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Prefiguring the Future of Democracy

11 min read.

The mass protests and the coronavirus crises in the United States and Europe have exposed the fault lines in representative democracies, and appear to confirm the relative superiority of Eastern political capitalism over Western liberal capitalism. They point to a convergence of Western liberal democracy and Eastern political capitalism, the most likely future of the system that will rule the world.

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Prefiguring the Future of Democracy
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At the end of January 2020, I discovered a paper by Sean Coughlan entitled “Dissatisfaction with democracy within developed countries is at its highest level in 25 years” on the BBC website. This article summarised the findings of a worldwide survey carried out by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Future of Democracy that revealed that the proportion of the global population that was dissatisfied with democracy reached 58 per cent in 2019. “Confidence in democracy has been slipping because democratic institutions have been seen failing to address some of the major crises of our era, from economic crashes to the threat of global warming,” said Dr. Roberto Foa, the main author of the study.

After reading that worrying article, I had to revisit the various definitions of democracy. Political theory offers a distinction among many types of democracy. Some of these distinctions are primarily based on the relationship between government and the governed, such as direct democracies (including participatory democracy, deliberative democracy, etc.) or representative democracies (including parliamentary democracy, presidential democracy, etc.). Other categorisations focus on the role of individual freedoms or the relationship between citizens and the market (such as liberal democracy, social democracy, etc.)

Whichever the flavour of democracy, according to some political scientists, the Western democratic ideal is based on two principles: political participation and political contestation. Political participation means free electoral systems and political contestation means freedom of expression (including speech, press, etc.). If we add to these two principles the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary (as posited by Montesquieu), we get a rather simple definition of what the media and the “common man (and woman)” may understand by democracy – a system that prevails all over Europe and North America. This definition has three main features:

  1. Free and fair elections and universal suffrage;
  2. Freedom of expression, including freedom of the press;
  3. Rule of law applied by an independent judiciary system.

Respect for human rights could be included but we assume that it could be derived from rule of law and freedom of expression.

At the time of Dr. Foa’s briefing, I had just read three stimulating books that shed some light on the question of dissatisfaction with democracy, and which gave me a better understanding of this phenomenon. These books also shed light on the relations between capitalism and democracy and on the geopolitical evolution of our world. Let’s browse through these books.

Branko Milanovic, Capitalism, Alone

Prof. Branko Milanovic, a famous economist known for his work on inequality, explains in his most recent book, Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World (Harvard University Press, 2019), how capitalism became the one and only political system in the world. However, he makes a distinction between liberal capitalism (the pattern found among most OECD countries today) and “political” capitalism (formerly known as state capitalism when describing the Soviet Union). In liberal capitalist systems, inequalities prevail and are growing, particularly due to a lack of “intergenerational income mobility” (leading to a reproduction of the elites, also analysed by Pierre Bourdieu), that is exacerbated by “social separatism”.

Indeed, the Western way of development is essentially characterised by increasingly unacceptable social and territorial inequalities. This view is shared by Paul Collier in his recent masterpiece, The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties. According to the British development economist, the biggest rifts tearing apart the fabric of Western societies today are between the highly educated and the less educated, and between cosmopolitan metropolises and declining regions. Thomas Piketty, in his bestseller, Capital in the 21st Century, also demonstrated that the rate of capital return in Western countries is persistently greater than the rate of economic growth, and that this causes increasing wealth inequality.

Inequality is less of a constant in political capitalist systems. According to Milanovic, in these systems, “the population tolerates its lack of voice as long as the elite delivers tangible improvements in living standards, provides tolerable administration of justice and does not allow glaring inequalities”. For Milanovic, China and Vietnam are the paradigmatic examples of political capitalism, but Malaysia, Singapore and some African countries could also fall in the same category.

He, however, notes that the lack of an independent judiciary in these countries could more easily allow corrupt practices and may, therefore, undermine the social compact required by political capitalism. Nonetheless, he views political capitalism (particularly the “regionally decentralised authoritarianism” found in China) as more efficient economically than liberal capitalism, where the population’s decisions could inadvertently result in policies that reduce growth rates, increase pollution and inequalities, reduce life expectancy, etc. Given that public opinion is constantly manipulated (see below), such counterproductive outcomes indeed seem particularly likely in liberal capitalist countries.

Peter Frankopan, The New Silk Roads

In his masterly account of the ongoing shift in global economic power towards Asia, The New Silk Roads: The New Asia and the Remaking of the World Order (Vintage Books, 2019), Prof. Peter Frankopan, a brilliant historian at Oxford University, clearly demonstrates that the countries of the Silk Roads (Asia in short) are those that really matter in the 21st century. For him, it is clear that “we are living in the Asian century already, a time when the movement of GDP from the developed economies of the West to those of the East is taking place on an astonishing scale – and at astonishing speed”.

In fact, Asian countries, primarily China, have become a reference and inspiration for other developing regions and their leaders, particularly in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. Turkey, at the confluence of East and West and a NATO member, may constitute the best example of this changing paradigm: Eastern models focused on infrastructure development are progressively replacing Western ideals that have been predominant in the 20th century, particularly since the end of the Cold War.

Inequality is less of a constant in political capitalist systems. According to Milanovic, in these systems, “the population tolerates its lack of voice as long as the elite delivers tangible improvements in living standards, provides tolerable administration of justice and does not allow glaring inequalities”.

A number of books about the rise of “Chindia”, published in the last two decades, share this analysis. However Frankopan raises an important caveat: “Indices measuring press freedom across Asia – from Turkey to Thailand, Iran to India, Pakistan to the Philippines, China to almost all the states of Central Asia – are not just failing to improve; they are in decline, in some cases dramatically. A new world is emerging in Asia, but it is not a free one.” This is consistent with Milanovic’s opus as a confirmation that Asian “political” capitalism is economically more efficient (albeit democratically less attractive) than Western liberal capitalism.

