Early this month, the burial of the mother of a businessman who operates in the famous Nyamakima area in downtown Nairobi took place in south Kinangop. Businessmen who have a strong association with and loyalty to each other turned out in large numbers to financially and morally support their colleague. Many of the traders present – mostly millennials – deal in electronic and hardware goods. For many of them, travelling to Guangzhou in China to haul back 40-foot containers full of varied consignments to Kenya has become second nature.
After the burial, the businessmen drove in their four-wheel Prados and double-cabin pick-up Toyotas to Naivasha town to “shake down the dust” and have “one for the road to clear their eyesight” for the 100-kilometre journey back to Nairobi. Settling down to juicy and sizzling nyama choma (roasted goat meat), a favourite delicacy among many Kikuyu middle class men, the traders could not wait to bitterly excoriate and fume against President Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidency and his second-term politics, and to process and reevaluate their collective Uthamaki (the notion that the Kikuyu are and should remain the ruling class) position as they contemplated the future of the Kikuyu nation.
Washing down the goats’ ribs with beer, brandy and whiskies, the traders said that if they could get hold of President Uhuru, they would give him a thorough whipping until they drew blood. “He has not only collapsed our businesses, they are now being taken over by the Chinese,” said a visibly angry trader. “Including the cereals and grains businesses, traditionally done by our mothers (the term mother here being used loosely), are gradually being taken over.”
During President Mwai Kibaki’s reign (2002–2012), when many of the traders expanded and grew their businesses, their trade enjoyed a great boom and flourished immensely. They made loads of money, built stone houses in their ancestral homes, bought tracts of land, invested in real estate, rode fancy and powerful SUVs, and generally lived large. Many of them could even afford the upkeep of a concubine.
What hurt most, said the mourners, was that they had staked their lot with Uhuru’s re-election, and had collected funds for his campaign, especially in 2017, in the hope of continuing to reap big time, just like they had done in Kibaki’s time. Between 2013 and 2017, they noticed that their lucrative businesses had slackened somewhat. But they rationalsed this by saying it was President Uhuru’s first time as president and it had taken longer than necessary for him to settle down.
During President Mwai Kibaki’s reign (2002–2012), when many of the traders expanded and grew their businesses, their trade enjoyed a great boom and flourished immensely. They made loads of money, built stone houses in their ancestral homes, bought tracts of land, invested in real estate, rode fancy and powerful SUVs, and generally lived large.
“Business was still thriving,” said Jason Mwangi, an importer of hardware tools, electronics equipment and strobe lights, “but mega corruption was beginning to get out of control and was affecting our trading.” As it was Uhuru’s second and last term – also viewed as his legacy term – the trader told me, the businessmen had hoped that the president would rein in runaway graft, institute measures to curb it and even order the arrest of the said looters.
“He had nothing to lose, he could afford to be firm and brook no nonsense,” reasoned the traders. So, in 2017, they had sealed the entire Nyamakima area to dance and dine and wine and revel in his victory. And now this…barely two years into his legacy term, the traders were gritting their teeth, their businesses were collapsing faster than they had taken the time to build them.
Peter Macharia, who deals in solar lights and panels and energy-saving light bulbs, told me that for the last couple of months he has just been paying his rent for his premises without any discernible income in hand. “Business is so bad. I’m just hanging in there…I don’t know what to do, we have really been screwed…Since President Uhuru’s re-election, he has been spinning the tale that it’s [William] Ruto to blame for all the corruption, hence the wobbly economy. Did we elect Uhuru as president or we elected Ruto?”
“If indeed all the theft in government has been perpetrated by Ruto, what has the president done about it?” said a visibly agitated trader. “Gutiri muici na mucuthereria.” There is no difference between a thief and his onlooker. “In fact, the onlooker in this case is even worse than the thief because he knowingly abetted the theft. Just when did President Uhuru realise that his deputy was apparently pilfering the state coffers?” the traders argued, “Because of President Uhuru’s gross incompetence and wanton carelessness, it was just a matter of time before they were exposed.”
“If you are a farmer who keeps animals and you employ a shepherd to care for the animals, but instead of doing that, he slaughters your very animals from time to time, would you continue keeping him, would you continue trusting him with your flock?” asked one trader. “For Ruto to presumably engage in all that state theft, the president must also have been part of it. How else do you explain the fact that you’re the president but you don’t know what’s happening in your backyard? And when you finally wake up from your slumber, you demolish people’s property in the guise of fighting corruption.”
The traders were thoroughly peeved about the president’s directive late last year to destroy certain properties to prove to Kenyans that he was indeed fighting state corruption. “Who was he fooling? That was an unnecessary distraction because as he was destroying the properties, he was clamping down on our consignment.
“If indeed all the theft in government has been perpetrated by Ruto, what has the president done about it?” said a visibly agitated trader. “Gutiri muici na mucuthereria.” There is no difference between a thief and his onlooker.
My goods were confiscated for six months,” said Macharia. “At the Embakasi government go-downs and by the time the president was pretending to come to our rescue, I’d given up on the goods – I couldn’t afford to pay the charges. I lost a lot of money.”
