. For both sides. Illegitimate power cannot rule legitimately, and remains permanently insecure, in crisis and in need of self-validation.
It is often aware of this, and as a remedy, seeks to clothe itself with the garments of legitimacy. Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army brought an exceptional level of illegitimacy to our politics in the way it seized power in 1986, through series of opportunistic exploitation of every old and current political grievance it could harness, and has held on to it. As mentioned in part II, it came carrying the seeds of the Rwanda Patriotic Front in its womb.
The 1993 wholesale invasion of Rwanda by the RPF was therefore –amongst other things- the exportation of that habit of illegitimacy to another country. As said, this was to be the fate of the DRC, even later.
The strategic resources game
This long and twisted story continues. It will create new approaches to known facts, and then bring unknown facts into creation.
I insist that this remains a struggle to be the principal conduit -broker, even- through which to channel the latest generation of strategic minerals, to Western corporations.
This is not just an African story. In the history of the conflicts of the modern world, certain zones stand out as having suffered from the accident of being located where strategic resources were to be found. Before the DRC, there was Western Europe and the Middle East.
Underneath the usual romanticisation of European conflict lies the story of coal and iron. Until perhaps the 1960s, the Alsace-Lorraine region, which lies where the lands of France and Germany meet, held the largest known deposits of iron ore in the world. Together with the abundant supplies of the coal in the neighbouring regions, this created the opportunity for the bulk production of perhaps the most significant material to the emergent industrial revolution: steel.
Three significant wars linked to this region have been fought in Western Europe: the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 which ended with a German occupation; the 1914-1918 British-German war in France; and the 1939-1945 British-French-American-Russian war against Germany and Japan that left much of the continent and beyond devastated.
This is not just an African story. In the history of the conflicts of the modern world, certain zones stand out as having suffered from the accident of being located where strategic resources were to be found. Before the DRC, there was Western Europe and the Middle East.
This recurrent conflict was only suspended for the last eighty years with the creation of a trade mechanism that enabled countries from all parts of the continent to access those and later other resources for their domestic industries, without having to also physically control the territory.
This mechanism was named the European Coal and Steel Commission, which became the European Economic Commission, which became the European Commission, and which is now known today as the European Union. Its core function is to prevent the buildup of the economic pressures that lead to war.
From the 1890s, the military forces of Western Europe and increasingly, the United States and underwent an extensive debate regarding the relative advantages of continuing to rely on steam-powered engines fueled by the burning of coal, over the emergent liquid fuels. By 1912, the liquid fuels camp had won the debate: oil was easier to excavate, transport, store and deliver. It was scalable, yielded more energy per unit, and did not require the maintenance of a global network of “coaling stations” dependent of a small fleet of labour-intensive “coaling ships” supplying their navies.
It did however, require the establishment of a guaranteed supply. This is how the entire middle east, with its vast, accessible oilfields, increasingly became the focus of rival empires seeking to gain a foothold on this strategic reserve.
The British navy, for example, decided to strategically switch from coal in the period just before the 1914-1918 war.
The subsequent dismantling of the Turkish Ottoman empire, leading to the carve up of its Arab dominions into the unstable oil-producing region known today, is one visible result.
Then came the dawn of nuclear energy, particularly its use in warfare, heralded by the 1945 American destruction of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Atomic weapons were being developed by all sides during that war. They came as the logical outcome of the war’s increasing dependence on widespread destruction of cities and the civilian hinterland as a way of hampering the physical capacity of the enemy to maintain war. An atomic bomb offered the opportunity to impose strategic paralysis on an enemy through wiping out an entire city with one devastating operation.
A person no less than Albert Einstein, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, as well as pioneer of nuclear science was among the voices that advised the then US President to ensure it got and stayed ahead in the coming nuclear arms race, by developing the first bomb before Germany, or anyone else did. For this, they advised, the US was going to need a reliable supply of good quality Uranium.
“The United States has only very poor ores of uranium in moderate quantities” they warned in a 1939 letter: “There is some good ore in Canada and the former Czechoslovakia, while the most important source of uranium is Belgian Congo.”
This is where the fate of what we now know as the DRC was sealed. In retrospect, it was clear that Patrice Lumumba barely stood a chance. As early as 1947, the newly formed US Central Intelligence Agency had already dispatched agents to establish the viability of Uranium supply from Congo, and how to work with Belgian mining corporations there, to secure it. A truly independent Congo was seen as a threat to that objective, with US president Eisenhower even developing something of a personal obsession with Lumumba,
“The Shinkolobwe stockpile was about 200 times purer than average uranium sources at the time.” Notes Kenyan journalist Parselelo Kantai, who has researched this subject extensively.
What followed is not just known history, but a continuing story.
Western capitalism still holds a vision for the future: a fully automated world, in which goods and services are made, sorted and delivered by unmanned machinery, and paid for electronically.
This means an administrative layer of control and co-ordination. The vision therefore, is for a fully wired world, centralized around digital, online control, tracking everything from production levels, to individual consumer preferences.
This is the essence of the 5G “fourth industrial revolution”: digital technology stepping up to a level of broad-span interconnectivity primed to a speed and versatility previously unseen.
We are encouraged to think of a “cloud”, but this whole information infrastructure is not ephemeral. It requires physical warehousing and relies therefore on earth-bound space and technologies: wires, server farms hosting acres of capacity, routing stations, transmitters, communication devices and the like.
Three materials among many, are absolutely critical to all of this: copper, coltan and fiberglass. Of the three, Coltan is the most highly valuable. It makes the heat-resistant circuity in all devices. Its global trade expected only to expand exponentially as the 5G revolution takes root.
And once again, the unfortunate Democratic Republic of Congo finds itself as the primary future source for all this bounty. DRC may hold the single largest known reserves (estimated by some to be up 60% of the global supply) of the mineral.
My point is simple: once a strategic resource of the future has been identified, then the region that has them is in for decades, if not centuries of war and destabilization. Control the DRC (or at least part of it), and you control the oils and uraniums of the future. Welcome back to the new Alsace-Lorraine or middle east. Or the old Congo.
