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Manufacturing Non-Dissent: Is the Media in Kenya Really Free?

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Despite having a reputation of being the freest in Africa, the mainstream media in Kenya remains hostage to state and corporate interests that determine what can and what cannot be published.

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Manufacturing Non-Dissent: Is the Media in Kenya Really Free?
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Shortly after Daniel arap Moi’s death, when most newspaper columnists and editors in Kenya were extolling the virtues of the former president, and praising him for his “kindness” and “humility”, Father Gabriel Dolan, a columnist with the Sunday Standard, submitted an opinion article that talked of why so many Kenyans who had suffered under Moi’s regime could not forgive him. In his column, the Irish Catholic priest/human rights activist wrote:

Too often we say let bygones be bygones or forgive and forget. Those cheap clichés fail to appreciate how some have suffered . . . The first step in any national healing and reconciliation process is public acknowledgement of what happened. That has not taken place in Kenya. The TJRC [Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission] was an effort at uncovering the nation’s ugly past and putting it on record. But its report has been denied, ignored and demeaned by successive regimes . . . How can you forgive when your perpetrators deny their culpability?

The Sunday Standard, predictably, did not publish the article. In protest, Father Dolan submitted his resignation letter, in which he stated: “Mindful of the subject dealt with in the rejected submission, it is sad that not only did the Moi regime silence critics and free-thinking during his reign but even in death his family-owned media house will gag any columnist who questions its sordid treatment of dissenters, opponents and human rights activists. This is a sad requiem for freedom of the press in Kenya”.

Father Dolan and I were among eight columnists who resigned en masse from the Nation two years ago in protest against what we perceived as undue editorial interference and censorship. (The six other columnists were Maina Kiai, Kwamchetsi Makokha, George Kegoro, Nic Cheeseman, Gabrielle Lynch, and Muthoni Wanyeki.) In our statement, we noted that several editors and writers, and the cartoonist Godfrey Mwampembwa (aka Gado), had been dismissed by the newspaper for being critical of the Jubilee administration. Our exit, noted Kwamchesti Makokha, “belies the crisis in Kenyan media”.

Senior managers at the Nation Media Group (NMG) underplayed the significance of our joint resignation. In a front-page editorial published in the Nation a couple of days later, it insisted that it was non-partisan and “committed to telling the truth”.

Maina Kiai, George Kegoro and Gabriel Dolan were subsequently offered columns at the Sunday Standard. (I began writing an op-ed column for The Elephant, as did Wanyeki, Makokha, Cheeseman and Lynch.) When Kiai, Kegoro, and Dolan moved to the Nation’s biggest rival, I did wonder how they would fare there, given that Moi owned the newspaper in partnership with his former private secretary Joshua Kulei. (Despite claims of editorial independence, the Standard had rarely taken a stand that directly challenged Moi’s leadership, though at certain times in the country’s evolution as a multiparty state, the paper did take daring positions that might have offended its owners.)

Moi’s hold on the Standard became clear to me sometime at the end of 1992, almost exactly a year after the president had called for the repeal of Section 2A of the constitution that ushered in multipartyism. At that time, my weekly column at the Sunday Standard’s pull-out magazine section was abruptly discontinued. The column was titled “Straight from the Heart” and had gained a reputation for its frankness and focus on social (soft) issues. I was 29-years-old at the time, arguably one of the youngest columnists in the country, and an Asian woman to boot. I began writing the column at precisely the time when the Kenyan media was opening up and asking hard questions (thanks to multipartyism). Previously gagged columnists and cartoonists were lapping up their new-found freedom and doing what was previously unthinkable – caricaturing Moi and challenging his regime.

Perhaps it was my youthful naiveté that led to me to the office of Ali Hafidh, the then the editor-in-chief of the Standard newspaper. After waiting for a few minutes outside his office at the Standard’s main offices in Nairobi’s Industrial Area, I was ushered in. I had never met Hafidh before (the pull-out magazine I co-edited was managed by a subsidiary of the Standard and was located in the posh Lonrho building in the central business district, so my interaction with my colleagues in Industrial Area was limited). I expected to meet a rude, loud, and arrogant man (because that had been my experience with editors with big egos in Kenya’s media houses). Hafidh, who had worked as chief sub-editor with the Nation newspaper before taking up the position of editor-in-chief at the Standard, appeared to be a quiet, self-effacing and soft-spoken man. I politely asked him why he had decided to discontinue my column. His response? “Some people didn’t like it”.

Now, in those days if an editor told you that “some people” didn’t like your column or story, you knew exactly who those people were. I walked away from his office without further questions.

At that time the Standard was associated with Mark Too—also known as President Moi’s “Mr Fix-It”—who sat on the board of Roland “Tiny” Rowland’s Lonrho Group, which owned the newspaper. (Lonrho PLC sold the newspaper to Moi in 1995.) It was obvious that someone in Moi’s government was not happy with what I had written. The last column I wrote before my dismissal had talked about why privatising Kenya Airways was not such a wise decision. Did Moi or his cronies feel threatened that such an opinion might derail talks on the sale of the national carrier? If so, I found it quite amusing, if not unbelievable, that a columnist of my rather small stature could offend a head of state. After all, in the world of mega-columnists like Philip Ochieng, Wahome Mutahi (aka Whispers), Kwendo Opanga and Tom Mshindi, I was a midget.

