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Free the Weed: A Short History of Marijuana

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Debates around whether or not to make cannabis legal often fail to recognise that this herb has been used for centuries in many parts of the world.

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Free the Weed: A Short History of Marijuana
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For generations now in most of the world, cannabis has been a prohibited substance, one often vilified as a noxious bringer of addiction. Yet change is coming fast. Several states have already amended statute books to soften laws relating to cannabis (whether through allowing its medicinal use, decriminalising its possession and use, or full-blown legalisation), and many others are considering amendments. Age-old consensus on the substance has cracked, although many remain deeply opposed to any push to “free the weed”.

In Kenya, debate has grown strong too, driven by, among others, the late Ken Okoth, the MP for Kibra, who pushed for a bill legalising and regulating the substance before his sad passing. This article traces the history of this controversial substance and policy towards it, with a particular focus on Africa, and looks at the likely impact – good and bad – as a botanical outlaw is increasingly rehabilitated.

Beginnings

Cannabis, also known as marijuana, has long been used by humans as medicine, food (its seeds are highly nutritious, as is the oil derived from them), and importantly as fibre. Long before most Europeans were even aware of the psychoactive properties of this plant, cannabis was the major source of fibre used to make the rope and rigging that powered navies in the era of European imperial expansion.

Rather than bringing to mind this marine history, however, for most people around the world, the name cannabis conjures up images of a haze of psychoactive smoke emanating from the mouths of such legendary “stoners” as Bob Marley, Bob Dylan and Fela Kuti. It also conjures up the characteristic leaves of the cannabis plant – odd-numbered combinations of serrated spears that have become symbolic not just of cannabis culture but a much wider culture of defiance.

Even the taxonomy of the plant is controversial, as researcher Chris Duvall (author of a new book, The African Roots of Marijuana) has shown. An orthodox theory holds that there is one species – Cannabis sativa – that has been cultivated and used in different ways: for fibre, for food and for its psychoactivity. Such a theory has suggested a racialised view of cannabis usage – that industrious Europeans built great seafaring empires out of hemp, while other people used it to get high.

Cannabis, also known as marijuana, has long been used by humans as medicine, food, and importantly as fibre. Long before most Europeans were even aware of the psychoactive properties of this plant, cannabis was the major source of fibre used to make the rope and rigging that powered navies in the era of European imperial expansion.

However, a two-species theory – that there is Cannabis sativa more suited to producing fibre, and Cannabis indica more capable of psychoactivity – gives a more accurate botanical view of why cannabis is valued in different regions for different purposes: sativa and indica varieties simply grew in different climates, the latter more at home in warmer regions.

Whatever the taxonomic truth, cannabis originated in Eurasia, and palaeobotanical evidence suggests that people were already making use of cannabis as far as East Asia 12,000 years ago, though in what ways is now impossible to discern. It seems likely that cannabis was being farmed in East Asia 6,000 years ago, while Koreans appear to have been making fabric from it around 5,000 years ago.

But people have also long been aware of the psychoactive qualities of cannabis, and a burial site 2,700 years old in northwestern China has preserved a large cache of potent cannabis, possibly for ceremonial or shamanic use. In South Asia, there is also a long history of cannabis usage for fabric and for intoxication, a distinction emerging in Sanskrit between sana and bhanga, the former a source of plant fibre, the latter a source of intoxication and medicine. Bhang, of course, is now a widely dispersed term (in East Africa too) used for intoxicating cannabis.

This plant and its usage then took many different routes around the world. These routes owed much to a number of maritime and overland trade networks that have transported cannabis and its cultures of use. Around 5,000 years ago, cannabis was projected westwards as far as Egypt through overland trade linking India to Mesopotamia and beyond, while Indian Ocean trade networks brought cannabis to East Africa’s coastline, where it has had a presence for at least a thousand years. From there it spread inland and into many different African cultures of consumption, the use of the term bhang in much of the region suggestive of its Indian Ocean network origins, although many local terms suggest possible multiple routes of entry.

The Atlantic slave trade was another vector of its spread; slaves departing from the Angolan coast sometimes carrying cannabis seeds, which led to its spread in Brazil. Another vector in its spread has been war, its popularity in West Africa owing much to the return of soldiers who had been fighting in Asia during World War II and were exposed to its consumption there. In Europe, the use of cannabis for intoxication purposes was initially an elite pursuit of Bohemians in the nineteenth century, the likes of Baudelaire popularising experimentation with the drug in an age of intense European intellectual interest in “exotic” mind-altering substances that also included opium.

While cannabis has many different cultures of consumption, there has been something of a globalisation of its appeal over the twentieth century, especially through its link to various types of music. Long associated with jazz in the US, cannabis’ popularity was also boosted by musicians such as Bob Marley and Fela Kuti. For Fela Kuti, cannabis had much symbolism as a symptom of defiance against authority, and this has long been a core part of the herb’s appeal for many consumers within various countercultures.

Much of this aura of defiant cool derives from the fact that for over a century cannabis has itself been an outlaw, as both internationally and nationally many jurisdictions have prohibited the production, trade and use of this controversial plant. Yet these prohibitions are now under threat as never before, as even countries that have long fought and promoted the “war on drugs”, such as the United States, are experimenting with various forms of decriminalisation and legalisation, while other countries still try and hold firm against calls for legislative change.

Regulating the herb

For as long as mind-altering substances have been used by humans, attempts to regulate their use have likely been used. Whether alcohol, opium or cannabis, the psychoactive qualities of such substances mean that they are usually viewed with great ambivalence – substances that can ease worries and bring pleasure, yet also bring harm and danger. Such ambivalence has spurred efforts to restrict access to those seen as able to use them responsibly, or to forbid their use completely.

While cannabis has many different cultures of consumption, there has been something of a globalisation of its appeal over the twentieth century, especially through its link to various types of music. Long associated with jazz in the US, cannabis’ popularity was also boosted by musicians such as Bob Marley and Fela Kuti.

The widespread claim that historically East African societies restricted access to alcoholic beverages and khat to elders reflects concerns over youthful drinking and chewing. It also suggests that similar types of restrictions and regulations might have been in place for cannabis in East Africa and elsewhere.

However, the formal prohibition of cannabis is mostly a twentieth-century story, albeit with a number of precursors, including the Merina king Andrianampoinimerina prohibiting it in the late eighteenth century in Madagascar on the grounds that it made his subjects “half-witted”. Its prohibition story links to that of opium, and the growing international calls for its regulation and prohibition that grew strong after the nineteenth-century Opium Wars where the British compelled China, through force, to accept imports of opium from India in the interests of their Imperial economy.

Unease with the free trade in opiates led to the International Opium Commission conference in 1909 in Shanghai, and later the International Opium Convention that called for controls and restrictions of the trade in opiates and cocaine was signed in 1912. This marked the start of the internationalisation of drug control. Cannabis was not added to these conventions until 1925 when, at the request of Egypt, cannabis was added to the conventions and its exports restricted. Subsequent conventions (including the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs) further globalised attempts to suppress a growing range of psychoactive substances, including cannabis.

This international story of drug conventions and cannabis prohibition played out differently in various countries, the US history of marijuana prohibition and its link to characters such as Harry Anslinger of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics being the most familiar. Historians such as Isaac Campos and Jim Mills have also analysed the equally fascinating history of cannabis policy in Mexico, India and the UK.

