In the pre-colonial days of the early 1900s, Africans predominantly farmed finger millet, sorghum, pearl millet, amaranth, jute mallow, spider plant, and lablab, among other indigenous crops. The farms were so rich in biodiversity that food production thrived. This subsistence nature of farming saw crops being transferred from farm to plate.
In the western Nyanza belt, for instance, ugali was brown (a mixture of sorghum and millet) and often accompanied by indigenous vegetables, such as elisaka (spider flower), omurere (jute), and chimboka (amaranth). During bountiful days, farmers thronged the local food markets to sell off their surplus produce. Food was diverse, high in nutrients, locally grown, and locally available.
In contrast, most farms in Africa today have morphed into monoculture (cultivation of one type of crop) farms. In Kenya, maize is the most dominant food crop on most farms. Cash crops, such as tea, cotton, and coffee introduced by the colonial enterprise, still dominate most farms, and food markets mostly sell kales (sukuma wiki), spinach, maize, and cabbage. Consequently, meals in most households have shifted to either white processed ugali and sukuma wiki or beef and chapati or rice. Food is now processed, low in nutrients and 14% of it is imported.
The diversity present in farmers’ fields has continually declined and the threats to diversity are on the rise. Of the more than 6,000 plant species cultivated for food, fewer than 200 make substantial contributions to global food output, with only 9 accounting for 66 per cent of total crop production in 2014.
Such has been the evolution of food systems that farmers intuitively gravitate towards producing what has a ready market as opposed to what is nutritious and indigenous. Cash crops have replaced heritage foods that fed people for generations sprawling back to the dawn of human life.
Cash cropping: A profit-driven paradigm
Mass cash cropping (popularised by industrial agriculture) has done more harm than good to smallholder farmers. Fertile lands in the Kenyan highlands are occupied by multinational tea corporations, such as James Finlays and Unilever Tea. These corporations pocket high profits at the expense of Kenyan smallholder tea farmers, who constantly grapple with low prices for this produce and remain mired in poverty. Meanwhile, tea pickers work and live under destitute conditions and some suffer from sexual harassment.
Whereas the proponents of cash crop farming might argue that this type of farming has placed farmers on the global market (thereby increasing their chances of earning an income, which could, in turn, address food insecurity) health, economic and social concerns have assumed a secondary place to profits.
Of the more than 6,000 plant species cultivated for food, fewer than 200 make substantial contributions to global food output, with only 9 accounting for 66 per cent of total crop production in 2014.
The development history of cash crops in Africa over the last few decades, however, shows that cash crops have produced minimal cash. In the previous three decades, real income from cash crops has declined. African shares in world markets of most commodities have worsened, and most African countries have been sinking deeper and deeper into debt.
The cash crop monopoly has led to the inhumane exploitation of smallholder farmers. This system has consistently oppressed farmers economically and socially through land grabbing, repressive seed laws, and dependency on multinational corporations for farm inputs. Farmers can no longer save and share seeds from the current harvest to plant the next season, as these seeds are patented by multinational seed corporations and protected by intellectual property laws. In Tanzania, farmers risk a prison sentence of at least 12 years or a fine of over €205,300, or both, if they sell and share seeds, including their own farmer-bred seeds, that are not certified. Smallholder farmers now have to buy the seeds, chemical pesticides, and fertilisers each planting season. They have increasingly found themselves at the short end of the stick in this profit-driven paradigm.
This dependency has tied farmers to crippling debt that has sunk the farmers deeper into cyclic poverty. In India, many farmers have committed suicide on account of spiralling debt. In Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region, 60,000 farmers committed suicide in 2007 because of debt, repeated crop failures, and the inability to meet the rising cost of cultivation.
Growing cash crops for export has taken more productive land from local food production. Resources that would otherwise have utility in local food production have been channelled into producing agricultural export crops. Consequently, smallholder farmers have converted marginal land with little agricultural productivity for local consumption.
Cultivating cash crops on lands traditionally meant for food crops has a significant impact on the food security of a community or nation. Conversion from subsistence farming to market-oriented agriculture, and shifting from the cultivation of traditional food crops to cash crops through the commercialisation of agriculture have led to an increase in malnutrition and food insecurity in most African countries. In Kenya, for instance, in 2008, an estimated 1.3 million people in rural areas and between 3.5 million and 4 million in urban areas were food insecure. This is despite Kenya exporting more than 3 billion dollars in food crops in 2010.
Cultivation of cash crops has also led to the excessive use of fertilizers and agrochemicals, which have harmed our bees and soil and aquatic organisms, and left our water bodies choking with pollution. The need for more land for cash crop cultivation has led to massive deforestation, which has further degraded soils and increased water scarcity. According to the Ndung’u land report, from 1963 to 2003, 11,000 acres of forested land in Kenya was excised off to create the Nyayo Tea zones. In 1988, Transmara Forest Reserve lost 937.7 hectares to Kiptagich Tea Estates.
Agricultural commercialisation has led to monocropping. This introduction of new and similar crops into farmers’ fields has drastically altered the diversity of local varieties previously cultivated by farmers. Farm agricultural diversity has been killed under the false assumption that local varieties have low productivity. Ownership of diverse indigenous seed varieties has shifted from smallholder farmers to multinational corporations. The farmer no longer controls and owns the seeds he grows. New patented varieties, often marketed as high yielding varieties, require smallholder farmers to purchase the seeds from one supplier, in this case, the multinational corporations.
Growing monocultures on farms only advances the global agenda of globalisation, which is often controlled by global corporations. Monocultures have been proven to displace the biodiversity on farms. The UN International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources in Leipzig Germany, 1996, noted that industrial monocultures in agriculture had replaced 75 per cent of all agro-biodiversity.
Cultivation of cash crops has also led to the excessive use of fertilizers and agrochemicals, which have harmed our bees and soil and aquatic organisms, and left our water bodies choking with pollution.