As I said in part II of this series, no place deserves a break from this relentless plunder as does the DRC.
Key government figures in Uganda and Rwanda have long been accused of orchestrating this plunder. First directly, during their respective armies’ invasions and occupation there, and then late indirectly, through the proxy militias they propped up and left behind.
Three materials, among many, are absolutely critical to all of this: copper, coltan and fibreglass. Of the three, coltan is the most valuable; it is used to make heat-resistant circuits in all digital devices. Its global trade is expected to expand exponentially as the 5G revolution takes root.
Despite furious denials, these accusations have been given substance by both the United Nations, as well as a whole host of campaigning organisations. And the fact remains that hundreds of thousands of Congolese, including children, are now living and dying as exploited artisanal miners of the ore of these and other precious minerals.
But once dug up and loaded, this valuable cargo has to go somewhere. Who talks to whom? Who gets to be the middleman? Whose borders will have to be crossed -or closed- to settle those questions?
The answer lies in the answers to those questions.
Is Democracy Dead or Has It Simply Been Hijacked?
10 min read. The rise of right-wing populist leaders in many countries across the globe suggests that democracy’s days are numbered. However, as PATRICK GATHARA argues, populism is less a cause of democracy’s demise than a consequence of it.
“Anyone can cook,” declares Chef Auguste Gusteau in the 2007 Pixar classic, Ratatouille, one of my favourite animated movies. The film tells the tale of an anthropomorphic French rat with a passion for haute cuisine, who against all odds, makes it from foraging in the garbage to cooking at a high-end restaurant and being declared “nothing less than the finest chef in France”. It is an inspiring story with valuable lessons about bravery, determination and following one’s dreams. Yet it comes with a caveat, as explained by the funereal critic, Anton Ego, at the end of the movie: “Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
Across the world today, democratic societies appear to have taken Gusteau’s maxim but not necessarily with Ego’s qualification. In Kenya, the death of popular Kibra MP, Kenneth Okoth, has occasioned a by-election in which the ruling Jubilee Party has fronted a professional footballer who has spent much of the last decade in Europe and who, until a few weeks ago, had never even registered to vote or expressed any interest in politics.
“The world is going the Wanjiku way,” Mike Sonko, the populist Governor of Nairobi declared recently on the Sunday show, Punchline. “Take the example of the Ukraine. The President of Ukraine is currently is a comedian. They voted for a comedian. Because the Wanjikus were fed up with the leadership of that country. They were fed up with the politicians…Go to Liberia. They elected a footballer to be their president. Madagascar for the second time have elected a DJ, Rajolina, to be their president”.
He is not wrong. From Donald Trump in the United States to Bobi Wine in Uganda, there seems to be a growing dissatisfaction with and distrust of career politicians and the nebulous “establishment”. In Kenya, this manifests in a contest between the so-called “dynasties” (the wealthy families that have dominated the country’s politics for nearly 60 years) and the “hustlers” (the political upstarts who claim to not be a part of the establishment). It is evident in the “handshake” between President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga, sons of Kenya’s first President and Vice President, respectively, and their open feud with Deputy President William Ruto, the self-declared head of the “hustler nation”.
The idea that “anyone can rule” is taken by many to be a cardinal tenet of democracy. At its root is a legitimate rejection of the old idea that the ability to govern was only bestowed on some bloodlines, which today has largely been consigned to history’s trash heap.
Yet this democratisation of governance has created fears of its contamination by the unwashed and uneducated masses. A famous quote from the early twentieth century US journalist, Henry Mencken, encapsulates these fears: “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” The quote is taken from Mencken’s piece originally posted in the Baltimore Evening Sun in July 1920 in which he rails against the candidacies of Republican Warren Harding and his rival, James Cox, for the US presidency, which he saw as proof of the tendency of democratic competition to result in a race to the bottom.
The idea that “anyone can rule” is taken by many to be a cardinal tenet of democracy. At its root is a legitimate rejection of the old idea that the ability to govern was only bestowed on some bloodlines, which today has largely been consigned to history’s trash heap.
“The first and last aim of the politician,” he wrote, “is to get votes, and the safest of all ways to get votes is to appear to the plain man to be a plain man like himself, which is to say, to appear to him to be happily free from any heretical treason to the body of accepted platitudes – to be filled to the brim with the flabby, banal, childish notions that challenge no prejudice and lay no burden of examination upon the mind.”
Arguing that “this fear of ideas is a peculiarly democratic phenomenon,” he goes on to assert that as politicians increasingly pander to electorates, then “the man of vigorous mind and stout convictions is gradually shouldered out of public life” and the field is left to “intellectual jelly-fish and inner tubes” – those without convictions and those willing to hide them.
Many recognise the fulfilment of Menckel’s prophecy in Donald Trump’s presidency, though it is notable that it had been applied to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush before him. However, it is clear that Mencken had a low opinion, not just of politicians, but of electorates as well. In fact, in his view, it is the ignorance and stupidity of the masses that, in a democracy, makes morons of politicians. And moronic politicians love ignorant voters as evidenced by Trump’s declaration during the 2016 presidential campaign: “I love the poorly educated.”
Menckel’s view is also echoed by a common maxim spuriously attributed to Winston Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” So, is the slide into populist idiocy the inevitable fate of democracy? Can anyone cook? Or is Ego right that while good governance can come from anywhere, not everyone can be a great leader?
“Democracy is hard,” notes Kenyan academic and author, Nanjala Nyabola. It “requires constant vigilance—something that we now see is difficult to achieve even under the most ideal circumstances.” For most voters, this constant vigilance is a tough ask. In fact, for most, getting to grips with the issues and personalities is not worth the hassle.
As Ilya Somin, Professor of Law at George Mason University, puts it, “If your only reason to follow politics is to be a better voter, that turns out not to be much of a reason at all… there is very little chance that your vote will actually make a difference to the outcome of an election.”
And that’s not all. Even if one were inclined to be immersed in the policy debates and to investigate candidate platforms, the sheer size of modern government and the scale and impact of its activities means that one could not hope to monitor more than a tiny fraction of what the state gets up to.