In African countries, most state laws and policies proscribing the use, trade and production of cannabis, opiates and cocaine first emerged during the colonial period, particularly in the 1920s, though in some colonial states, these laws were put on the statute books even earlier. The major mind-altering substances of interest to African and colonial officials before then had been alcoholic drinks, as well as kola nuts and khat. The lucrative kola trade had been regulated and taxed since the end of the eighteenth century by states administering foreign trade, such as the Asante Kingdom in today’s Ghana. Alcohol use had been prohibited in many of Africa’s Muslim societies for long and became the subject of intense international debates and domestic control at the end of the nineteenth century. In particular, the trade and production of distilled spirits became the target of state regulation at that time.

African control efforts on cannabis, opiates and cocaine generally commenced only after the national and international debates on distilled spirits had become quiet. In 1927 the first Nigerian Dangerous Drugs Ordinance restricted the use and trade of cannabis, opium and coca products to medical and scientific purposes and put them under the supervisory powers of the chief medical officer of the colony. The law made the unlicensed use and trade in these drugs a crime.

In African countries, most state laws and policies proscribing the use, trade and production of cannabis, opiates and cocaine first emerged during the colonial period, particularly in the 1920s, though in some colonial states, these laws were put on the statute books even earlier.

In Kenya there is an earlier history. An Opium Regulations Ordinance was put in place in 1902. This was intended to restrict the import and production of opiates to permit holders, and sales were restricted to the discretion of medical officers. “Opium” included a wider range of substances, including “bhang”, the main term used in East Africa then and now for cannabis. This ordinance had little teeth, and pressure grew from colonial officers in western Kenya (where much cannabis was grown and consumed) for possession to be outlawed too and harsher penalties introduced for those producing or trading such substances without permits. This pressure in part led to the Abuse of Opiate Ordinance in 1913 that attempted to eradicate illicit consumption of not just opium, but a range of opiates, as well as cocaine and cannabis.

The Kenya colony and its opiate ordinances apart, drug ordinances did not usually grow out of colonial anxieties about these drugs’ threats to health or a paternalistic concern to “protect Africans” from foreign substances, as had been the case with distilled spirits. In South Africa, debates on the use and control of opium were also closely tied to the growing gold mining industry in the Transvaal as it was feared to decrease the productivity of South Africa’s workforce. In 1923 the South African government even urged the League of Nations to classify cannabis as a dangerous substance requiring international control.

In effect, most African drug laws were based on colonial blueprints, such as the Hong Kong Drug Ordinance, which was circulated among British colonial governments in the 1920s. These laws often preceded local concern with cannabis, opiates and cocaine and served more to satisfy the legal obligations of governments under new international laws, such as the 1925 and 1931 Geneva Opium Conventions. In the course of the first half of the twentieth century, most African colonies were therefore signed up to a range of international treaties on drug control, without there being much of a local concern or debate about the laws transposed into domestic legal codes, except for the case of Kenya and South Africa.

This situation changed somewhat by the late 1950s and early 1960s, when most African countries gained political independence. This period coincided with the wider use and growing public concern about cannabis and saw the first effective government policies on cannabis. In West Africa, concern was driven by medical professionals who encountered cannabis-smoking ex-soldiers among their patients. Doctors, such as Thomas Adeoye Lambo, Africa’s first Western-trained psychiatrist, started exploring Africa’s new drug and addiction problems in their research and public speeches.

Cannabis addiction also became a key discussion point at the newly founded Pan-African Psychiatric Congress and its African Journal on Psychiatry (Lambo 1965; Lewis 1975). This new medical and also media interest in cannabis led to important policy changes in some countries, such as Ghana and Nigeria. In the latter, a coup d’état brought a group of reform-minded soldiers to power who aimed to address cannabis use with the draconian Indian Hemp Decree of 1966 shortly before the country slid into a civil war.

Cannabis thus became firmly embedded in the statute books of most African nations. However, this legal uniformity belied continuing ambivalence towards the substance. Legality or illegality, of course, rarely perfectly matches societal attitudes, and many continued to view the substance positively in various ways, including as a traditional medicine, and as a recreational substance associated with popular figures such as Bob Marley and Fela Kuti. Furthermore, its illegality only further increased its reputation as a symbol of defiance against authority. For many, cannabis law has little legitimacy – or power, given the lack of state capacity to police it effectively – and it has grown to be a vital part of the rural and urban economy in much of Africa. On the other hand, many, for social, cultural or religious reasons, have bought into the idea of cannabis as socially and medically harmful and something that should be restricted.

African debates

In such a cultural climate, legalisation or decriminalisation campaigns were unlikely to take root beyond the margins. Indeed, in an earlier book we suggested that debate on drug policy had yet to take off in most African countries (2012). Yet things appear to be changing, as the impact of policy change even in parts of the USA – long the leader in the “War on Drugs” – has global repercussions.

On a more regional level, the activities of organisations like the West African Drugs Commission have also expanded the narrative away from a simple focus on repressive supply-side policy in relation to drugs of all types. In East Africa too there are moves towards alternative “harm reduction” policies, especially in regard to heroin use in cities like Dar es Salaam and Mombasa, and more recently also in Nairobi. In Africa, as elsewhere, the international consensus around drug policy is fracturing, especially in regard to cannabis.

Since 2011 in Cape Town an annual cannabis march has been held that has increased markedly in popularity, symbolising the seismic changes occurring in cannabis legislation in South Africa, perhaps the African country with the strongest drug counter-culture. As with parts of the USA, permitting medical use of cannabis appears the first step in this process, and South Africa is developing provision in this regard. In addition to this, a recent court case in the Western Cape has raised hopes further that legalisation is around the corner. Several activists (including those from the “Dagga Party”, dagga being the common South African term for cannabis) brought a case “seeking a declaration that the legislative provision against the use of cannabis and the possession, purchase and cultivation of cannabis for personal or communal consumption is invalid”.

In March 2017, the court ruled that there should be a stay of prosecutions for possession of small quantities of cannabis and use of cannabis in private settings, and gave the government 24 months to amend the law in this regard. On 18 September 2018, South Africa’s Constitutional Court confirmed this judgement and thus made the growing and use of cannabis for private use legal with immediate effect, although the exact implementation of the decision is yet unclear. While there are no doubt many more hurdles to overcome for the campaigners (most prominent of whom are a white couple known as the Dagga Couple), many are already eyeing a potential legal market for cannabis in South Africa, leading some to fear the predation of corporate interests.

Since 2011 in Cape Town an annual cannabis march has been held that has increased markedly in popularity, symbolising the seismic changes occurring in cannabis legislation in South Africa…

Elsewhere too, there are increasing signs of shifting policy. Linked to the change in South Africa, Lesotho, a major supplier of illegal cannabis to the South African market, has recently given a licence to a South African firm to cultivate medical cannabis. Malawi, another major cultivation country of illegal cannabis, is also moving towards a legal hemp industry. While hemp consists of non-psychoactive varieties of the cannabis plant, even this move required overcoming resistance in Malawi’s National Assembly to an initiative based around so infamous a plant. Ghana, ranked the country with the highest rates of cannabis consumption in Africa, is also seeing rising debate on cannabis policy, and even calls for a cannabis industry to be established to take advantage of legal opportunities around the world. Debate seems more muted in Nigeria, a country with some of Africa’s harshest drug laws, although the debate is gaining ground there too.