In addition, Western agricultural corporations and governments are now pushing African countries to industrialise their agriculture. Consequently, food crops, such as rice, wheat, and maize, are currently grown as cash crops. These crops currently account for more than 50 per cent of the world’s calorie intake. An indication of the loss of agricultural diversity is the fact that today we have more Kenyans consuming imported maize, wheat, and rice as opposed to millet and sorghum so much so that the former have become the staple foods.
It is this reliance on food and agricultural imports that has seen most Kenyans go to bed on an empty stomach. What’s worse, in the wake of COVID-19, farmers are losing their produce due to lack of markets or are sell it at throwaway prices.
President Uhuru Kenyatta, in his March address, encouraged traders and farmers to continue with their agricultural activities so that Kenyans can have access to farm produce at all times – a clear indication that smallholder farmers produce the food consumed in the country.
Who feeds Kenya?
A World Bank Report shows that Kenyan agriculture covers small-, medium-, and large-scale farming. Small-scale production represents roughly 75 per cent of the total agricultural output. The report further states that small-scale production further accounts for 70 per cent of the marketed agrarian produce, as opposed to large-scale farming, which accounts for 30 per cent of traded agrarian food and mainly involves growing commercial crops, such as tea, coffee, maize, sugarcane, and wheat.
Hans Binswanger-Mkhize, in his book, Agricultural Land Redistribution: Toward Greater Consensus, makes a similar assessment. He notes that with just 37 per cent of the land, small-scale farms in Kenya produced 73 per cent of agricultural output in 2004.
It is therefore quite evident that small-scale farmers feed Kenyans as they focus on producing food for local and national markets and their own families. In contrast, large-scale farms specialising in cash crops tend to produce commodities and concentrate on export crops, many of which people can’t eat. They also focus mainly on return on investment.
Despite this realisation, there is little evidence of action taken to ensure that these small-scale farmers produce more during this COVID-19 pandemic. To cushion Kenyans against hunger, the Ministry of Agriculture has sought to import 4 million bags of maize to curb the shortage in the country instead of supporting the smallholder farmers who produce 70 per cent of the maize consumed in the country to produce more. This dependence on the international market for food security that prioritises the industrial agriculture paradigm (the frontier of the cash crop monopoly) is the very foundation of the food crisis we are facing today.
This lack of support has led to the reduction in the number of smallholder farmers. Dr. Vandana Shiva, in her book, Who Really Feeds the World, notes that since the introduction of policies of globalisation of agriculture in 1991, farmers have sunk in numbers, from 110 million to 95.8 million – a loss of nearly 15 million farmers, or 2,000 farmers per day.
This reduction in the number of smallholder farmers is a direct result of the loss of their agricultural land. A large number of farming families have less than two hectares to feed themselves and humankind. The acreage available for cultivation is shrinking due to a number of factors, including population pressure, lack of access to land, and rules of corporate globalisation designed to make profits at the expense of smallholder farmers.
A World Bank report shows that between 2008 and 2010, at least 60 million hectares of productive farmland was leased out or sold to foreign investors for large-scale agricultural projects, with more than half of these in Africa. farmlandgrab.org noted that these massive new agribusiness projects were throwing a limitless number of small farmers off their territories.
As though the shrinking land size is not enough of a hurdle, farmers are even locked into debt as multinational corporations sell them costly inputs in the form of patented seeds, fertilizers, and agrochemicals while buying their produce cheaply. Multinational corporations such as Bayer, Dupont, Syngenta, Land O’Lakes, BASF, Yara, PepsiCO, Unilever, and Carrefour are ripping everything off farmers. Consequently, farming has become unviable, and most farmers are leaving their farms for meagre jobs in the urban areas.
A World Bank report shows that between 2008 and 2010, at least 60 million hectares of productive farmland was leased out or sold to foreign investors for large-scale agricultural projects, with more than half of these in Africa.
The future of food security and food safety lies in promoting and safeguarding small-scale farmers. It is time to make farming feasible for the smallholder farmer, given that high input, resource-intensive farming systems have failed to achieve sustainable food and agricultural production.
Contradictory to this, is the decision by the government not to buy maize for its Strategic Food Reserve from local farmers but instead pave way for private sector warehousing. This will lead to no stabilisation of food supply levels and prices within the country during prolonged droughts. This move is likely to exacerbate the levels of food insecurity within the country by increasing the prices of food thus reducing its availability to majority of Kenyans. This is per the Agricultural Sector Transformation and Growth Strategy 2019 -2020, which purports to boost food security in the country.
What needs to happen
Small-scale farms have already proven that they can produce more diverse foods for households and the market. The Ministry of Agriculture needs to prioritise domestic food production over international exports and increase investment in smallholder farmer-based food production.
The UN Environment Programme, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and the UN special rapporteur on the right to food estimate that small farmers produce up to 80 per cent of the food in non-industrialised countries. We need to stop the allocation of land to agribusiness-led ventures and make land accessible to smallholder farmers through appropriate land reforms. Land from the cash crop plantations needs to be handed over to smallholder farmers. Women farmers who produce most of our food have no access to land. We need systems that make it legal for women to own and cultivate land.
We need policies that enable farmers to grow locally, export real surpluses, and import what is not available locally. Policy interventions include stabilising market prices and regulating import controls through taxes to avoid dumping, which threatens local agricultural production.
We need to innovative and create eco-friendly farming systems, such as ecological farming that protects and enhances the natural resource base while raising agricultural productivity. Farming systems should encourage diversity to cope with climatic shocks.
We need farming systems that protect farmers and consumers against the increasing monopoly power of vast, multinational, agro-industrial corporations. We require systems that encourage consumers to purchase food directly from farmers, systems that allow farmers to breed their seeds, save and exchange these seeds amongst each other, systems that will not make smallholder farmers dependent on the excessive use of agrochemicals and fertilisers.
We need to innovative and create eco-friendly farming systems, such as ecological farming that protects and enhances the natural resource base while raising agricultural productivity. Farming systems should encourage diversity to cope with climatic shocks.
These systems promote self-reliance and self-sufficiency, which are key to a future free of hunger, oppression, and starvation.
