In an interview with this writer in a Nairobi hotel on July 10, former SPLA chief of staff Gen Oyay Deng Ajak declared they are planning to oust President Salva Kiir this year.
Ajak, who is also a former minister of Investment and National Security, accuses President Salva Kiir of tribalism, destroying the ruling party SPLM, the SPLA army, the police and running down the country.
He also says that President Kiir does not want to leave power, and it is not possible for the youngest African country to go to 2023 General Election with him in power. Gen Ajak says he want to die on the seat.
Ajak is among the 11 political detainees accused of plotting a coup in December 2013 against President Kiir. The others were Deng Alor Kuol, Geir Chuang, Cirino Hiten, Kosti Manibe, John Luk, Gen Madut Biar Yel, Chol Tong Mayay. former SPLM secretary general Pagan Amum Ajak, former Defence minister Majak D’Agoot and former Ambassador to the US Ezekiel Lol Gatkouth.
They were released to Kenya in a deal between President Kiir and Uhuru Kenyatta under the auspices of Igad.
Only recently, before this interview, did President Kiir tell Citizen TV that he felt let down by Igad and particularly President Kenyatta.
“You know for Kenya, I am not happy because after the coup of 2013, President Uhuru took the lead that he was coming to take the leaders that I had apprehended during the coup. I told him, my brother, I cannot give you these people because they have to answer the charges on the role they played in the coup.”
“But President Uhuru put himself in front of me that he will not allow them to talk a single political sentence, that he would keep them safe in his house until I am convinced that they did not do anything. And so we released them to you [Kenya],” Kiir told Citizen TV in the interview aired on July 7.
The 11 detainees had become a sticking point at peace talks.
In his speech on the 10th Anniversary, Kiir vowed not to allow South Sudan to slide back to war. But he identified the National Salvation Front led by Gen Thomas Cirilo as a group that has refused to be part of the peace process and still contributes to instability in some parts of South Sudan.
General Ajak speaks about what happened in the 2013 alleged coup and the new plans to remove President Salva Kiir from power this year.
Eliud Kibii: What happened on that night before President Salva Kiir accused you of trying to overthrow the government?
Gen Oyay Deng Ajak: A week earlier, we had a serious discussion with Salva, me, Taban Deng, who is now a vice president, Paul Malong, now a minister and a former minister of Finance at the palace in J1 about the problems we were facing as a movement and party.
We advised that given the situation, it was better to delay the meeting of the National Liberation Council and meet with Riek Machar – First Vice President – and discuss the internal problems because people were talking about the SPLM convention, which was going to take place in May 2014.
We met with him and told him to talk to Riek, meet with Mama Rebecca [Garang], talk to [SPLM secretary general Amum] Pagan, all these people who want to contest the election next year. And these are your friends, your brothers, your comrades, you have been together – here to discuss with them. And after you meet and discuss with them, you call for a meeting of the Political Bureau, which is the most senior, and the Political Bureau will decide what action to take and how people are going to work and move ahead together.
Salva agreed and we had a good evening, had dinner, drunk and had a good time to relax up to very late hours.
At midnight, we went to our houses confident that Salva would agree to the proposal and would not call the meeting. But two days later, he called the meeting, The National Liberation Council is a big body.
Most of them [members] are very young, thus emotional. Salva raised many issues about people who want to challenge his position.
Riek said he would not attend another meeting because he was personally attacked in the way some people made their comments. Mama Rebecca also refused to go for another meeting.
Pagan was told not to attend the meeting and instead to stay in his house. Look, he is the Secretary General of the party. There is no meeting of the party without the Secretary General.
I was not a member of the National Liberation Council. I was a member during the struggle but when the army was separated from the party, I was relieved.
Now on the day the shooting took place. I was doing a distance learning programme and there was no WiFi in my house for one week. So, I went to a hotel near the airport.
Two of my colleagues came to my house on that Sunday at around 10:30am and when they could not get me, they called and I told them I’m in the hotel and I will be coming home.
But instead waiting, they came to the hotel.
The message was that lets go meet Salva Kiir. It is Malong who was talking.
“We want you personally to go and sit and discuss with Salva,” Malong said.
I refused and said if there is a meeting with Salva, it can’t be me alone. It has to be all of us. Malong was very disappointed with me.
We had lunch with them up to 1:32pm and they left.
Then Taban Deng called and asked me where we were having lunch. I told him we had lunch with Cirilo and General Malong, who have since left so let’s go home. General Gier also called and we went to the house.
One of the officers from the barracks called Taban and this officer used a local dialect. The officer and Taban are Nuer. The officer told Taban, “These Dinka boys have come to disarm us”.
This was the beginning of the problem.
Taban put the phone on speaker and I talked to the officer.
I said, “What is the problem?”
He said they there are Dinka boys who have come to disarm us.
And so, I asked him, how many boys have come?
He said a one company. One company is 120 SPLA officers.
But then the Nuer boys who are at the presidential guard unit are more than 1,000. They are 1,500. They cannot be disarmed by one company. Please don’t create problem, I said.
This officer told me big man, the way these people are behaving, we will not accept it. We are going to fight now.
I told them, please don’t. Let me call the SPLA headquarters and this problem will be solved.
I tried to call the Chief of General Staff then, he is a Nuer, but he was in Australia, and he was coming back by that evening.
Taban said the way this thing is, it will not reach evening. There will be a serious fight.
So, he said instead of waiting for lunch, let him go and brief Riek Machar about what was happening.
I was left with Gier.
Pagan’s sister came from church and passed by the house, Majak was coming from Nairobi, he passed by, Thomas Duoth, who was the Director General of External Security Service also came. I told him thank God you are here; you are the right man to take this message now to the President.
I tried to talk to the Acting Chief of Staff, he was not picking up the phone and I called the then Defence Minister Majak, who was also not picking up
I called the director of military intelligence who was in Uganda, the phone was ringing but nobody was picking up.
I told Luoth there is a problem in the barracks and it is you people who can solve this problem.
Unfortunately, he, with the director of internal security, decided to keep quiet. Nobody went to the president who was closing the meeting I talked about of the National Liberation Council.
Since nobody called me, I thought everything was okay and so I went out for the normal logistics.
The shooting took place at 7:30 at the barracks and Taban called me immediately.
If I take you back to the part where I said the Neur said the Dinka boys were disarming them, it was not really a disarmament.
The Nuer boys had put their weapons in an armory and the Dinka boys had surrounded it. Not that they were carrying the arms with them.
Up to now, nobody knows who sent these boys.
So, when Riek boys came under intense pressure, he gave the order that they take their arms and to do that, they had to break in the store and that’s when the shooting happened around 7:30 in the evening.
I was away at the hotel, Lumulul Logistics, and when coming back at around 9pm I passed by Jimmy’s house, the Chief of General Staff and told him there is an ongoing shooting, which is getting very serious. Let’s go to the barracks. He said no, there are officers controlling the situation and they’re not in dire need. These are the presidential guys fighting themselves. So, you go to your house and relax you just rest, he said.
There was a lot of movement of forces on the road and my house is not very far from that of Salva Kiir.
I told Jimmy, as you see I do not have bodyguards, give me some of your bodyguards for escort to my house. He agreed.
Some of Salva’s soldiers asked me why I was still moving at this time when there is a shooting and I am a General. I told them where I was coming from and that I was going to my house.
When I got to the house, I told the kids to sleep down stairs as there was shooting all over Juba.