Since voters are unwilling to get their hands dirty, they take short cuts, which often means relying on someone else to tell them what’s going on in the kitchen. For instance, when asked, during the 2005 and 2010 referendum campaigns on a proposed new constitution, whether they had read the drafts, a section of Kenyan voters were reported to have responded with “Baba amesoma” (Father has read it). Baba is a reference to Raila Odinga, perhaps the best known politician in the country and the voters, many of whom had little knowledge of constitutionalism, were opting to take their cue from him. Others chose to follow the musings of pundits and other self-appointed “experts” or journalists or even comedians. The problem here, as with following politicians, is you do not know whether what you are getting is the truth, the real truth and nothing but the truth.
However, that turns out to be less of a problem than one might at first suppose. Truth (shock, horror!) is not always the reason one follows politics – or politicians. Prof. Somin notes that political supporters tend to behave very much like sports fans – less interested in the merits of arguments or how well the game is played than in whether their side wins. This is perhaps best illustrated by the phenomenon of electorates voting against their own interests. For example, in the US, older voters tend to support the Republican Party, which takes a dim view of government entitlement programmes like Medicare and Social Security that primarily benefit the elderly.
Since voters are unwilling to get their hands dirty, they take short cuts, which often means relying on someone else to tell them what’s going on in the kitchen. For instance, when asked, during the 2005 and 2010 referendum campaigns on a proposed new constitution, whether they had read the drafts, a section of Kenyan voters were reported to have responded with “Baba amesoma”.
Even the few neutrals out there tend to talk only to like-minded others or follow the game through like-minded media. In either case, there is little scope for voters to have their views challenged or their horizons expanded. As the former British Prime Minister put it, “The single hardest thing for a practicing politician to understand is that most people, most of the time, don’t give politics a first thought all day long. Or if they do, it is with a sigh… before going back to worrying about the kids, the parents, the mortgage, the boss, their friends, their weight, their health, sex and rock ‘n’ roll.”
A civic ritual
If voters don’t care about politics, why do they even bother to vote? According to Prof Somin, “The key factor is that voting is a lot cheaper and less time-consuming than studying political issues. For many, it is rational to take the time to vote, but without learning much about the issues at stake.”
Voting has thus become a civic ritual, much like going to a football game and cheering your favourite team. It provides the satisfaction of participation – one can brandish a purple finger as a marker of having fulfilled one’s duty without actually doing the hard work of wrestling with the issues. Voters pick their teams based less on ideas than on arbitrary considerations, such as ethnicity or place of birth.
The media exacerbates this trend in two ways; both in the content of their reporting and in the manner they do so. By far, the mainstream press is the most important avenue through which people access and organise information about what is happening in the world. Despite the growth of the internet, which has enabled many more people to get in on the act, news is still largely what the media says it is, whether it is an earthquake or a war in some far-off place or the latest tweet by Donald Trump.
However, as Prof Cas Mudde of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia writes, the media tends to report the news, rather than analyse and explain it. The addiction to scoops and “breaking news” and the competition to be first even when every outlet will have the story in the next few minutes and though social media means there is less attention paid to “trends behind the day-to-day news”. Further, in order to attract a larger audience and sell more advertising space or more newspapers, the media prioritises what is sensational over what is important and stays away from anything that cannot be reduced into a soundbite or squeezed into a two-minute news segment.
It also propagates and perpetuates false notions of “objectivity”, presenting itself as a reliable neutral observer rather than as an active participant. Yet through its curating and shaping functions, the media wields tremendous influence not only on how events unfold but also on how on they are perceived. Like a chef, the media takes events and fashions out of disparate events, to be served up to audiences in bite-sized chunks on its many channels.
Brought up on this fast news diet, Prof Somin says, voters come to “mistakenly believe that the world is a very simple place [requiring] very little knowledge to make an informed decision about politics”. And this leads to the embrace of simplistic panaceas for complex problems, and to a preference for populist politicians who deny complexity. If the world is so simple, then fixing it requires no specialised knowledge. Anybody can cook.
It is no wonder then that today there is a lot of angst about the state of democracy and fears that the ship of liberal democratic constitutionalism is floundering on the rocks of populism. The emergence of right wing populist governments and movements in countries as far removed as Brazil, Italy and the Philippines, and in Western countries once thought to hold the high ground for liberal democracy, such as the UK (which is steeped in a constitutional crisis over Brexit) and the US (where President Trump is facing an impeachment inquiry) has many thinking that democracy’s days are numbered.
William Galston has called populism an internal challenge to liberal democracy. Populists, he says, weaponise popular ignorance “to drive a wedge between democracy and liberalism”. Liberal norms, institutions and policies, they claim, weaken democracy and harm the people and thus should be set aside.
Brought up on this fast news diet, Prof Somin says, voters come to “mistakenly believe that the world is a very simple place [requiring] very little knowledge to make an informed decision about politics”. And this leads to the embrace of simplistic panaceas for complex problems, and to a preference for populist politicians who deny complexity.
Populism, though, is less a cause of democracy’s demise than it is a consequence of it. Democracy has been crumbling from within for a long time. Galston blames this on immigration which, he says, has not only upset the “tacit compact” between electorates and elites – where the former would defer to the latter as long as they delivered economic growth and prosperity – but has also profoundly challenged existing demographic and cultural norms, leaving many feeling dislocated in their own societies.
However, it is that compact that is at the root of the crisis, transforming as it does the understanding of democracy from a system where people participate in governance to one where they elect others to govern them. Further, the gnashing of teeth over historic decline in voter turnout blinds many to the fact that, like populism, it is also a symptom and not the problem.
As Phil Parvin notes in his paper, Democracy Without Participation, the decline in political engagement and deliberation by ordinary citizens and the eclipse of broad-based citizen associations by professional lobby groups have resulted in a model of democracy where “politics … is something done by other people on behalf of citizens rather than by citizens themselves”.
In Africa, the “wind of change” that toppled many dictatorships in the 1990s and early 2000s did not result in the empowerment of local populations to do anything other than participate in the ritual of periodic elections. Participation in governance in the periods in between elections is actively discouraged. Those who are dissatisfied with government policies are routinely told to shut up and await the opportunity to do something about it at the next election.