In the words of Thomas Sankara, “He who feeds you, controls you.” Because food is fundamental for the development of society, and serves the purpose of nourishment alongside enlivening our culture, its producers must be protected and supported.
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We Need A New Humanity
What matters now is not a question of profitability, not a question of productivity, not a question of production rates. And no, it is not a question of back to nature. We must invent a new future.
In the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the government announced, with great fanfare, that Kenyatta University students had invented a ventilator that could help with patient treatment. The Trade and Industrialisation Cabinet Secretary, Betty Maina, and Health Cabinet Secretary, Mutahi Kagwe, visited the students and lauded the local innovation in response to the pandemic.
A year later, the media announced that the ventilators were not yet ready for use because the machines had not gone through the necessary approvals. The CSs, whose job is to facilitate innovations such as these, had little to say. Betty Maina pleaded that she was “also concerned that the process had taken us that long”, as if she did not have the authority as the Cabinet Secretary to find out where the bureaucracy had stalled. And as if to console Kenyans, she cited Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) and masks as some of the locally manufactured items being used by medical workers.
The theatre was annoying, yet so familiar. For every innovation made by Kenyans, one obstacle constantly stands in the way: government bureaucracy. The popular explanation is that government officials are so corrupt that they will block local innovation unless it allows the officials to siphon money through avenues such as bribes and tenders. Another common narrative is that the government is shooting itself in the foot in its efforts to industrialise Kenya.
I want to suggest here that these responses miss the root of the problem. The fate of the ventilators is just a snippet of what has been happening in Africa for the last four centuries. The truth is simply this: global capitalism has always intended that Africa never industrialises. For the last four centuries, Europe has put in place infrastructure to ensure that industrialisation never happens. Furthermore, I want to suggest that industrialisation is NOT progress, and therefore, we should not aspire to it in the first place.
As Walter Rodney told us in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Europe began this underdevelopment of Africa through the transatlantic slave trade, which extracted the skills and energy of Africans to build the Americas and Europe. During colonial rule a few centuries later, European governments collected and exported diverse forms of African knowledge, artefacts, archives and biodiversity, thus suppressing the growth of African technologies and knowledges in areas like smelting, dye making, fabric weaving, architecture and medicine. Intellectual innovations, such as in theology, were shut down by criminalising people like Elijah Masinde and Simon Kibangu or declaring them mentally insane. In Kenya, independent schools started by Africans were shut down. In Cameroon, colonial authorities suppressed African orthographies, such as the one commissioned by King Ibrahim Njoya of the Bamum.
The truth is simply this: global capitalism has always intended that Africa never industrialises.
The message was simple: innovation was never to come out of Africa. As the colonialists paid lip service to development and civilisation, their actions demonstrated a determination to keep Africa confined to being a source of raw materials. The African minds and hands which could have been engaged in industrialisation were sent to endure brutality in the mines of southern Africa and the plantations of the Congo, and the few Africans who went to school were subjected to a mind-numbing education that turned them into bureaucrats to facilitate the extraction of African resources. The contradiction was maintained by a racist ideology which depicted Africa’s stagnation as a problem with Africans themselves, and which preached that ideas and creativity were not profitable or relevant to African life.
This suffocating system was unsustainable, because maintaining violence ate into the profits which the European bourgeoisie extracted from the colonies. The brutality of the colonies was also becoming politically problematic in the metropole, where the European public was now receiving news of what their governments were up to in the colonies.
But more importantly, as Frantz Fanon explains in The Wretched of the Earth, Europe was now saturated with manufactured goods and the European bourgeoisie, true to its voracious character, was desperately seeking new markets. European bureaucrats of the state therefore reluctantly relinquished control of the colonial governments. And conveniently for them, colonial schools had raised a small enough African bourgeoisie who could defend the continued extraction by European capital but also open up Africa as a market for European goods.
So, as the white faces disappeared from the colonial institutions, imperialism left behind two pillars for ensuring that Africa never industrialised.
One was the economic weapons of sanctions and debt traps. As Fanon reminds us, the beginning of decolonisation signaled to Europeans in Africa to withdraw the capital which they had built on the backs of Africans. The retreating Europeans also destroyed the facilities they had constructed, and after that, they used economic coercion to ensure that Africa remained stuck where the colonialists had left her.
The second weapon against Africa’s industrialisation was the African bourgeoisie itself. Due to the education system they had gone through, accompanied by the political compromises which reduced freedom to simply Africans replacing Europeans while the colonial state remained intact, the African professionals and politicians were incapable of creativity, production or work. Fanon argues that this reality, compounded by the economic stagnation imposed by the West, made the African bourgeoisie accept the role of being “the conveyor belt of capitalism”, mired in mimicking the “negative and decadent aspects” of the Western bourgeoisie.
The decadence of the bourgeoisie includes a notoriously voracious greed which consumes everything in its wake, especially that which has not fully developed or matured. The bourgeoisie capitalises on ideas for their public relations value and prevents the maturing of those ideas, or treats the raw innovation of Africa’s youth as materials for extraction by foreign venture capitalists. These days, this suppression of African innovation goes under the banner of approvals, licenses, or as “quality” and “standards” norms drafted elsewhere.
That is the fate to which the poor young Kenyans at Kenyatta University were subjected. And they are not alone. A more horrifying illustration of the Kenyan bourgeoisie’s hatred for innovation comes from a story I heard a few years ago at one of the few locally owned innovation hubs. According to this account, one of the members of the hub produced a prototype. Shortly afterwards, he received two hostile guests. One was the Kenya Revenue Authority demanding taxes, and the other was his area MP threatening him with death should he develop and publicise the prototype.
Another example comes from the education sector with which I am most familiar. Teaching staff are subjected to stifling control and surveillance by the central government in the name of “international” benchmarking and competitive graduates. In pre-tertiary education, teachers are blocked from adopting innovative pedagogy or curriculum through drastic system replacements and the constant surveillance of examinations and performance management.