After that experience, I veered away from mainstream journalism and found a career in the United Nations, where I watched Kenya’s pro-democracy movement from a safe distance. Those were the days of Saba Saba rallies, and opposition politicians hiding out in Western embassies. Although the repeal of Section 2A of the constitution had opened up the media space in Kenya, leading to a proliferation of opinion writers and publications, some media houses were less free than others. And Moi’s invisible hand could be felt everywhere.

I only reclaimed my space in mainstream Kenyan journalism many years later, in 2006, when I was offered a weekly op-ed column in the Daily Nation.

How free is free?

Kenya is often lauded by the international community as having one of the freest media on the continent. This is true—but only partially so, as I will explain later. While journalists in countries such as Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan were (and are) routinely gagged, jailed or even killed, after 1992 it became increasingly rare to hear about journalists being arrested or tortured.

But then, as Noam Chomsky explains in his brilliant treatise Manufacturing Consent, there is no need to forcibly censor journalists or news organisations that willingly volunteer to censor themselves. Commercial interests and the interests of media owners often determine the content of newspapers. Editors happily give in to these interests because newspapers are for-profit organisations that depend on revenue to survive.

The reason why Kenya’s mainstream traditional media can never be truly independent is that they are part and parcel of what we might refer to as The Establishment. As Denis Galava points out in a chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Kenyan Politics (published in February this year and edited by Nic Cheeseman, Karuti Kanyinga and Gabrielle Lynch), “despite a level of independence and the relatively high quality of investigative journalism that has helped to uncover scandals and bring attention to certain injustices . . . the media in Kenya is part of both ideological state apparatuses and other hegemonic structures that help to ‘manufacture consent’”.

There is no need to forcibly censor journalists or news organisations that willingly volunteer to censor themselves

The Nation Media Group, for instance, has always deferred to the government in power because its biggest shareholder, H.H. The Aga Khan, has various commercial interests in Kenya. Even though it has at various times championed opposition politics, it has always been careful not to topple or irreversibly damage the relationship the Group enjoys with the state.

There is also what could be perceived as an unhealthy relationship between the NMG’s Board of Directors and corporate interests that are not particularly keen on independent journalism. As Herman Wasserman and Jacinta Mwende Maweu point out in their paper, “The freedom to be silent? Market pressures on journalistic normative ideals at the Nation Media Group” (Review of African Political Economy, 2014), quite often the NMG’s Board of Directors (most of whom represent or sit on the boards of other companies) make decisions purely on the basis of profit. They wrote:

It is evident that the top executives of the NMG are not trained journalists, but strategic corporate executives to oversee the business orientation of the Group . . . 16 members of the Board of Directors are handpicked by the main shareholder, the Aga Khan, and they are supposed to act as his ‘eyes and ears’ to ensure business prosperity of the group and subsidiary companies . . . This business orientation of the Group is slowly but surely narrowing the gap between journalists and advertisers, bankers, financiers and industrial business people. . .

Wasserman and Maweu note that quite often the Board of Directors exerts pressure on the NMG’s top management, who in turn exert pressure on individual journalists to promote the owners’ interests.

However, “state capture” of the media still plays a dominant role in how commercial media houses in Kenya operate. In both Moi’s and Jomo Kenyatta’s time, it was quite normal for newspaper editors to receive calls from State House urging them not to publish or to underplay a certain story. For instance, when J.M. Kariuki was assassinated in 1975, the Nation newspaper, under the editorship of George Githii, (in) famously reported that the Nyandurua MP was in Zambia.

In another instance in 1989, when Gray Phombeah (full disclosure: Gray is my husband), the Special Projects Editor at the KANU-owned Kenya Times, unearthed an Italian mafia link in Malindi that had close ties to State House, he, along with Joseph Odindo, the acting editor-in-chief, were fired. (The editor-in-chief, Philip Ochieng, was out of the country at the time. Ochieng had “poached” both Gray and Odindo, among other journalists, from the Nation newspaper.) They only got their jobs back after they wrote a personal apology to Moi. (Odindo has since held various senior editorial management positions at the Nation and the Standard. Gray joined the BBC Africa Service in London, and then returned to the BBC’s Nairobi Office, which he eventually headed until his departure in 2008.)

But that was then, in the cloak-and-dagger Moi days, when all journalists were under intense scrutiny, and when no newspaper, let along the ruling party’s, could get away with being critical of the government. Newspapers had moles in every newsroom, and the dreaded Special Branch did not hesitate to pick up journalists for real or imagined negative reporting. But for this practice to continue in another form, this time with the complicity of editors, shows we have not really embraced the concept of independent journalism.