This model of democracy as reality show, where elites compete on who gets a turn at the trough (with the media providing a running commentary and the public choosing the winner) is at the root of the malaise. The professionalisation of democratic participation – outsourcing it to politicians and activists – leads to an increasing polarisation and tribalisation, with everyone claiming to be the authentic voice of the silent and silenced population. Alienation, as political debate focuses on the problems of elites rather than those of the people, becomes inevitable.
It is into this void that the populists have stepped, claiming to do away with the edifice of “the establishment” when in fact, they are seeking to entrench elite rule by doing away with even the appearance of popular consultation. This is what they mean when they evoke the idea of a “strong leader” – one who is not bound by the charade of democratic politics and can thus instinctively channel a pure form of the people’s will. But, as the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, says, this is to ignore the lessons of history. Strongmen, as Africans know from bitter experience, tend to reflect, not the aspirations of their people, but their own.
In Africa, the “wind of change” that toppled many dictatorships in the 1990s and early 2000s did not result in the empowerment of local populations to do anything other than participate in the ritual of periodic elections.
The solution may be to do away with elections altogether as a means for selecting decision-makers. In any case, what is required is not less popular participation, but more. We can no longer afford to continue to treat governance as something voters get to participate in once every election cycle, to pretend that democracy is a fire-and-forget proposition. Constant vigilance requires citizens at all levels willing to get their hands dirty, learn about issues, debate openly and engage with representatives – citizens who collectively insist on being heard and who demand accountability from those in power, not simply wait for someone else to do it on their behalf.
Paradoxically, the internet has dramatically lowered the costs of participation and it has never been easier for people to access information, to express opinions, to participate in petitions and to organise outside the parameters set by the elite or by the state. The question for societies with democratic aspirations should be how to make the voices and concerns of ordinary folks, rather than just their votes, count and not be drowned out by the din of elite politics. How do we truly get to the public interested in the ideal of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”?
How Corruption and Greed Are Destroying Africa’s Forests
8 min read. Africa is losing its forests at an alarming rate, yet the very forces that claim to be protecting them are responsible for their destruction.
“When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.”
As the trade war between the world’s superpowers continues, the global South is the one getting the short end of the stick. The economy of most African countries depends on massive exportation of raw materials, usually controlled by large foreign companies. The exploitation of the local resources, such as wood, never seems to stop, even if massive deforestation in countries such as Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia is bound to have catastrophic economic and environmental consequences.
Who are the main (local and foreign) players behind the progressive loss of forested areas in East and South Africa? What are the causes and, more importantly, the effects of this apparently unstoppable exploitation of land on local economies and climate change? How much is corruption responsible for this devastation? Are there any virtuous players trying to staunch this wound, or is it just the usual Western hypocrisy that preys on the unavoidable dependence on “development aid”?
Land grabs and exploitation
The Western world’s hunger for African resources, including land, has only grown more intense due tp the increased demand for carbon and biofuels. The whole continent becomes more dependent on overseas trade day after day. Internal trade between African countries is extremely weak, and most of these countries are large importers of pricey finished goods and services provided by other global partners. Most African countries are exporters of raw materials that generate profit margins that are quite small on their own and are made even smaller by the fact that most of the lands where these goods are produced rest in the hands of large transnational companies.
In many countries, such as Ethiopia, the laws that regulate land leases have been extremely generous to foreign investors. The land is leased for negligible rents, especially in remote and sparsely populated areas, and the approval process for investment proposals is superficial at best. In exchange for an alleged economic return that in many cases never follows, national governments exempted foreign companies from repatriated profits on taxes and taxes on imports of capital goods. All these land grabs are notoriously unjust to the original inhabitants of these lands – usually small farmers and pastoralists who, in some cases, have even forcefully been evicted with the help of the army.
The largest African and global development institutions, such as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and the World Bank, always sold this process as a much-needed transformation to help the growth of less developed countries. The idea of shifting toward large-scale commercial exploitation of lands and resources has been presented as the perfect recipe to overcome the stagnation of African economies; a transformation that would bring progress, modernity, and riches to all the impoverished lands and populations of the global South. Now the whole continent has been integrated into the global trade system with a relationship of complete unilateral dependence, chained to the volatile prices of commodities, enslaved by continuous “development aid”, and bent under the weight of totally asymmetrical agreements.
The effects of foreign liberalism
The free market didn’t help low-income to countries flourish; the only economic effect was purely cosmetic in nature. The shift towards large-scale commercial exploitation of lands came with promises of better employment opportunities, improvement of existing infrastructure, new opportunities for development, knowledge transfer, and professional specialisation. We saw this happen elsewhere as well, such as in Central America – all these promises eventually turned out to be empty, and only resulted in more poverty, hunger, and unfair exploitation.
In a continent where the vast majority of the population depends on agriculture for a living, uncontrolled liberalisation is nothing but a recipe for disaster. Even the most developed nations of the West know the limits of free markets very well and keep sustaining their own farmers with generous subsidies.
In many countries, such as Ethiopia, the laws that regulate land leases have been extremely generous to foreign investors. The land is leased for negligible rents, especially in remote and sparsely populated areas, and the approval process for investment proposals is superficial at best.
For example, Ethiopia’s annual GDP growth rate kept increasing by nearly 9% between 2004 and 2014, but very few Ethiopians enjoyed the benefits of this growth. Nearly 80% of the population is still composed of farmers and pastoralists whose livelihoods are even more precarious than before after their land was impoverished – their income still incredibly low, at $0.14 per day in some areas. The rural population has been marginalised even further, and local labour is often hired only on a seasonal basis, leaving very little opportunities for the professional and economic growth of all these vulnerable households. Knowledge is kept in the hands of the Western professionals, and their investments on ameliorating the infrastructure are too minuscule to represent a valid trade-off.