These tools have now multiplied with the Competency Based Curriculum, where children will be subjected to increased nationwide assessments, and where the curriculum includes even instructions on daily learning activities. In tertiary education, institutions are subjected to inspections, examination procedures are policed from Gigiri, and curriculum requires government approval for as little as introducing new units. This system of control is based on Euro-American models but is camouflaged under the banner of “quality assurance”, which is a term adopted from industrial manufacturing.
Evidently, Western capital is assured of support from the African bourgeoisie in suppressing innovation on the continent. To hide this truth, the Kenyan elite calm our nerves with performances like that of Betty Maina and Mutahi Kagwe at Kenyatta University, singing about industrialisation from the hymnals provided by the UN, the World Bank and their bevy of consultants who make money lying to Africa that it can industrialise. This reality is propped up by a racist narrative which implies that Africa must always follow in the path of the West because we don’t know better.
And yet, the trajectory of Europe and America shows that the gospel of industrialisation being preached to poor countries is not followed in Euro-America itself. The West, especially the United States, has de-industrialised to undermine its own citizens who had successfully fought for better working conditions through their unions. From the time of Reagan, followed by agreements such as NAFTA, American industries broke up their factories and scattered the pieces among various poor countries, to as to avoid the labour and environmental regulations of the US and to take advantage of poor countries where such regulations were weak. Today, major American brands do not own factories. Rather, they rent their brand names and logos to factories in poorer countries, an absurdity which has been explained in detail by Naomi Klein in her work No Logo.
The capitalist priests of industrialisation have themselves never intrinsically cared for manufacturing. Their main goal is, and has always been, cheap profits at the people’s expense, whether the people are cultivating on plantations, running factory machines or being exploited in the colonies. As Eric Williams famously told us in Capitalism and Slavery, plantation slavery in the New World did not end due to the moralism of abolition and the weapons of the American Civil War; rather, the Euro-American capital had no use for slave labour after it had developed machinery that produced goods faster than slavery.
The exploitation of human beings did not end with the abolition of slavery; it simply migrated to the cities. Factories lined the pockets of the American and British wealthy through terrible working conditions, the poverty of depression and the humiliation of living in quasi-prisons called workhouses. Moreover, the African labour that produced the raw materials was no longer in the Americas but now in the motherland itself, thanks to colonisation.
The West, especially the United States, has de-industrialised to undermine its own citizens who had successfully fought for better working conditions through their unions.
By the same token, the rebellions of the plantations transferred to the factories. The end of the 19th and the beginning of the early twentieth centuries were characterised by some of the bravest and costliest fights for unionisation and labour rights in the US and the UK. While we are told about the industrialists to whose philanthropic foundations we must write for grants for research and cultural work, we are not told about the Haymarket Strike, or the rise of Jim Crow laws, race riots and lynchings to prevent the solidarity of workers across race, and to constantly subvert black American economic prosperity.
But just like a spoiled brat, Anglo-American capital soon became disinterested in industrialisation. With the neoliberal turn, Reagan and Thatcher famously crushed the unions with a brutality that is barely discussed publically. In the decades that followed, Euro-American capitalists threw their white working classes under the bus, excited them with false narratives blaming their misfortunes on immigrants, and increased the amount of bureaucracy and military surveillance, thus creating the rabid armies that would sweep Trump and Boris Johnson into power.
In Kenya, public sermons on the need to industrialise are notoriously silent on this parallel history of industrialisation. The Kenyan youth naively celebrate prospects of industrialisation as possibility for employment, having not been exposed to the reality of backbreaking work and precarious employment (popularly known as kibarua – contract labour).
Africa must grapple with the human cost of industrialisation over the centuries. We must not be seduced into avoiding the question of whether industrialisation is really the path to progress, even though China is willing to help Africa industrialise rather than behave like Euro-America which constantly places booby traps in the path of African innovation and industrialisation.
With industrialisation preached as religion, questioning it is literal blasphemy. But a number of reasons lead me to commit this blasphemy.
As a middle class, urban Kenyan, I am often amazed when I am in the kitchen and I see how much packaging I throw away. Everything from spices to salt is packaged in some paper or plastic container. We drink tea with milk from cows we do not see, brewed with tea leaves which we do not grow.
On our shelves are books and papers we have accumulated over the years. Many are government documents, receipts and certificates that are supposed to prove that we have done what we have done. Many of these documents and reports would be better off in a library where they can be catalogued and we can consult if we need to.
In Kenya, public sermons on the need to industrialise are notoriously silent on this parallel history of industrialisation.
Our phones are built to deteriorate quite fast, and the new models do not significantly improve our lives. They simply give us more cameras, games and apps to play with.
With all this “progress”, we are bombarded with more information as we become less knowledgeable. We are becoming physically less healthy because of relying on food that is not locally produced. We are now sitting in traffic longer while our government borrows loans to build roads in the air, instead of building infrastructure to make cycling and walking easier, or building tramways for travel over longer distances.
More annoying is the fact that many times products are marketed to us as essential, only for them to gather dust after a short period of use.
All this packaging, junk and isolation is produced by industrialisation.
The foundation of industrialisation, therefore, is not technology, as we’re taught to believe. It is alienation. Alienation from ourselves, from each other, from our environment and from reality. Industrialisation requires amnesia and detachment from the being human, to the extent that we accept the lie that to be dehumanised and to ruin the planet is “progress”.
So what is the alternative to industrialisation?
We need a society that ends alienation, alienation from what we consume, who produces it, and from each other. We should be able to buy food from farmers we know. We should be able to go to a producers’ market or a farm on a regular basis to buy food in season, and grow a few regulars at home. We should shop with containers which will be refilled every time we go to the market, rather than always throw away yet more unnecessary packaging.
We should have libraries so that we don’t have to keep buying more and more books. We should have spaces for concerts, festivals and regular occasions to meet and know each other. As a teacher who loves sewing and knitting, I should be able to earn a living while splitting my time between having conversations with young people in my house and making clothes to sell. My creativity and knowledge should not be policed by people in the lush suburbs of Gigiri who do not care who I am and whom I teach.