For instance, it is widely believed that under Tom Mshindi’s editorial leadership, the Jubilee government of Uhuru Kenyatta enjoyed special privileges at the NMG. The departure or dismissal of several columnists, writers, and editors at the Nation occurred during his tenure—which leads many to believe that he took instructions about who to retain and who to fire from State House.

As Galava notes in his chapter:

Most recently, Tom Mshindi, who was the Nation’s editor-in-chief between 2014 and 2018, was accused by editors and some columnists of engendering self-censorship, uncritical acquiescence to President Kenyatta’s capricious demands, and gatekeeping for the state. During his tenure, Mshindi fired journalists deemed to be too critical of the government, including this author. Also pushed aside was David Ndii, a public intellectual and an ardent critic of the Jubilee government, who wrote a popular fortnightly column in the Saturday Nation. Another low moment for Kenyan journalism was the unprecedented mass resignation of eight independent columnists . . . in March 2018 on the basis of claimed lack of editorial independence. The timing of the columnists’ resignations was critical because it coincided with the hardest clampdown in Kenya’s media history and the most desperate measures of self-preservation that media actors had embraced to survive and profit in the prevailing circumstances.

(Ironically, not long after we resigned from the NMG, Tom Mshindi was offered a retirement package, which included a weekly column in the Sunday Nation.)

It is odd that a newspaper that led a campaign against “brown envelope journalism”—the practice prevalent among many Kenyan journalists of writing stories that are favourable to whoever pays the price—could succumb to government pressure. In the 1980s and ‘90s, when journalists were among the lowest-paid professionals in the country, the bribing of reporters became common practice among politicians, and even among private sector companies. However, as professional standards in newspapers improved, and especially with the advent of commercial TV stations in the late 1990s and the early part of this century, bribery was increasingly not tolerated. (Some journalists even lost their jobs for having taken a bribe.) Top journalists in the country began commanding higher salaries because editors and editorial boards understood the importance of retaining good journalists, news anchors and reporters who could pull in the audiences required to keep profits soaring.

If you can’t buy them, strangle them financially

Under Jubilee, however, the fate of media houses has become increasingly precarious. With the introduction of MyGov, a government pull-out that advertises government jobs and tenders and is essentially a government mouthpiece, revenues in media houses have been plummeting as they no longer benefit from government advertising—a major source of their income. Media houses are cutting back on staff as a result, and some even face imminent closure in the face of declining readership (thanks in part to poor management decisions, such as those made by Mshindi on behalf of the government, which reduced the level of trust that audiences/readers have in the mainstream media—media that not too long ago were rated as among the “most trusted” institutions in the country.) Disgruntled or frustrated journalists are finding livelihoods elsewhere, in PR or in the NGO or private sector.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, when journalists were among the lowest-paid professionals in the country, the bribing of reporters became common practice

The quality of journalism has also declined. The previous practice of “buying” journalists and editors or denying media houses advertising in order to “punish” them has resurfaced. Investigative stories implicating senior officials close to the powers that be are being suppressed. Talk shows that should ideally be asking the hard questions and making leaders accountable have turned into circuses where hosts think their main job is to entertain, not to inform or debate. Censorship is also in full swing. Clear evidence of this was the government-orchestrated blackout of three TV channels in January 2018 to prevent them from airing the “swearing-in” of Raila Odinga as the “People’s President” at a rally in Uhuru Park. We are now back in the bad old Moi days.

The only difference between the Moi days and today is that we have far more journalists willingly toeing the government line than we did in the 1990s. Even die-hard anti-Uhuru columnists, like Makau Mutua, have softened their position. The sanitising of Moi during his funeral, the insanely tedious focus on the rivalry between deputy president William Ruto and Uhuru’s new ally, Raila Odinga, and the celebrity-focused mind-numbing stories that pass off as news obscure the life-and-death issues that ordinary Kenyans have to grapple with on a daily basis.

There is also insufficient interrogation of government edicts, including the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI); those opposing BBI are often portrayed as unpatriotic spoilers. Kenyan stories that make international headlines are also ignored or underplayed. For instance, I believe I am the only Kenyan journalist who questioned the role the now-disgraced Cambridge Analytica played in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections.

Talk shows that should ideally be asking the hard questions and making leaders accountable have turned into circuses

Interestingly, social media, or more specifically Kenyans on Twitter (dubbed KOT), have stepped in to fill the vacuum. It should be noted that it was only when a Kenya Airways employee posted a video on social media of a plane from China landing at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport—despite the government’s stated ban on such flights due to the high number of coronavirus cases in China, where the infection originated—that the Kenyan mainstream media began taking the coronavirus pandemic seriously. And when the Kenya Airways employee was suspended by the airline, it was KOT that defended him, not the media houses. (Kenya Airways, in a press statement, claimed he had breached security at the airport and that they had suspended him so they could carry out investigations. A court later ordered that he be reinstated.)

Similarly, the locust invasion that is devouring parts of this country was first highlighted on social media. The government’s response to this livelihood-threatening disaster has since been poor at best, if not contemptuous.