However, it is important to remember that a majority of Western citizens are not satisfied with the functioning and outcomes of their democratic systems. (The Black Lives Matter protests currently taking place in various US cities and around the world are the most recent manifestation of this dissatisfaction.)

So might Europeans and Americans be ready to support an evolution towards political capitalism? As Milanovic observes, “Everyday experience seems to show that many people are willing to trade parts of democratic decision-making for greater income.” This is certainly true in the developing world, particularly in most African countries where economic and social rights (to education, health, housing, etc.) remain largely unfulfilled. The current coronavirus crisis, which has had a devastating impact in Western Europe and North America, also appears to confirm the relative superiority of Eastern political capitalism over Western liberal capitalism; but only time will tell if this superiority will prevail in the long term.

A convergence of liberal and political capitalism might be the most likely future of the system that rules the world. We will consider two possible models for this convergence in our conclusion below – but first and before moving to the third author, we need to open a parenthesis to better understand the forces undermining representative democracy today.

What representative democracy does not deliver

Representative democracy, based on periodical elections, is the dominant political system in Europe and America, but also in Africa. Its flaws and limitations have been analysed by hundreds of scholars and political scientists since the 18th century. Among the most frequently identified flaws, the following could be highlighted:

  1. Representative democracy puts the elites in positions of power, both in the executive and legislative branches of government. These intellectual, financial and technocratic elites are not bound by the wishes of the electorate. They are supposed to adopt policies in the superior interest of the nation, as they understand it and as it evolves overtime. And usually the so-called interests of the nation are more to do with finance and economics, rather than social issues, such as education and health.
  2. Because the “power of the people” typically erodes after an election has taken place, elected officials become deceptive and untrustworthy. After they win the vote, they are free to pursue the collective agenda of the elites. Once the representatives are elected, they are no longer accountable. They follow the directives of their parties and forget their specific promises. The only option left to the citizens is not voting for them in the next election.
  3. A representative democracy depends on majority rule to implement policies and take most decisions. A democratic government, reflecting the “majority” view (usually of the upper middle class), can take action that oppresses a particular minority, the poor, for instance. When the majority is not ethically or morally correct (as in South Africa during the apartheid era), the structure of government can threaten the lives or undermine the interests of people who are not represented or belong to minority groups. In many ways, these groups are left to solve their own problems because they do not have the voting power to overwhelm the majority. Many elections have been won by 51 per cent of the votes, leaving 49 per cent of frustrated voters on the sidelines. In some cases, elections in a single round (a.k.a. “first-past-the-post”) are won by much less than 50 per cent of the population. In other cases (specifically in the USA), the deciding electoral vote (by an electoral college) differs from the popular vote (by the people themselves).

Other flaws have been noted, such as the huge financial cost of electoral processes, increasing abstentions, particularly among disenfranchised classes, or practices to deliberately distort democratic representation (such as gerrymandering i.e. the manipulation of boundaries of electoral constituencies in the USA). However, what appears to matter even more in the current period are two fundamental problems:

  1. Short-termism is prevalent in Western political systems (with the notable exception of Norway). Most elected officials don’t have a long-term perspective as their main concern is to be re-elected. Therefore, they model their actions on opinion polls and on social media, which provide immediate reactions to each and every event. They have a preference for policies that bring short-term benefits to the electorate (or to themselves) before the next election, rather than unpopular policies with longer-term benefits. Climate change is a typical example. Most leaders know what has to be done in terms of mitigation and adaptation to climate change, but they postpone radical actions that may be unpopular with some important sections of the electorate.
  2. Insufficiency of political education and lack of critical thinking also remain widespread in Western societies. Electoral democracy can reflect the interests of the people only if voters educate themselves on governing decisions. Someone can turn in a ballot that is a straight-party ticket with no consideration of the issues at stake. In addition, the current web-surfing culture is not really prone to encouraging objective thinking and in-depth understanding of public policy options. Some tech experts already talk of “the digital disruption of democracy”, whereby a non-regulated glut of information results in disinformation while individual attention spans are narrowing faster and faster. Less educated people are more affected by fake news, lies, unrealistic promises, etc., and could be easily influenced by propaganda, for instance on the perceived risks of “migrant invasion”. The election of Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum are good examples of people voting against their own interests due to poor education and limited understanding of the consequences of their votes. This is where our third recommended book comes in.

Larry Tye, The Father of Spin

Edward L. Bernays (1891-1995) is little-known in academic circles, but he played a key role in developing and applying the concept of “public relations” in many areas during a very long and exceptional career. Born in Austria, he was a nephew of Sigmund Freud and should be considered as a major ideologue of the 20th century.

The Father or Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Publishing (Crown Publishing Group, 1999), the biography of Bernays by Larry Tye, shows how public opinion in Western countries has been successfully manipulated since the 1920s (including in Nazi Germany). As a result, “free and fair” elections are heavily influenced by demagogic parties and charismatic leaders and their teams.

According to biographer Larry Tye, “Bernays used sociology and crowd psychology to rob consumers of their free will, helping his clients predict, then manipulate, the very way their customers thought and acted.”

Because the “power of the people” typically erodes after an election has taken place, elected officials become deceptive and untrustworthy. After they win the vote, they are free to pursue the collective agenda of the elites. Once the representatives are elected, they are no longer accountable.

In his own publications – from Propaganda (1928) to The Engineering of Consent (1955) – the liberal and cynical Bernays described all the techniques available for manipulating public opinion on commercial or political matters. He convinced his many clients (companies as well as political leaders) that persuasion rather than coercion was the best method of getting their way with the masses, which he described as subject to herd instinct. He was very successful and died in Boston as a billionaire at 103 years of age.