I stayed in the sitting room until morning.
Salva’s bodyguards were deployed and that’s when they came and put me under arrest with the others in the morning.
We really don’t know, and this is something that has not been investigated, who gave the order for part of the presidential guard unit, mostly Nuer, for their arms to be taken.
Eliud Kibii: Why do you think you were fingered as one of the suspects? Could these meetings have been the reason?
Gen Oyay Deng Ajak: Possibly. Or maybe Salva did not expect me to be part of this Malong group that came to signal me to meet with Salva. But all of us are friends of Salva. When I was relieved from SPLA, most of these soldiers who are mostly were Nuer from Bentiu they were the bodyguards of the former general Paulino Matip, who was a militia commander working with Bashir and we were fighting them. So even one time these same forces, they tried to attack me in my office when I was Chief of General Staff. And my argument was Salva was over this force that there is no way you can have a unit, which is mostly from one particular tribe and staying in one place.
As the Chief of General Staff, I wanted these forces to be disarmed, sent to the unit, and then mixed with the other forces so that they are part of the rest SPLA. It was Salva himself who refused this.
Salva was then thinking that he would use this force from Nuer to intimidate Riek, who is also Nuer, who was also having problems with Paulino Matip, who was also Nuer.
This force was not trained in SPLA, they were former militia and then the Dinka boys, who were also brought to Juba after I was released, were locally recruited and armed from the Office of the President, not through the Minister of Defense, not even the Chief of General Staff knew anything about them.
So, this special force, which was locally recruited and privately armed were brought to Juba by Salva himself.
When we go back to that day of the shooting, it is not SPLA soldiers and officers who fought in Juba. It is this private militia group. The militia of Omar Bashir, mostly Nuer from Bentiu, and the privately recruited militia from Dinka who fought. And this is the crisis of leadership, which has affected that country up to today. As we talk now, we the SPLA has fought and split up.
Up to today, you do not have a national army in South Sudan. SPLA has been destroyed by Salva Kiir.
Eliud Kibii: So how many of your comrades who were victimized during that alleged coup are outside the country right now?
Gen Oyay Deng Ajak: Cirilo, myself, Pagan, Kosti, the former Minister of Finance. We are still out up to now. And there are so many others.
Eliud Kibii: Didn’t the last agreement have a provision for your safe return?
Gen Oyay Deng Ajak: The last one? We call it Khartoum agreement and we don’t see this as an agreement because the deal that we discussed was signed in Addis.
Salva refused to sign in Addis Ababa but due to regional and international pressure, he agreed to sign the agreement in Juba. But he said to everybody in Juba that this agreement is neither the Quran nor the Holy Bible.
Precisely, after few months, he broke the agreement and shooting took place in J1, in Juba because Salva was not convinced of the agreement he signed. The fighting continued until 2018.
In 2018, when these talks took place, we were in Khartoum and recommended that we go back to the previous agreement. But Khartoum, the likes of Bashir, said no and the whole thing ended up being shuttling between Khartoum and Entebbe.
So, we as the South Sudanese did not sit down to discuss and agree on something in Khartoum. It was just Khartoum telling us accept this one, don’t accept this, you have to agree to this and that through a lot of intimidation to Riek Machar.
And of course, we said no, we are not going to sit and agree on something we did not discuss. We left Khartoum some of us came to Nairobi, Kampala others went to Addis.
Those of us in Nairobi went to a meeting at Mama Rebecca’s house after the signing of the Khartoum agreement. We signed a document delinking ourselves from Khartoum peace talks. We said they were not genuine peace and its implementation would be difficult.
We rejected the Khartoum agreement because there was a lot of mess. It was not practical and that’s why we remain outside.
But again, after the signing of that agreement, Salva sent for our colleagues and said he has a special request for us. He wanted us to go to Juba.
I was in Addis and Mama Rebecca called saying we had to send a team to meet Salva. I and Cirilo refused to go.
The team went to Juba and came back but here was practically nothing.
What was the special offer? Some ministerial positions? That’s not enough. There are real problems that need to be solved in that country.
Cirilo, Pagan and myself refused to go and went back to Addis.
We remain outside and believe the Khartoum agreement was not really an agreement. It is like Salva telling us come to Juba and keep quiet.
Eliud Kibii: The Economist says it is Unhappy Birthday to South Sudan. From where you stand, how do you think the problem in South Sudan should be resolved?
Gen Oyay Deng Ajak: The problem in South Sudan is the problem of leadership. You solve the problem of leadership; you solve all the problems in South Sudan.
But there is every reason for the people of South Sudan to celebrate the 10th year of the Independence Day because our people started fighting the colonial government in 1955.
In Anyanya 1, they didn’t gain much they agreed on regional autonomy. That agreement was not respected and the South Sudanese again started fighting in the 1980s. We achieved the Independence of South Sudan and the people voted on vote given to them after many years of fighting and sacrifice. They voted 97 [er cent for the Independence of South Sudan. We lost so many people and comrades to achieve this independence.
There are some issues we did not solve and which should have been part of the discussion between Juba and Khartoum. The issue if Abyei, Nuba Mountains and the border demarcation between the north and the south are still pending.
The fact that South Sudanese attained their independence is something we continue to celebrate.
One day, were sitting with an old man discussing the problem of South Sudan and he said, “Look, if God wants to punish you, He will give you a bad leader”.
Sometimes I want to believe in what the old man said. But still ask myself, what did we do as the people of South Sudan for God to give us a bad leader?
Because during our struggle, on so many years of this struggle, we had the best leader.
John Garang was an excellent and exceptional leader.
Garang was just a normal South Sudanese, or Sudanese and he did not consider himself as coming from this particular tribe or this particular community. He treated people equally.
So when John Garang died, we found ourselves in a serious problem.
Can we give the leadership to Salva? We knew his weakness!
Or do we say no? And if we say no, Salva would create problems and Khartoum could use those differences amongst ourselves against us.
So, we said okay, knowing the weakness of Salva Kiir, we gave him the open support and unshakeable solidarity given his seniority.
The crisis in South Sudan can be solved in a day, if you have the right and strong leader.
But you cannot solve it with Salva Kiir because he destroyed the SPLM, the party we created in 1983.
And you know what Salva did? He organized tribal leaders called the Dinka Council of Elders, who now the one who are taking over the role of the party, the SPLM. They destroyed it.
You have the Dinka Council of Elders from their own communities, and they came to the capital Juba, and they are sitting in Juba running the party running the SPLM. Where in the world can you get such as thing?
I give an example of myself. I come from the community of the Shilluk, from the Kingdom of the Shilluk. The current king was a banker, university graduate. And when the community called him, he removed his suit and tie and put on the Shilluk traditional dress and went to the Shilluk land where he stays. He does not stay in Juba or Marakal.
If the Dinka want to have a Dinka king, we don’t have a problem with that. Let them go to the Dinka land. But there is no way that they can come take over the party and assume the role of advising Salva.
So Salva destroyed the party, created these tribal differences and now the Dinka are taking land from other communities. So, you are creating problems in the future even for the Dinka themselves.
It’s not a good thing to do. You cannot expect Salva will unite the people of South Sudan and we will not have a country called South Sudan under Salva Kiir. Not until he is gone.
He has destroyed the national army the SPLA, the national security, the national police and the national party, which was the biggest party in South Sudan, the SPLM.
Eliud Kibii: How entrenched is ethnicity in South Sudan?