In East Africa, debate is also increasingly conspicuous in news reports and in the wider media, especially in Kenya. There, calls for full legalisation have recently been made, including by Ken Okoth, and by political analyst Gwada Ogot, who took a petition for legalisation to the Kenyan senate. Okoth argued for Kenya to benefit economically from an export market for cannabis, suggesting that the “government should stop wasting money on sugarcane farming and legalise marijuana instead”. Ogot focused more strongly on the medicinal benefits of cannabis, and sought in his petition to have cannabis removed from the list of scheduled substances, and for the establishment of a regulatory body to oversee a legal market. He argued that: “The plant is God’s gift to mankind just as the many minerals he has put in store for Kenyans. The banning was purely for commercial interests with pharmaceutical firms seeking to control the medical industry during the first and second world wars.”

This petition was debated in the Senate, Kenya’s upper house of Parliament, in February 2017, where it garnered much interest in the media. While the debate in the Kenyan Senate was somewhat inconclusive, and decriminalisation is unlikely, at least in the near future, that such a petition was heard at all marks a shift. Debating the issue confers at least some legitimacy on a topic that many Kenyans recently would either have found shocking or comical.

What all these debates and apparent moves to different policy suggest is that the issue is a live one in African countries. However, it seems likely that the debate will gain more traction in some countries than in others and we should be cautious in generalising across such a diverse continent. In many countries there are so many other more pressing issues than cannabis, that it is unlikely to garner sufficient attention. Indeed, pushing through legislative change will require much energy and resources. For this reason, some might see legalisation as fine for rich countries like the USA with greater capacity to cope with the consequences, but hardly sensible in countries with so many other challenges.

As we have seen, economic reasoning appears to be underlying some of the push to liberalised policy, with some eyeing lucrative futures based around a cannabis industry. Economic interests have, of course, long been important in policy debates around psychoactive substances, with governments often balancing tax and other forms of revenue against medical and social harms with substances like tobacco and alcohol. And historians and anthropologists alike have emphasised the importance of analysing drugs as commodities.This has certainly been true in the case of alcohol, but also in the case of khat. Like cannabis, khat’s harm potential is ambiguous, allowing governments to justify both restricting it and developing a market for it. In the case of khat, producer countries like Ethiopia and Kenya have long resisted making the substance illegal, even if governments have been suspicious of the substance.

In relation to cannabis, we can see how in countries like Lesotho and Malawi, where the cannabis industry forms a major proportion of the national economy, the temptation to make the crop legitimate and boost national coffers might be attractive. A country like Kenya, on the other hand, cultivates cannabis, but not to the same scale. It forms only a minor part of the economy, and is unlikely to garner a strong export market anyway.

It seems possible that where economic logic is not an especially pressing factor, the political will to change cannabis policy is less likely to materialise. In countries like Kenya, concern with the harmful effects of cannabis, as well as the cultural conservatism of many in government and in the general population, will form a substantial roadblock in the way of reform. In fact, Kenya has recently banned shisha smoking on health grounds, suggesting that in terms of policy the predominant logic is still one of restricting rather than liberalising. Yet change in relation to cannabis law is coming thick and fast, and given growing support amongst the political class, change cannot be ruled out in countries like Kenya. Indeed, the sad passing of Okoth has encouraged others to follow his example in calling for such change.

That change to cannabis law in Kenya is now being considered might prove a strong legacy to the memory of Okoth. Stronger yet would be taking seriously too his calls for a properly regulated market, one that would offer protections to the vulnerable, and ideally protect against predation from corporate interests.

Cannabis has provided many smallholder farmers with livelihoods – albeit illicit ones – throughout much of Africa and elsewhere in the world. As Chris Duvall argues, African cannabis farmers have done much innovation in its cultivation even under the cover of illegality. It would be a shame if legality means that powerful interests move in to seize the fruits of this innovation.

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Neil Carrier is Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Bristol, UK. Gernot Klantschnig is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy and Crime at the University of York, UK.

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Urban Africa Under Stress: Rethinking Economic Pressure in Cities

As in other neoliberal cities, the remedies for significant economic burdens are individualized and the political economy that scaffolds them often remains hidden from view. Instead, predatory mobile loans, principally targeting youth, are offered at exorbitant interest rates, the booming church industry thrives on a prosperity gospel that promises individual riches in exchange for prayers and the country’s development is projected in a number of ‘vision’ documents that promote large-scale infrastructure rather than an improvement in basic conditions for all Kenyans.

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Urban Africa Under Stress: Rethinking Economic Pressure in Cities
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Research on economic pressure in Africa has been approached from diverse vantage points. While economists frame ‘pressure’ as a consequence of market failures, or as a by-product of macro-economic measures such as structural adjustment reforms or technological and political change, anthropologists who zoom in on the economic pressures individuals face in their everyday lives, i.e. the lived experiences of those who are ‘under pressure’ have focused more on topics such as uncertainty and precarity. Alternatively, economic psychologists tend to naturalise pressure as an individual response to an adverse financial situation, eclipsing the varied ways pressure is intertwined with and shaped by broader societal transformations, power structures, social relations and obligations, and webs of exchange. There are currently no studies we are aware of that focus on the multi-faceted societal constitution of economic pressure in capitalist Africa, or that compare how pressure is experienced across gender, generation or socioeconomic groups.

How do we study pressure?

Our review of existing literature on economic pressure has identified two main gaps. On the one hand, most ethnographic studies focus on a particular group/community (e.g. female gig workers, urban poor, farmers, security guards, an extended family or even a few individuals). How the experiences and drivers of pressure differ across groups according to class, income, gender, geography, profession etc., is largely absent from the literature. On the other hand, studies tend to frame pressure in the context of one specific driver (e.g. agrarian change, consumer credit, financial inclusion, changes in the structure of work, unemployment, supply chain dynamics, etc.), often in a broader context of neoliberalism, commercialisation, and globalisation.

Our blog series aims to address these gaps by exploring economic pressure in a more situational and practice-oriented way, in which pressure is understood as an affect produced in and through specific geographies, temporalities, and social and economic relations. This allows us to apprehend how specific geographies such as neighbourhoods, estates, markets or cities are pressure inducing or “under pressure”. We frame economic pressure as a multi-causal and highly localized phenomenon shaped by broader geographic, social, cultural, economic and political environments, while, at the same time, acknowledging the value of a comparative approach that captures the experience of pressure across social and economic classes.

Correspondingly, our intervention – in this blog series and beyond – aims to critically engage with and counter two main positions in the literature and policy debates. First, we argue that as a social experience, economic pressure and stress are not confined to the urban poor. By widening the categories of actors (e.g. ultra-poor, poor, middle-class, rich and super rich), our analysis and debate expands the portrayal of pressure as an experience that solely affects the poor; whether it be the “hustler” striving to make ends meet on the streets of Nairobi or families using food banks in Johannesburg. Understanding the cross-class characteristics of pressure is key to understanding how it has become an ubiquitous phenomenon constitutive of capitalist society and everyday life.