In Propaganda, he wrote: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”

Since the end of the Second World War, the ideas, techniques and methods advocated and tested by Bernays have flourished in Western countries, particularly in advertising, but also in the political field. Concentration of media ownership has led to major distortions in democratic processes. Indeed, the corporate media limits the availability of contesting views and provides a narrow spectrum of elite opinions. Meanwhile, the eruption of alternative news sources available online and on social media has come as a laudable reaction to media concentration, but has also provided additional tools for the manipulation of public opinion by battalions of spin doctors. As a result, while elections are formally free, they are far from being fair due to “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the opinions of the masses”.

The future of democracy

We see two possible models for the future of democracy – two different hybrids of Milanovic’s liberal capitalism and political capitalism. The first model is ominous, the second is inspiring.

Currently, dissatisfaction with Western representative democracy has brought to the fore a number of populist movements or parties that are changing the political landscape because they tend to tap into emotion rather than rational thinking. These movements and parties are particularly attractive to less educated citizens. These far-right populist parties are promoting an “illiberal democracy” based on strong autocratic men in power, economic protectionism, a controlled judiciary and hostility to migrants and foreigners. Using the categories defined by Milanovic, it can be argued that this populist model borrows some features from political capitalism in order to transform the existing liberal capitalism. In this perspective, the Russian Federation may be seen as a prototype for the future of Western democracies.

Another and opposite model could be to insert some components of Western liberal democracy into the more economically efficient Eastern political capitalism. Basically, the rule of law and freedom of expression would go hand-in-hand with state-controlled economic development, regulated markets, reduced income and spatial disparities and long-term socio-economic strategies. Electoral processes would be minimised and counter-balanced by more participatory local democracy. Already local authorities play an ever-increasing role in national politics, and in many respects they are more effective than nation-states. While they are not exempt from clientelism, local governments are increasingly willing to adopt participatory approaches (as notably demonstrated in several Latin American countries).

Concentration of media ownership has led to major distortions in democratic processes. Indeed, the corporate media limits the availability of contesting views and provides a narrow spectrum of elite opinions.

In this ideal world, political elites would be selected on objective criteria; then the best administrators, incorruptible and accountable, would rise and be periodically evaluated by their peers and by local leaders (mayors, governors, etc.). They could be replaced following media campaigns and social mobilisation, which have become a new and important mode of political expression all over the world.

From Santiago to Algiers, Madrid to Baghdad, New Delhi to Sydney, Stockholm to Hong Kong, New York to Caracas, Paris to Beirut, Jakarta to Khartoum, an innovative form of democracy based on mass and recurrent demonstrations has been trying to emerge in recent years.

So far these popular protests have not achieved much in terms of institutional outcomes. However, they reflect the dissatisfaction and determination of millions of people, the youth in particular, and will certainly influence the future of democracy and the evolution of capitalism. These social movements will, hopefully, ensure that of the two possible futures for democracy, the second model – a combination of Western liberal democracy and Eastern political capitalism – prevails in the long run.

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Daniel Biau is a former Director of UN-Habitat’s Regional and Technical Cooperation Division. He retired in March 2011 after 30 years in urban development. Daniel Biau's articles and insights can be found at The Urban Guru website.

Politics

Of Election 2022, the EAC And Completing the Circle

With William Ruto’s ascension to the presidency, we now have a string of governments in the East African region that hold no genuine or valuable ideological position. The job is to manage the expanding exploitation of the region’s resources on behalf of foreign capital.

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Of Election 2022, the EAC And Completing the Circle
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The basic idea behind hustling is not to change the world, but rather to game its rules so as to change one’s status within it, going from low to high. This ultimately means accepting the world as it fundamentally is.

Kenya’s new president William Ruto has demonstrated this most ably, even using it to ramp up his campaign persona during the recently concluded elections. Having started out as a ruling party hatchet man in the 1990s Moi era, he rose to become a key player in the ethno-politics of the Kenyan Rift Valley. It was the interest taken by the International Criminal Court in the 2007 post-election violence that created a marriage of convenience between himself and what was until then his nemesis: Uhuru Kenyatta, scion of an earlier hustler-founded, but now grand, family, the epitome of what Ruto had been pitched against his whole political career—the entrenched interests of a new and landed elite.

This became an opportunity to operate fully on the national stage. This last election became in part the story of his successful determination to stay there, despite the best efforts, or so it would appear, to dispose of him once the threat of ICC convictions had receded.

A problem here is that what Kenya has always desperately needed is fundamental change. Candidate Raila Odinga’s biggest handicap was his having lived a life of being half-and-half; on the one hand, he presented himself as the anti-establishment player, determined to smash this system of historical exploitation and undeserved wealth. In that respect, he was the last of the dwindling band of 1980s would-be revolutionaries that led a meandering and error-plagued voyage in search of the kind of change needed in a former European settler economy and Western anchor-state.

On the other hand, he was also a scion of an established political dynasty. In this way, he more than once made himself part of inter-factional elite schemes and plots—of which taking the endorsement of outgoing President Kenyatta against his own Deputy President candidate Ruto was arguably the latest gambit—which only served to dilute whatever claims he may have still been making to be the progressive candidate.

Despite coming from a political dynasty of his own, birthed by his father’s own long record as a contemporary, comrade and finally victim of Jomo Kenyatta, Raila has always positioned himself as an outsider seeking to enter the system in order to break it. Then candidate Ruto’s message was the same in reverse: an actual outsider who was going, not to smash the system, but to hustle his way to its topmost levels. With his ascension, or more relevantly, with the defeat of Odinga, one can say the last of the hopes and memories of a kind of change that could favour the ordinary Kenyan are dead; this victory finally cements Kenya as a place impervious to radical political change, in which a dominant oligarchic system will remain in control, no matter who wins or loses a particular election.