Gen Oyay Deng Ajak: Salva Kiir entrenched it. During all these years of the struggle, the people of South Sudan were united.
By then, you could move from the Ethiopian border to the border of Central Africa Republic and every village you go to, the people would serve you.
When Garang was the leader, there were many commanders from various tribes and could go everywhere to fight. There was nothing called tribalism. But now, it is Salve Kiir who created this [tribalism] in a very serious way.
So now, the people of South Sudan are fighting e.g in the greater Upper Nile, tribes are fighting. Every tribe in South Sudan now has its private army and commanders in chief. So in general, it is Salva Kiir who created this.
Eliud Kibii: Do you think Riek Machar is a better leader than President Kiir?
Gen Oyay Deng Ajak: He has never been a leader and I don’t want to assume he would be better, unless the people of South Sudan elect him. But there are many people in South Sudan who can be leaders.
However, in comparison with Salva, I think Riek would be better but I don’t think he would be better than Garang because he demonstrated his leadership and up to today, people cry, even in the Sudan.
The people will in future decide if they want to work with Riek, but I don’t think anybody will vote for Salva again. But there are many people who can lead that country in a better way.
Eliud Kibii: What do you think about the upcoming election in 2023?
Gen Oyay Deng Ajak: I don’t think there will be an election under Salva Kiir.
What created this problem in 2013 was because Salva was afraid of going for election. The agreement they signed talks of an election but I don’t think it will happen.
How do you conduct an election when you do not have national security? When you do not have national army?
Look, we are the only country in the world, if we can call ourselves so, where you have, take an example, Uhuru Park in Nairobi where you have Kenyans running away from President Uhuru Kenyatta and they are being protected by Somalis and Rwandese in the park and Uhuru is sitting at State House. Would Kenyans agree to do this?
This is what is happening in South Sudan. In Juba, you have 200,000 South Sudanese who are running away from Salva Kiir and are being protected by Rwandese, Ethiopian and Kenyan armies in Marakal, in Bentiu. These are our citizens being protected by regional troops in the capital city.
You have more than two million refugees in Uganda alone, half a million in Kenya, another half a million in Ethiopia and more than three million in Sudan. So, how can you talk about an election. How are you going to organize it? So, these refugees in Uganda, will they vote there for the President who chased them from Juba? This election talk is at best a joke. Nothing will take place. It will not work.
Eliud Kibii: If there are no foreseeable credible elections and you say there can’t be peace under Salva Kiir, so what is the way out?
Gen Oyay Deng Ajak: There are two options. The first is concerns the region – and I know they have their own problems. But if South Sudan is a member of Igad, EAC and the African Union, the only solution is for the regional bloc and the international community to pressure Salva Kiir to step down. To resign. And he can stay peacefully anywhere in the region or we in South Sudan can forgive him and let him stay in Juba but let the current regime resign and form the government of technocrats that will restructure and lead the country for three to four years or whatever to a credible election. This cannot happen under Salva Kiir.
If that doesn’t work for Salva, the only other option if for us the South Sudanese to fight and chase him away from that chair. Otherwise, there will be no election and there will be no peace under Salva. And Salva wants to die on that chair.
So, there is always time for everything but time will come very soon for Salva to go. Either he goes by resigning as I said or we are going to fight him.
Eliud Kibii: You speak like there is already a plan?
Gen Oyay Deng Ajak: Yes, it is there. Look, when we went for these peace talks in Rome I told them that if there are any mistakes that I have done in my life, it is to refuse to take up arms from 2014 when we were released from jail. I could have joined Riek or I could have formed a separate front to fight Salva. And there are so many of my colleagues who are calling. So, it is a mistake which I have done almost eight years now. We have been made refugees from the country we liberated, we have been chased from but we will not continue staying in Kenya, Ethiopia or Uganda. This year, we are going to put on our uniform and go back and fight Salva Kiir. And he must go. That country belongs to all of us not to a particular group or leader to destroy. So definitely, we are going to fight him.
Eliud Kibii: You are confirming there are plans underway?
Gen Oyay Deng Ajak: Yes, we are working on it and this is what I am saying. We are talking to various SPLA officers from all communities and Salva is going to be shocked very soon. And there are no peace talks that will work with Salva Kiir again and so the only option left to us is to fight him. We are planning, we are organizing and we are ready.
Eliud Kibii: Could President Salva Kiir be reacting to such plans when he says Uhuru betrayed him when he released you, then detainees, to Kenya only for him to issue you with passports?
Gen Oyay Deng Ajak: He is always blaming other people. If President Kenyatta were to help us, even with weapons, we would have marched to Juba a long time ago. But Kenyatta said he wants peace in South Sudan and wants a peaceful solution. What did Kenyatta do? Nothing.
Salva is unable to unite his own people and now wants to blame leaders in the region. The region has told us they can only help us by facilitating talks. No country has given us weapons to fight him.
So, if he is complaining about a passport, that’s an assistance he can blame the region for it. Of course, I need a Kenyan passport to go for treatment in South Africa. Is it a crime for Kenya to give me this? You don’t go and fight with a passport. So he has failed and just wants to blame other people.
Eliud Kibii: Do you feel there are people in his government who like you feel he needs to go?
Gen Oyay Deng Ajak: They are many but there are very few in government who are revolutionaries. But the government in Juba has been taken over by former Khartoum people, the National Congress Party. Those we were fighting. They are the ones who have taken over in Juba, traitor who have blood of the South Sudanese in their hands. We will get them soon. This year, the time of Salva is coming. And it has happened all over the world.
Eliud Kibii: What message would want to send to the people of South Sudan?
Gen Oyay Deng Ajak: They should celebrate this Independence Day. From every family, we have lost a child during the struggle. They must always remember they fought and attained their independence. They should be proud of themselves.
And the tragedy we are going through is man-made and Salva will go. And when he goes this year, we will have a strong government of South Sudan.
My message is those who are being misled by Salva Kiir, don’t join them We are going to look for them. It happened in Rwanda, Liberia, Sudan and it is now going to happen in South Sudan. Those responsible for the atrocities will he held to account, we are going to arrest them, including Salva Kiir. Either he goes to court at The Hague or arrest him as the Sudanese have arrested Bashir and try him. I would not want to kill him, he must be arrested and taken to court. This is what I have to say.
Eliud Kibii: And how are the five vice-presidents working with all the divisions?
Gen Oyay Deng Ajak: There is no government in South Sudan. It is gang of criminals and the five vice presidents, we as the South Sudanese did not discuss and agree on them. Riek was just pushed.
It was Bashir or Museveni who came up with the idea. They are not working; they are not even functioning. One of them asked the President to relive him of his duties. It is only Salva who is running government alone.
For instance, what is the function of Riek in Juba? His army, which he has been commanding for six, seven years is still out there. How can you be proud of yourself and you sit in the chair as vice president when you leave your own people who have been fighting for you all these years outside and you run to Juba to get money or positions. That is rubbish.
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Only Connect: Human Beings Must Connect to Survive
We must fight to remain human, to make connections across borders, race, religion, class, gender, and all the false divisions that exist in our world. We must show solidarity with one another, and believe we can construct another kind of world.
24 November 2021. We wake to the news that 27 migrants have drowned in the English Channel.
“Stop the boats!” cry the Tories. It’s the hill British Prime Minister Sunak has chosen to die on. But there is no political will to stop the wider crisis of global migration, driven by conflict, poverty, persecution, repressive regimes, famine, climate change, and the rest. Moreover, there is zero understanding that the West is behind many of the reasons why people flee their homes in the first place. Take Afghanistan, a useless Allied war that went nowhere. It left the Taliban more powerful than ever. Afghans who worked for the British army, betrayed when our forces pulled out. Now they make up the majority of cross-Channel migrants.