The traders noted that for the longest time the Kikuyu electorate had excused President Uhuru’s drinking habits. “We said it didn’t matter…what mattered was his performance and the fact that he was one of us. We were dead wrong.” they said. “Ruto is focused and steady because he is always sober,” observed the traders. “He also has his faults but because he is a teetotaller he is disciplined, hardworking and organised. This talk that it’s Ruto who had depleted the state’s cash is hogwash…Let Uhuru fight Ruto if he must, but let him not tell us the economy has tanked because Ruto collapsed it.”
Giving up on “The Family”
Among the Kikuyu, the Kenyatta family has always remained a taboo subject: the family is treated like royalty, immune from criticism. Not anymore. The traders said many Kikuyus are waking up to the realisation that the Kenyatta family was only interested in advancing the larger family’s interests and expanding its business empire. “The family has been using the Kikuyu people as a stepping stone to enrich itself to the detriment of the community. It doesn’t care whether our children are starving or not, whether they go to school or not, whether they have jobs or not…all they’re interested in is ensuring this plantation serves their purpose.”
Yet, “the plantation” is now showing signs of dying: the Kikuyu electorate is dazed, disillusioned, and restless. “We’ll never vote again” has become an increasingly repeated mantra among the electorate. Or “We are going to vote for Ruto because he is available and generous.”
The “Kikuyu plantation” is also withering because its people – especially the young – are planning to run away from the country to far-off lands to escape the crippling economic conditions.
Dennis Kimani, aka Denno, a Bachelor of Commerce graduate from the University of Nairobi, has thrown in the towel as far as job hunting is concerned. Even though he is from a fairly stable middle class family, his family connections have refused to come through. “I’ve given up,” said Denno when we recently met. “I cannot take it anymore.”
He has been looking to migrate to Qatar in the hope of getting a job – any job “because at 28, the clock is ticking away…na riua ritietagirira muthamaki.” The sun does not wait even for a king. “I am not growing younger.”
Among the Kikuyu, the Kenyatta family has always remained a taboo subject: the family is treated like royalty, immune from criticism. Not anymore.
Denno told me an unfortunate story: “When I was in primary school, my closest friend was Clifford Omondi. We lived in the same estate, went to the same school and shared many things. We were happy. One night my father came home late at night. We were all asleep but he woke us [children] up to eat the nyama choma he had brought. But he hadn’t woken us to eat the meat – he had woken us to tell me about my friend Omondi. ‘Listen my son, I want you to cease your friendship with that boy…those people are not good, they are not cultured, they have odious beliefs, they like destroying people’s property so they have no respect for anything. If by chance they were left to lead this country, they would run our country down completely…Have you heard what I’ve told you?’”
Denno never spoke to his friend again, but what his father told him many years back haunts him to date. He wonders why since President Uhuru’s presidency in 2013 the country has been gripped by massive state corruption, and by 2018, after two controversial presidential elections, things have apparently spiraled out of control. Even his more reticent father on matters politics is looking troubled. “What I have been itching to ask my father is why the country’s economy is in shambles and yet we have a Kikuyu for president.”
After coming back from United Arab Emirates (UAE), where she had lived for 10 years, Florence Wambui came back home to Nairobi for good to start a business that she had always dreamed of starting: running a shoe company. In Dubai, she had worked for five years as a manager in a big shoe boutique. “I had the know-how, the experience and some money I’d saved to start the business. But the Kenya I’d left behind in July 2008 wasn’t the Kenya I returned to in January 2018 just after President Uhuru had been sworn-in for his second term,” said a less than inspired Wambui.
In just less than a year, she was already thinking of relocating to Canada. “I could not see my future here…everything seemed to be in a tumble down.”
But as luck would have it, people like Dennis began approaching her for advice on the procedures for migrating to the Middle East, a region she had come know very well after a 10-year stint there. “I halted my own migration to Canada to run a bureau for Middle East-bound Kenyans, many of them Kikuyus, who seem to be literally escaping from their country.”
Steve Karanja, 27, an IT technician, is in the same predicament as Denno. Unable to find a steady job, he has reconciled with the fact that the only way for him to find work is if he leaves this country. With a contact in the United Kingdom, Steve has been working to save some cash for the expensive visa processing as he also thinks of how to beef up his meagre bank accounts. “Brexit Britain is better than a troubled country called Kenya,” Steve said to me. “Anytime.”
Lost children of Mau Mau
But nothing prepared for me the impending Uthamaki meltdown like a video clip that was sent to me several weeks ago. It is of a Kikuyu millennial man who claims to have a messianic message for a tribe that apparently has lost its way. It is a cry of anguish, and of introspection. The message is a call to the tribe’s long gone forefathers to come to its rescue and intercede on behalf of a community captured by the capriciousness of fate, and by a single powerful family that has enslaved the community for the last half a century.