How the mainstream traditional media tackles such issues in a post-opposition Kenya where the citizenry has been homogenised and neutered by the famous handshake between Raila and Uhuru will be interesting to watch as we approach a tumultuous and unpredictable election in 2022. What will also be interesting to see is what alternative sources of news and information Kenyans will rely on as they head to the polls.

Rasna Warah
By

Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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Is Poverty a Political Choice?

Philip Alston, the outgoing UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, says that international development organisations got it all wrong: not only are more people likely to be extremely poor in the next decade, but they are likely to remain extremely poor for the rest of their lives because “poverty is a political choice”.

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Is Poverty a Political Choice?
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Before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, forecasters had been predicting that the world was becoming a better place: more people were being lifted out of poverty; more children were enrolled in school; fewer women were dying in childbirth; the internet was changing the lives of communities in the remotest corners of the planet; and if all went according to plan, and with adequate investment in the right science, life-threatening diseases would be a thing of the past.

International development experts and organisations have since at least the 1990s being gathering data to show positive trends in the state of the world’s people. While grim realities often surface, such as the fact that more people today suffer from depression and anxiety than ever before, the general view is that while things are not good for a large chunk of humanity, they will eventually get better for everyone – provided there are sufficient funds and investments (often couched in the language of aid) to ensure that everyone inhabiting this planet leads a reasonably healthy and productive life.

An overriding assumption made by these experts and organisations is that once a country achieves a certain level of per capita income and reduces poverty to single digit figures (i.e., becomes “developed”), issues such as healthcare and education will take care of themselves. But, as has become alarmingly evident in the United States’ COVID-19 infection and mortality rates, wealth alone cannot guarantee good quality public health.

The United Nations and financial institutions like the World Bank have made it their mission to eradicate poverty. Heads of state meet every year at the UN General Assembly to discuss their countries’ progress in various human development indicators, including poverty levels. The goal of ending poverty is renewed every decade or so (remember the Millennium Development Goals of 2000 that morphed into the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015?) but the poor, as they say, will always be with us.

What’s more, now that we have COVID-19, all the gains of the past decades are likely to be reversed. Not only are poverty levels set to increase with rising unemployment, but inequality levels will most likely soar worldwide.

However, before this pandemic, did we really see the progress that international development organisations claimed had been achieved? Or were the statistics plain wrong?

Dodgy statistics

In a highly critical report released early this month, Philip Alston, the outgoing UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, says that international development organisations got it all wrong: not only are more people likely to be extremely poor in the next decade but they are likely to remain extremely poor for the rest of their lives (with or without the impact of COVID-19) because “poverty is a political choice” – the result of “longstanding neglect of extreme poverty and the systematic downplaying of the problem by many governments, economists, and human rights advocates”.

In fact, according to Alston, contrary to “over-optimistic assessments”, there has only been “a slight decline in the number of people living in poverty over the past thirty years””

Alston’s scathing final report to the UN Human Rights Council’s forty-fourth session spells out in unflinching detail how the World Bank duped the world into believing that poverty lines across the world were dropping. The report says that the current international poverty line (IPL) is derived from an average of national poverty lines adopted by some of the world’s poorest countries, but its value (US$1.90 purchasing power parity per day) is “explicitly designed to reflect a staggeringly low standard of living, well below any conception of a life with dignity”.

“Almost all of these celebratory accounts rely one way or another on the World Bank’s international poverty line (IPL), under which the number in extreme poverty fell from 1.895 billion in 1990 to 736 million in 2015, and thus from 36 to 10 percent of the world’s population”, says the report. However, “escaping poverty” is not the same as enjoying an adequate standard of living that includes access to healthcare and education. The report proposes abandoning the IPL in favour of a more nuanced and accurate portrayal of poverty.

In 2014, the Standard Bank Group’s researchers made a similar assessment. Their research debunked the myth that Kenya is an emerging economy set to become a robust middle-income country by 2030. The Group’s research showed that – contrary to optimistic projections by Kenya’s Vision 2030 enthusiasts – Kenya still had a long way to go before it is could be classified as middle-income.

According to the Group’s report, only 4 per cent of Kenyan households fell into the middle class category that year, which the Group placed as those that had an income of roughly between Sh60,000 ($600) and Sh300,000 ($3,000) a month. Using this definition, the vast majority of the country’s households – a staggering 92 per cent – were considered low income i.e. those that earned under Sh40,000 ($400) a month. These figures were validated by an Ipsos Limited survey that showed that 93 per cent of Kenyan adults earned less than Sh40,000 a month and 43 per cent earned less than Sh10,000 ($100) a month.

These statistics fly in the face of African Development Bank figures that place Africa’s middle class as those that earn between $4 and $20 a day, or between about Sh12,000 and Sh60,000 a month.