“There is now in place a regime of right-wing thuggery that will run this plantation for the next twenty years.” one veteran Kenyan Kenya observer, glumly wrote to me.

However, the real point here is that this can be said of the whole region. And with this development in Kenya, a circle has been closed and the country has become fully like the rest of East Africa.

The failings of the Kenyan progressive/revolutionary movements of the 1970s and 1980s (of which Raila Odinga was a very visible part), left a situation whereby change was not going to come from outside the system, leading eventually to this “hustler” culture. First by the wider civil society that joined in the post-Moi governments in pursuit of change, and then the more directly cynical exploits that have culminated in the Ruto presidency.

“There is now in place a regime of right-wing thuggery that will run this plantation for the next twenty years.”

The few but significant reforms that actually enabled the Ruto victory to be declared were ironically the only real change that the civil society movement managed to bring to the very rigid political system. So, the irony is that these came to serve Ruto in a way they never served Odinga, despite his years of struggle that helped put them in place.

Apart from the social migration of that section of anti-colonial figures who made peace with the system and agreed to form the post-colonial regimes in partnership with those Africans that had worked for the repressive colonial state to begin with, most Kenyans remained poor, landless and exploited.

In this, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, veteran anti-colonial agitator, co-founder of the Kenya People’s Union and of course father to fifth-time losing candidate Raila, represented the first political tradition, while Jomo Kenyatta, father to the outgoing president Uhuru, famously represented the second.

This began the great dichotomy in the mainstream of Kenyan politics: between those who felt that Independence could and should mean more for the ordinary Kenyan, and those who felt that the struggle had done enough and, increasingly, it was for every citizen to make the best they could out of the new circumstances. In short, hustlers.

There were always more options. But in the politics of pragmatism, the most accessible position, least burdened of principles, usually wins.

Hence, Museveni over Nabudere in the Ugandan struggle against Obote; Garang against the void that killed him in the quest to shape a post-Arab-Apartheid Sudan; Desire Kabila over the impenetrable musings of dia Wamba during the race to remove Mobutu, and so forth.

There is always the one “who is” versus the idea of the “who might have been”. In Kenya, this has been Raila Odinga against just about every Kenyan President from Daniel arap Moi, onward. Until now.

William Ruto’s coming to power is the ultimate triumph over idealism, an ultimate mass endorsement of the idea of pragmatism over idealism in Kenyan politics. In that sense, Kenya now fully folds into the regional template of practical fixers and hustlers willing to work within the strictures historically imposed on their people, as opposed to embarking on a quest for genuine change.

This tells us one thing, that the largest and best organized-for-extraction economy in the region is now firmly in the grip of a very determined set of interchangeable oligarchs. Their mission in life will be to do what oligarchs do: get richer.

We can now look forward to the consolidation of a region-wide elite consensus regarding the purpose of power: which, put simply, is to get rich, and then richer.

I have written it before: the wealth of Congo has enriched many a Ugandan elite group. My prediction is that our region’s politics will increasingly take on the look of a region-wide joint elite conspiracy against the ordinary peoples of the countries therein. The entire East African region, and its resources, seems up for grabs. And the vast riches of the DRC will be at the epicentre.

William Ruto’s coming to power is the ultimate triumph over idealism, an ultimate mass endorsement of the idea of pragmatism over idealism in Kenyan politics.

President Ruto’s decision to immediately implement a commitment to the long-mooted idea of an East Africa “peacekeeping” force helps to confirm this suspicion. Kenya deployed a contingent of its Special Forces just days after President Ruto’s inauguration. This idea has always been curious; apart from the United Nations force (in its second form), Uganda’s military, and occasional forays from Rwanda (and “friends”), this adds a new layer of military presence in the country: not quite African Union, and not fully EAC either, as there is no joint command. But the goal is clear: a colonial-type pacification of the natives, so as to enable elite-managed foreign extraction.

To that end, apart from Rwanda’s occasional presence, the Congolese government made up of its own notoriously ambitious elites seems to present no real objection to other interventions, but the opinion of the general population is becoming increasingly different.

An ideal situation for the hungry wolves in Kampala would be for a consensus to emerge from among the regimes of the region as to how the region’s resources can be best looted in a sustainable way, under its overall leadership as the regime that has the best, deepest and longest established links with the Western corporations that are in need of them.

President Ruto publicly acclaimed President Museveni as the “father of the region”, which is certainly a step up from the usual “father of the nation” sobriquet pressed upon perennial African incumbents.

Long-time watchers of the Museveni regime will find this description of President Museveni as apt as it is worrying. On the one hand, it helps consolidate the long-held view that Uganda effectively works as the West’s anchor state for the region.

We may finally be reaching a point of harmony among the rulers, which will be good news for their cronies and those who want to loot the region, but disastrous for the ordinary people.

Such looting involves indentured labour, displacement, environmental destruction, as well as the attendant state-backed violence to ensure that this happens. Put bluntly, a regional “peacekeeping” force would simply be a modern version of Belgian King Leopold’s Force Publique and other colonial forces rolled into one, and designed to bring a concentration of arms to bear on any localised native rebellion protesting this state of affairs.

Progress is no longer the business of government. Democracy is no longer the concern, what we have is mere electoral-ism. Within the expanded East African Community region, we now have a string of governments that hold no genuine or valuable ideological position on the long-standing, long-held, often diverted and suppressed quest for a national conversation about these things. That has finally come to an end.

The job is to manage the expanding exploitation of the mineral, labour, wildlife, fertility and energy resources on behalf of incoming foreign capital. As long as one can assure them of their security, and also help fend others off, then life is fine.