This non-inclusive model largely depends on the constant flow of capital, which necessarily come from foreign investors, creating an unbreakable cycle of dependency. Technology-based land exploitation has caused the environment to be degraded, and has substituted traditional sustainable and labour-intensive agriculture with intensive use of fossil fuels, pesticides, and widespread deforestation. The loss of biodiversity of large-scale monocultures and the destruction of large forested areas weakened the ecosystems against unexpected weather changes and other natural disasters.
Deforestation and greed
The constant demand for crop and grazing land, as well as wood for fuel and construction, have a tremendous impact on soil conservation and weather management. Deforestation, in particular, is one of those problems that, if left unchecked, may cause a planetary disaster.
Africa’s tropical rainforests include the Guinean forests of West Africa and the Congo Basin, which comprise the second-largest forest cover in the world. However, according to Professor Abraham Baffoe, Africa regional director at Proforest, this immense “world’s set of lungs” is rapidly disappearing. At the beginning of the 20th century, Ethiopia’s forest coverage reached almost 40%. Year after year, almost 200,000 hectares of forest were lost; by 1987 it was reduced to just 5.5%, and in 2003 it had gone down to a mere 0.2%. According to Innovation for Poverty Action (IPA), between 2000 and 2010, Uganda lost forests at a rate of 2.6% every year. Over the last century, West Africa has lost almost 90% of forest coverage.
Losing forests has devastating effects on the indigenous population, the local ecosystem, and the global environment as well. Forests are critical to lowering carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, to stabilising the weather, and preventing soil erosion. Among the highest causes of carbon emissions from human activity, deforestation is the second after burning fossil fuels, accounting for approximately 20% of world greenhouse gas emissions.
Soil erosion alone may cause the drying of lakes, such as in the case of the three lakes in the Rift Valley that recently dried up. As the soil is massively washed into the lake, the water is pushed up to a larger surface and rapidly evaporates. Without water, droughts ensue, causing famine, starvation, and poverty.
An estimated 100 million African people rely on forests for support and finding freshwater, food, shelter, and clothing. Forests support biodiversity as well, and many plants and animals only exist in these regions. Without forests, many animal species, such as chimpanzees, are endangered since they can’t survive without their habitat, and entire towns are at risk of rainforest flooding.
Africa’s tropical rainforests include the Guinean forests of West Africa and the Congo Basin, which comprise the second-largest forest cover in the world. However, according to Professor Abraham Baffoe, Africa regional director at Proforest, this immense “world’s set of lungs” is rapidly disappearing.
But the ecological devastation caused by the alleged modernisation of agriculture is not the sole reason behind the massive deforestation occurring in Africa. African forests store 171 gigatons of carbon, and there is a wide range of different interests swarming around them. Everybody wants to put their hands on this gigantic loot, no matter the consequences for the local populations or climate change.
The frequent conflicts that ravage the continent take their toll on forests as well. For example, after the South Sudan crisis in December 2013, nearly one million refugees, mostly women and children, have sought shelter in nearby Ethiopia and Uganda. Once there, they started chopping wood to build their encampments and to fuel their stoves. This had a significant impact on local forests, according to experts.
The impact of corruption on deforestation
Corruption has a tremendous impact on global deforestation. With 13 million hectares lost each year, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has identified the illegal timber trade as one of the principal causes of forest loss. The estimated value of illegal forest activities accounts for more than 10% of the value of worldwide trade in wood products. And corruption in the forest sector may increase the cost of forestry activities by about 20%.
Most countries in Central and Western Africa that are particularly rich in forests and other resources score particularly low on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), a global index of public sector corruption established by Transparency International. Without a transparent and democratic administration whose framework is built on solid ethical principles, the land rights of local communities and marginalised groups are constantly violated. In sub-Saharan Africa, one citizen in two had to pay a bribe to obtain a land service, such as registering land for his household.
The forest sector is especially vulnerable to grand and petty corruption activities because of the non-standardised but high-priced timber products and low visibility. Government officials often collude with powerful European, American, or Asian companies since they offer forest as a highly valuable commodity in exchange for power and money.
Many indigenous populations have no access to information and justice, cannot claim their rights, and have no chance but to bend the knee when land grabbing laws are enforced by corrupt governments. Foreign companies know how easy it is to violate national regulations and often do so with total impunity knowing that punishment would probably be very light. Funds generated from the profit of the forests are usually embezzled or siphoned out of the continent to be laundered through complex schemes of multi-layered shell offshore businesses. Money that could be invested in social services, jobs, and better infrastructure ends up being devoured by greedy officials, money-hungry corporations, and shady smugglers.
Reforestation and other plans to restore Africa’s forests
Luckily, not all is as bad as it seems. Ethiopia has just started a restoration process that includes a reforestation programme that should replace 22 million hectares of forests and degraded lands by 2030. Even better, in 2018, the government finally revised the National Forest Law to provide better recognition to the rights of local communities and acknowledge their importance in managing lands and crops. The new law also includes much more severe penalties for those who endanger forest ecosystems or who extend farming into natural forests.
Corruption has a tremendous impact on global deforestation. With 13 million hectares lost each year, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has identified the illegal timber trade as one of the principal causes of forest loss.
In Uganda, Project Kibale focuses on restoring the Kibale forest and has managed to restore 6,700 hectares of forest so far. On lands owned by subsistence farmers, the Community Reforestation project coordinates hundreds of small community-based tree planting, education, and training initiatives. Similar projects are in operation in Kenya as well, such as Carbon Footprint, B’n’Tree, WeForest, and the Green Initiative Challenge.
Although certainly commendable, many of these reforestation efforts simply seem to be a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. The core problems – corruption, grossly uneven distribution of power among players, and poorly-designed regulations – are not addressed at all. The handful of trees that get planted only help these parasites to get more wood to harvest in due time.