Not for them the welcome we gave Ukrainians. Wrong skin colour, maybe? Wrong religion? Surely not.
Some right-wingers rejoice at news of these deaths. “Drown ’em all!” they cry on social media. “Bomb the dinghies!” There are invariably photos of cute cats and dogs in their profiles. Have you noticed how much racists and fascists love pets? Lots of ex-servicemen among them, who fail to see the link between the failed wars they fought, and the migration crisis these spawned. The normalisation of a false reality is plain to see. Politicians and the media tell folk that black is white, often in meaningless three-word slogans, and the masses believe it. Migrants, especially those who arrive in small boats, are routinely labelled criminals, murderers, rapists, invaders, Muslims intent on imposing Islam on the UK, and “young men of fighting age”, which implies that they are a standing army.
If you bother to look beyond the stereotypes, the reality is very different.
One couple’s story
Riding those same waves, a year or so later, are two Iranian Kurds. A young couple. Let’s call them Majid and Sayran. They have sadly decided not to have children, in 12 years of marriage, because they believe Iran is no place to bring up children. Activists who oppose the regime, they were forced to flee after receiving direct threats. They ran an environmental NGO, and held Kurdish cultural events that are banned in Iran.
The husband, Majid, a writer, first fled to Iraq in 2021. He and his wife were parted for 18 months. She eventually joined him in a Kurdish area of Iraq. They were forced to flee again, when the Iranian regime bombed the homes and offices of political dissidents in Iraq, killing and wounding many of their friends. They decided their only hope was to head for Britain via Turkey, Italy and France. They paid people smugglers around USD30,000 in total. They eventually ended up in a hotel in my home town. Their story continues below.
Meanwhile, there I am sitting at home in the UK, getting more and more enraged about my government’s attitude and policies on immigration. I feel powerless. I think about refugees living in an asylum hotel in my town. I’m told many of them are Muslim, now trying to celebrate Ramadan. I picture them breaking their fasts on hotel food, which relies heavily on chips and other cheap junk. I meet some of them in the queue at the town’s so-called community fridge, where I used to volunteer. I chat a little to Majid, who can speak some English. I try to find out why they are there. The “fridge” gives out food donated by supermarkets to anyone in need. The food would otherwise be thrown away because it’s about to reach its sell-by date. The refugees go there, they tell me, to get fresh stuff because the hotel food is so awful. I can sense the growing resentment from locals in the queue, who want to put “Britain first”.
Thinking, thinking. Then I berate myself. I should take action, however small. Get down to the supermarket, buy food for, say, six families. I can’t feed everyone, but let’s start somewhere. Food that people from the Middle East (the majority of the hotel residents) will like. Hummus, flatbreads, dates, olives, nuts, rice. Divide it into six bags. I don’t know how I will be received (I feel rather nervous), but let’s give it a go.
I can sense the growing resentment from locals in the queue, who want to put “Britain first”.
The hotel manager is cagey. (I am later banned. He and his female head of security are rude and hostile, but that’s still to come.) For now, he lets me in to distribute the food. Luckily, I spot Majid, just the person I’m looking for. I recognise him from the “fridge” queue. He can translate for the others, who quickly gather in the lobby. The food is snatched within minutes, people are delighted with it. (It turns out Majid and his wife are atheists. But they get some food too.)
I didn’t do this for the thanks. But I’m glad I made that first move. Taking it further, I invite them both round for a meal. I spend hours making Persian rice, it’s a big hit. My new friends fall on the spread like ravening wolves. One thing leads to another. We start to meet regularly. It helps that they have some English, which greatly improves as the weeks pass and they go to classes. They are thrilled by everyday things – walks in the country, pizza, a local fair, being taken to see the film Oppenheimer. (“We were amazed to see so many British people go to the movies!”) They tell me they are delighted simply to make contact, to see how ordinary people live, to be invited into my, and my friends’ homes. I tell them I have plenty to learn from them, too. We get a bit tearful. I say hi to Sayran’s mum on the phone in Iran. We also laugh a lot. Majid has a black sense of humour.
At first, I don’t ask about their experience of crossing the Channel. All I know is that the entire journey, from Iran to Britain, was deeply traumatic. Until now, months later, when I ask Majid to describe what happened.
Majid picks up the story of their journey in Turkey: “The most bitter memories of my life were witnessing my wife’s tiredness, fear and anxiety as we walked for nine hours to reach Istanbul. I saw my wife cry from exhaustion and fear many times, and I myself cried inside. In a foreign country without a passport, our only hope was luck, and our only way was to accept hardship because we had no way back. The most bitter thing in this or any refugee journey is that no one gives any help or support to his fellow traveller. The smallest issue turns into a big tension.”
To reach the sea, where they would take a boat to Italy, they walked through dense pine forests. “There were about 30 of us in this group and none of us knew each other. We passed through the forest with extreme anxiety and fear of being arrested by the ruthless Turkish police. We were all afraid that some babies who were tied tightly on their father’s shoulders would cry and the police would find us. But as soon as we stepped into the forest, all the children became silent due to their instinct and sense of danger. They didn’t make a single sound all the way. We were in the forest for about 12 hours, and reached the beach by 8 a.m. Here we were joined by several other groups of refugees; by now we were more than 100 people.”
The week-long journey to Italy in a 12-meter “pleasure” boat carrying 55 people was terrifying. “As the boat moved towards the deep parts of the sea, fear and anxiety took over everyone. The fear of the endless sea, and worse, the fear of being caught by Turkish patrols, weighed heavily on everyone’s mind. The boat moved at the highest speed at night, and this speed added to the intensity of the waves hitting the hull of the boat. Waves, waves, waves have always been a part of the pulse of travellers. As the big waves moved the boat up and down, the sound of screams and shouts would merge with the Arabic words of prayers of old, religious passengers. I can say that there is no scene in hell more horrific than this journey. It was near sunset when several passengers shouted: ‘Land! Land!’”
On the way to France, they somehow lost their backpacks. All their possessions gone. Moving fast forward, they found themselves in yet another forest, this time close to the French coast.
“For the first time, I felt that the whole idea I had about Europe and especially the French was a lie. Nowhere in the underdeveloped and insecure countries of the Middle East would a couple be driven to the wrong address at night, in the cold, without proper clothing. But what can be done when you illegally enter a country whose language you do not know? It was almost 2 o’clock in the morning. The sound of the wind and the trees reminded us of horror scenes in the movies. It was hard to believe that we were so helpless in a European country on that dark, cold and rainy night.” He collected grass and tree leaves to make a “warm and soft nest. I felt like we were two migratory birds that had just arrived in this forest.” Eventually they found what they were looking for – a refugee camp. The next step was to try and cross the Channel.
“I can say that there is no scene in hell more horrific than this journey.”
“We reached the beach. The sky was overcast and it was almost sunset. A strange fear and deadly apprehension gripped all the poor refugees in that space between the sky, the earth and the sea.” A smugglers’ car brought a dinghy and dumped it on the beach before quickly driving away. It was no better than a rubber tube. The refugees filled it with air, and attached a small engine. “They stuck 55 people in that tube.” The dinghy went round in circles and ended up on another part of the French coast. Many people decided to disembark at this point, leaving 18 passengers.