Democracy is no longer the concern, what we have is mere electoral-ism.

We may therefore finally be at a point where we have a region that thinks as one, where there are finally shared goals and talk of greater regional integration for markets, labour mobility and infrastructure. Unfortunately, these goals do not mean the same thing in their mouths, as they do in the mouths of the older traditional voices of pan-Africanism.

Instead, whatever the long-term plans of corporate America and the wider West in the region, these may now move ahead more smoothly. We can make a fairly informed guess as to what the key elements of those plans will be: “conservation”; agribusiness; energy, all with a knock-on effect on planning for massive urbanization, which means corporate finance for real estate. This may create just enough career jobs to settle the small but historically influential and noisy middle class into complacency. Certainly, the domestic Kenyan banking sector has been very nimble in getting into the DRC financial market already.

The Great Lakes Region/Nile Valley should now be best understood as a single space. It is a vast network of nearly all the major fresh water bodies on the continent. We should observe the privatisation and commercialisation of water in Kenya as the nascent stage to capture the regions water resources. With the expansion of the EAC to include the DRC, the imperialist dream of a single economic space from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic as sought by the lumpen-explorer Henry Morton Stanley, is finally realised.

In his career-long quest to always be of the greatest use to Western imperialism (and thereby guarantee his incumbency), one can be sure that President Museveni has long been positioning himself as the conductor of this grand orchestra.

While we may now have unity at last, it would not be a unity in the interest of ordinary Africans.

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Politics

The Myth That Is Plastic Waste Recycling in Kenya

The quantities of recycled plastic in Kenya remain insignificant, but the long-term ecological cost of disposing plastic waste in the environment will be immeasurable.

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The Myth That Is Plastic Waste Recycling in Kenya
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One aspect of modern Kenyan urban living that takes getting used to are the regular, well-timed garbage collection days. Miss your day and you will have to keep the trash a week longer awaiting the next collection date when the beaten-up lorries full of garbage labour through city estates in mid-morning collecting the waste produced by city dwellers.

Should you find yourself in the central business district at around midnight, you may run into these rickety trucks collecting food waste from city restaurants, discarded cartons from offices, and empty drink cans from the city’s clubs that they ferry to the few landfills scattered around the city.

The barely roadworthy trucks are part of the more than 205 lorries working at the city’s many collection points in a hectic bid to keep Nairobi County hygienic. So profitable is the waste collection business that private contractors and cartels have infiltrated the trade.

In Nairobi alone, the county’s garbage collection service is complemented by nearly 150 private sector waste operators who also serve this city of over 4 million residents. Private investments have done a lot but not nearly enough to address the garbage crisis that plagues Kenya’s towns and cities.

Kenya’s urban households produce the bulk of the country’s solid waste, including a major share of the estimated 24 million plastic bags that are used and discarded every month. A significant portion of the plastic waste ends up in dumpsites alongside scrap metal, paper materials, glassware, and medical and toxic waste. Plastic waste constitutes a significant portion of this trash, and poses the biggest challenge to solid waste management in Kenya.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 73 per cent of all plastic waste generated in Kenya goes uncollected. The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) reports that between 2 and 8 per cent of the plastic waste is recycled while the rest is disposed of at dumpsites such as Dandora and Ruai in Nairobi, Kachok in Kisumu, and Kibarani at the coast. In Mombasa alone, some 3.7 kilogrammes of per capita plastic waste end up in the ocean, contributing to the 1,300 billion pieces of plastic that find their way into the Indian Ocean every year. Experts estimate that there will be more plastic than fish species in all the oceans globally by 2025.

Kenya banned plastic carrier bags in 2017, at the same time that the United Nations Environment Programme was launching the Clean Seas campaign to reduce marine litter. From June 2020, visitors entering game reserves, forests, beaches, protected areas and conservancies are no longer allowed to carry plastic water bottles, cups, cutlery, plates, drinking straws, and packaging within the protected areas.

On the production end, there are industry-led plastics initiatives such as the Kenya Plastic Action Plan and the creation of the Kenya Extended Producer Responsibility Organization (KEPRO), whose mandate is to ensure that plastics are mapped, ferried, sorted, and where possible, put back into circulation. Given the low garbage collection rates, and the even lower sorting rates, recycling has been misleadingly touted as the key to managing plastic waste.

For context, the cumulative global plastic waste produced since 1950 is estimated at 8.3 billion tonnes — half of which was produced in the last 13 years alone — at an average of 300 million tonnes annually.

In Kenya recycling doesn’t work    

Recycling has its limitations. Despite being cited as a major solution to the problem of plastic waste, a solution that has been taken up by 34 of the 54 African states,  numerous reports have proven that it costs more to recycle than to dispose of the waste. That of course begs the question: costlier for whom?

While disposing plastic is cheaper than recycling, the long-term ecological cost to Kenyans living close to landfills and downstream is provably much higher. Kenyan plastic manufacturers are in the business for profit and, for the most part, recycling does not offer them value for money.

According to Kenya’s PET plastic industry’s joint self-regulation effort, once plastic waste enters the recycling conveyer, it is assembled and packed into bales that are sold as industrial goods and sent to the dozens of recycling plants around the country to be sorted by quality, industrial variety, texture and colour. The waste is then shredded, sanitized, melted down, and moulded into smaller, smoother plastic pellets.

These pellets, known as nurdles, are bought and once again melted down and fashioned into other plastic products, ready for re-use by industries. This form of recycling is the optimal pathway for plastic waste, but it rarely is feasible. Recycling plastic waste is a lengthy and costly process that is avoided by many plastic producers.

To put it in context, less than 45 per cent of Nairobi’s overall waste is recycled, most of it undergoing what is referred to as down-cycling, open recycling, or cascaded recycling.