It can also be argued that many of these brave steps toward sustainability are nothing but green rhetoric spin for Western audiences. Wilmar’s hypocrisy, for example, was exposed back in 2015. The multinational of palm oil had abused human rights in Indonesia for years, expropriated lands with no qualms, polluted the environment, and destroyed crops and forest in large areas. After being named by Newsweek as “the world’s least environmentally-friendly company” in December 2013, the palm oil giant adopted a “no deforestation, no peat, and no exploitation policy” and became a champion of environmentalism. However, this was just window-dressing that was rapidly unmasked in subsequent years by NGOs in Uganda, Nigeria, and Liberia. The icing on the cake? In previous years, Wilmar was financed by none other than the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
When the rules are made by those who dominate the markets, globalisation becomes a source of profound inequalities. The blatant asymmetry in bargaining power between the global superpowers and the global South has all but abolished the few safety nets that national laws could provide. All the regions that are rich in resources and commodities are quickly transformed into no man’s lands where the indigenous populations become unwanted guests to be displaced. Entire ecosystems are ravaged and exploited, no matter the consequences. And when newer, fairer rules are established by a more ethical administration, they are rapidly dismantled by leveraging corruption and bribes.
The word “development” has been mentioned so many times that it is now empty and meaningless. Nonetheless, the only way to shift toward a more sustainable economic system is to focus on the real development of African countries. Reforestation is just palliative therapy that is trying to heal some of the wounds of an already terminally ill patient. Africa can flourish only through a more radical approach that allows Africans to grow, develop, and fully exploit the immense value of their enormous resources instead of leaving them in the hands of foreigners and global corporations.
The Persistence of Small Farms and the Legacy of the Monoculture Mindset in Kenya
12 min read. PAUL GOLDSMITH explores the evolution of agriculture policies in Kenya that failed to recognise the importance of smallholder farming, which has proved to be more resilient than large-scale agriculture projects.
I once drove up the eastern side of Mt Kenya with a manager working in the California horticulture industry. We passed through the Mwea irrigation scheme’s mosaic of rice plots and the smallholder coffee zone in Embu. After crossing the Thuchi River, we transited through the mix of tea farms, coffee plots, and patches of small fields of maize, pulses, and bananas framed by the heavy tree cover blanketing the hills and valleys. The Meru lowlands stretched out to the east, the miraa-dotted slopes of the Nyambene Hills loomed close as we approached Meru town. In the space of three hours we had transected one of the region’s most agriculturally variegated and productive landscapes.
Two days later we drove across the northern saddle of the mountain, leaving the smallholdings created by late colonial-era settlement schemes before cruising past the wheat fields of Kisima and Marania farms and their neighbours. The road carried us past the uniform blocks of horticulture farms and greenhouses stretching across the high plains of the mountain’s northwestern quadrant en route to Nanyuki. Over a plank of some insanely delicious beef at one of the town’s famous local nyama choma joints, my guest tells me she was impressed by the kick-ass agriculture she saw during our trip.
I remarked that we had crossed an area that produces the world’s best tea, some of the planet’s premier Arabica coffee, and the country’s most sought-after potatoes, French beans and other vegetables that grace European tables. I also informed her that we had skirted the range hosting Africa’s most sophisticated agroforestry system, home to the Horn region’s most prized Catha edulis.
“That’s interesting,” she said, clarifying that she was referring to “the area of proper farms we passed through this morning”.
Kenya’s agriculture generates approximately 24 per cent of the country’s GDP, 75 per cent of its industrial raw materials and 60 per cent of the country’s export earnings. Approximately 26 per cent of the earnings are indirectly linked to the sector through linkages to agro-based manufacturing, transport, and trade.
The sector is a major employer, with an estimated 3.8 million Kenyans directly employed in farming, livestock production and fishing, while another 4.5 million engaged in off-farm informal sector activities. Agriculture remains a key economic sector with significant unexploited potential for adding value through post-harvest processing.
The relationship between large-scale and small-scale producers in Kenya continues to evolve. Smallholder farmers generate the larger portion of overall agricultural value; large farms are still critical contributors to domestic food security and export production while pioneering new technologies and marketing arrangements.
Kenya’s agriculture generates approximately 24 per cent of the country’s GDP, 75 per cent of its industrial raw materials and 60 per cent of the country’s export earnings.
The economists and policy-setting bureaucrats at the World Bank and other important financial institutions, however, now question the small farm sector’s capacity to satisfy Africa’s future needs. The experts have tacitly supported the controversial trend of external investors’ acquisition of the continent’s underexploited land to develop capital-intensive plantations and ranches. Agricultural progress means big fields, straight lines, greenhouses, and large grids of sprinklers, as the comments of the manager reaffirmed.
The rise of monoculture
Assumptions about the superiority of large-scale agriculture have remained unchallenged since the migration of Europeans to the Americas, Asia, and Africa. They came, saw, conquered, and converted the wide open spaces they found into plantations producing sugar, cotton, rubber, tobacco, soybeans, and a long list of other crops for export to the industrial world.
When European diseases decimated the indigenous inhabitants in the New World, the planters plundered Africa to replace them. Steam powered the Industrial Revolution; colonial plantations and mines provided the raw materials. The textile mills of Lancashire generated the profits financing Great Britain’s global empire, and America’s South supplied the cotton.
Large-scale agriculture’s global hegemony grew out of military firepower, capital, technology and ruthless exploitation of labour, not superior crop and animal husbandry. The reign of King Cotton, for example, relied on increasing quantities of land and imports of African labour to compensate for rapid soil fertility decline. Southern land owners were poor farmers who added little value to the development of their agriculture beyond the use of the whip and the noose.
Class dynamics also contributed to the rise of the large commercial farm. The working conditions of the working-class adults and children working the looms was only marginally better than that of the slaves producing the fibre. Growing numbers of the freehold farmers in Europe who were driven off their land avoided this fate by crossing the Atlantic Ocean, attracted by the US government’s recruitment campaigns offering access to land. The industry of the displaced farmers powered the nation’s westward expansion. The American Civil War decided the contest over which system – freehold or plantation – would dominate in the virgin lands beyond the Mississippi River.
Large-scale agriculture’s global hegemony grew out of military firepower, capital, technology and ruthless exploitation of labour, not superior crop and animal husbandry.
The outcome was the same. Within several decades, the massive herds of bison were decimated and the indigenous inhabitants reduced to paupers on reservations. Science and technology came into play. The impressive advances generated by agronomic research and mechanisation extended the ascendency of commercial farms and plantations into the modern era. Economies of scale enabled by railways and the steamship extended the dominance of single commodity farming systems across the world.