Second, we question the assumptions regarding the power of individual action and choice prevalent among psychologists, behavioural economists and other social scientists working on the productive potential of hope, aspirations and self-efficacy (e.g. the work of behavioural economists such as Johannes Haushofer as well as anthropologists such as Arjun Appadurai). Instead, we take the position that economic pressure is produced through the intersection of overarching ideologies, economic structures, social webs of exchange, and the dynamics of capitalism that shape the lives of all classes in the urban population. Based on our review of existing literature and preliminary qualitative interviews conducted in Nairobi, we suggest that economic pressure is an emotional state engendered by a cognitive assessment of a real/imagined disbalance between real/imagined economic demands and the real/imagined ability to fulfil them. Crucially, the existence of economic pressure does not necessarily entail an actual disparity between demands and abilities; rather, it is a (inter)subjective experience produced by changes in an actor’s social and material environment that suggests to him or her that such a disbalance exists and is relevant, significant and urgent. Hence, we do not conceptualise economic pressure as a quantitatively measurable individual feeling, but as an affect whose constitution, magnitude and presence are a function of atmospheric changes in one’s environment. Economic pressure is thus better grasped by local idioms such as piny pek (Dholuo, “the world weighs heavy”) or ngori (Sheng, “trouble”) than through a set of objective criteria.

Where do we study pressure?

Our focus is the capitalist and especially neoliberal city. The effects of neoliberal restructuring and regimes of accumulation have been particularly inimical in African cities, which face ever deepening informalisation, inequality, insecurity, economic uncertainty and attendant excessive policing, yet continue to pulsate with the promise of possibilities. African cities are particularly fertile sites in which to examine pressure as they are agglomerations of rapid and often turbulent social, cultural and economic change triggered by late capitalism, and are home to a range of interconnected actors who experience and manage, as well as co-produce and co-intensify, pressure across class and other divides. City dwellers also experience a constellation of conditions that are distinct from their rural counterparts: they have more business opportunities and risks; face a range of infrastructural constraints, from rising housing and transport expenses to a shortage of affordable housing, water and sanitation; experience high levels of poverty, widespread under-/un-employment, and intense competition for jobs with concomitant downward pressure on wages in the context of increasing rural urban migration; are more vulnerable to urban criminals or state agents (police etc.) that rob them of their earnings or assets, and their financial demands are not fixed, but ever-changing, often with an accelerated speed, and abetted by mobile technology, the self-help industry, and loan apps that encourage financial action. In addition, urban residents are more plugged into the circuits of global capitalist culture (technological connections, media, music, wealth, digital work, etc.) and the latter’s imaginaries of prosperity contribute to the trend of restless and calculative agency.

This complex and shifting landscape of ‘pressure in the city’ demands an inter-disciplinary approach to apprehend how economic demands, obligations and constraints interweave with the social worlds and life experiences of city dwellers. This includes, on the one hand, examining the inter-relationship between available income (and saleable assets more widely) and the necessary and desired demands that actors (and their families, kin, and social networks) face. This income-demands gap (as distinguished from the income-expenditure gap) is a key catalyst of ‘pressure’. On the other hand, this requires tracking pressure across noneconomic registers – financial, cultural, social, psychological – and gaining a comprehensive picture of how these registers relate. For example, while pressure is associated with a number of common somatic symptoms such as sleeplessness, ulcers, lack of energy, depression, over-activity and burn-out, it may also create the conditions that prompt an array of actions such as gender-based violence, concealing or switching phones to avoid being observed or contacted, gambling and drinking, which can induce new psychological, financial and social pressures. Attaining a full picture of pressure — its drivers, symptoms and consequences — thus necessitates an inter-disciplinary and multi-methodological approach.

“One illness away from poverty”: Economic pressures and uncertainty in Nairobi

In the context of the pandemic, Nairobi continues to be a city of disparities. Against the looming local and global slow-down that the Covid-19 crisis has provoked, a recent poll shows that vast sections of the Kenyan population are now unable to pay for utilities (67%), rent, or medicine, can no longer remit money to dependants (79%), have defaulted on loans repayment (75%), and had to turn to food donations. Significantly, 81% of those surveyed are anxious and stressed, while 52% felt helpless and 33% angry. Indeed, the conditions urban residents face are stressful. With the large tracts of the promised Covid-19 stimulus package monies unaccounted for and seemingly never expended, the inconsistent food donations in poor communities tapering, and one million jobs lost in three months, daily life is now even more difficult to plan. But these pressures build on dynamics that existed before the pandemic. In February 2020, before the government implemented a lockdown, census data documented that 39% of youth (between the ages of 18-35) were unemployed. Likewise, over half of those employed in 2018 earned less than 10,000 Kenya shillings a month [less than $100], which is barely enough to cover basic necessities such as food, transport, housing and clothing. With privatization and the high cost of basic services such as rent, healthcare, water and, in many poor neighbourhoods, even sanitation facilities, meeting one’s every day needs is a significant financial strain. Even the middle-class are only “one illness away from poverty” due to the inordinate cost of private health care and similar shocks.

As in other neoliberal cities, the remedies for these significant economic burdens are individualized and the political economy that scaffolds them often remains off-staged/hidden from view. Instead, predatory mobile loans, principally targeting youth, the poorest and underemployed, are offered at exorbitant interest rates, the booming church industry thrives on a prosperity gospel that promises individual riches in exchange for prayers (and often significant tithes) and the country’s development is projected in a number of ‘vision’ documents that promote large-scale infrastructure (such as roads, railways, airports etc) rather than an improvement in basic conditions for all Kenyans.

It is against these realities, that, over the last few years, public discourse more and more features words such as “mental health” and “burnout.” It is not a coincidence that this vernacular is taken up at a time when most Kenyans, surveyed across geographies, genders and classes, reported that their financial status worsened between 2016 and 2019.Interestingly, during this same three year period, we observe increasing (neoliberal) efforts directed towards “financial inclusion” habitually channelled through “fintech.”

Certainly, Kenyans are finding it hard to juggle all their economic burdens, from extended families to basic necessities, let alone finance the personal and collective aspirations for home ownership, better education, cars etc. All around, across all demographics, there is personal and collective work directed towards lightening these loads, made by piny pek – a heavy world. There are bets hedged, some won and many lost; collective savings groups, gambling, debts, and other situated modes to narrativize and negotiate economic pressures. Future blog posts will detail these means of coping in more ethnographic depth, showcasing the fervent efforts people of all walks of life in Nairobi, a capitalist city, are making to ease the pressure.

This article was first published in the Developing Economics.

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Lights in the Ocean: Seeing Potential in Kenya’s Blue Economy

A number of factors have conspired to hinder the growth of Kenya’s maritime industry. Chief among these factors are lack of sufficient support from the government, policy gaps, high shipping costs, and lack of specialised maritime training.

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Lights in the Ocean: Seeing Potential in Kenya’s Blue Economy
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In 2015, when the Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA), the industry regulator, took the National Maritime Conference to Nairobi for the first time, policy makers at the highest level became aware of what a sleeping giant the industry was. Underscoring how much the blue economy (BE) had become a priority for Kenya, the government hosted the first-ever global Sustainable Blue Economy conference in November 2018, with support from Japan and Canada. About 16,000 delegates drawn from all over the world participated.

Key political messages that came from Kenya included the need to mobilise financing for the industry; creation of a blue economy and people-centered strategies on sustainable development; streamlining gender equality in the industry; and strengthening science and research, among other measures to awaken the giant.