Cascaded recycling refers to the process of using recycled plastic waste to make an item of a lower quality than the original product. These items typically have reduced recycling potential, which destines them for the landfill after use. Models of cascaded recycling in Kenya’s informal settlements therefore turn the triangular recycling loop into a one-way direction to an incinerator or landfill.

Recycling plastic waste is a lengthy and costly process that is avoided by many plastic producers.

Global research led by plastics expert Dr Roland Geyer claims that only 9 per cent of all the plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. Kenya’s cascaded recycling rates are harder to quantify but an authoritative plastics report states that only 14 per cent of global plastic packaging waste was collected for recycling in 2013. Only 8 per cent of that amount was down-cycled, of which 4 per cent atrophied during the process while only 2 per cent was recycled into a product of equal or higher value.

Even locally, recycling plastic is a costly process and sorting it, many experts assert, is unfeasible, which means that there is no way out when dealing with plastic waste other than banning the production and use of plastics.

Kenya and the global dumping of plastic waste 

The non-feasibility of recycling plastic waste has been an open secret among plastics industry insiders since as far back as the 1970s. As early as 1973, senior executives of plastics multinationals had already ruled out plastic waste recycling on a large scale. Instead, these multinationals paid for misleading big-budget advertisements extolling the virtues of plastic products, and lying about the ease with which plastics could be recycled for other uses, while also placing the responsibility of recycling or disposing plastic waste on the end-user. However, the mounds of plastic waste that are now an eyesore in many urban areas belie the claim that recycling is the solution.

Old industry memos and library archives show that as far back as the mid-1980s Kenyan scholars like Kamau Hezron Mwangi had begun to call for a serious look into the efficacy of recycling  while, in the mid-1990s, researcher Dr J.N. Muthotho and his team demanded for greater research across specific plastic products supply chains. The growing concerns linked to plastic products, their quality, disposability and the economics of the industry paint an image of an industry that has always been well aware of the problems caused by plastic waste but has lacked the motivation to address the issue. In an increasingly consumerist society, plastic has continued to be affordable, readily available, cheap, convenient, and yet very difficult to dispose of.

Ending Kenya’s relationship with plastic

A radical behavioural shift by producers, packaging firms and end-users is required in order to rid the Kenyan environment of plastic pollution. The ban on plastic carrier bags has had an estimated 80 per cent efficacy rate. Industry insiders including manufacturers and distributors now say that the ban should be extended to disposable tableware, plastic straws, plates and cutlery.

The mounds of plastic waste that are now an eyesore in many urban areas belie the claim that recycling is the solution.

This, the stakeholders say, will reduce the amount of single-use plastic in landfills, reduce waste, minimize animal deaths, improve human safety, and save our water systems. However, a concerted effort is needed to ban single-use plastic bottles, plastic straws, and plastic packaging and replace them with organic, biodegradable plastic (BDP) alternatives.

Most BDP products in the Kenyan market are made of thermoplastic starch that uses a polyester similar in material strength to plastic. Currently there is only one manufacturer in the country. However, researchers are coming closer to finding organic alternatives to plastics.

Reimagining a post-plastic country

In Kenya, the stakeholders have to begin to reimagine new models of ridding the country of plastic waste in the everyday life and habits of Kenyan citizens. Nairobi and its environs alone is estimated to produce between 2,400 and 3,000 tonnes of general waste every single day, an estimated 20 per cent of which is plastic waste.

“People don’t want to stop using plastic. It is cheap and easy to use so I understand why people like [it]”, says Kinuthia, an unlicensed collector in Uthiru.

A consumer culture that creates an ever-increasing demand and use of plastic products ought to be overhauled, reimagined, and refashioned.

Even within economic circles, the focus on GDP as a measure of economic progress while ignoring the social, ecological and cultural impacts is increasingly frowned upon. As far back as the late 1980s, the World Bank President Barber Conable recognised that the ecological cost of economic production has to be accounted for. “Current calculations ignore the degradation of the natural-resource base and view the sales of nonrenewable resources entirely as income . . . A better way must be found.” he wrote.

Kenya’s plastic producers and importers have to begin to consider how to shift the society away from plastic products and integrate the alternatives in the marketplace. Kenyans have the opportunity to have a national conversation around local plastic producers and importers, if we are to work effectively towards phasing out all plastic products sold in the market.

With imports valued at an estimated US$883 million, Kenya’s plastics sector has a critical duty to phase out plastic products so as to, at the very least, ensure that the end-user does not have to choose between affordability, disposability, and sustainability of the packaging when making a purchasing decision.

The plastic waste crisis calls for Kenyans to design products with their life cycle and their end in mind at the outset. Therefore, designing products with their utility and disposal in mind is critical. For example, utilizing snap-together parts in appliances minimizes the use of screws, making the end product easier to disassemble, recover, and recycle at the end. This evolution in design proactively shapes the journey of a product in order to ensure that as much material as possible is recycled back into the production conveyer.

Even within economic circles, the focus on GDP as a measure of economic progress while ignoring the social, ecological and cultural impacts is increasingly frowned upon.

On 24 March 2021, Kenya’s Centre for Environment Justice and Development (CEJD) held a consultative forum with 24 grassroots Civil Society Organisations in the waste management sector with support from Break Free From Plastic. The members used the existing legislative framework that bans single-use plastic carrier bags in the country to launch the CSOs for Zero Plastics in Kenya network that integrates the input of stakeholders in the affected sectors. Still, this push by CSOs towards a wider ban seems to have created a policy tension between the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and multi-nationals that rely on plastic products for packaging.

In 2018, NEMA tried to extend the ban on plastic carrier bags to single-use plastic containers such as bottles made of PET. However, the companies involved in the production of PET products instead proposed a self-regulated, industry-led solution under PETCO.