And without industrialisation, there would be no need for surveillance to control our bodies and minds, which means no meaningless bureaucratic jobs, less paper waste on bureaucratic documents, less corruption, and less misery of sitting at a desk from eight to five. We would not need to make children spend the whole day in school because parents would be free to pick them up.
A de-industrialised world would give us less illnesses, would make us pollute the planet less, and would give us time to be with ourselves, our families and our communities. It would make us more creative and hopefully, happier. We would experience travel not as the harassment we now know, but as a series of adventures like the ones reflected in our folk tales, of meeting new people and either settling as new communities or returning home.
The foundation of industrialisation is not technology. It is alienation.
By contrast, all that industrialisation does is to voraciously consume the planet and our humanity in useless and brutal pursuits. Industrialisation packs people in cages called plantations, factories, mines, offices, schools and prisons. Initially, the zombie owners of the cages harvested whatever the caged human beings produced. Now they have added a new layer to their greed: they collect rents on money, patents, buildings and risk. This system is justified culturally by a media that celebrates the owners of the cages and disparages the caged. To maintain this madness, the US and the UK dedicate their resources to manufacturing weapons and occupying human talent with surveillance. The US notoriously holds a quarter of the world’s prison population behind bars for profit and the post-Brexit UK is now beefing up its nuclear arsenal.
Unfortunately, this madness is being mimicked by African leaders with no sense of irony. Ghana, a major site of export of kidnapped Africans during the Middle Passage, is considering a repeat performance of the evils of the prison industrial complex. Kenya’s president has just commissioned a weapons factory to profit from African wars, even as the aforementioned ventilators are yet to receive approval and as the lack of ICU beds and oxygen cylinders is killing Kenyans.
And this is not an invitation for escape to rural life. Rural life may give us a reprieve from the toxicity of urban life, but it remains embedded in the colonial logic of extraction and exploitation. In any case, the vulture capitalists are coming for rural areas too, under banners such as conservation, protecting wildlife from Africans and seed and food colonisation.
Euro-America is miserable. To echo Fanon, it has never stopped talking of humanity, while it increases and securitises its industrialisation of humanity. Africans should not thoughtlessly follow the path of industrialisation when industrialisation is not working in the West and has always dehumanised Africans. The West has constantly sabotaged industrialisation in Africa anyway. As Fanon, and later Thomas Sankara said, we must invent a new future. Fanon’s final words in his last book (with my modifications) are very much worth repeating:
We now know the price of suffering humanity has paid for every one of Europe’s spiritual victories. Come, comrades, the European game is finally over, we must look for something else. We can do anything provided that we do not ape Europe, provided that we are not obsessed with catching up with Europe. Europe has gained such a mad and reckless momentum that it has lost control and reason and is heading at dizzying speed towards the brink from which we would be advised to remove ourselves as quickly as possible.
Let us decide not to imitate Europe; let us tense our muscles and brains in a new direction. Let us endeavour to invent humanity in full, something which Europe has been incapable of achieving. What matters now is not a question of profitability, not a question of productivity, not a question of production rates. No, it is not a question of back to nature. It is the very basic question of not dragging humanity in directions which humiliate humanity. If we want to respond to the expectations of our peoples, we must look elsewhere besides Europe. We must make a new start, develop a new way of thinking, and endeavour to create a new humanity.
The Moral Economy of Elections in Africa
In recent months it has felt like election rigging has run riot.
Citizens killed, beaten and intimidated and election results falsified in Uganda. Ballot boxes illegally thrown out of windows so their votes for the opposition can be dumped in the bin in Belarus. Widespread censorship and intimidation of opposition candidates and supporters in Tanzania.
So what do ordinary citizens make of these abuses?
If you follow the Twitter feed of opposition leaders like Uganda’s Bobi Wine, it would be easy to assume that all voters are up in arms about electoral malpractice – and that it has made them distrust the government and feel alienated from the state. But the literature on patrimonialism and “vote buying” suggests something very different: that individuals are willing to accept manipulation – and may even demand it – if it benefits them and the candidates that they support.
Our new book, “The Moral Economy of Elections in Africa” tries to answer this question. We looked at elections in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda over 4 years, conducting over 300 interviews, 3 nationally representative surveys and reviewing thousands of pages of archival records.
Based on this evidence we argue that popular engagement with democracy is motivated by two beliefs: the first is civic, and emphasises meritocracy and following the official rules of the democratic game, while the second is patrimonial, and emphasises the distinctive bond between an individual and their own – often ethnic – community.
This means that elections are shaped by – and pulled between – competing visions of what it means to do the right thing. The ability of leaders to justify running dodgy elections therefore depends on whether their actions can be framed as being virtuous on one – or more – counts.
We show that whether leaders can get away with malpractice – and hence undermining democracy – depends on whether they can justify their actions as being virtuous on one – or more effective – of these very different value systems.
We argue that all elections are embedded in a moral economy of competing visions of what it means to be a good leader, citizen or official. In the three countries we study, this moral economy is characterised by a tension between two broad registers of virtue: one patrimonial and the other civic.
The patrimonial register stresses the importance of an engagement between patron and client that is reciprocal, even if very hierarchical and inequitable. It is rooted in a sense of common identity such as ethnicity and kinship.
This is epitomised in the kind of “Big Man” rule seen in Kenya. The pattern that’s developed is that ethnic leaders set out to mobilise their communities as a “bloc vote”. But the only guarantee that these communities will vote as expected is if the leader is seen to have protected and promoted their interests.
In contrast, civic virtue asserts the importance of a national community that is shaped by the state and valorises meritocracy and the provision of public goods. These are the kinds of values that are constantly being pushed – though not always successfully – by international election observers and civil society organisations that run voter education programmes.
In contrast to some of the existing literature, we do not argue that one of these registers is inherently “African”. Both are in evidence. We found that electoral officials, observers and voter educators were more likely to speak in terms of civic virtue. For their part, voters and politicians tended to speak in terms of patrimonial virtue. But they all had one thing in common – all feel the pull of both registers.
This is perfectly demonstrated by the press conferences of election coalitions in Kenya. At these events, the “Big Men” of different ethnic groups line up to endorse the party, while simultaneously stressing their national outlook and commitment to inclusive democracy and development.