“Let’s come and reason together people of my tribe,” reads the young man from a long well-crafted missive read from a mobile phone. It is an impassioned plea:
Nyumba, ndirari gathafari ndiratumetwo ni mwene nyaga na arajeria kundu kuria mwitaga ukirini, ndiracemania na ngomi, maithe maitu, ngomi citu acio makomire tene na ruo runene na ti akenu…eeeh ti akenu. Kiria maruagera ni munaga gikihuthirwo uru ni aria matekeruire. Kuma riria Kenya yagiire wiyathi, gutire mu Mau Mau uri wagunika, bururi uyu, kana ciana ciao igeteithekera kuo. Athini aria athini bio bururi uyu ni Mau Mau na ciana ciao. Aria matari migunda ni Mau Mau na ciana ciao, aria mururaga umuthenya magicaria wira ni ciana cia Mau Mau. Aria maturaga magicaria title deed cia tubloti twao ni Mau Mau na ciana ciao. Aria maturaga manegenaga ni kahuwa na macani na iria no Mau Mau na ciana ciao. Aria maturaga mururaga na maratathi magicaria wira bururi-ini uyu, no ciana cia Mau Mau. Airetu aria makomagwo nao ni itonga nigetha mandikwo wira ni ciana cia Mau Mau…Ni nyumba imwe tu ya twenjeiri irima riri eria yehokirwo ni maithe maitu, igicoka ikimagaruruka na riu no indu nyumba iyo iracokaniriria, nigetha iture ya thaga ciana cia Mau Mau na ciana cia cio…icio kimi… Andu aitu hingokai maitho…kirumi kia Mau Mau una riu ki mwoyo…kirumi kia Mau Mau una riu ki mwoyo…
My people, I was away at a little safari that I’d been sent to by our God (of the mountains), and he took me to a place you call ukirini where I met our ancestors, our forefathers that that are long dead, who died with a lot of pain, and they are not happy…yes, they not happy. They are unsettled because what they fought for is being misused by those who did not fight for it. Since Kenya attained independence, no Mau Mau has ever benefitted in this country, not even their children. The poorest of the poorest in this country are the Mau Mau and their children. Those who do not have land, those who loiter every day looking for job opportunities, are the children of Mau Mau. Those that have been chasing title deeds for their little plot of lands, are Mau Mau and their children. The people who have perpetually complained of their coffee, tea and milk productions are Mau Mau and their children. Those people who have been moving from one corner in this country to another with testimonials, in search of work, are the children of Mau Mau. Those innocent lasses who are prostituted by the rich [Kikuyu men] for job favours are the daughters of Mau Mau…It is just one family that has dug this abyss for us, a family that had been trusted by our forefathers, but which turned against them. Since then, that family has just been accumulating abundant riches, all in the name of continuing to enslave and oppress the descendants of the descendants of Mau Mau…You all know the family I am talking about…(The narrator does not mention the name of the said family, but leaves his listeners with absolutely no doubt which family he is referring to: the Kenyatta family).
The narrator closes his call to action to the Kikuyu people by imploring: “Our people, open your eyes to [the true realities of your lives]…the curse of the Mau Mau is still alive…the curse of the Mau Mau still lives.”
This is an excerpt of a much longer soliloquy in which the narrator reminds the Kikuyu people: “Gikuyu kiugaga thire utarihwo no worogi…haria bururi weigereire na kirumi…Kenya yagurirwo na thakame ni maithe maitu magekua meendeire ni getha matucariria wiyathi…wiyathi uyu weteaga na ngati…” The Kikuyu people say the only debt one cannot pay is that of witchcraft…this country has set itself on a cursed path…Kenya was liberated by our forefathers who willingly died so that we, their descendants, could enjoy the freedom that they so gallantly fought for…freedom which the home guards and collaborators seized, and which they continue to mock us with.
A couple of weeks ago, I was taking a reality check in the central business district (some Nairobians now call it the central bad district) and by pure coincidence I walked next to the statue of the freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi situated on the junction of Kimathi Street and Mama Ngina Street. This was before the National Museum of Kenya (NMK) ring-fenced the statue’s area for renovations.
It was late in the evening and dusk was setting in. As I approached the statue, I could hear the noises of a man grovelling in acute pain. On closer look, I saw a young man, possibly no more than 30 years old, cuddled in a foetal position besides the statue, beseeching Dedan Kimathi, son of Wachiuri, to intercede on behalf of the crying Kikuyu people and liberate them from the yoke of modern day slavery and oppression.
The Kikuyu people say the only debt one cannot pay is that of witchcraft…this country has set itself on a cursed path…
“Why are we suffering so and yet you fought very bravely against the white man so we could have jobs and enjoy life,” pleaded the man. Shaking like a mulberry tree in dry winter, the man wailed about how nobody cares about the downtrodden sons of the peasant and poor Kikuyu families. “For how long will the children of the house of Mumbi continue to suffer so,” implored the man. “Tell us.”
The man then engaged Kimathi. “When will we ever be liberated from the shackles of poverty and enjoy the fruits of the promised land which you and our forefathers promised us?”
As I stood there watching the man writhe in pure pain and pleasure – the pleasure of communing with his ancestors – I realised that the Uthamaki Kingdom was staring at a meltdown: The people are crying, the people are confused, the people are cornered, yet their Muthamaki seems unbothered.
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It’s a Nurses’ Market Out There, and Kenyans Are Going For It
Nurses are central to primary healthcare and unless Kenya makes investments in a well-trained, well supported and well-paid nursing workforce, nurses will continue to leave and the country is unlikely to achieve its Sustainable Development Goals in the area of health and wellbeing for all.