Anyone living in Kenya, where the cost of living is extremely high and where there are very few free or subsidised services, knows that if you earn Sh12,000 a month, you are definitely not middle class, and that if you earn Sh60,000 shillings a month, you are really struggling to pay for food, rent and school fees, and are more likely to live in a slum than in a middle class neighbourhood. Yet, it is these kinds of figures that international financial institutions use to elevate countries to middle-income status.

Alston is also sceptical of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which he says are pegged on economic growth and private sector funding. (The SDGS, adopted in 2015, are a set of 17 goals, including eradicating poverty, achieving gender equality, combatting climate change and promoting sustained inclusive and sustainable economic growth by 2030.)

“Instead of promoting empowerment, funding, partnerships, and accountability, too much energy surrounding the SDG process has gone into generating portals, dashboards, stakeholder engagement plans, bland reports, and colourful posters. Official assessments are rarely critical or focused, and they often hide behind jargon”, he says.

He adds that the strategy to achieve the SGDs is focused on privatisation, which is problematic because privatisation often prevents the poorest and the most vulnerable from gaining access to services. In addition, the SDGs underplay the role of governments, which is “often relegated to insuring private investments”. Alston’s critique reflects the neoliberalism that has pervaded the development sector since the 1990s when privatisation and the freeing of markets were considered the solutions to ending economic stagnation and poverty.

Statistics, as Alston illustrates, often conceal more than they reveal. It all depends on who is computing them and for what aim. While statisticians and demographers will claim that their science is neutral, and based purely on verifiable numbers, carefully crafted formulas and accurate calculations, sceptics have wondered whether numbers tell the whole story.

In addition, quite often it is difficult to tell which variable impacted which outcome. Are low maternal mortality rates an indication of women’s equality in society or merely a reflection of better healthcare? Are urban growth rates a reflection of levels of industrialisation or do some urban areas grow spontaneously? Do high literacy rates and low poverty levels correlate with higher rates of happiness?

Creating just and happy societies

Interestingly, these were the questions that bothered King Jigme Wangchuk of Bhutan nearly fifty years ago when he created the Gross National Happiness Index in 1972, and declared that “if the government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no purpose for the government to exist”.

The four key pillars of this index are equitable and sustainable socio-economic development, preservation of cultural values and heritage, conservation of the natural environment and good governance. Economic growth does not feature high in Bhutan’s happiness index because the kingdom’s policymakers consider spiritual and emotional well-being far more important than GDP, which is considered an inadequate tool to measure other intangible – but invaluable – types of wealth, such as culture and nature.

Bhutan has long acknowledged that economic growth without social justice increases levels of unhappiness in society. This reality has been supported by more recent research that shows that highly unequal societies also tend to be unhappy societies, with high levels of dysfunction.

In a ground-breaking study published a few years ago, epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett found that levels of mental illness within a society were related to its level of inequality. In the Unites States, one of the most unequal societies in the world, a quarter of the population suffers from some form of mental illness, while in the more egalitarian Japan, less than 10 per cent do. Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands also have less income inequality and less prevalence of mental illnesses, perhaps because these countries invest more in social welfare programmes than others.

In their book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (2009), Wilkinson and Pickett show how highly unequal societies tend to produce narcissistic individuals – people who are excessively preoccupied with themselves and place a lot of importance on individual success (which could explain the Donald Trump phenomenon).

The epidemiologists also found that in highly unequal countries, people tend to be physically and psychologically unhealthy as well. Obesity, depression and drug addiction are more common in unequal societies. In such societies, homicide and other criminal behavior are also more prevalent.

Because unequal societies tend to produce people prone to violence and crime, they are also fearful. Hence they tend to build gated communities and protect themselves with guns or private security. People thus become more distrustful of each other and lose their sense of community, which increases anxiety levels.

The authors say that instead of curing mental illness through increased use of drugs and psychiatric services, countries should look at making their societies more equal through policies that reduce the income gap and that build people’s resilience.

This echoes the claim that economic growth alone cannot deliver just, cooperative and healthier societies. China’s cities, for example, have become unliveable due to high levels of air pollution because China decided that growth was more important than environmental protection. China also failed to contain COVID-19 in time, which led to it becoming a pandemic, which suggests that the country still has a lot of work to do in the area of public health.

In the United States, shootings in schools and other public places have become more common, perhaps because the attackers feel disconnected from their world. In Kenya, we are building high-rise apartments for the rich but not a single public park has been built since the colonialists left. We are building more roads, but not expanding pavements or bicycle paths. Meanwhile, before the COVID-19 lockdown, motorists in Nairobi were spending more time in traffic than with their families at home.

Inequality was already out of control before the pandemic hit early this year. According to an Oxfam report released in January, in 2019, only 2,153 people had more wealth than 4.6 billion people, 60 per cent of the world’s population. In addition, “the richest 22 men in the world own more wealth than all the women in Africa”.

According to the World Inequality Report 2018, 50 per cent of the world’s population owns less than 2 per cent of the world’s wealth while 40 per cent of the world’s population (the global middle class) owns less than 30 per cent.