Relegation of pre-industrial agricultural populations to the status of pre-scientific peasants preceded the imperial occupation of Africa. The Europeans established their plantations and large farms across the continent’s savanna and highlands. Like the colonialists before them, both capitalist and socialist governments’ rural policies were predicated on the need to introduce modern scientific agriculture. The choice was as basic as the difference between a tractor and a short handle hoe.
The Kenya conundrum
A matrix of physical, climatic, spatial, and social factors complicated the installation of large-scale agriculture production in Africa. Agriculture played a singular role in the development of the modern Kenyan economy, but commercial agriculture and ranching developed by European settlers are only partially responsible for the sector’s progress.
Free land and inexpensive labour facilitated the establishment of commercial farms during the early decades of colonial rule. Drought, locust invasions and crop losses to pests and wild animals, and to vector-borne diseases posed a serious challenge. The effects of the latter were minimised by quarantining the locals in native reserves and demarcating the band of ranches that ring-fenced the so-called White Highlands. Not all the white settlers survived; some left to start over in colonies to the south, but those who stayed on prospered with the assistance of the colonial state.
After World War I the government offered land concessions to war veterans boosting the population of approximately 6,000 white settlers in 1917 to 20,000 in 1936. This abetted the diversification of the new estate sector, which came to encompass coffee, tea, cattle, sisal, cotton, wattle, and other export commodities that sustained the colony’s finances. Expansion raised the demand for African labour while fueling frictions over land between settlers and their African neighbours. It also made managing settlement considerably more difficult for the government and civil servants in the countryside.
Indigenous producers evolved intricate mechanisms of adaptation and risk management to shifting environmental conditions and chronic climatic instability. The over 100,000 African squatters on European farms by 1947 demonstrated their resilience in new circumstances. Despite the restrictions they faced, they out-performed the owners in many ways. The surplus reinvested in livestock led to competition for pasture on the estates, and this prompted restrictions limiting the size of cultivated plots and the number of livestock the Africans were allowed to keep. The number of days of labour owed to the estates also increased over time, doubling from 90 to 180 days a year.
Dependence on native labour in effect led to the parallel development of two distinct large-scale and small-scale systems on the same landholdings at the same time. The contradictions inherent in this situation, combined with the political threat of the Mau Mau, forced a rethink that led to the Swinnerton Act in 1954, which opened the way for the production of export crops in the African reserves.
The sectoral duality generated by these developments has vexed Kenya’s agriculture policy ever since. Kenya gained independence committed to preserving the economic stability provided by the estate sector while satisfying the political expectations of its citizens. The latter translated into the transfer of settler lands under the Million Acre Scheme, support for the cooperative movement, and the deployment of small farmer extension services.
The structural inequalities symbolised by the contrast between the landed elite and the masses nevertheless fueled strident opposition to the Jomo Kenyatta government. Kenya’s status as an island of stability in a turbulent region encouraged international support for the development of schemes and projects mirroring a succession of theories and economic models debated by academics and institutional experts.
One critic of international development accurately described these interventions as policy experiments. Some worked and many did not. The funding flowed despite the repeated failures epitomised by the large agricultural projects dating back to the doomed Tanzania Groundnut Scheme. Attempts to rectify flaws in the Bura Irrigation Scheme, the world’s most expensive at the time, proved futile when the Tana River changed course.
How do we explain the failure to acknowledge the results of such “experiments”?
In a 1988 article, Goren Hyden attributed the syndrome to Africa’s monoculture legacy, which he defined as “mono-cropping in agriculture, single fixes in technology, monopoly in the institutional arena, and uniformity in values and behavior.” The rise of hegemonic economic monocultures, he went on to observe, are usually preceded by a period of competition and experimentation.
No such selectionary forces informed the large-scale solutions designed to alleviate Africa’s agriculture malaise. The continent’s initial conditions were different. The unique regional political economies of the precolonial era did not count. The formal protocols governing exchange among diverse communities were obsolete. The need to differentiate between size and scale did not apply.
Small as the new big
Africa’s lost decade highlighted the neglect of small-scale farmers. In an article in the same edited volume featuring Hyden’s monoculture legacy thesis, Christopher Delgado noted, “It is unlikely that more than 5 five cent of current African food production comes from large farms. A 3 per cent growth of productivity of smallholders would be equivalent to a 60 per cent growth of productivity on large farms.”
This point segued into the large body of empirical evidence marshalled in support of a new policy focus on the smallholder sector. But there was a problem, as he and other pro-smallholder analysts recognised: The high variability in conditions and circumstances within and across African countries complicated cost-effective delivery of the services, inputs, incentives, and infrastructure need for the interventions to pay for themselves.
One critic of international development accurately described these interventions as policy experiments. Some worked and many did not. The funding flowed despite the repeated failures epitomised by the large agricultural projects dating back to the doomed Tanzania Groundnut Scheme.
Asia’s breakthrough was an outgrowth of substantial international research supported by national research centres into two basic commodities. The same approach has not worked in Africa because technical enhancements need to contend with multiple crops systems, variations in soils, spatial differentials complicating access to water, markets, and service, local pests and diseases, transport and communications infrastructure, and political variables linked to ethnic constituencies, to name a few of the factors determining the productivity of small farmers.
Research attesting to the more efficient per capita and land unit output of small farms also indicated that there was still considerable scope for raising household incomes by enhancing the productivity of labour. The Kenyan government’s support for small-scale dairies, tea production, and the efficacy of extension services furnished proof. Like the case of colonial squatters before them, smallholder producers began outperforming the large farms and plantations.
Kenya and its bimodal policy frame was often cited as a success story at the time, but was this because government policy focused on concentrating the limited resources available in relatively fertile areas? The failure to replicate these successes further down the ecological gradient invoked a more complicated set of variables.
Other state-supported initiatives, such as smallholder cotton, floundered, and even a tested policy like fertilizer subsidies proved difficult to implement because the cost of delivering the input to small farm households often ended up cancelling out the benefits, especially during years when low rainfall or other external factors reduced output.