Nancy* is planning to leave Kenya. She wants to go to the United States where the nursing pastures are supposedly greener. I first met Nancy when the country was in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic that tested Kenya’s healthcare system to breaking point. She was one of a cohort of recently graduated nurses that were hastily recruited by the Ministry of Health and thrown in at the deep end of the pandemic. Nancy earns KSh41,000 net with no other benefits whatsoever, unlike her permanent and pensionable colleagues.
When the then Labour and Social Protection Cabinet Secretary Simon Chelugui announced in early September 2021 that the government would be sending 20,000 nurses to the United Kingdom to help address the nursing shortage in that country, Nancy saw her chance. But her hopes were dashed when she failed to raise the KSh90,000 she needed to prepare and sit for the English language and nursing exams that are mandatory for foreign-trained nurses. Nancy would also have needed to pay the Nursing Council of Kenya KSh12,000 for the verification of her documents, pay the Kenya Medical Training College she attended KSh1,000 in order to get her exam transcripts, and apply for a passport, the minimum cost of which is KSh4,550 excluding the administrative fee. Nancy says that, contrary to then Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe’s disputed claims that a majority of applicants to the programme had failed the English language test, most nurses simply could not afford the cost of applying.
Of the targeted 20,000 nurses, the first 19 left Kenya for the UK in June 2022. But even that paltry figure represents a significant loss for Kenya, a country where the ratio of practicing nurses to the population is 11.66 per 10,000. The WHO considers countries with less than 40 nurses and midwives for every 10,000 people to not have enough healthcare professionals. Nearly 60 per cent of all healthcare professionals (medical physicians, nursing staff, midwives, dentists, and pharmacists) in the world are nurses, making them by far the most prevalent professional category within the health workforce. Nurses offer a wide range of crucial public health and care services at all levels of healthcare facilities as well as within the community, frequently serving as the first and perhaps the only healthcare provider that people see.
The growing shortage of nurses in the UK has been blamed on the government’s decision to abolish bursaries and maintenance grants for nursing students in 2016, leading to a significant drop in the number of those applying to train as nurses. Consequently, the annual number of graduate nurses plummeted, reaching the current low of 31 nurses per 100,000 people, below the European average of 36.6 and half as many as in countries like Romania (96), Albania (82) and Finland (82). Facing pressure to recruit 50,000 nurses amid collapsing services and closures of Accident & Emergency, maternity and chemotherapy units across the country, the UK government decided to once again cast its net overseas. Established in 1948, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has relied on foreign healthcare workers ever since staff from the Commonwealth were first brought in to nurse back to health a nation fresh out of the Second World War.
The UK government’s press release announcing the signing of the Bilateral Agreement with Kenya states that the two countries have committed “to explore working together to build capacity in Kenya’s health workforce through managed exchange and training” and goes as far as to claim that “with around only 900 Kenyan staff currently in the NHS, the country has an ambition to be the ‘Philippines of Africa’ — with Filipino staff one of the highest represented overseas countries in the health service — due to the positive economic impact that well-managed migration can have on low to middle income countries.”
It is a dubious ambition, if indeed it has been expressed. The people of the Philippines do not appear to be benefiting from the supposed increase in capacity that the exchange and training is expected to bring. While 40,000 of their nurses worked in the UK’s National Health Service last year, back home, according to Filipino Senator Sonny Angara, “around 7 of 10 Filipinos die without ever seeing a health professional and the nurse to patient ratio in our hospitals remains high at 1:50 up to 1:802”.
Since 2003 when the UK and the government of the Philippines signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the recruitment of Filipino healthcare professionals, an export-led industry has grown around the training of nurses in the Philippines that has attracted the increased involvement of the private sector. More nursing institutions — that have in reality become migrant institutions — are training nurses specifically for the overseas market, with the result that skills are matched to Western diseases and illnesses, leaving the country critically short of healthcare personnel. Already, in 1999, Filipino doctors had started retraining as nurses and leaving the country in search of better pay.
It is difficult, then, to see how the Philippines is an example to emulate. Unless, of course, beneath the veneer of “partnership and collaboration in health”, lies the objective of exporting Kenyan nurses with increased diaspora remittances in mind – Kenyans in the UK sent KSh28.75 billion in the first nine months of 2022, or nearly half what the government has budgeted for the provision of universal health care to all Kenyans. If that is the case, how that care is to be provided without nurses is a complete mystery.
Already in 1999, Filipino doctors had started retraining as nurses and leaving the country in search of better pay.
For the UK, on the other hand, importing nurses trained in Kenya is a very profitable deal. Whereas the UK government “typically spends at least £26,000, and sometimes far more, on a single nurse training post”, it costs only £10,000 to £12,000 to recruit a nurse from overseas, an externalization of costs that commodifies nurses, treating them like goods to be bought and sold.
However, in agreeing to the terms of the trade in Kenyan nurses, the two governments are merely formalizing the reality that a shortage of nurses in high-income countries has been driving the migration of nurses from low-income countries for over two decades now. Along with Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe, Kenya is one of the top 20 countries of origin of foreign-born or foreign-trained nurses working in the countries of the OECD, of which the UK is a member state.
Faced with this reality, and in an attempt to regulate the migration of healthcare workers, the World Health Assembly adopted the WHO Global Code of Practice on the Recruitment of Health Personnel in May 2010. The code, the adherence to which is voluntary, “provides ethical principles applicable to the international recruitment of health personnel in a manner that strengthens the health systems of developing countries, countries with economies in transition and small island states.”