Participants made voluntary financial commitments amounting to $172.2 million in various aspects of the BE, as well as several non-monetary commitments in areas like partnerships and capacity-building.

On numerous occasions since 2015, President Uhuru Kenyatta has indicated that Kenya is prioritising the implementation of sustainable blue economy programmes since the sector has the potential to accelerate the country’s development. He has cited the shrinking of land-based resources as a result of a rapidly rising population in Kenya as a good enough reason for a prudent government to lay more focus on resources spread in the ocean with an area of 245,000 km², or 42 per cent of her total land area, which makes Kenya a maritime state.

However, various measures that the government has undertaken in recent years to accelerate the BE have not yielded the envisaged results. This is largely blamed on many years of policy neglect and a consistent failure by the industry’s players to take remedial actions.

Policy gaps

From the onset, Kenya has not been keen on the growth of the maritime sector. Even Kenya’s first independence economic blueprint, African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya of 1965, failed to anchor BE in the country’s economic growth agenda, in spite of its significant role in transporting 95 per cent of the country’s global transactions.

The industry has thus evolved without the support of state policy-making machinery. Instead, it has largely relied on foreign players, who continue to exploit it to date and who repatriate billions from the economy.

Merchant Shipping Act 2009, which was assented to by Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki after two lapses in Parliament due parliamentarians’ ignorance of its urgency, was the first attempt to regulate the sector. The new law was the brain child of KMA, which was established in 2004 to oversee the transfer of responsibilities in shipping matters from the Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) to an autonomous state corporation. This push came from the US government, which was afraid that having succeeded to hijack planes and carry out the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, terrorists could also do the same on largely unsecured African ports.

The industry has thus evolved without the support of state policy-making machinery. Instead, it has largely relied on foreign players, who continue to exploit it to date and who repatriate billions from the economy.

The 2009 Act created a comprehensive and modern legal regime for merchant shipping in Kenya and replaced the outdated Merchant Shipping Act, 1967. The old law did not reflect major transformations in the industry globally, which prevented the full exploitation of Kenya’s maritime industry.

The president’s good intentions on the industry are clear. However, there is a clear policy gap on who should steer the growth of BE. The president, in January 2017, appointed the Chief of Defence Forces, Samson Mwathethe, to chair a Blue Economy implementation Committee. The Kenya Gazette notice said that the eight-member team was mandated with co-coordinating and overseeing the implementation of the prioritised programmes in the industry and was to submit monthly reports.

Most importantly, it was supposed to develop an Integrated Maritime Transport Policy to galvanise and harmonise an industry that is currently overseen by 22 agencies with duplicating and conflicting roles. For over 3 years now, this has not yet been achieved and signs that the committee is working on it are nowhere to be seen.

The management of the BE is currently spread through three government departments without any clear mechanisms of collaboration despite the great interdependence among the players in the maritime industry.  Executive order no. 1 of May 2020 places KPA and the Kenya Ferry Services (KFS) under the transport department. The Department of Shipping and Maritime Affairs oversees KMA, Bandari College and Kenya National Shipping Line, while the state department for fisheries is in charge of the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute and the Kenya Fisheries Advisory Council.

Without a harmonised approach, the country has failed to exploit sea-based resources, which are worth a huge fortune. In 2018, the then Agriculture Cabinet Secretary, Mwangi Kiunjuri, said Kenya was losing over Sh440 billion annually by failing to fully exploit the blue economy.

Marine fishing’s lost potential

The Western Indian Ocean has resources worth more than Sh2.2 trillion annual output, with Kenya’s share being about 20 per cent of this. The marine fishing sub-sector alone had an annual fish potential of 350,000 metric tonnes in 2013 worth Sh90 billion. However, the region only yielded a paltry 9,134 metric tonnes worth Sh2.3 billion.

Optimal exploitation marine fishing is hindered by infrastructural limitations and inappropriate fishing craft and gear. Artisanal fishers mainly restrict their operations to the continental shelf because they are ill-equipped in terms of craft and equipment to fish in the deep sea.

The Kenyan coastline is rich in fish species. For instance, Malindi is the only place in the world that offers the best chance of catching five different billfish species in one day – broadbill swordfish, black, blue and striped marlin and sailfish.

In 2018, the then Agriculture Cabinet Secretary, Mwangi Kiunjuri, said Kenya was losing over Sh440 billion annually by failing to fully exploit the blue economy.

The deep sea waters are left to Distant Water Fishing Nations (DWFN) who mainly fish tuna species. Kenya lies within the rich tuna belt of the West Indian Ocean where 25 per cent of the world’s tuna is caught.

Foreign fishing fleets can operate in Kenya’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in accordance with the regional and international agreement and cooperation provision of the National Oceans and Fisheries Policy, which allows governments to continue granting fishing rights in their EEZs, taking into account the state of the stock and economic returns.

In December 2017, President Kenyatta suspended the licences of foreign trawlers as part of efforts to grow the country’s blue economy through value addition. During the 54th commemoration of the country’s independence, he said that the ban on foreign vessels would help increase fish processed locally seven-fold to 18,000 tonnes per year. Kenya, the president announced, loses about 10 billion shillings ($97 million) a year to foreign boats fishing without permission.

Lack of specialised maritime training

Although Kenya requires fishing vessels to land 30 per cent of their catch in the country to create processing jobs, coastguards lack sufficient capacity to police the country’s territorial waters.

Andrew Mwangura, a maritime expert in Mombasa, argues that carving out coastguards from the military was a big mistake. Coastguards have more roles to play and need specialised training. With only one boat at their disposal and less than 40 officers, he opined, coastguards lack capacity to effectively deal with the issue of illegal fishing. Coastguards are supposed to offer maritime safety and security with on-board other officers from customs, fisheries, port health, immigration and police.

Kenya’s effort to venture into deep sea fishing is not only limited due to lack of physical infrastructure but the country’s ill-trained workforce as well. The International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Fishing Vessel Personnel, 1995 (STCW-F 1995), entered into force on 29 September 2012, sets certification and minimum training requirements for crews of seagoing fishing vessels of 24 metres in length and above.

For maritime training institutes worldwide, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has developed a series of model courses that provide suggested syllabi, course timetables and learning objectives to assist the instructors to develop training programmes to meet the STCW Convention standards for seafarers.

Out of more than 30 courses offered in maritime training, as recommended by IMO, Bandari (which has since last year been renamed Bandari Centre of Excellence) is only able to offer 6 of these courses.

In addition, Bandari lacks shipboard training opportunities due to the nascent development of seafarer training in Kenya, which has caused delays in completion of training courses, given that shipboard training is compulsory in order to be certified. An integral part of the programmes for Sea Training is to ensure that the students acquire practical knowledge through actual work experience. One has to learn by doing while at sea and in port.

Out of more than 30 courses offered in maritime training, as recommended by IMO, Bandari (which has since last year been renamed Bandari Centre of Excellence) is only able to offer 6 of these courses.

Lack of training of seafarers will also lock Kenyans from the off-shore gas and oil industry exploration taking place in our high seas.

To optimise the gains in the sector, there is a serious need to invest in human resources by rolling out training in higher education institutions and tertiary colleges.