During the early 1980s Kenya’s agricultural sector reached the zenith of its development under state control. A matrix of factors, including lower prices and higher market uncertainty, declining civil service terms of pay, gradual closure of the agricultural land frontier, and the highest demographic growth rate in recorded history explain subsequent developments.
Institutional entropy set in. The food security problem became a full-blown national crisis around the same time as government mismanagement of strategic maize reserves exacerbated the impact of the 1984 famine. The food catastrophe marked a turning point, concretising the case for the structural adjustment policies that came into effect during the following years.
The donor-mandated policies included foreign trade liberalisation, civil service reforms, privatisation of parastatals, and liberalisation of pricing and marketing systems, which later involved relaxing control of government agricultural produce marketing and reforming cooperatives.
Increases in quality and efficiency tend to translate into lower commodity prices over time, and the same appeared to hold for institutional reforms. In any event, the policies designed to increase efficiency and decrease state involvement in the economy did not reverse the decline in agricultural production. Declining prices for traditional agricultural commodities and Africa’s terms of trade in general was seen as emblematic of a larger malaise stemming from poor governance and economic mismanagement in Kenya and other African countries.
Although most Kenyans blamed the Daniel arap Moi government, the less than creative destruction wrought by the penetration of capital and primitive accumulation by state-based actors was the real culprit responsible for the economic carnage that followed in its wake. The outcome was “a quasi-stagnant society” qualifying the observation Thomas Picketty offered in his 2014 book, Capital in the Twenty First Century: “wealth accumulated in the past will inevitably acquire disproportionate influence”.
In Kenya, the consequences included the revolt of smallholder coffee farmers in Nyeri, the burning of sugarcane fields in western Kenya, the collapse of cooperatives, an increase of subsistence production on small farms, the commercialisation of livestock raiding in the rangelands, and the rise of cartels that seized control of export commodities and local produce markets.
The situation in Kenya was symptomatic of the forces that eroded the impact of the pro-small-scale agriculture policy framework that had gained traction during the same period.
The release phase and agrarian transition
Subsequent developments in rural Kenya invite us to revisit Picketty’s choice of words in the observation cited above: the reference to “quasi-stagnant” is indicative of a larger dynamic. From an ecosystems perspective, the turbulence arising across Kenya’s agricultural sector and the hollowing-out of state institutions corresponds to the release phase in ecological cycles.
The role of forest fires that remove old growth, allowing regrowth and revival of species suppressed by the canopy of large trees, is the standard example used to illustrate the release function. In the context of human societies and other complex systems, it refers to transitional episodes in “an adaptive cycle that alternates between long periods of aggregation and transformation of resources and shorter periods that create opportunities for innovation.”
For present purposes we can equate Picketty’s quasi-stagnation with the onset of a transitional phase of reorganisation leading to renewal. Support for importation of large-scale capital-intensive agriculture to meet Africa’s future needs, in contrast, correlates with the old school ecological succession model. The degradation of rangelands resulting in the replacement of overgrazed grass and shrubs by less nutritious invasive species is a common example.
The African land grab by foreign investors now taking place in many sub-Saharan countries is in effect a case of replacement substituting for the adaptive processes underpinning indigenous African production systems. The government’s willingness to allocate large tracts of Tana Delta land as an incentive for foreign government investment in the LAPSSET mega-project is an example of this replacement strategy in Kenya.
I was part of a team that undertook a three-year study of commercial agricultural models in Ghana, Kenya, and Zambia. Initially motivated by the problem of large-scale agribusiness investments, the research design focused on three models: large commercial farms, plantations, and contract farming. The team’s general conclusion underscored the emergence of large- and medium-size commercial farms in the three countries.
Although most Kenyans blamed the Daniel arap Moi government, the less than creative destruction wrought by the penetration of capital and primitive accumulation by state-based actors was the real culprit responsible for the economic carnage that followed in its wake. The outcome was “a quasi-stagnant society”…
My personal take was slightly different, and although they may be particular to our Kenya research, two issues warrant mention. The first is the resilience of smallholder households in our surveys and life histories.
Without getting into the intricacies of the data, several factors support this. The time series data showed improved food security for most of the households sampled, and a corresponding decline in conflict over land: only one respondent complained about the ownership of the large farms and plantations in the area.
While the poorer families were hard-pressed to make ends meet, the diversification of income generation strategies indicate that even a small half-acre plot defrays the cost of food purchases while providing a base for participating in the rural economy.
High levels of mobility within the region and a general trend of reversed urban migration add further support to this point. For example, urban unemployment rates of 19.9 per cent for 2009 and 11.0 for 2014 per cent were about double of rural rates.
The process of consolidation underpinning the large farm formation across agro-ecological zones is underway, but it is slowed by the reluctance to sell land and a correspondingly high incidence of leasing land. This is also true for large holdings outside our Mt. Kenya research area, such as the Rift Valley, where owners are holding on by leasing out parcels to smallholders. The successful estates and horticultural firms have developed mutually beneficial links with their smallholder neighbours. This is based on outsourcing production, the sharing of technological innovations from the production of certified seed potatoes to electronic wallets facilitating rapid and verifiable payments to contract farmers, and multi-stakeholder participation in the management and conservation of water sources.
While the poorer families were hard pressed to make ends meet, the diversification of income generation strategies indicate that even a small half-acre plot defrays the cost of food purchases while providing a base for participating in the rural economy.
Our sample divided the household into two categories: those involved with the large commercial farms and those who remained independent. The scores for involved households were significantly higher for crop yields, fertilizer use, income, and most other variables. All of these observations attest to the synergies generated by the large-scale small-scale symbiosis that began to emerge during the final years of the colonial era.
This brings us to the second point – the enduring influence of the monoculture mindset. It resurfaces in the World Bank’s categorisation of both large and small organisational units’ contribution to the continent’s socio-economic transformation. Dualities deceive; learning by trial era works.
The elephantine LAPPSET project, the hallucinatory Galana-Kulala scheme, the government’s Big Four agenda, all suggest that the Chinese version is more of the same.
Written and published with the support of the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) (www.routetofood.org). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.
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