Article 5 of the code encourages recruiting countries to collaborate with the sending countries in the development and training of healthcare workers and discourages recruitment from developing countries facing acute shortages. Given the non-binding nature of the code, however, and “the severe global shortage of nurses”, resource-poor countries, which carry the greatest disease burden globally, will continue to lose nurses to affluent countries. Wealthy nations will inevitably continue luring from even the poorest countries nurses in search of better terms of employment and better opportunities for themselves and their families; Haiti is on the list of the top 20 countries supplying the OECD region.
“Member States should discourage active recruitment of health personnel from developing countries facing critical shortages of health workers.”
Indeed, an empirical evaluation of the code four years after its adoption found that the recruitment of health workers has not undergone any substantial policy or regulatory changes as a direct result of its introduction. Countries had no incentive to apply the code and given that it was non-binding, conflicting domestic healthcare concerns were given the priority.
The UK’s Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has developed its own code of practice under which the country is no longer recruiting nurses from countries that the WHO recognizes as facing health workforce challenges. Kenya was placed on the UK code’s amber list on 11 November 2021, and active recruitment of health workers to the UK was stopped “with immediate effect” unless employers had already made conditional offers to nurses from Kenya on or before that date. Presumably, the Kenyan nurses who left for the UK in June 2022 fall into this category.
In explaining its decision, the DHSC states that “while Kenya is not on the WHO Health Workforce Support & Safeguards List, it remains a country with significant health workforce challenges. Adding Kenya to the amber list in the Code will protect Kenya from unmanaged international recruitment which could exacerbate existing health and social care workforce shortages.”
The WHO clarifies that nothing in its Code of Practice should be interpreted as curtailing the freedom of health workers to move to countries that are willing to allow them in and offer them employment. So, even as the UK suspends the recruitment of Kenyan nurses, they will continue to find opportunities abroad as long as Western countries continue to face nurse shortages. Kenyan nurses will go to the US where 203,000 nurses will be needed each year up to 2026, and to Australia where the supply of nursing school graduates is in decline, and to Canada where the shortage is expected to reach 117,600 by 2030, and to the Republic of Ireland which is now totally dependent on nurses recruited from overseas and where working conditions have been described as “horrendous”.
“Adding Kenya to the amber list in the Code will protect Kenya from unmanaged international recruitment which could exacerbate existing health and social care workforce shortages.”
Like hundreds of other Kenyan-trained nurses then, Nancy will take her skills overseas. She has found a recruitment agency through which to apply for a position abroad and is saving money towards the cost. She is not seeking to move to the UK, however; Nancy has been doing her research and has concluded that the United States is a much better destination given the more competitive salaries compared to the UK where nurses have voted to go strike over pay and working conditions. When she finally gets to the US, Nancy will join Diana*, a member of the over 90,000-strong Kenyan diaspora, more than one in four of whom are in the nursing profession.
Now in her early 50s, Diana had worked for one of the largest and oldest private hospitals in Nairobi for more than 20 years before moving to the US in 2017. She had on a whim presented her training certificates to a visiting recruitment agency that had set up shop in one of Nairobi’s high-end hotels and had been shortlisted. There followed a lengthy verification process for which the recruiting agency paid all the costs, requiring Diana to only sign a contract binding her to her future US employer for a period of two years once she had passed the vetting process.
Speaking from her home in Virginia last week, Diana told me that working as a nurse in the US “is not a bed of roses”, that although the position is well paying, it comes with a lot of stress. “The nurse-to-patient ratio is too high and the job is all about ticking boxes and finishing tasks, with no time for the patients,” she says, adding that in such an environment fatal mistakes are easily made. Like the sword of Damocles, the threat of losing her nursing licence hangs over Diana’s head every day that she takes up her position at the nursing station.
“The nurse-to-patient ratio is too high and the job is all about ticking boxes and finishing tasks, with no time for the patients.”
Starting out as an Enrolled Nurse in rural Kenya, Diana had over the years improved her skills, graduating as a Registered Nurse before acquiring a Batchelor of Science in Nursing from a top private university in Kenya, the tuition for which was partially covered by her employer.
Once in the US, however, her 20 years of experience counted for nothing and she was employed on the same footing as a new graduate nurse, as is the case for all overseas nurses moving to the US to work. Diana says that, on balance, she would have been better off had she remained at her old job in Kenya where the care is better, the opportunities for professional growth are greater and the work environment well controlled. But like many who have gone before her, Diana is not likely to be returning to Kenya any time soon.
*Names have been changed.
Why Azimio’s Presidential Petition Stood No Chance
In so far as the court had nullified the 2017 elections, the evidential threshold required for any subsequent electoral nullification was going to be substantially high for any petitioner.
Even before the 9 August general election, it was expected that the loser of the Kenyan presidential contest would petition the Supreme Court to arbitrate over the outcome. Predictably, the losing party, Azimio La Umoja-One Kenya Coalition, petitioned the court to have William Ruto’s win nullified on various procedural and technical grounds. Azimio’s case was predicated on, among others, three key allegations. First, that William Ruto failed to garner the requisite 50 per cent plus one vote. Second, that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) chairman Wafula Chebukati had announced the outcome without tallying and verifying results from seven constituencies. Finally, that the commission could not account for 250,000 votes that were cast electronically.