Despite the growing demand to create enough workforce commensurate with the industry’s growth, the status of maritime training is not very encouraging. Only three colleges and two universities offer maritime courses in the country, with most of the other professionals having trained overseas at highly prohibitive costs.

By 2016, the Philippines had over 37 maritime academies, 20 maritime training centres and 17 crewing manning agencies, enabling it to supply 20 per cent of the world seafarers.

High shipping costs and lack of a competitive environment

In its endeavour to facilitate and promote global maritime trade, the Blue Economy Implementation Committee identified the revival of the Kenya National Shipping Line (KNSL) as a critical intervention, with a potential of contributing to the exchequer Sh304 billion annually.

To do this, KNSL partnered with the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) of Italy, in what was described as a government-to-government arrangement that would see the government retain the majority shareholding (51 per cent) at KNSL to turn it into a major national carrier.  Merchant Shipping Act section 16 A was amended and assented to allow the deal. However, the Dock Workers Union (DWU) challenged this in a court of law and when the ruling was done in its favour, the government deal collapsed.

The government’s plan intended to support the revival of the KNSL, which has been dormant for the last 23 years. Mismanagement sent the entity, which was established in 1987, into debt and loss of business. The deal was supposed to allow the MSC to run the second container terminal (CT2) at the port of Mombasa and it would also hire 2,000 seafarers every year for the next five years in return.

The estimated transport charges paid out to shipping lines calling at Mombasa port is about Sh304 billion annually. There is also another list of destination charges applied in the country that have made the shipping business in Mombasa costly.

The government, in supporting the deal, estimated that its cargo costs an average of Sh14billion in freight per year, while local destination charges comprise another Sh34 billion. With local shipping capacity and the application of “Buy Kenya, Build Kenya” policies, the amount of Sh14 billion could be retained in Kenya, Transport CS Mr. James Macharia argued in support of the deal.

In the absence of a pricing framework or competitive environment, the destination tariff has proliferated in Mombasa port to 36 charge items. The revived KNSL could be used by the government to influence and leverage the reduction or doing away with components of destination charges thus reducing the national burden in maritime transport. Some of the charges include delivery order fee, amendment to bill of lading fee, supervision fee, manifest correction fee, currency exchange rate, container repair charges, and equipment management fee, among others.

In running the liner service, KNSL had the option of chartering or acquiring with time its own vessels. It was anticipated that income arising from transferring MSC trans-shipment cargo from Mombasa to other ports around Africa would yield sufficient funds to make consideration of vessel acquisition a reality in the long run.

The second container terminal is currently being operated by Maersk Shipping, the largest line calling at Mombasa, with control of over 30 per cent of the total cargo volumes at the port. When the terminal was finished over three years ago, it was supposed to be operated by a private player, who KPA was unable to pick from bidders due to a row that ended up in court.

Last year, Denmark, France, Japan and the UK protested that management of CT2 should have gone out to international tender since this was a condition for Japan to provide Sh28 billion for the first phase and Sh35 billion for the second phase construction.

Marine Cargo Insurance (MCI) also has huge potential. Its overall performance has significantly improved since the National Treasury directive to enforce Section 20 of the Insurance Act came into effect on 1 January 2017 that requires compulsory purchase of MCI from local underwriters. However, by importing cargo on Cost Insurance Freight (CIF) and the lack of proper coordination between various agencies has made the enforcing of this requirement a huge challenge.

Claims of undercutting have rocked the MCI insurance business as a record number of players entered the segment. The Insurance Regulatory Authority (IRA) had in the past raised concerns over unsustainable premiums.

Following the directive, the MCI performed considerably well compared to the years before 2017. The gross written premiums were Sh2.3 billion compared to Sh1.45 billion in 2016, representing an increase of 59 per cent. Based on the value of the imports, MCI premiums can generate up to Sh20 billion for local underwriters if the law is fully enforced.

Twenty-seven insurance companies have been brought on the online cargo clearing system run by the KenTrade, which is being integrated with the Kenya Revenue Authority’s Integrated Custom Management System (iCMS). This could help in enforcing section 20.

Cruise ship tourism: The next frontier

Cruise ship tourism is another area with huge potential as it targets high- end tourists. Industry experts say that 400 cruise tourists are equivalent to 4,000 tourists who come to the country via air. Kenya Ships Agents Association (KSAA) estimates that 40 cruise ships calling at the port could translate to US$20 million.

In 2004, at least 42 cruise ships arrived in Mombasa, with 15,166 passengers who took safaris to various destinations, especially to Maasai Mara and Tsavo national parks, earning the sector millions of shillings. But the number dropped as piracy took over in the Indian Ocean, with 2012 being the worst since not a single vessel called at Mombasa port.

Industry experts say that 400 cruise tourists are equivalent to 4,000 tourists who come to the country via air. Kenya Ships Agents Association (KSAA) estimates that 40 cruise ships calling at the port could translate to US$20 million.

A memorandum of understanding was signed early this year between Kenya and Vanilla Islands, a consortium of island nations including Seychelles, Madagascar, Mauritius, Comoros, Reunion, Mayotte and the Maldives.

Construction of the Mombasa cruise ship terminal at the port of Mombasa, which was supported by the Trademark East Africa. has been completed. The new terminal contains duty free shops, conference facilities, restaurants, offices, baggage conveyor belts, and migration and health offices. Further, the facility has a capacity to handle 2,000 cruise ship passengers at a time.

Stakeholders in the hospitality industry have been pushing to be represented at the KPA board so that they can help in understanding cruise tourism dynamics, such as developing cruise facilities at the other smaller ports, and in influencing the port to bid for as many cruise vessels as possible.

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Kenya Beyond Liberal Democracy: The Rationale for an Ethnically-Based Federation

An increasing number of political theorists are convinced that what is often called “the failure of democracy in Africa” is really “the failure of liberal democracy in Africa”, and that this failure is doomed to be witnessed on the continent until Africans stop trying to implement this foreign model of governance and begin to design their own home-grown models of democracy, which could include ethnically-based federations.

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Kenya Beyond Liberal Democracy: The Rationale for an Ethnically-Based Federation
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Whenever there is a crisis of the magnitude of the current COVID-19 pandemic, people are forced to inspect their most basic assumptions. In Philosophy and Education in Africa, R.J. Njoroge and G.A. Bennaars noted that we get the English noun “crisis: from the Greek noun krisis, denoting separation, decision, or judgment. Among the things that many have often taken for granted, but that are worth inspecting, is the belief that democracy is all about elections, after which the executive, the legislature and the judiciary run the country. This is the liberal democratic framework that deserves a fresh look, alongside the many other things that we can no longer take for granted.

The woes of liberal democracy

For many, “democracy” simply means “liberal democracy” – characterised by individual freedom (which entitles citizens to the liberty and responsibility of charting the course of their lives and conducting their own affairs), equality before the law, the right of everyone to vote (“universal suffrage”), universal education, freedom of movement, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly.

Many of these features have been proclaimed in historical documents, such as the 1776 U.S. Declaration of Independence, which asserted the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which affirmed the principles of civil liberty and of equality before the law, and the 1941 Anglo-American Atlantic Charter, which affirmed the “four freedoms”, namely, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear of physical aggression.