Such depressing figures are set to get grimmer in the near future. According to Alston, COVID-19 is projected to push more than 70 million additional people into extreme poverty, and hundreds of millions more into unemployment and poverty.

Alston says that poverty and inequality can only be eradicated if governments invest in social protection for citizens and involve the poor in policymaking. Governments must also take charge of service provision instead of relying mainly on the private sector.

Extreme poverty must be understood as a violation of human rights. “Protestations of inadequate resources are entirely unconvincing given the determined refusal of many governments to adopt just fiscal policies, end tax evasion, and stop corruption”,says Alston.

Alston concludes his report by stating: “Poverty is a political choice and will be with us until its elimination is reconceived as a matter of social justice. Only when the goal of realizing the human right to an adequate standard of living replaces the World Bank’s miserable subsistence line will the international community be on track to eliminate extreme poverty.”

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The Coronavirus Pandemic: A Breath of Life Into the Struggle for the Implementation of the 2010 Constitution?

The pandemic has hastened the national discussion on the formation of alternative political movements and leaderships that will guarantee the national peace that the elite have shown themselves to be incapable of providing.

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The Coronavirus Pandemic: A Breath of Life Into the Struggle for the Implementation of the 2010 Constitution?
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My governor friend and I were discussing the implementation of the 2010 Constitution. He used a metaphor to speak about the progress made thus far: the constitution gave birth to a beautiful child destined to grow and transform all the ideological, social, economic, cultural, spiritual and political aspects of our Kenyan society.

The ultimate goal of this transformation would be to replace the neocolonial status quo with a free, just, equitable and egalitarian, peaceful, prosperous, ecologically safe and democratic society. Such a society would form the basis on which to hold a national discussion of its weaknesses and, based on this dialogue, consequently build a firm foundation for yet another, better society, at which point it would come as no surprise if another new constitution were to be promulgated.

We the people of Kenya, having created the constitution, not only imposed it on the ruling elite but we then proceeded to hand over the baby to the same elite—a political leadership of child and body parts traffickers—to bring it up. A progressive constitution requires a progressive political leadership for its implementation.

The struggles of constitution-making do not end with its promulgation. Its implementation continues the struggles between the anti-constitution forces and those forces that call for its robust implementation and, as we approach the tenth anniversary of the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution on 27 August 2020, the struggle for its implementation continues unabated.

Genesis of the Struggle

The independence constitution gave birth to a neocolonial system that ensured the colonial state remained intact. Indeed, under that constitution, the multi-racial and multi-ethnic ruling elite continued to protect foreign interests, including the British colonial powers that never left Kenya. Therefore, it is not surprising that the independence constitution was resisted right from the time of its promulgation.

The opposition party, the Kenya People’s Union (KPU), opposed the neocolonial status quo. Both Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s book, Not Yet Uhuru and Bildad Kaggia’s The Roots of Freedom chronicle this fact. Both authors were founding members of KPU. Underground political formations such as The December Twelfth Movement and Mwakenya, and their publications Mwunguzi, Cheche, Pambana and Mpatanishi, also resisted the neocolonial state and its policies.

The so-called Second Liberation movement was premised on the repeal of Section 2A of the constitution that decreed the supremacy of one-party dictatorship. The movement also sought to have a constitution that would be aligned to the promise of a multi-party democracy while civil society organisations and opposition political parties continued the struggle for a new constitution. When the Moi-KANU dictatorship was defeated in 2002, the Kibaki-KANU-NARC dictatorship could not resist the people’s clamour for a new constitution and the 2010 Constitution was promulgated on 27 August 2010.

Gains and Challenges

The vision of the 2010 Constitution makes clear the rejection of the neocolonial status quo and affirms the supremacy and sovereignty of the Kenyan people as those with the powers to recall their representatives in parliament. The constitution provides for gender equity and equality and reiterates that the three arms of government derive their authority from the people. It promotes a political leadership comprised of men and women of integrity and national institutions that are independent and whose authority is derived from the people of Kenya. The constitution eschews the politics of division and calls for institutionalised, de-personalised, and democratic political parties, signaling the end of 47 years of gross electoral injustices.

We have a progressive Bill of Rights running the whole gamut of political, civil, economic, social, and cultural rights: decentralisation and democratisation of the imperial presidency to devolution; holding institutions, particularly those in finance and security, accountable to the power of the constitution; equitable distribution of national resources; the protection of land, our major resource, through the reduction to 99 years of the duration of leases given to foreign interests and the creation of a new land law regime that is communitarian to co-exist with a tenure system under which land is commodified (the co-existence of the two land tenures systems is envisaged as a strategy to build a future system that is based on access and use of land to all).

The neocolonial status quo served strong, dangerous, greedy and corrupt foreign and national interests that saw the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution as an inconsequential hiatus. This position has been resisted, reflecting the continued struggles for its implementation which has seen both progress and retrogression. Firstly, the imperial presidency has not been fully democratised and decentralised. Its restructuring has been resisted. It continues to oversee opaque sovereign debts and corruption and, against the provisions of the constitution, continues to maintain the colonial and neocolonial machinery of violence. Both the Treasury and the security apparatus are still departments of the imperial presidency contrary to the decrees of the constitution. And nor has there been consistent support for devolution from the imperial presidency and some institutions have become less independent while others have become moribund. No strong checks and balances exist.