“Women and children were wailing and crying. The children looked at the sea dumbfounded. Men argued with each other and sometimes arguments turned into fights. The boat was not balanced. I was writhing in pain from headaches, while my wife’s face was yellow and pale because of the torment.”
At last a ship approached, shining bright floodlights at the dinghy. It belonged to the British coast guard. “When they threw the life rope towards our plastic boat, we were relieved that we were saved from death.”
My friends tell me about conditions at the hotel. Grim. Food that is often inedible, especially for vegetarians like them. They send me photos of soya chunks and chips. Residents are banned from cooking in their rooms, or even having a fridge. Majid and Sayran have sneaked in a rice steamer and something to fry eggs on. (They have to hide them when the cleaners come round.) Kids have no toys and nowhere to play except in the narrow corridors. Everyone is depressed and bored, waiting for months, sometimes years, to hear the result of their asylum claims.
Majid takes up the story: “Due to the lack of toys and entertainment, the boys gather around the security guards and help them in doing many small tasks. The image of refugee children going to school on cold and rainy mornings is the most painful image of refugees in this developed country. In schools, language problems make refugee children isolated and depressed in the first few years. What can be the situation of a pregnant woman, or a woman whose baby has just been born, with an unemployed husband, and poor nutrition, in a very small room in this hotel? Imagine yourself. Many elderly people here suffer from illnesses such as rheumatism, knee swelling, and high blood sugar. But many times when they ask for a change in the food situation or request to transfer somewhere else, they are ridiculed by the hotel staff. One day, a widow who had no food left for her and was given frozen food, went to the hotel management office with her daughter to protest. But one of the security guards took the food container from this woman’s hand and threw it on the office floor in front of her child. Now that little girl is afraid and hates all the security.”
“When they threw the life rope towards our plastic boat, we were relieved that we were saved from death.”
Yet racists rant about migrants living it up in five-star hotels costing the taxpayer £8 million a day. They don’t think or care about how we got here: the Tories let the asylum backlog soar, by failing to process asylum claims in a timely fashion. Some of us cynically wonder if this was deliberate. The number of people awaiting an initial decision is now 165,411. This compares to 27,048 asylum applications, including dependents, between January and September 2015, before the UK left the European Union.
I’ve done what I can. Lobbied the Home office to improve the food and conditions. I eventually got a reply, both from them and the catering contractor. Wrote to my MP, local councillors, inter-agency bodies that monitor conditions in hotels, migrant organisations, the press. We have had some success. There is a lot more to do.
I ask my friends if the threat of being deported to Rwanda (a key plank of the UK’s asylum policy) might have deterred them from coming. Or if anything would have stopped them. Majid replies: “Not at all! Because everywhere in this world is better than Iran for life. Especially for me, I have a deep problem with the Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. They threatened me with death over the phone.”
Making sense of the world
World news has become unbearable to read, watch or listen to. Once a news junkie, I increasingly find myself switching off. I’m equally appalled by the widespread apathy, even among friends who were once politically engaged. Then there is all the dog whistling our government does, in language that echoes that of the far right. Ministers and MPs have shamelessly whipped up suspicion, hatred, and fear of the Other. “Cruella” Braverman was one of the worst offenders, but at least she is no longer Home Secretary. Her “dream” of deporting refugees to Rwanda (her words) has become a nightmare for Sunak. Both are of East African Asian heritage.
Ministers and MPs have shamelessly whipped up suspicion, hatred, and fear of the Other.
This may sound trite, but we must struggle to remain human, and make connections where we can – across borders, race, religion, class, gender, all the false divisions that exist in our world. We have to keep lobbying those in power, and going on protest marches. We must show solidarity with one another. We have to believe we can construct another kind of world, pole pole, from the bottom up. A kinder world would help, for starters. It can begin in very small ways.
Solidarity Means More Than Words
Although the South African government is one of the most vocal supporters of the Palestinian cause, its actions tell a different story.
On October 15 South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, decked in a black and white keffiyeh, pledged his solidarity with the people of Palestine. He was surrounded by colleagues in the same attire holding Palestine flags. This was a week after Israel began its bombardment of the Gaza strip. The situation in Gaza is an even worse nightmare than usual, with the death toll from Israeli strikes now exceeding 11,000 civilians, half of whom are children. Much of the open-air prison housing more than two million people has been reduced to rubble. South Africa’s already critical rhetoric on Israel has become significantly harsher, but the question being asked is, when will this translate into action?
Since the end of apartheid, South Africa has stood unfailingly with Palestine, beginning with the close friendship and camaraderie between former president Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) at the time of Mandela’s release from prison in 1990. South Africa was one of the first countries to refer to Israel as an apartheid state, a progressive stance at the state level, even in Africa.
Yet the current government’s bravery, even in diplomacy, is questionable. The pro-Palestine public and civil society are demanding answers to basic questions, such as why Israeli citizens can travel to South Africa visa-free, while Palestinians cannot. And although South Africa recalled its ambassador to Israel in 2018, downgrading the embassy to a liaison office, it has yet to take the step to expel the Israeli ambassador to South Africa.
But things are shifting. Israel has acted with such violence that South Africa’s language has grown stronger to the point that the Cabinet called Israel’s bombardment of Gaza not just a genocide but a “holocaust on the Palestinians.” After a month of civil society and public pressure on the government to expel Eliav Belotsercovsky, Israel’s Ambassador to South Africa, Ramaphosa recalled South African diplomats in Tel Aviv for “consultations,” and Naledi Pandor, the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, has called for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to arrest and try Netanyahu and his Cabinet for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Notwithstanding these diplomatic maneuvers, the expulsion of Belotserkovsky is still in discussion at the parliamentary level, and in practice, the relationship between Israel and South Africa is in contradiction. South Africa is Israel’s biggest trade partner on the African continent. In 2021, South Africa exported $225 million worth of goods to Israel, mostly in the form of capital goods (tangible assets or resources used in the production of consumer goods), machinery and electrical products, and chemicals; it paid $60 million for imports, mostly intermediate goods (goods used to finalize partially finished consumer goods), and food products by far, making a total in trade of $285 million. This is one-third of Israel’s total trade with sub-Saharan Africa of $760 million.
In 2012, the government announced that products made in the West Bank need to be labeled as originating in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as opposed to a “Product of Israel,” which led to an outcry from Zionist groups and the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, calling the move discriminatory and divisive. But several Checkers and Spar branches still stock items labeled “Product of Israel,” with no repercussions.
Zionist entities have for decades been openly committing crimes under South African law. South African nationals have traveled to Israel to fight in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), and some are there currently. This is illegal under the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act which is very clear about citizens fighting under other flags. A South African citizen may not provide military assistance to a foreign army unless they have made an application to the Minister of Defence and received their approval. When the issue was raised at a recent parliamentary hearing, Minister in the Presidency, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, admitted that the State Security Agency is aware of this phenomenon, and would provide the identities of these soldiers to the National Prosecuting Authority, as they are a threat to the State. Yet the fact that South Africans have been fighting in the Israeli army is no secret. Recently, a video emerged of a soldier leading other soldiers in South Africa’s national anthem. Another question being asked yet again is, why has it taken this long for any prosecutions to take place or even be suggested?