Liberal democracy is the political expression of liberalism – an ideology that emphasises the pre-eminence of the autonomy of the individual over the authority of society. In 1859, John Stuart Mill classically articulated the centrality of the autonomy of the individual in Western liberal thought in his On Liberty, in which he argued that the individual ought to be protected against the tyranny of the majority in the same way as he or she ought to be protected against political despotism. For him, society is only justified to limit the individual’s freedom in instances where his or her actions result in harm to others.

In “The Case against Democracy”, C. Crain notes that proponents of liberal democracy contend that it has several strengths, among which are that countries that subscribe to it very rarely go to war with one another, rarely murder their own populations, nearly always have peaceful transitions of government, and respect human rights more consistently than other systems of government do.

However, since most African states attained political independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s on the back of constitutions that were by and large liberal democratic, they almost immediately faced major challenges in their efforts to put this imported model of governance into practice. Thus there were numerous amendments of constitutions to perpetuate incumbent regimes, often leading to autocratic one-party states, military coups, contested elections, and violent inter-ethnic conflicts.

Furthermore, in a masterly book chapter titled “Western Modernity, African Indigene, and Political Order: Interrogating the Liberal Democratic Orthodoxy” in Electoral Politics in Kenya, the Kenyan political scientist Ludeki Chweya pointed out that the re-introduction of multiparty democracy in several African countries from the early 1990s met with challenges very similar to the ones experienced at the dawn of independence. From the early 1990s, newly elected governments were overthrown either through military coups (Sierra Leone, Burundi and Côte d’Ivoire), or at the hands of armed guerrilla movements (Congo-Brazzaville). Further, adulterated multiparty elections resulted in the retention and legitimisation of the continent’s long-standing authoritarian civilian regimes (Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Kenya). Even where there was a successful change of guard through multiparty elections, new, ostensibly democratic regimes quickly assumed an authoritarian character typical of their predecessors (Zambia and Malawi). A few others remained aloof to these democratisation initiatives (Sudan).

In “The Case against Democracy”, C. Crain notes that proponents of liberal democracy contend that it has several strengths, among which are that countries that subscribe to it very rarely go to war with one another, rarely murder their own populations, nearly always have peaceful transitions of government, and respect human rights more consistently than other systems of government do.

Consequently, an increasing number of African and Africanist political theorists are now convinced that what is often called “the failure of democracy in Africa” is really “the failure of liberal democracy in Africa”, and that this failure is doomed to be witnessed in our continent again and again until we stop trying to implement this foreign model of governance and design our own home-grown models of democracy instead.

For Ludeki Chweya, the development of a stable and enduring democracy in Africa is contingent upon a fusion of elements from two civilisations that make up the continent’s socio-political heritage, namely, the abiding indigenous African forms of democracy and Western liberal democracy, so as to produce a special variant of democracy for the continent.

On the basis of the decentralised political structures in a considerable number of pre-colonial societies in Africa, the Kenyan philosopher Aloo Osotsi Mojola, in a chapter in the edited volume, Law and the Struggle for Democracy in East Africa, prescribes a restructuring of the global system through radical decentralisation that no longer has the “nation-state” at its core.

On his part, the renowned Ghanaian philosopher, Kwasi Wiredu, in Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective, prescribes a no-party consensual democracy for contemporary African states, averring that many pre-colonial African communities were effectively governed through this form of governance. He is emphatic that while unanimity might be the perfection of consensus, it need not be achieved in every instance. Instead, quite often, it will be enough to ensure that all views are adequately articulated in the course of decision-making in order to secure the goodwill of those whose wishes are not adopted for implementation.

Moreover, in his 2002 conference paper, “Democratic Governance and New Democracy in Africa: Agenda for the Future”, the late South Africa-born scholar, Archie Mafeje, proposed that African scholars abandon the Western debate between liberal democracy and social democracy, and adopt a new approach to democracy instead, entailing three crucial components. First, the sovereignty of the people ought to be recognised as both a basic necessity and a fundamental right. Second, social justice, not simply formal rights, must constitute the foundation of the new democracy. Third, the livelihood of the citizens must not be contingent on ownership of property, but rather on equitable access to productive resources.

On his part, the renowned Ghanaian philosopher, Kwasi Wiredu, in Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective, prescribes a no-party consensual democracy for contemporary African states, averring that many pre-colonial African communities were effectively governed through this form of governance.

Tatah Mentan’s 2015 book, Decolonizing Democracy from Western Cognitive Imperialism, seems to capture the spirit of the views of the foregoing African theorists.

In line with the foregoing African thinkers, I hold the view that there is no reason for giving liberal democracy a third chance instead of exercising our creativity to come up with alternative models of democracy that take cognisance of our socio-political realities instead of attempting to override them as experiments with liberal democracy have done for almost six decades now. In “Liberal Democracy: An African Critique”, I argued that from an African perspective, the almost hegemonic status of liberal democracy can be challenged on at least five grounds:

  1. Logical inconsistency – liberal democracy advocates for the autonomy of the individual, and yet no individual is born with an awareness of liberal ideals; these can only be taught to the young and old in a social context.
  2. Impracticability – while liberal democracy lays emphasis on the autonomy of the individual, many Africans have a largely communalistic outlook based on their conception of family as extending beyond their immediate household to a broad range of kinship relations that extend all the way to their ethnic groups. Besides, due to the large amounts of money required to effectively compete for elective positions, liberal democracy marginalises the masses to mere voting pawns.
  3. Inconsistency between affirmation and action – Western societies that emphasise the liberal ideals of the dignity of the individual and his/her various freedoms have been some of the greatest violators of those very ideals through the slave trade, colonialism and neocolonialism.
  4. Violation of the right to ethnic identity – the ethnically-blind vision of liberal democracy unjustifiably criminalises the right of the individual to enjoy associating with his/her ethnic group, and even to desire that this loyalty be recognised and respected in the management of public affairs.
  5. The moral imperative to assert the right to cultural emancipation – genuine political independence requires that the cultural orientation of African peoples find expression in their political organisation instead of such organisation being designed to reflect the ideals of their erstwhile colonisers.

Three Grounds for an Ethnically-based Federation for Kenya

According to the advocates of liberal democracy, post-colonial African states ought to minimise, if not entirely get rid of, the multiplicity of ethnic identities and loyalties. In other words, they advocate for ethnically-blind polities, where states focus on the demands of the individuals in them rather than on those of cultural groups.

However, there are at least three reasons why Kenya ought to be re-structured into an ethnically-based federation.

First, freedom of association ought to include the liberty of the individual to associate with people with whom he/she shares a cultural heritage, and this can find considerable room for expression in an ethnically-based federation. Western liberalism strangely fails to see that criminalising the free expression of ethnic loyalty amounts to a violation of the right to free association, and is a case of liberalism itself being illiberal in practice. Furthermore, social scientists attest to the fact that the individual’s views regarding the good life are significantly influenced by his or her social environment whose major feature is often ethnicity.

The 1948 United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights had a distinctly liberal democratic orientation, envisaging rights as strictly belonging to individuals and not to groups. However, due to pressure from non-Western communalistic cultures, current discourse on human rights within the UN framework acknowledges three categories of entitlements, referred to as “generations of rights”, namely (1) civil rights (entailing the well-known personal liberties, such as freedom of movement, association and conscience), (2) economic welfare rights (including entitlements to food, shelter, medical care and employment), and (3) what may be broadly termed “rights of cultural membership”.