We have witnessed the return of intra-elite struggles christened with various monikers: Tanga Tanga, Kieleweke, Tinga Tinga, Manga Manga, BBI, Dynasties, Hustlers. These struggles portend possible violence during the elections in 2022. They are also a reflection of a ruling elite that has maintained the politics of division (ethnic, religious, gender, generational, regional, clan, class, occupation and race) and that is extremely callous in its politics of inhumanity. It is an elite that continues to act as the loyal comprador class of foreign interests in the West and East. The forces massed against the implementation of the constitution are headquartered in the bosoms of the Kenyan elite.

Devolution has engendered in Kenyans the belief that resources will be shared equitably, that Kenya will become peaceful and stable, and that projects of state-building and nation-building will be strengthened. Under devolution, baby steps have been taken towards ending the marginalisation of certain counties and communities. In some counties, the sharing of state power with the grassroots through public participation has taken place and in others the leadership has resisted corruption.

Although the jurisprudence on Chapter 6 of the Constitution (Leadership and Integrity) is yet to be settled in the Supreme Court, we have witnessed progressive jurisprudence on the protection of devolution as well as on the implementation of the Bill of Rights (in particular political, civil, housing, evictions and public interest litigation) and on the overall protection of the independence of the judiciary.

We have seen attempts by the imperial presidency and parliament to thwart this positive trend by starving the judiciary of funds. Court orders have been disobeyed, weakening the constitution and the rule of law. Both the imperial presidency and the neocolonial parliament still believe that national resources belong to them and that—as those who hold the taxpayers’ money in trust—they are not accountable to the people from whom both institutions derive their powers.

We have also witnessed robust protection of the constitution from civil society groups, both in the middle class and at the grassroots. We have seen the emergence of movements that are calling for alternative leaderships at the helm of the movements of transformation and political parties. We have also heard the clarion call that “We do not want reforms from the current political leadership; We want the political power to carry out authentic reforms. We are now the authentic people’s opposition”. The emancipatory spirits of Mau Mau, the independence movements, the movements against neocolonialism, Saba Saba and Limuru have been resurrected. In all these movements, the centrality of the Kenyan youth is visibly signaling new political demands from those who have been marginalised by the system.

Coronavirus: Breath of New Life into the Struggle?

Indeed, the pandemic has provided a great opportunity to continue the struggle for the implementation of the 2010 Constitution. I believe the pandemic has brought with it the answer to the ever-present political question in Kenya: Who are the friends and who are the enemies of the Kenyan people?

The pandemic has further exposed the inhumanity of the state and the elite political leadership by their actions during this crisis: extrajudicial killings; demolition of the housing of the poor in Kariobangi Sewerage and at Ruai; disobedience of court orders in regard to the pandemic; refusal to take steps to progressively bring about the realisation of the public good under Article 43 of the Constitution (food, water, education, social security, health, sanitation); and, with the exception of two, a lack of response through social justice philanthropy from the billionaires and multi-millionaires and their infamous foundations.

If any evidence were needed to show how uncaring our state and the ruling class are towards the majority of the population, it is in their demands that the poor wash their hands while failing to provide them with soap and water using the resources that they hold in trust for the people.

To oppress the poor for not wearing masks was callous in the extreme, while lockdowns and curfews became death sentences for those who had no food and those looking for casual jobs to survive. No resources were committed to implementing the right to health for all. Indeed, all we heard were the familiar tales of corruption as the pandemic provided the elite class with another opportunity to indulge their unquenchable thirst for theft and debts.

One positive effect of the pandemic has been to hasten the national discussion on the formation of alternative political movements and leaderships. Many virtual meetings and launches have been convened, events ironically made possible by the very tools developed by surveillance capitalism.

Alternative transformative movements are growing in strength. Embryonic alternative political parties exist, their mobilisation and organisation energised by the pandemic. The merger of these movements and political parties is no longer an abstract idea and, as they move in from the margins, the old normal of before the pandemic—which was neither acceptable nor sustainable—is no longer guaranteed a further lease of life.

Indeed, the pandemic has breathed some life into the struggles for the implementation of the constitution. Calls by the elite to change the constitution have been met with demands to tekeleza katiba, implement the constitution. The good news to me seems to be that this herculean struggle will result in the baronial narrative that has gone unchallenged for the last 57 years facing the resistance of strong counter-narratives. Ironically, it is these counter-narratives, these alternative movements and political leaderships that will protect the baronial elites from themselves and their politics of revenge, and guarantee the national peace that the elite have shown themselves to be incapable of providing.

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Seeds of Neo-Colonialism: Why GMO’s Create African Dependency on Global Markets

Rather than addressing food scarcity, genetically modified crops may render African farmers and scientists more, not less, reliant on global markets.