In July a group of Israeli water experts and state officials visited South Africa to pitch their technology to the South African government, a trip organized by the Jewish National Fund of South Africa and the South African Zionist Federation. The Jewish National Fund is notorious for planting forests on former Palestinian villages demolished by the Israeli army. Israel and South Africa are also connected in the agriculture sphere and South Africa is not alone in this. Israel had been using agriculture and military training to carve an increasingly wider economic path to make its way through Africa, and in 2021 Israel nearly obtained observer status at the African Union, a proposal suspended by South Africa and Algeria’s protests.
The Paramount Group, an arms manufacturer with offices and factories in Cape Town and Johannesburg, is strongly connected to the Israeli army, providing armored vehicles to Haifa-based Elbit Systems, who in turn supplies Israel with 85% of its land-based and drone equipment. The founder, Ivor Ichikowitz, is an outspoken Zionist whose family foundation has been known to raise funds to support the IDF and Paramount’s Vice President for Europe, Shane Cohen, was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Israeli Army. Ichikowitz has been allied with prominent South African politicians for many years. In 2009 the Mail and Guardian reported that Ichikowitz had flown Jacob Zuma to Lebanon and Kazakhstan for free on his personal jet. He was also, bizarrely, a broker in a peace mission by African heads of state, including Ramaphosa, to Ukraine in June this year. By allowing for these sales to Elbit, South Africa is violating its own commitment to the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty of 2014, which, as a signatory, has agreed to cease the provision of weaponry when there is a reasonable expectation that such arms might be employed in severe breaches of international human rights or humanitarian law.
The South African government has been quietly allowing its own laws to be flouted by Israeli and Zionist interests. But pressure is mounting on the government’s need to convert its narrative into action. Minister Pandor has called for an immediate imposition of an arms embargo on Israel. Does this mean the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) will prohibit Paramount sales to Elbit? The country’s National Prosecuting Authority has been instructed to prosecute South Africans serving in the IDF. Will this actually happen? Will the DTI stop stores from selling products incorrectly labeled and will South Africa cut trade ties with Israel and impose Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS)?
Momentum has grown, and people are raging against the machine. The South African government is in the spotlight. It will be forced to show where its red lines are drawn and where its allegiance really lies. The people are watching.
Coffee Act 2023: Government Grip Over Sector a Perilous Policy Decision
The government has not the resources necessary to revive the ailing coffee sector. The proposed Coffee Act 2023 should make room for the private sector as it has both the capacity and the experience to play a significant role in the revival of the moribund sector.
The proposed Coffee Act 2023 has serious limitations and the reforms it recommends may fail to halt the rapid decline of a crucial sector that is in dire need of an urgent rescue agenda to restore it to its former glory.
The Bill currently before parliament does not sufficiently address the question of how it will tackle the twin challenges facing the coffee sector – an opaque marketing system that has over the years been accused of defrauding smallholder farmers who largely sell their coffee beans through the Nairobi Coffee Exchange (NCE) auction, and decline in production and productivity as farmers struggle to buy costly farm inputs in the face of dwindling returns, or abandon coffee farming altogether to pursue more lucrative ventures.
Strangely, the proposed Bill – first mooted by the previous regime of President Uhuru Kenyatta – is also seeking to isolate coffee from a legal regime that has been governing the production, processing and marketing of scheduled commercial crops since 2013. The Crop Act was enacted in 2013 after agriculture was devolved under the 2010 constitution to enable the consolidation or repeal of various statutes related to specific crops and create the conditions necessary for the development of these crops.
Also enacted in 2013, the Agriculture and Food Authority Act that created the Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA) defines the authority’s regulatory and operational functions in implementing the Crop Act 2013 and makes provisions for the respective roles of the national and county governments in crop production, processing and marketing. The new AFA Act collapsed several institutions into AFA directorates and repealed the statutes that had created them. The major casualties of the laws that were repealed included the Coffee Act of 2001 that had been revised in 2012, the Sugar Act of 2001, the Tea Act (Cap 343) and the Cotton Act, among 13 other Acts.
Although the other crops have also failed to achieve the results envisaged by the Crop Act 2013 for various reasons, coffee has been of particular interest both politically and economically at the national government level and at the level of the county governments in regions that produce it, especially Mt. Kenya, a vote-rich region whose voting pattern could easily be swayed by the prevailing economic situation during an election period. Despite the numerous challenges facing the coffee sector, thousands of smallholder farmers still hold on to the crop, optimistic that every successive government will turn it around.
Production has declined significantly over the years and a crop that once yielded over 130,000 tons annually in the late ‘80s, earning smallholder farmers huge fortunes, only managed a paltry 34,512 tons of clean coffee in 2021 and just over 53,000 tons last year. The poor farm gate prices that accrue to those farmers – largely smallholder ones – auctioning coffee through cooperatives at the NCE have provoked debate among politicians, farmers and other affected industry actors. There have been claims of cartel-like dealings along the marketing value chain, with corrupt government officials looking the other way as dealers at the auction profit from dubious deals unchallenged, making the sector reforms a Herculean task for any establishment.
One of the leading problems associated with these unfair practices is the role of the marketing agents, who are accused of colluding with the millers and buyers to manipulate prices to the disadvantage of smallholder farmers. They are appointed by officials of cooperative societies to look after smallholder farmers’ interests at the auction, where 25,126 of the 34,512 tons of coffee produced in 2021 were sold. The election of cooperative officials is itself marred with malpractices and a lot of external interference.
Before the current Bill was drafted, there was an attempt by Moses Kuria, the then Gatundu Member of Parliament, to change the Crop Act in 2019 to allow only the export of processed coffee. According to Kuria, by disallowing the export of raw coffee from the country, the proposed amendment would ensure a favourable balance of trade and payment.
“Clause 2 of the Bill seeks to amend section 40 of the Crop Act 2013 to compel the Cabinet Secretary in consultations with the AFA and County Governments while making regulations, to ensure the coffee is exported only in processed form having been roasted, milled, parked and branded and clearly labelled ’a made in Kenya’ inscription,” Kuria’s memorandum read.
However, the proposed Bill now before parliament deviates from this intention. It instead allows only roasters and small businesses to buy coffee from the NCE for processing to promote local consumption. The Bill does not address the main challenge facing coffee marketing. It does not insulate farmers from the unfair practices that industry stakeholders have raised in the past. A buyer, a roaster, a grower miller, or a broker appointed by the grower will continue to be allowed to trade at the Exchange where the coffee will continue to be sold in its raw form.
Sceptics argue that without dismantling the cartels running the coffee sector, which requires the political goodwill that has been lacking, the ongoing reform efforts in the coffee sector will fail. Addressing a coffee reform forum convened in Meru recently by Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, Embu Governor Cecily Mbarire named three companies that she claimed control Kenya’s coffee marketing. She accused the three companies of buying coffee at the Exchange through different company subsidiaries whose directors work closely to manipulate prices in collusion with corrupt government officials. Agriculture CS Mithika Linturi’s threat to revoke the licences of all those involved in the corrupt practices within a week came to nothing.
The problem starts with how the marketing agents are appointed. This is done by the officials of cooperative societies who are elected periodically by members. The elections have in the past been cited as citadels of corruption that have been infiltrated by actors in the coffee value chain who influence the choice of officials to maintain the status quo.
In 2021, former Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya, who led the first phase of the coffee reforms, spoke about mismanagement in the coffee sector cooperative societies, saying that farmers lose their earnings through a flawed management of the chain of production and marketing. The proposed Bill recommends democratising the process of selecting millers and marketing agents by farmers through the holding of factory meetings where several bidders pitch their services. However, this process will require strong goodwill and is not fully insulated from manipulation by well-coordinated cartels.