As we know, Azimio lost the case as the judges dismissed all the nine petitions that the party had filed, unanimously finding that William Ruto had won fairly.
Adjudicating electoral fallouts
Since its inception in 2010, the Supreme Court has played a decisive role in adjudicating fallouts linked to contentious presidential politics in Kenya, with the court deliberating on the outcome of three out of the four presidential elections held after its inauguration. Prior to this, the losing party had no credible institutional mechanism of redress and electoral disputes were generally resolved through mass political action (as in 2007) or consistent questioning of the legitimacy of the winner (as in 1992 and 1997).
The Supreme Court’s presence has, therefore, been crucial in providing losers with an institutionalised mechanism to channel dissent, with the court operating as a “safety valve” to diffuse political tensions linked to presidential elections. It is, hence, impossible to conceive of the relatively peaceful elections held in 2013, 2017 and 2022 without the Supreme Court whose mere presence has been key in discouraging some of the more deadly forms of political rivalry previously witnessed in Kenya.
While the Azimio leadership were right to petition the court in the recent election, first because this successfully diffused the political tensions among their supporters, and second because the court was expected to provide directions on IEBC conduct in future elections, it was clear that Raila Odinga’s relentless petitioning of the court in the previous two elections, and the nullification of the 2017 elections, was in essence going to be a barrier to a successful petition in 2022.
In so far as the court had nullified the 2017 elections, the evidential threshold required for any subsequent electoral nullification was going to be substantially high for any petitioner. The relentless petitioning of the court and the nullification of the 2017 elections had in essence raised the bar for the burden of proof, which lay with the petitioner(s) and, therefore, reduced the probability of a successful petition.
The Supreme Court’s presence has been crucial in providing losers with an institutionalised mechanism to channel dissent.
The reason for this is both legal and political. Legal in the sense that the IEBC is expected to conduct the elections under the law, which, among other issues, requires that the electoral process be credible and the results verifiable before any certification is made, otherwise the election is nullified, as was the case in 2017. It is political because the power to select the president is constitutionally, hence politically, delegated to the Kenyan people through the ballot, unless electoral fraud infringes on this, again as was the case in 2017.
The court in its deliberation must, therefore, balance the legal-political trade-off in its verdict in search of a plausible equilibrium. For instance, while the majority of Azimio supporters had anticipated a successful petition based on the public walkout and dissent by the four IEBC commissioners, it seems that the decision to uphold the results displayed the court’s deference to political interpretation of the law by issuing a ruling that did not undermine the Kenyan voters’ right to elect their president.
While the settlement of legal-political disputes by a Supreme/Constitutional court is a common feature across democracies, and continuously being embedded in emerging democracies like Kenya, it does seem that in this election, the political motivations for upholding the vote outweighed the legal motivations for nullifying it. In essence, the court demonstrated its institutional independence by ruling against the Kenyatta-backed Azimio candidate due to insufficient evidence.
Supreme Court power grab
A counterfactual outcome where the evidential threshold for the nullification of presidential results is low would foster a Supreme Court power grab, in lieu with the 2017 nullification, by marginalising the sovereign will of Kenyans to elect their president.
In many ways, nullification of the results would also have incentivised further adversarial political behaviour where every electoral outcome is contested in the Supreme Court even when the outcome is relatively clean, as in the case of the 2022 elections.
It is this reason (among others) that we think underlined the Supreme Court justices’ dismissal of Azimio’s recent petition. The justices ultimately dismissed the evidence presented by the petitioners as “hot air, outright forgeries, red herring, wild goose chase and unproven hypotheses”, setting a clear bar for the standard of evidence they expect in order to deliberate over such an important case in the future.
In essence, the court demonstrated its institutional independence by ruling against the Kenyatta-backed Azimio candidate due to insufficient evidence.
Since the earth-shaking nullification of the 2017 elections, the Supreme Court transcended an epoch, more political than legal by “invading” the sovereign space for Kenyans to elect their president, thereof setting a precedence that any future successful petition to contest a presidential election requires watertight evidence.
In a sense, Azimio were victims of Odinga’s judicial zealotry and especially the successful 2017 petition. In so far as the evidence submitted to the Supreme Court by Azimio in 2022 was at the same level or even lower than the 2017 base, their case at the Supreme Court was very likely to be dismissed and even ridiculed as the justices recently did.
The precedent set by the 2022 ruling will, actually, yield two positive political outcomes. First, it will in the future weed out unnecessary spam petitions that lack evidence and rather increase needless political tensions in the country. Second, it has signalled to future petitioners, that serious deliberations will only be given to petitions backed by rock-solid evidence.
From the recent ruling, it is evident that the judgement fell far below the precedent set in 2017. The 2017 Supreme Court ruling that the IEBC should make the servers containing Form 34A publicly available, was crucial in improving the credibility of the 2022 elections, by democratising the tallying process. At a minimum, the expectation was that the justices would provide a directive on the recent public fallout among the IEBC commissioners with regard to future national tallying and announcement of presidential results.