Thus the 1966 UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights declares that third-generation rights ought to be protected: “In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.”

Second, recognition and protection of the right to ethnic identity through an ethnically-based federation would be an antidote to perpetual cultural, political and economic domination. In unitarist ethnically plural post-colonial African states, ethnic groups that enjoy numerical advantage, or, more importantly, that have managed to hang on to political power, configure the state to reflect and support their own worldviews, and this has a direct impact on access to economic and political influence. For example, in “Kenya: Minorities, Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Diversity”, Maurice Odhiambo Makoloo pointed out that just like their colonial predecessors, post-colonial Kenyan regimes have defined the economic potential of the country strictly through agro-ecological zones, thus retaining the colonial fixation with highland agriculture. Central Kenya and the highlands are defined as high potential areas, while the Lake Basin and Ukambani lowlands (Eastern province) are defined as medium potential and the rangelands, which comprise 70 per cent of the country’s land mass, are defined as lowest potential.

Consequently, as John R. Campbell observed in “Ethnic Minorities and Development: A Prospective Look at the Situation of African Pastoralists and Hunter-Gatherers”, a hierarchy has developed based on unequal political power which translates into unequal access to, and control over, land. Campbell went on to note that from colonial times, alien Western capitalism has encroached on land, whether it belongs to agriculturalists, pastoralists or hunter-gatherers; agriculturalists have moved into pastoralist lands, and agriculturalists and pastoralists have taken over hunter-gatherer territories.

For example, in “Kenya: Minorities, Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Diversity”, Maurice Odhiambo Makoloo pointed out that just like their colonial predecessors, post-colonial Kenyan regimes have defined the economic potential of the country strictly through agro-ecological zones, thus retaining the colonial fixation with highland agriculture.

Except for alien Western capitalist encroachment, numerical strength or weakness has been pivotal to this hierarchical process of socio-political dispossession, as the agriculturalists are more numerous than the pastoralists, and the latter have a demographic advantage over the hunter-gatherers. Consequently, entrenching the right to the recognition and protection of ethnic identity into the country’s constitution would significantly enhance efforts to address these injustices.

Third, in “Nationhood and Statehood: The Impact of a Conflated Discourse on African Polities and their Non-Dominant Ethnic Groups”, I argued that constitutional protection of ethnic identity would address the need to mitigate the harmful effects of the discourse on the nation-state. From the days of the so-called nationalist struggle for independence, the idea was popularised that Kenyans are “one people”.

However, the formation of the Kenyan state was an act of gross violence, commencing with the formal inauguration of the Imperial British East Africa Company rule in 1888, but more officially with the declaration of the British East African Protectorate on 1st July, 1895. The 1886 Anglo-German agreement delineated the sovereignty of the Sultan of Zanzibar from the country’s coastline to ten miles into the interior. In 1895, the Sultan of Zanzibar leased the administration of the strip to the British.

These events set in motion the violent process of placing different ethnic communities with their diverse systems of government within one large and new area of central administration. The territory beyond the ten-mile coastal strip was declared to be “Kenya Colony” in 1920. Thus while the ten-mile coastal strip continued to be referred to as a Protectorate, the rest of the territory was henceforth referred to as the Kenya Colony.

Nevertheless, the British administered the Protectorate and the Colony as a two-in-one unit out of expediency. Is it any wonder then that our people display greater loyalty to their ethnic identities that are centuries old, while giving lip service to the Kenyan identity which, very loosely speaking, is only a century old this year? Consequently, like most post-colonial African polities, Kenya is a multi-national state, not a nation.

While current geopolitics make it impossible for our various peoples to revert to their pre-colonial political formations, we can mitigate their pain considerably by setting up an ethnically-based federation in which ethnic identity is recognised and respected instead of being criminalised, as it has been thus far. Thus, in the place of the nationalist discourse, we need to build a polity in which our various peoples can organise their local spaces in a manner consonant with their worldviews. This point becomes clearer when we recognise the fact that politics is part and parcel of culture, so that a political formation enjoys greater legitimacy when it reflects the cultural milieu of its inhabitants. Regarding this, A.S. Narang, in “Ethnic Conflicts and Minority Rights”, wrote:

People invariably retain an attachment to their own ethnic group and the community in which they were brought up. There is an interdependence between the individual and collective processes of identity formation. Thus individuals expect to recognise themselves in public institutions. They expect some consistency between their private identities and the symbolic contents upheld by public authorities, embedded in the social institutions, and celebrated in public events. Otherwise, individuals feel like social strangers, they feel that the society is not their society.

Many people in Kenya, especially in the rural areas, still cherish their indigenous systems of governance. This is perhaps most evident during electioneering seasons, when politicians go around the country receiving politico-spiritual “honours” from elders of various ethnic groups in a bid to enhance their popularity in those communities. It is therefore high time we took the rampant loyalty to indigenous governance models seriously by giving the people space to utilise them at the local level through an ethnically-based federation.

In “What is the Problem of Ethnicity in Africa?”, the late renowned Nigerian social scientist, Claude Ake, stated:

… ethnicity supposedly epitomizes backwardness and constrains the development of Africa. This presupposition is misleading, however, for it is development rather than the people and their culture which has to be problematized. Development has to begin by taking people and their culture as they are, not as they might be, and proceeding from there to define the problems and strategies for development. Otherwise, the problematic of development becomes a tautology. The people are not and cannot be a problem just by being what they are, even if part of what they are is ethnic consciousness. Our treatment of ethnicity and ethnic consciousness reflects this tendency to problematize the people and their culture, an error that continues to push Africa deeper into confusion…The point of course is not to romanticize the past and be captive to it but to recognize what is on the ground and strive to engineer a more efficient, less traumatic, and less self-destructive social transformation.

Many people in Kenya, especially in the rural areas, still cherish their indigenous systems of governance. This is perhaps most evident during electioneering seasons, when politicians go around the country receiving politico-spiritual “honours” from elders of various ethnic groups in a bid to enhance their popularity in those communities.

Ake went on to warn that the usual easy judgments against ethnic consciousness are a dangerous luxury at a time when long-established states are decomposing under pressure from ethnic and nationalist assertiveness, and when the community of independent states is shrugging off their demise. For him, the enormous implications of this for Africa, where hundreds of ethnic groups are squeezed chaotically and oppressively into approximately 50 states, are easy enough to imagine.

Are there successful cases of ethnically-based federations in Africa? The answer to this question is not straightforward, but the Ethiopian case is worth careful study. While in “The Trouble with Ethiopia’s Ethnic Federalism” Mahmood Mamdani dismisses the Ethiopian experiment on the basis of the ethnically-blind liberal vision of society, Kalundi Serumaga plausibly replies to him in “Speak of Me as I Am: Ethiopia, Native Identities and the National Question in Africa”.

Yet, whether or not there are successful cases of ethnically-based federations is neither here nor there: the hypocritical nationalist discourse in Kenya, in which politicians speak about their commitment to a Kenyan identity while mobilising their followers along ethnic lines, can only be slain by finally acknowledging our ethnic diversity and factoring it into our socio-political engineering. We can achieve this by granting constitutional protection to the right to ethnic identity, and on its basis creating an ethnically-based federation.

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