Despite NEMA’s pledge in 2018 to make PETCO membership mandatory for all plastic industry players, its membership remains voluntary. This lapse has slowed the acceptance of membership by stakeholders and by industry players and minimized compliance. Kenya currently has eight PET converters, but only one of them is a PETCO member. Moreover, an estimated 900 bottling plants use PET containers but only eight (1 per cent) are members of PETCO.

The future of a post-plastic Kenya requires consolidation of existing industry efforts, ramping up scientific research on alternatives, a shift in consumer behaviour and robust incremental policies in enforcing the bans and restrictions. Only then can Kenya secure its ecology, manage the diverse interests of the stakeholders involved and still manage its ecological health with posterity in mind.

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Microplastics: the Destruction of Marine Life and the Blue Economy

Even as Kenya’s land-based resources continue to shrink because of a rapidly growing population, microplastic pollution of Kenya’s Indian Ocean is putting in jeopardy the country’s maritime resources.

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Microplastics: the Destruction of Marine Life and the Blue Economy
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Five scientists, Joyce Kerubo, John M. Onyari and Agnes Muthumbi from the University of Nairobi, Deborah Robertson-Andersson from the University of Kwa Zulu Natal, and Edward Ndirui Kimani from the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI), undertook a research study last year that returned a harsh verdict of a high presence of microplastics (MPs) in Kenya’s Indian Ocean.

MPs are plastic pellets, fragments, and fibres that enter the environment and are less than 5mm in dimension. The primary sources of MPs are vehicle tyres, synthetic textiles, paints, personal care products, and plastic products that have disintegrated into tiny particles because of environmental turbulence.

The study by the five scientists, Microplastic Polymers in Surface Waters and Sediments in the Creeks along the Kenya Coast, Western Indian Ocean (WIO), identified four polymer types in Kenya’s Indian Ocean. High-density polythene is the most abundant at 38.3 per cent, followed by polypropylene (34.6 per cent), low-density polythene (27.1 per cent), and medium density polythene (17.1 per cent). The research findings were published in the European Journal of Sustainable Development Research on 18 October 2021.

The concentration of MPs in the surface waters along the Kenyan coastline was higher compared to other parts of the world, the study warned. The findings of the study also confirmed those of previous studies on the presence of MPs in Kenya’s Indian Ocean.

The scientists also cautioned that the documented information on the specific polymeric composition of these particles in seawater and in the sediments along the Kenyan coast was insufficient. The findings, the study offered, demonstrated the extent of exposure to MPs in Kenya’s ocean ecosystems, therefore justifying policy intervention in the management and disposal of plastic waste, and the protection of the ocean’s rich biodiversity for sustainable development.

It drew testing samples from three creeks: Tudor and Port Reitz in Mombasa County and Mida in Kilifi County. Tudor Creek covers an area of approximately 20 square kilometres and is fed by two seasonal rivers—Kombeni and Tsalu—that originate around Mariakani, about 32 kilometres northwest of Mombasa. The two seasonal rivers collect runoff containing plastic and other waste from the mainland and discharge it into the creek.

Surrounding Tudor creek are several densely populated informal settlements that include Mishomoroni and Mikindani that may add MPs to the ocean. According to the study findings, the majority of the MPs were fibrous materials from textiles and ropes, probably from wastewater from washing clothes and from fishing activities.

Other key facilities that could contribute to the pollution include shipping activities at the Port of Mombasa, meat processing at Kenya Meat Commission (KMC), Coast General Hospital, Container Freight Stations (CFSs) and Kipevu Power Station. Before it was rehabilitated, Mombasa County Government dumped a lot of waste at Kibarani, near the two creeks and just next to the ocean.

Tudor Creek recorded the highest pollution, also as a result of rain runoff from Kongowea market and Muoroto slums, and Mikindani sewage effluent. Moreover, according to the study, which could, however, not determine the proportions, many industries on Mombasa Island release their effluent into the sea, increasing MPs in sediments.

Mida Creek was used as a control in the study as it does not have river inflows. In addition, the creek is in a marine reserve that forms part of the Watamu Marine National Park and Reserve. However, MPs from different polymers were found in sediment and surface water samples from all the sites—including Mida Creek which is within Watamu National Marine Reserve—which the researchers had thought to be safe from pollution by industrial effluent, sewage disposal, and fishing activities.

Many industries on Mombasa Island release their effluent into the sea, increasing MPs in sediments.

The study attributed the pollution at Mida Creek to high tourism activities, boat and dhow fishing activities, densely populated villages such as Dabaso, Ngala, and Kirepwe and the mangrove vegetation cover of tall trees that binds soil particles thus favouring the accumulation of MPs.

According to a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report released in March 2019, plastic—which makes up a sizable proportion of marine pollution—can now be found in all the world’s oceans, but concentrations are thought to be highest in coastal areas and reef environments where the vast majority of this litter originates from land-based sources.

In Kenya, daily plastic consumption is estimated at 0.3 Kilograms per person. In 2018, Kenya imported between 45,000 and 57,000 metric tonnes of plastic.

Earlier in 2020, KMFRI had carried out its own study—Microplastics Pollution in Coastal Nearshore Surface Waters in Vanga, Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu, Kenya—that painted an even gloomier picture of MP pollution.

The four sampling locations represented the South coast, Mombasa and the North coast of Kenya’s coastal nearshore waters, and looked into considering fishing, recreation, and industrial activities, as well as the municipal effluent that finds its way into these target areas.

The objective of the study was to assess the abundance MPs and their composition in Kenya’s coastal near-shore waters during the two rainy seasons at the Kenyan coast: the north-east monsoon which runs between November and March, and the south-east monsoon which runs from April to October.