Agriculture CS Mithika Linturi’s threat to revoke the licences of all those involved in the corrupt practices within a week came to nothing.
If the Bill does not address the need for the cooperatives to have independent marketing agents at the auction who will serve the farmers’ interests and not those of buyers and millers, the fortunes of the farmers will remain unchanged. The success of the proposal that millers make all the necessary disclosures to enable farmers to arrive at an informed decision – disclosure on milling costs, handling and storage charges and other fees and milling losses that the Bill caps at US$40 per ton – will depend on who serves as the marketing agents, how they will be appointed and their inclinations. Although the Bill requires a commercial miller to ensure that the grower or grower’s representative is given reasonable notice to be present during the milling, this will not enhance accountability if the process of appointing the marketing agents is not transparent from the outset.
Direct sales will not offer any reprieve since the Bill requires the prices to be favourable to those at the NCE. The Bill also requires that a commercial miller or a broker appointed in consultation with a commercial miller prepare a sales catalogue for all coffee in licensed warehouses in consultation with the Exchange and the growers. Cases where marketing agents have downgraded coffee to depress prices and offered reserve prices that are too high – and that can easily be leaked in a cartel-like marketing regime, making the coffee unsalable at the first auction and resulting in the downward scaling of prices at subsequent auctions – have in the past been cited as some of the ways by which farmers are exploited.
However, other provisions address administrative issues such as settling the proceeds of the auction in a direct system operated by the Capital Markets Authority (CMA), thus prohibiting a broker or an agent appointed by a grower and other service providers from receiving the proceeds on behalf of the growers and holding them for other commercial activities not related to the coffee sector. Currently, marketing agents trade with farmers’ money through forex conversion, fixed deposit earnings and by making loan advances to unsuspecting farmers at prohibitive interest rates with the connivance of the societies.
A past report of a task force led by Prof. Joseph Kieyah, Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on the Coffee Sub-sector, recommended prompt payment to farmers for coffee delivered to coffee mills, the opening up of the Exchange for farmers to directly trade at the auction, and the creation of a coffee production subsidy. The report also called for reforms in the coffee cooperatives to strengthen them and to enable farmers to hold them to account, and proposed such measures as capping administrative expenses at 15 per cent and penalties for entities that fail to comply with the law.
The industry now seeks a multi-pronged approach to be included in the proposed reforms, which includes the processing and promotion of specialty coffee from Kenya to global markets as is the case in Ethiopia, which has won trademarks for three of its specialty coffees. Coffee is Ethiopia’s main export commodity, contributing to the livelihoods of more than 15 million smallholder farmers and other actors in the sector.
According to the Ethiopia Coffee and Tea Authority (ECTA) report, Ethiopia’s six-month coffee export revenue grew by US$274 million in the first half of the 2021/22 fiscal year. The country also has an impressive local consumption of coffee, with an estimated 42 per cent of the coffee produced going to the domestic market, of which around 5 per cent is smuggled in cross-border trade and traded on the black market. The rest is traded and exported through the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX), which sells around 80 to 85 per cent of the exported coffee.
The price of coffee in Ethiopia has continued to rise. The ECTA introduced “Vertical Integration” into the sector, a scheme that was approved in 2021. The new regulation allows exporters to bypass the ECX and buy coffee directly from aggregators or small washing stations.
With the liberalisation of the coffee market, farmers can decide where to deliver their berries based on the price offered. Moreover, demand has continued to rise and local cooperatives such as washing stations are benefiting from higher competition among buyers.
On 28 January 2020, in collaboration with the National Bank of Ethiopia, the ECTA issued a directive called the “Export Coffee Contract Administration” that fixes a minimum coffee export price based on the global weighted average price attributed to the different grades of coffee from various regions. Exporters submit their contracts to the NBE at the end of each day. They are submitted to another team that compares the prices with international and local coffee prices and uses an average weighted method to calculate a new minimum price upon which coffee exporters base their contract prices the following day.
With the liberalization of the coffee market, farmers can decide where to deliver their berries based on the price offered.
The Bill currently before the Kenyan parliament has introduced a very strong regulatory regime at both the county and the national level. It has failed to allocate any significant roles to the private sector in reviving the sector in areas such as production. Industry stakeholders cite resource constraints facing both the county and national governments and the underfunding of the agriculture sector as issues of major concern. Coffee dealers argue that the correct prescriptive policy would have been for the government to create a conducive environment to allow the private sector players room to grow the sector.
Two agricultural sectors stand as an example of why the immense and ambitious roles that the Bill allocates to both the national and county governments at the expense of the private sector could be a dangerous policy decision.
Let us start with the cashew nuts sector. Despite policy deficiency, the sector showed promising signs when local private processors (through Kenya Nuts Processors Association – NutPAK – which had pushed hard for a ban of raw nut exports) teamed up with growers’ associations, researchers at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI; now renamed Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation – KALRO), and the coast provincial administration to revitalise the cashew nut sector. This was after President William Ruto, then Agriculture Minister, banned the export of raw nuts in 2009 following a report by a task force that had collected views from industry stakeholders and recommended such a move to enable processors who have created more capacity to obtain enough raw materials.
The revitalisation team agreed, as a first measure, on a minimum farm gate price every harvest season, the establishment of collection centres to rid the industry of middlemen, and increased production and productivity by replacing ageing and unproductive trees with high-yielding, fast-maturing varieties to be developed by KARI and supplied through nurseries managed by farmers.
The efforts kicked off well in the two years preceding devolution. However, when the agriculture function was devolved and the provincial administration – which was championing the revival efforts – was restructured, the initiative failed to transition into the new governance order. While the county governments in the cashew-growing regions have spoken about the importance of the cashew sector over the years since devolution, they have failed to develop policies and plans for the revival of the sector and have allocated very few resources to agriculture and to the cashew nut sector in particular, leading to a significant drop in production.
Coffee dealers argue that the correct prescriptive policy would have been for the government to create a conducive environment to allow the private sector players room to grow the sector.
Although drought was blamed for the decline in production in 2021, in reality, the cashew nut sector has been in free-fall since 2013. The 2022 AFA Year Book of Statistics reports that production in the coast region during the year under review decreased from 12,668 tons in 2020 to 9,121 tons in 2021.
Once a top earner for the coast region, the value of the cashew nut produced decreased from KSh587.25 million in 2020 to KSh457.4 million in 2021, with less than 20 per cent of the processed crop destined for export. The rest was processed through cottage industries and consumed locally, a strange turn of events for a crop whose harvest could attain over 40,000 metric tons in its heyday. The low volumes have kept the big players out of the scene, with the newly created processing plants struggling to obtain the raw material to keep their production lines running.
The other crop that illustrates the danger presented by the proposed increased control over the coffee value chain is macadamia, which is, coincidentally, largely produced in the Mt. Kenya region where coffee is also popular. Although a Bill to regulate the nut sector has been tabled at the national level, the sector has grown in the last decade largely due to the immense support of a competing private sector seeking to increase production to utilise their installed capacity. However, since 2021, several factors have conspired to threaten it: the emergence of more macadamia-producing countries in the world including China, and a decline in the quality of nuts harvested due to poor and uncontrolled harvesting techniques, a regulatory issue that can only be tackled by both the county and national governments.