It is often assumed that patrimonial beliefs fuel electoral malpractice whereas civic ones challenge it. But this is an oversimplification.
Take the illegal act of an individual voting multiple times for the same candidate. This may be justified on the basis of loyalty to a specific leader and the need to defend community interests – a patrimonial rationale. But in some cases voters sought to justify this behaviour on the basis that it was a necessary precaution to protect the public good because rival parties were known to break the rules.
In some cases, malpractice may therefore look like the “right” thing to do. What practices can be justified depends on the political context – and how well leaders are at making an argument. This matters, because candidates who are not seen to be “good” on either register rapidly lose support.
Nothing demonstrates this better than the practice of handing out money around election times. Our surveys and interviews demonstrated that voters were fairly supportive of candidates handing out “something small” as part of a broader set of activities designed to assist the community. In this context, the gift was seen as a legitimate part of an ongoing patrimonial relationship.
But when a leader who had not already proved their moral worth turned up in a constituency and started handing out money, they were likely to be seen as using handouts to make up for past neglect and accused of illegitimate “vote buying..”
This happened to Alan Kwadwo Kyeremanten in Ghana, a political leader so associated with handing out money that he became popularly known as Alan Cash. But Cash has consistently failed to become the presidential flagbearer for his National Patriotic Party. We argue that this is because he failed to imbue gifts with moral authority. As one newspaper noted at the time:
Alan Cash did not cultivate loyal and trusted supporters; he only used money to buy his way into their minds not their hearts.
The problem of patrimonialism
A great deal of research about Africa suggests – either implicitly or explicitly – that democratisation will only take place when patrimonialism is eradicated. On this view, democratic norms and values can only come to the fore when ethnic politics and the practices it gives rise to are eliminated.
Against this, our analysis suggests that this could do as much harm as good.
Patrimonial ideals may exist in tension with civic ones, but it is also true that the claims voters and candidates make on one another in this register is an important source of popular engagement with formal political processes. For example, voters turnout both due to a sense of civic duty and to support those candidates who they believe will directly assist them and their communities.
This means that in reality ending patrimonial politics would weaken the complex set of ties that bind many voters to the political system. One consequence of this would be to undermine people’s belief in their ability to hold politicians to account, which might engender political apathy – and result in lower voter turnout. In the 2000s, as many as 85% of voters went to the polls, far exceeding the typical figure in established Western democracies.
The same thing is likely to happen if the systematic manipulation of elections robs them of their moral importance – signs of which were already visible in the Ugandan elections of the last few months.
Doing Democracy Without Party Politics
Our various peoples had clear democratic practices in their pre-colonial political formations without the inconvenience of political parties. It is high time we learned from our indigenous heritages.
The formation of factions is part of group dynamics, and is therefore to be found in every society. However, it was 18th century Western Europe and its North American corollary that invented the idea of institutionalising factions into political parties — groups formally constituted by people who share some aspirations and who aim to capture state power in order to use it to put those aspirations into practice. Britain’s Conservative Party and the Democratic Party in the US were the earliest such formations. Thus party politics are an integral part of representative democracy as understood by the Western liberal democratic tradition. Nevertheless, Marxist regimes such as those in China, Cuba, the former Soviet Union and the former East Germany also adopted the idea of political parties, but in those countries single party rule was the norm.
The idea of political parties gained traction in the various colonial territories in Africa beginning with the formation of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa in 1912. The founders of the ANC were influenced by African American political thinkers with whom they associated in their visits to the US.
Political organisations during the colonial period in Kenya
Kenya’s first indigenous political organisation, the East African Association (EAA), formed in 1919, had a leadership comprising different ethnic groups – Kikuyu, Luo, Kamba, the various communities later subsumed under “Luhya”, and some Ugandans, then the dominant ethnic groups in Nairobi. Its political programme entailed protests against the hut-tax, forced labour, and the kipande (passbook). However, following the EAA-led Nairobi mass action of 1922 and the subsequent arrest and deportation of three of EAA’s leaders, Harry Thuku, Waiganjo Ndotono and George Mugekenyi, the colonial government seemed to have resolved not to encourage countrywide African political activity, but rather ethnic associations. The subsequent period thus saw the proliferation of such ethnic bodies as the Kikuyu Central Association, Kikuyu Provincial Association, Kavirondo Tax-payers Association, North Kavirondo Tax-payers Association, Taita Hills Association, and the Ukamba Members Association.
In 1944, the colonial government appointed Eliud Mathu as the African representative to the Legislative Council (LegCo). On the advice of the governor, the Kenya African Study Union (KASU) was formed as a colonywide African body with which the lone African member could consult. However, the Africans changed its name to the Kenya African Union (KAU), insisting that their grievances did not need study but rather organisation.
In 1947, James Gichuru stepped down as chairman of KAU in favour of Jomo Kenyatta whose mandate was to establish it as a countrywide political forum. However, there were serious disparities in political awareness, and the colonial government continued to encourage the masses to think of the welfare of their own ethnic groups rather than that of the country as a whole. Besides, KAU’s links with other communities were often strained because of what was perceived as Kikuyu domination of the organisation. By 1950, KAU was largely moribund because, through the Mau Mau Uprising, Africans challenged the entire basis of colonial rule instead of seeking piecemeal reforms. In June 1953, the colonial government banned KAU after it concluded that radicalisation was inevitable in any countrywide African political organisation.
From 1953 to 1956, the colonial government imposed a total ban on African political organisation. However, with the Lyttelton Constitution — which provided for increased African representation — in the offing, the colonial government decided to permit the formation of district political associations (except in the Central Province which was still under the state of Emergency and where the government would permit nothing more than an advisory council of loyalists). Argwings-Kodhek had formed the Kenya African National Congress to cut across district and ethnic lines, but the government would not register it, so its name was changed to the Nairobi District African Congress.