By dismissing the fallout as a mere corporate governance issue, the justices failed to understand the political ramifications of the “boardroom rupture”. What are we to do in the future if the IEBC Chair rejects the results and the other commissioners validate the results as credible?
Additionally, by ridiculing the petitioners as wild goose chasers and dismissing the evidence as “hot air”, the justices failed to maintain the amiable judicial tone necessary to decompress and assuage the bitter grievances among losers in Kenya high-octane political environment.
In a sense, Azimio were victims of Mr Odinga’s judicial zealotry and especially the 2017 successful petition.
The Supreme Court ought to resist the temptations of trivializing electoral petitions, as this has the potential of triggering democratic backsliding, where electoral losers might opt for extra-constitutional means of addressing their grievances as happened in December 2007. It is not in the petitioners’ place to ascertain whether their evidence is “hot air” or not, but for the court to do so, and in an amiable judicial tone that offers reconciliation in a febrile political environment.
The precedent set by the 2017 ruling that clarified the ambiguities related to the IEBC’s use of technology to conduct elections, set an incremental pathway towards making subsequent elections credible and fair, and increased public trust in the key electoral institutions in Kenya.
The justices, therefore, need to understand that their deliberations hold weight in the public eye and in the eyes of political leaders. Therefore, outlining recommendations to improve the IEBC’s conduct in future elections is a bare minimum expectation among Kenyans. In this case, while they provided some recommendations, they failed to comprehensively address the concerns around the walk-out by the four IEBC commissioners.
At the minimum, chastising the IEBC conduct was necessary to consolidate the electoral gains made thus far but also recalibrate institutional imperfections linked to how elections are to be conducted and, especially, contestations around the role of the commissioners in the national tallying of results in the future.
This article is part of our project on information and voter behaviour in the 2022 Kenyan elections. The project is funded by the Centre for Governance and Society, Department of Political Economy, King’s College London.
GMOs Are Not the Only Answer
In a country where agricultural production is dominated by smallholders, the decision to allow genetically modified crops and animal feeds into Kenya as a means of combatting perennial hunger ignores other safer and more accessible alternatives such as Conservation Agriculture.
Newly elected President William Ruto has, to use a much abused expression, hit the ground running. I am, however, not certain that he is running in the right direction. On 3 October 2022, during the second meeting of his recently (and unconstitutionally) constituted cabinet, Ruto announced that his government had authorized the cultivation and importation of genetically modified crops and animal feeds, sweeping aside the grave concerns raised by Kenyans and lifting a ten-year ban with the stroke of a pen.
The decision was made at a time when Kenya is facing the worst drought in four decades that has left over four million people facing starvation. According to President Ruto, the adoption of GMOs is the solution to the recurring cycles of drought and famine that Kenyans have been increasingly experiencing.
I shall not go into the merits and demerits of what some call Frankenfoods here. However, it seems to me that Ruto’s decision is driven solely by the political imperative to bring down the price of maize through cheap imports of GM maize following the withdrawal of the maize subsidy.
Already, back in November 2018, the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI), the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition (KBioC), the Africa Biodiversity Network (ABN) and Greenpeace Africa had issued a joint statement raising “concerns over recent disconcerting developments in the country, that [suggest] the Government has made [a] unilateral decision to adopt genetically modified crops”, and adding that “an all-inclusive nationwide discourse through public participation, which addresses whether the technology is appropriate for us, is being circumvented”.
The group also voiced their suspicion that the report of the Task Force to Review Matters Relating to Genetically Modified Foods and Food Safety that was set up by the Ministry of Health in 2013 was being withheld because it was against the adoption of GM foods. This suspicion may well be founded since, in making the announcement, State House said that the decision to lift the GMO ban was “made in accordance with the recommendation of the Task Force”, while failing to make the so-called Thairu report—which was submitted in 2014—available for public scrutiny.
The cabinet said that in reaching its decision to lift the ban it had also referred to reports of the European Food Safety Authority, among others.
The European Union’s policy on GMOs “respects the right-to-know by ensuring clear labelling and traceability of GMOs. This requires reliable methods for the detection, identification and quantification (for authorised GMO) in food, feed, and the environment”. There is zero tolerance for unapproved GMOs and stringent regulation of products originating from or containing GMOs.
A detailed risk analysis and the availability of a validated method for locating, identifying, and quantifying GMOs in food or feed are prerequisites for authorization. For any GM launch, biotech businesses that want to market their product in the EU must submit an application. A very precise way of detecting each unique GMO is included in the application dossier.
The terms of reference of the government’s GMO task force included, among others, assessing Kenya’s infrastructural capacities to monitor genetically modified products in the country; assessing the adequacy of qualified human resource capacity to monitor research, use and importation of genetically modified products into the country; and recommending approval procedures for imports of GM foods.
If we are to look only at the procedures established by the National Biosafety Authority for the importation of GM products into the country, then we may conclude that Kenya lacks the infrastructural and qualified human resource capacity to monitor their research, use and importation. In effect, an entity wishing to import a GM product into the country is merely required to provide the particulars of the supplier, the nomenclature of the GMO, proof that the GMO has been registered in the exporting country, its use in the country of origin, its intended use in Kenya, a summary risk assessment, methods and plans for safe handling, storage, transport and use, and the emergency response foreseen in the event of an accident with the GMO. The second of the two-page the application document is reserved for the applicant’s signature before a commissioner for oaths, a magistrate or a judge. Means of detection of GMOs are not mentioned.