The results showed a widely varied distribution of MPs between the two seasons, with the overall highest concentrations occurring during the south-east monsoon when surface runoff from rainwater and from effluent from the major towns is high.

As confirmed in other research studies, the concentrations recorded by KMFRI, were quite high compared to other parts of the world. This provided baseline data for MPs, showing that population, anthropogenic activities and seasonal variations a play key role in influencing pollution by MPs.

Total MP concentrations in all the study areas during the north-east and the south-east monsoon seasons ranged between 83 MPs/m³ and 8266 MPs/m³ and between 126 MPs/m³ and 12,256 MPs/m³ respectively, with a mean of 3228 MPs/m³. The highest microplastic levels were found in Mombasa at 12,256 MPs/m³ during the south-east monsoon season, where runoff and effluent due to heavy rains are thought to be the primary source. The next highest levels were found in Malindi, occurring during the south-east monsoon season, because of inflows from River Sabaki.

Boat activities and tourism during the north-east monsoon season and runoff from the town during the south-east monsoon season mostly affected Lamu, while fishing activities, as well and runoff from the town, could be responsible for the abundance of MPs recorded in Vanga.

Solid waste management remains an enormous challenge in coastal towns, with Mombasa County facing the biggest challenge due to a burgeoning population. Although most of the solid waste generated in the county is organic—largely from households, hotels, restaurants and agricultural produce markets, the largest being Kongowea and Marikiti—plastic takes up a significant share.

In its County Sessional Paper No 01 of 2019, Mombasa County estimated daily waste production at 2,200 tons, 68 per cent of which is organic. Approximately 18 per cent of this waste is plastics, cardboard, paper and metals.

Other inorganic waste such as e-waste, construction waste and junk makes up an estimated 14 per cent of the waste generated. Public and private health facilities generate an estimated 2 to 3 tonnes of biomedical waste daily.

Solid waste management remains an enormous challenge in coastal towns, with Mombasa County facing the biggest challenge due to a burgeoning population.

Most of the solid waste generated is disposed in undesignated open grounds—in VOK, Kwa Karama, Kadongo, Junda, Saratoga, and Mcheleni. It is disposed in the same form as it is generated without being recycled or reused. Disposal of solid waste in the open has continuously had a negative environmental health impact through the contamination of water sources.

Moreover, with the limited investment in solid waste recycling and recovery systems, disposal methods in the county have been a contributor to public nuisance.

There are two designated dumpsites, namely Mwakirunge in Kisauni and Shonda in Likoni. However, these dumpsites are poorly managed and do not respect the prescribed environmental health standards while Mombasa County government’s budgetary allocation for solid waste management is not sufficient to meet the desired results.

MPs are harmful to human health, experts say. The ingestion of MPs by species at the base of the food web causes human food safety concerns, as little is known about their effects on the food that finally lands on our menu.

The minuscule size of MPs renders them invisible to filter-feeding fauna, leading to unintentional ingestion. In a study published in December 2020 in the Africa Journal of Marine Science, W. Awuor, Agnes Muthumbi and Deborah Robertson-Andersson confirmed the presence of MPs in marine life. The study investigated MPs in oysters and in three species of brachyuran crabs.

They did sampling in eight stations distributed between three sites—Tudor, Port Reitz and Mida Creek—in January and February 2018, during low spring tide. The sample comprised 206 crabs and 70 oysters.

The study identified MP fibres of different colours—red, yellow, black, pink, orange, purple, green, blue—as well as colourless ones. Colourless fibres were the most prevalent, comprising at least 60 per cent of the total MPs. The mean lengths of the MP fibres were between 0.1 and 4.2 mm.

The study exposes MP pollution along the Kenyan coast and its uptake by marine fauna, and thus strengthens the case for better control of plastic waste in the ocean. “Marine plastic litter pollution is already affecting over 800 marine species through ingestion, entanglement and habitat change,” said the head of UN Environment’s coral reef unit, Jerker Tamelander, in 2019.

“Waste continues to leak from land, and coral reefs are on the receiving end. They also trap a lot of fishing gear and plastic lost from aquaculture. With the effects of climate change on coral reef ecosystems already significant, the additional threat of plastics must be taken seriously.”

According to UNEP, there remains a significant lack of knowledge on the true impact of plastics on the reef environment, including the level of concentrations of MPs across coral reef eco-regions in order to understand the scale of the issue in a standardised manner.

“Marine plastic litter pollution is already affecting over 800 marine species through ingestion, entanglement and habitat change.”

Concerns about ocean pollution have been raised at a time when the country is looking at the Blue Economy as the country’s next economic growth frontier. In effect, Kenya’s land-based resources have been shrinking because of a rapidly growing population and it is therefore prudent for the government to shift the focus to the country’s ocean resources spread over an area of 245,000 km², or 42 per cent of the country’s total land mass.

Kenya has from the outset not been keen on growing the maritime sector. Even Kenya’s first independence economic blueprint, African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya, published in 1965, failed to anchor the Blue Economy in the country’s economic growth agenda, despite its significant role in transporting 95 per cent of the country’s global transactions.

The Western Indian Ocean has resources worth more than KSh2.2 trillion in annual outputs, with Kenya’s share standing at about 20 per cent of this figure. The marine fishing sub-sector alone had an annual fish potential of 350,000 metric tonnes worth KSh90 billion in 2013. However, the region only yielded a paltry 9,134 metric tonnes worth KSh2.3 billion during that year.

In 2018, the then Agriculture Cabinet Secretary, Mwangi Kiunjuri, said that by failing to fully exploit the Blue Economy, Kenya was losing over Sh440 billion annually. But if the opportunities offered by the Blue Economy are to be exploited, a policy intervention in the management and disposal of plastic waste is urgently required to protect the ocean’s rich biodiversity for sustainable development.

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