Consequently, the period leading up to independence in 1963 saw a proliferation of regional, ethnic and even clan-based political organisations: Mombasa African Democratic Union (MADU), Taita African Democratic Union (TADU), Abagussi Association of South Nyanza District (AASND), Maasai United Front Alliance (MA), Kalenjin Peoples Alliance (KPA), Baluhya Political Union (BPU), Rift Valley Peoples Congress (RVPC), Tom Mboya’s Nairobi People Convention (NPC), Argwings-Kodhek’s Nairobi African District Council (NADC), Masinde Muliro’s Kenya Peoples Party (KPP), Paul Ngei’s Akamba Peoples Party (APP) later named African Peoples Party (APP) and others.
However, between 1955 and 1963, there developed a countrywide movement led by non-Mau Mau African politicians who appealed to a vision of Kenya as a single people striving to free themselves from the shackles of colonialism. Nevertheless, it was a fragmented movement, partly because the different peoples of Kenya had an uneven political development, becoming politically active at different times. The difficulties of communication and discouragement from the colonial government also contributed to the weakness of the movement.
Nevertheless, on the eve of Kenya’s independence in 1963, the numerous ethnically-based political parties coalesced into two blocks that became the Kenya African National Union (KANU), whose membership mainly came from the Kikuyu and the Luo, and the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) which mainly had support from the pastoralist communities such as the Kalenjin, Maasai, Samburu, and Turkana, as well as the Giriama of the Coast and sections of the Luhya of Western Kenya. During the 1963 elections, on the eve of independence, KADU only secured control over two out of the eight regions, namely, the Rift Valley and the Coast.
KANU under Jomo Kenyatta
Although at his release from detention in 1961 Jomo Kenyatta was not keen to join KANU, he ended up as its leader through the machinations of its operatives. He ascended to state power on its ticket at Kenya’s independence, first as Prime Minister, then as President. As Prime Minister, Kenyatta was directly answerable to Parliament, and it is this accountability that he systematically undermined.
First, the KANU government initiated a series of constitutional amendments and subsidiary legislation that concentrated power in the hands of the central government at the expense of the regional governments entrenched in the Independence Constitution. This KANU easily achieved because KADU was greatly disadvantaged numerically in Parliament. Thus within the first year of independence, KANU undermined the regional governments by withholding funds due to them, passing legislation to circumvent their powers, and forcing major changes to the constitution by threatening and preparing to hold a referendum if the Senate – in which KADU could block the proposals – did not accede to the changes.
It was clear to KADU that it was outnumbered and outmanoeuvred, and that the prospects for enforcing the compromise federalist Independence Constitution were grim. It was also clear to KADU that it was highly unlikely that it would win power through subsequent elections. Consequently, KADU dissolved and joined KANU, resulting in Kenya becoming a de facto single-party state at the beginning of 1964. These amendments produced a strong provincial administration which became an instrument of central control.
Second, with the restraining power of the opposition party KADU out of the way, KANU initiated amendments that produced a hybrid constitution, replacing the parliamentary system of governance in the Independence Constitution with a strong executive presidency without the checks and balances entailed in the separation of powers. Thus KANU quickly created a highly centralised, authoritarian system in the fashion of the colonial state.
In 1966, Oginga Odinga, the Luo leader at the time, who had hitherto been the Vice President of both the country and KANU, lost both posts due to a series of political manoeuvres aimed at his political marginalisation. Odinga responded by forming a political party — the Kenya Peoples Union (KPU) — in April of the same year. KPU was a loose coalition of KANU-B “radicals” and trade-union leaders. Although a fifth of the sitting MPs initially supported it, KPU was widely perceived as a Luo party. This was mainly due to the fact that Kenyatta and his cohorts, using the hegemonic state-owned mass media, waged a highly effective propaganda war against it.
Kenyatta took every opportunity to promote the belief that all his political opponents came from Oginga Odinga’s Luo community. Through a series of state-sponsored machinations, KPU performed dismally in the so-called little elections of 1966 occasioned by the new rule, expediently put in place by KANU, that all MPs who joined KPU had to seek a fresh mandate from the electorate.
During the 1969 General Election, KANU was for the first time unopposed. Those who were nominated by the party in the party primaries — where they were held — were declared automatically elected as MPs, and in the case of Kenyatta, President. Thus during the 1969 general election, Kenyatta also established the practice where only he would be the presidential candidate, and where members of his inner circle would also be unopposed in their bids to recapture parliamentary seats.
During Kenyatta’s visit to Kisumu in October 1969, just three months after the assassination of Thomas Joseph Mboya (Tom Mboya), a large Luo crowd reportedly threatened Kenyatta’s security, and was fired on by the presidential security guards in what later came to be known as the “Kisumu massacre”, resulting in the death of forty-three people. In an explanatory statement, the government accused KPU of being subversive, intentionally stirring up inter-ethnic strife, and of accepting foreign money to promote “anti-national” activities. Soon after this incident, the Attorney-General, Charles Njonjo, banned KPU under Legal Notice No.239 of 30th October 1969, and Kenya again became a de facto one-party state. Several KPU leaders and MPs were immediately apprehended and detained.
In 1973, the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association (GEMA) was formed with Kenyatta’s consent. In a chapter in Ethnicity and Democracy in Africa, the immediate former Attorney-General Prof. Githu Muigai, explains that GEMA had a two-pronged mission: to strengthen the immediate ethnic base of the Kenyatta state by incorporating the Embu and Meru into a union with the Kikuyu, and to circumvent KANU’s party apparatus in the mobilisation of political support among these groups. While posing as a cultural organisation, GEMA virtually replaced KANU as the vehicle for political activity for most of the Kikuyu power elite. Consequently, many other ethnic groups formed “cultural groups” of their own such as the Luo Union and the New Akamba Union. As Prof. Muigai further observes, with the formation of GEMA, the façade of “nationalism” within KANU had broken down irretrievably.