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Seeds of Neo-Colonialism: Why GMO’s Create African Dependency on Global Markets
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As COVID-19 continues to lay bare the deficiencies in the global food system, imagining new food futures is more urgent than ever. Recently, some have suggested that seeds that are genetically modified to include pest, drought, and herbicide resistance (GMOs) provide an avenue for African countries to become more self-sufficient in food production and less reliant on global food chains. Although we share the desire to build more just food systems, if history is any indicator, genetically-modified (GM) crops may actually render African farmers and scientists more, not less, reliant on global actors and markets.

In a paper we recently published in African Affairs, we trace a nearly 30-year history of collaborations among the agribusiness industry, US government agencies, philanthropic organizations, and African research councils to develop GMOs for African farmers. We found that these alliances, though impressive in scope, have so far resulted in few GMOs reaching African farmers and markets. Why, we ask, have efforts to bring GMOs to Africa yielded so little?

One reason, of course, is organized activism. Widespread distrust of the technology and its developers has animated local and transnational social movements that have raised important questions about the ownership, control, and safety of GM crops. But another issue has to do with the complex character of the public-private partnerships (PPPs) that donors have created to develop GM crops for the continent. Since 1991, beginning with an early partnership between the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute, and Monsanto to develop a virus resistant sweet potato (which never materialized), PPPs have become a hallmark of GMO efforts in Africa. This is mainly so for two reasons. The first is that GM technology is largely owned and patented by a handful of multinational corporations, and, thus, is inaccessible to African scientists and small to mid-sized African seed companies without a partnership agreement. The second is that both donors and agricultural biotechnology companies believe that partnering with African scientists will help quell public distrust of their involvement and instead create a public image of goodwill and collaboration. However, we found that this multiplicity of partners has created significant roadblocks to integrating GMOs into farming on the continent.

Take the case of Ghana. In the mid-2000s, country officials embarked on an impressive mission to become a regional leader in biotechnology. While Burkina Faso had been growing genetically modified cotton for years, Ghana sought to be the first West African country to produce GM food crops. In 2013, Ghanaian regulators thus approved field trials of six GM crops, including sweet potato, rice, cowpea, and cotton, to take place within the country’s scientific institutes.

However, what began as an exciting undertaking quickly ran into the trouble. Funding for the sweet potato project was exhausted soon after it began. Meanwhile, cotton research was put on indefinite hold in 2016 after Monsanto, which had been supplying both funding and the Bt cotton seed, withdrew from its partnership with the Ghanaian state scientific council. Describing its decision, a Monsanto official said that without an intellectual property rights law in place—a law that has been debated in Ghanaian parliament and opposed by Ghanaian activists since 2013—the firm could not see the “light at the end of the tunnel.”

Monsanto was also embroiled in legal matters in Burkina Faso, where their Bt cotton had unexpectedly begun producing inferior lint quality. Meanwhile, Ghanaian researchers working on two varieties of GM rice had their funding reduced by USAID, the main project donor. This left them with insufficient resources, forcing the team to suspend one of the projects. The deferment of both the cotton and one of the rice projects dealt a blow to the Ghanaian scientists who were just a year or two away from finalizing their research.

In many ways, the difficulties presented here from both Ghana and Burkina Faso suggest that efforts to bring agricultural biotechnology to Africa are a house of cards: the partnerships that seem sturdy and impressive from the outside, including collaborations between some of the world’s largest philanthropies and industry actors, are actually highly unstable. But what about the situation in other countries?

Both Nigeria and Kenya have made headlines recently for their approval of GM crops. The news out of Nigeria is especially impressive, where officials recently approved a flurry of GMO applications, including Bt cotton and Bt cowpea, beating Ghana to permit the first genetically modified food crop in West Africa. Kenya also approved the commercial production of Bt cotton, an impressive feat considering the country has technically banned GMOs since 2011. Both countries, which have turned to an India-based Monsanto subsidiary for their GM seed supply, hope that Bt cotton will help revitalize their struggling cotton sectors. While biotech proponents have applauded Nigeria and Kenya for their efforts, it will take several growing seasons and more empirical research to know how these technologies will perform.

As the cases described here demonstrate, moving GMOs from pipeline to field is not simply a matter of goodwill or scientific discovery; rather, it depends on a multitude of factors, including donor support, industry partnerships, research outcomes, policy change, and societal acceptance. This complex choreography, we argue, is embedded in the DNA of most biotechnology projects in Africa, and is often ignored by proponents of the technology who tend to offer linear narratives about biotech’s potential to bolster yields and protection against pests and disease. As such, we suggest the need to exercise caution; not because we wish to see the technology fail, but rather because we are apprehensive about multi-million dollar collaborations that seemingly favor the concerns of donors and industry over those of African scientists and farmers.

The notion of public-private partnerships may sound good, but they cannot dispel the underlying interests of participating parties or the history and collective memory of previous efforts to “improve” African agriculture.

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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