It would seem then that Ruto’s government has fully devolved the responsibility for Kenya’s biosafety and biosecurity to the authorities of foreign nations. This is very frightening when you consider, for example, that the European Union Regulation EC304/2003 allows EU companies to produce and export to other countries pesticides that are banned or restricted in the EU. This double standard is the reason why active ingredients which have been withdrawn in the EU find their way to Kenya, poisoning our bodies and our environment, and destroying our biodiversity.
Maize is not the only ugali
The lifting of the ban on GMOs may have sounded the death knell for Kenyan small-scale maize growers; GM maize is to be found on the international markets at prices that defy all competition, which will now prove to be a boon for well-connected maize-importing cartels.
But maize, a staple in the majority of Kenyan households, is a relatively recent arrival on our national menu, becoming a major staple during the First World War when disease in millet led to famine.
As Noel Vietmeyer observes in the foreword to the first volume of Lost Crops of Africa,
“Lacking the interest and support of the authorities (most of them non-African colonial authorities, missionaries, and agricultural researchers), the local grains could not keep pace with the up-to-the-minute foreign cereals, which were made especially convenient to consumers by the use of mills and processing. The old grains languished and remained principally as the foods of the poor and the rural areas. Eventually, they took on a stigma of being second-rate. Myths arose—that the local grains were not as nutritious, not as high yielding, not as flavorful, nor as easy to handle. As a result, the native grains were driven into internal exile. In their place, maize, a grain from across the Atlantic, became the main food from Senegal to South Africa.”
But with initiatives such as the Busia County Biodiversity Policy, which recognises the role that biodiversity can play in addressing food insecurity, the tide is turning and Kenyans are rediscovering and embracing the culinary habits of our forebears. You would think then that the GMO decision will not, in the main, affect the choices we make in the foods we consume. That those of us a tad squeamish about eating foods that have been genetically interfered with can opt out.
Were it that simple.
Many Kenyans are unaware that the Seed and Plant Varieties Act Cap 326 of 2012 prohibits farmers from sharing, exchanging or selling uncertified and unregistered seeds. Yet, to mitigate against the effects of perennial droughts and the escalating costs of hybrid seeds, community seed banks have been conserving indigenous seeds—that are demonstrably more climate-resilient—for sale during the planting season, in contravention of the law and at the risk of a one million shilling fine, or two years’ imprisonment, or both. Criminalising a system through which small-scale farmers acquire 90 per cent of their planting material does not augur well for Kenya’s food security, or for our biodiversity. Small-scale farmers are fighting back, however, with a group from Machakos recently going to court to challenge the legislation. It remains to be seen who between David and Goliath will prevail.
But maize, a staple in the majority of Kenyan households, is a relatively recent arrival on our national menu, becoming a major staple during the First World War when disease in millet led to famine.
What is clear is that Kenya’s David, while remaining impoverished over the decades since independence, is the mainstay of the country’s agriculture in terms of productivity. The Economic Survey (2021) of the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics reports that,
“The share of marketed agricultural output for small farms increased marginally to 73.3 per cent in 2020. This is a reflection of the continued dominance of the smallholder sector in the marketing of agricultural produce during the year under review. The value of sales through small farms increased by 9.4 per cent from KSh 341.4 billion in 2019 to KSh 373.6 billion in 2020. Similarly, the value of sales by large farms increased by 8.9 per cent from KSh 125.0 billion in 2019 to KSh 136.1 billion in 2020.”
The survey defines large farms as those above 20 hectares.
The small-holder has consistently outperformed the large-scale farmer despite government policies that have since the 70s viewed smallholders as without agency beyond adopting technologies that are presented as capable of transforming agriculture and building livelihoods. The adoption of GMOs is likely to be yet another of these technologies that, together with unjust seed legislation, will increase rather than decrease Kenya’s food insecurity.
President Ruto worries about food insecurity but fails to consider the very ready solution available to his administration and recommended in the Agricultural Policy (2021) of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Cooperatives, namely, conservation agriculture.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO – also quoted in Ruto’s decision to lift the GMO ban) recommends conservation agriculture as it is a sustainable system of production that conserves and enhances natural resources; enhances biodiversity; assists in carbon sequestration; is less labour and fertilizer intensive; improves the health of soils; and increases yields over time.
Criminalising a system through which small-scale farmers acquire 90 per cent of their planting material does not augur well for Kenya’s food security, or for our biodiversity.
The very promising results obtained among the small-scale farmers that have adopted the system following training under the FAO beginning in 2015 show that the government would do well to promote conservation agriculture among smallholders as a means of mitigating both against food insecurity and the effects of climate change, rather than hastily reaching for GM technologies that the country is ill-equipped to safely handle.
But clearly, the president is not on the same page as his Ministry of Agriculture and so, like others, I can only conclude that Ruto’s lifting of the GMO ban is for the benefit of the seed multinationals and their clients, the large-scale farmers who have taken over most of the productive land to grow cash crops for export, leaving small-scale farmers to exploit marginal lands for the production of food crops for local consumption. And for the benefit of maize-importing cartels.
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