In October 1975, Martin Shikuku, then MP for Butere, declared on the floor of Parliament that “anyone trying to lower the dignity of Parliament is trying to kill it the way KANU has been killed”. When Clement Lubembe, then Assistant Minister for Tourism and Wildlife, demanded that Shikuku substantiate his claim that KANU had been killed, the then Deputy Speaker, Jean-Marie Seroney, stated: “According to Parliamentary procedures, there is no need to substantiate what is obvious.” Consequently, Shikuku and Seroney were detained without trial, and were only released after Kenyatta’s death in 1978.
KANU under Daniel arap Moi
Two years before Kenyatta’s death, more than twenty MPs sought to amend the section of Kenya’s constitution which stipulated that the vice president would become the interim president should the incumbent become incapacitated or die. Although the “Change the Constitution Movement” involved MPs from across the country, members of GEMA were among the most vociferous in seeking to block Daniel arap Moi’s succession in this way. Thus, upon assuming the Presidency, Moi set about reducing the influence of GEMA, especially its leaders who had been closest to his predecessor. Whereas Kenyatta had by-passed KANU, Moi revitalised and mainstreamed it, using it as the institution through which his networks would be built. By so doing, he undercut the power of established ethno-regional political leaders, and made the party an instrument of personal control.
Besides, Moi persecuted advocates of reform among university lecturers, university students, lawyers and religious leaders, many of whom were arrested, tortured, detained without trial, or arraigned in court to answer to tramped up charges and subsequently face long prison sentences, and all this forced some of them into exile.
Furthermore, Moi co-opted into KANU the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU), Maendeleo ya Wanawake (the countrywide women’s organisation), and any other organisation that he viewed as a potential alternative locus of political power. At one point during Moi’s reign, the provincial administration even harassed people who did not have KANU membership cards in their possessions in markets, bus stops and other public places. I remember my father purchasing these cards to give to all his grown-up children in a bid to help them avoid such harassment. MPs lived under the fear of being expelled from KANU — which would mean automatic loss of their parliamentary seats — and so outdid one another in singing Moi’s and KANU’s dubious praises inside and outside Parliament. On the Voice of Kenya (VOK), the state-run radio station which enjoyed a monopoly, songs in praise of Moi and KANU and others castigating dissenters were played after every news broadcast.
Moi only conceded to restore multi-party politics at the end of 1991 due to the effects of his mismanagement of the economy coupled with the end of the Cold War, both of which increased internal and external pressure for reform. Nevertheless, he declared that people would understand that he was a “professor of politics”, and went on to emphasise that he would encourage the formation of as many parties as possible — a clear indication that he was determined to fragment the opposition in order to hang on to power for as long as possible. Indeed, the opposition unity that had influenced the change was not to last, as ethnically-based parties sprang up all over the country, enabling Moi to win both the 1992 and 1997 elections. Furthermore, the Moi regime was reluctant to put in place the legal infrastructure for a truly multiparty democracy, and the same was later to prove true of the Kibaki regime that took over power on 30th December 2002.
Parties as obstacles to democratisation
In a chapter in A Companion to African Philosophy, Makerere University philosophy professor Edward Wamala outlines three shortcomings of the multi-party system of government in Ganda society in particular, and in Africa in general.
First, the party system destroys consensus by de-emphasising the role of the individual in political action. Put simply, the party replaces “the people”. Consequently, a politician holding public office does not really have loyalty to the people whom he or she purportedly represents, but rather to the sponsoring party. The same being true of politicians in opposing parties, no room is left for consensus building. We have often witnessed parties disagreeing for no other reason than that they must appear to hold opposing views, thereby promoting confrontation rather than consensus.
Second, in order to acquire power or retain it, political parties act on the notorious Machiavellian principle that the end justifies the means, thereby draining political practice of ethical considerations that had been a key feature of traditional political practice. We are thus left with materialistic considerations that foster the welfare not of the society at large, but rather of certain suitably aligned individuals and groups.
Third, as only a few members at the top of a party wield power, even the parties that command the majority and therefore form the government are in reality ruled by a handful of persons. As such, personal rule, after seeming to have been eliminated by putting aside monarchs and chiefs, makes a return to the political arena of the Western-type state. Thus the KANU-NDP “co-operation” and ultimate “merger” was the result of the rapprochement between Daniel arap Moi and Raila Odinga; the Grand Coalition Government was formed as a result of the decision of Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga; The Handshake and the Building Bridges Initiative was the result of private consultations between Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta. In all these cases, party organs were only convened to ratify what the party leaders had already decided, and dissenters threatened with disciplinary action. We have very recently seen the same approach in the debate on the allocation of revenue, where what was supposed to be the opposition party acquiesced to the ruling party’s view simply because of the Handshake and the Building Bridges Initiative.
In my youth, I was convinced that if only multi-party rule would be restored in Kenya, autocracy would be a thing of the past. With hindsight, however, it is now clear to me that just as middlemen enjoy the bulk of the fruit of the sweat of our small-scale farmers, so party leaders enjoy the massive political capital generated by the people. In short, party politics, whether with one, two or many parties in place, hinder true democratisation by perpetuating political elitism and autocracy.
Towards a no-party system of governance
In Cultural Universals and Particulars, the Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu advances the view that the no-party system has evident advantages over the multi-party system:
When representatives are not constrained by considerations regarding the fortunes of power-driven parties they will be more inclined in council to reason more objectively and listen more open-mindedly. And in any deliberative body in which sensitivity to the merits of ideas is a driving force, circumstances are unlikely to select any one group for consistent marginalisation in the process of decision-making. Apart from anything else, such marginalisation would be an affront to the fundamental human rights of decisional representation.
However, Yoweri Museveni’s “no-party system” which he instituted when he took power in Uganda in 1986 was simply a one-party system in disguise. Indeed, in his Sowing the Mustard Seed, Museveni unintentionally reveals a party orientation in his analysis of his electoral victory in 1996: “Although I was campaigning as an individual, I had been leading the movement for 26 years. Therefore, the success of the NRM and my success were intertwined.”
Our various peoples had clear democratic practices in their pre-colonial political formations without the inconvenience of political parties. For example, Prof. Wamala, in the chapter already cited, informs us that the Kabaka of the Baganda could not go against the decision of the Elders. It is high time we learned from our indigenous heritages.
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