Despite the significant growth of the sector, the county governments in macadamia-growing regions have failed to consolidate the gains of the previous decade. Today, farmers receive not more than KSh30 per kilo of nuts at the farm gate, down from the KSh200 they received in the pre-COVID-19 period. The sector now faces collapse due to the emergence of other competing cash crops.
The proposed Coffee Bill 2023 seeks to revive and restructure the defunct CBK but fails to assign production and marketing roles to traders despite their huge investments; millers, processors, marketing agents and other dealers do not see any goodwill in the revival efforts. According to Pius Ngugi, who has operated Thika Coffee Mill for many years and is one of the biggest indigenous coffee processors in the country, this is likely to affect the proposed reforms to be undertaken by the revived CBK and the county governments.
Although drought was blamed for the decline in production in 2021, in reality, the cashew nut sector has been in free-fall since 2013.
The stated objectives of the 2013 Cash Crop Act that the current Bill appears to reverse were the need to circumvent regulatory bureaucracy in the crop subsectors and remove unnecessary regulations and levies, and the reduction of overlap and duplication of roles to promote the competitiveness of the crops, and more importantly, attract and promote private investment in agricultural crops.
Even at the CBK board level, traders do not have representation. The proposed members include a chairman, the Principal Secretary in charge of trade, the Principal Secretary in charge of cooperatives, two smallholder farmers, two coffee estate farmers, a nominee from the proposed Coffee Research Institute (CRI), one person from an association of farmers and the Chief Executive Officer, who will also double as the Board’s secretary.
The previous Coffee Act, which was repealed when the sector was placed under the AFA as a Coffee Directorate, provided room for the inclusion of players from the private sector and gave the minister in charge of agriculture the opportunity to appoint board members based on their interests and expertise in the coffee industry. The composition of the CBK board would have borrowed a leaf from Oils and Nuts Development Bill 2023, also in parliament, which suggests a similar board with the inclusion of a processor with ten years’ experience to grow nuts the sector. The proposed CBK board also contrasts with the provisions of the proposed Nuts and Oil Crops Development Bill 2023, which seeks to play a similar role as the CBK that proposes the inclusion of a processor with at least ten years of experience in its board.
The government, through the CBK and the county governments, has a crucial regulatory role to play to protect all the industry stakeholders. This regulatory role should create room to allow various investors in the sector to fill the investment gaps that affect the production, processing and marketing of coffee. For instance, the proposed Bill requires the county governments to offer extension services in the areas of sustainable production, primary processing of coffee and climate-smart agriculture, all of which are resource-intensive activities that it is doubtful they will fund satisfactorily.
The Bill also gives the CRI the responsibility – in collaboration with the county governments – of disseminating coffee production and processing technologies, propagating coffee planting materials, supervising nursery operations, issuing seeds, mapping out areas suitable for coffee production in Kenya, and capacity building, all costly undertakings that the private sector has a proven record of successfully performing. These roles can be played by the private sector with much ease and innovation based on their growing needs and market knowledge.
Despite the significant growth of the sector, the county governments in macadamia-growing regions have failed to consolidate the gains of the previous decade.
A good example of this will suffice to illustrate the point. A KSh240 million cashew nut production revival project has successfully been undertaken in a partnership that includes the European Union and the Visegrád Group of countries (V4) – Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – and Tensenses Ltd, now Grow Fairly. Close to 1 million new high-yielding cashew nut trees have been planted at the coast from a nursery that was created five years ago when the project commenced. The 15,000 farmers registered to grow organic cashew nuts were provided with materials and other support while the coast county governments subsidised the purchase of seedlings from the nursery. Early this year, the company opened a new factory that will process 2,400 tons of cashew nuts per year once the new crop is fully established.
Under the repealed Coffee Act, commercial millers could give farmers credit in the form of money and farm inputs to be recovered from the proceeds of coffee sales. The proposed Bill has thrown this out of the window and barred millers and marketing agents from providing loans or advances to coffee farmers at an interest. This, according to the thinking of the drafters of the Bill, will encourage the farmers to access berry advances at a rate of 3 per cent.
In effect, in October 2023 the government approved a KSh4 billion advance for coffee farmers that is expected to boost their earnings. However, agriculture ministers from coffee-growing counties have decried the low uptake of the KSh3 billion berry advance that the previous government had provided over the previous four years.
In December last year, Kiplimo Lagat, the Nandi County Executive Committee (CEC) member in charge of Agriculture and Co-operative Development argued that, from its inception, the fund was poorly crafted and thus failed to attract farmers who were wary of its unclear objectives and fearful of its outcomes.
“There is a need for the government to rethink the concept under which the fund was established to make it more attractive to the farmers. Perhaps the fund is suffering from structural challenges thus scaring away farmers,” he said.
The fund was established in early 2019 to help coffee farmers across the country resolve the problem of delays in the coffee payment cycle. According to the top management of New Kenya Planters Cooperative, by December last year, only KSh401 million had been advanced to farmers in the coffee-growing counties since the inception of the fund. James Wachihi, Nyeri CEC member in charge of agriculture, could see no clear reasons for the low uptake of the fund.
According to Ngugi of Thika Coffee Mills, the government should confine itself to ensuring a conducive environment for increased production and promote marketing. The private sector has enough resources, he observed, adding that the government should encourage millers and other industry stakeholders to get involved in increasing coffee production through estates or by contracting farmers and providing them with farm inputs and other services via the cooperative societies to which they belong.
The existing environment does not leave room for such an arrangement since there is no guarantee of securing the raw material from the farmers once the support has been provided. Production has been in decline due to lack of resources and high poverty levels among the smallholder farmers, the high costs of farm inputs, and the lack of a supportive framework that would include the provision of extension services.
Under the repealed Coffee Act, commercial millers could give farmers credit in the form of money and farm inputs to be recovered from the proceeds of coffee sales.
Farmers have also divested from coffee to go into other lucrative ventures. Coffee is now grown in 33 counties, the major coffee-growing counties being Kiambu, Kirinyaga, Nyeri, Murang’a, Kericho and Bungoma. In 2020/21, the coffee sub-sector recorded a 6.4 per cent decline in production, down from 36,873 tons to 34,512 tons of clean coffee – particularly in the high-production counties. Kiambu, the biggest coffee-producing county, saw estate farms record a decline in acreage from 12,627 hectares in 2019 to 10,520 in 2021, with cooperatives recording a drop from 11,724 hectares to 8,585 hectares during the same period, according to AFA numbers. In much of the land lost, coffee ceded ground to real estate.
The KSh4 billion fund may have political connotations. It comes at a time when the sector is undergoing political turmoil, with the current efforts by Deputy President Gachagua, who is spearheading reforms in the sector, receiving divided views from various actors. The fund was created after President Ruto offered the six government-owned sugar millers in western Kenya a KSh117 billion lifeline. Mathioya Member of Parliament Edwin Mugo and Kiambu Women Representative Gathoni Wamuchomba decried the move publicly.
Buyers and traders have also kept away from the Exchange due to the confusion reigning in the licensing regime. In August this year, auctions dropped by over 95 per cent, reaching only 192 tons compared to over 4300 tons in the same month last year.
A significant amount of political goodwill is needed to revive the coffee sector. The county governments, which will implement national government policy on agriculture as prescribed in the constitution, must create synergies and integrate all stakeholders in implementing multi-pronged measures in order to put back cash into the farmers’ pockets. Given the resource constraints at both the national and county government levels, the focus should be on creating a conducive environment for the private sector to drive the ongoing efforts to revive the coffee sector.
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