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Humour in a Time of Coronavirus

6 min read.

Laughter is cathartic, a coping mechanism in the midst of crisis. But humour also has the potential to catalyse analysis and mobilise diverse publics around socio-economic and political concerns.

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Humour in a Time of Coronavirus
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Social media has become a powerful communication platform, used by Africans on the continent and in the diaspora to engage on issues of common interest. In particular, it is used to spread a type of humour that is a form of critical commentary on contemporary issues, Twitter and—more recently—WhatsApp groups becoming conduits for memes, parodies or twitter threads that offer comic relief from the crisis at hand. Laughter is cathartic, a coping mechanism in the midst of crisis. Take Nigerian satirist Elnathan John’s hilarious rendition of a fictional Nigerian James Bond who struggles to succeed at his job because of visa issues. John offers an incisive critique of the prohibitive visa regimes that negatively impact Africans generally and Nigerians specifically. Or Siyanda Mohutsiwa’s #IfAfricaWasABar (what would your country be drinking or doing?) which explores the geo-political dynamics that shape African countries’ relations. Then there is Jim Chuchu’s 2019 parody of the New York Times advert for a Nairobi bureau chief that rehashed colonial tropes of a dark, dangerous continent that is fertile ground for the adventurous and ambitious journalist. Beyond the laughter, humour has the potential to catalyse analysis and mobilise diverse publics around socio-economic and political concerns. Through rumour, gossip, jokes, songs and euphemisms, politics plays out in the public view, but with a double meaning. It is argued that this coded, hidden transcript is always present in the public discourse of subordinate groups. Through humour, the oppressed speak.

Here we look at the three main ways in which humour serves as an avenue for a critique of class and gender relations, and of religious leaders, as African governments galvanise their countries in response to COVID-19. To begin with, the working class has used humour to rebuke the political class and the elites. With the emergence of the coronavirus, the proverbial 40 days that it takes to catch a thief have passed. As one unnamed poet put it, just one “sneeze” and African politicians are flown out to Europe or the United States for medical check-ups. With Europe as the epicentre of the global pandemic, the political elites in Africa have no option but to confront their failure to invest in equitable, quality healthcare systems. The key question now is: “Where will you go now since you did not bother to build local hospitals and the virus seems to be taking the rich first?”. In another stinging joke that takes aim at the middle class, a man who looks poor is crying and asking if he will die from an illness from abroad yet he has no passport. The passport, a signifier of the mobility of middle class Africans, in this case ceases to become a marker of “progress” and becomes instead a purveyor of problems. The problems generated by the economically and socially mobile often have a ripple effect on those whose mobility is curtailed by gaping economic inequalities. COVID-19 has been described as the great equaliser not because everyone can get it but because protecting yourself without securing the protection of others is no security at all. Dealing with the spread of the virus is not about protecting a few to the exclusion of the many. So long as the majority continue to be exposed to the coronavirus the wealthy are not safe. This is the equaliser. In this context, humour is used to re-ignite longstanding critiques of failed leadership. Jokes emerging out of a collective memory of ongoing struggles are used to “revolt” against states debilitated by grand corruption.

Secondly, a series of jokes, memes and videos circulating during this period have brought to the fore the reality of gender inequality and the pervasiveness of gender stereotypes as a driver of inequality. In these jokes, we see gender roles and stereotypes reinforced and often circulated without commentary. A few worth mentioning here include a photo of a man relaxing on a mattress on the roof of what looks like a modest house in a rural area. The photo implies that he is bored of being in the house with his family and chooses to be on the roof as he is constrained at home. A video clip shows a man calculating the cost of items brought home from the market by his wife, arguing that he has finally found time to check how much is being used at home. Images of children making the house untidy as they stay at home with their bored fathers have also been shared. Collectively, they normalise the sexist view that a woman’s place is in the private sphere while a man’s is in the public arena. An important commentary that underpins these jokes about men feeling locked in is a view of heterosexual relationships that construes them to be transactional in nature. These transactions are based on a neat and false dichotomy where women produce children, men provide money, women nag and constrain men’s freedom and there is little else in between. In one video, a man quickly chooses a second, unspoken, option when the first option presented is to go into quarantine with his wife and children. This video illustrates longstanding debates about the perception of marriage as a union that one must subscribe to but which men have a way out of at any given moment. Women on the other hand are required to stay within their marriages and work at them, demanding meaningful communication and companionship, which is viewed as a burden by their male partners.

A final subliminal message communicated in these videos is the issue of domestic violence. Violence against women as we know is not just physical but it can also be psychological, including controlling behaviour. What is passed off as a joke about budget accountability in the household is in fact indicative of potential or actual domestic violence normalised as men needing to see where their money goes.

Other videos offer a commentary on the prevalence of sexual violence in society. In one video, a group of men is praying for a sick woman in the theatrical manner employed in televised miracle healing sessions. They ask the woman, whom they are touching inappropriately, “what are you suffering from sister?”. In a soft, somber voice, she says, “I have coronavirus”, at which point the preachers run away. On the surface this could be viewed as a critique of charlatans who claim to have the power to heal. However, there is another story here, that of sexual abuse in religious institutions. In 2019, #ChurchMeToo and #ArewaMeToo emerged in Nigeria in response to sexual abuse allegations levelled respectively against the head of a Pentecostal church and Islamic schools. Similar charges against “men of the cloth” preying on children have been reported in Kenya, and not just within the evangelical movement; the Catholic church has faced longstanding charges of sexual abuse. The critique of religious institutions extends to a broader engagement with their loud silence on issues that impact citizens. This is the third category of humour we have analysed.

In an image showing four key West African prophets, there is an accompanying text that reads: “In the face of a real virus they are now quiet”. In countries such as Kenya, South Africa, and Central African Republic to name a few, the clergy and the church in general have in the past been a critical voice at specific historical moments. In Kenya, the role of clerics such as Timothy Njoya, David Gitari and Henry Okullu, who used the pulpit and took to the streets in support of the pro-democracy movement in the 1990s, is well documented. Archbishop Desmond Tutu is another notable example of liberation theology at work, where the purpose of religion and scripture is political and social transformation. The commentary in the image depicting silent church leaders, is a critique of a section of society that is often framed as being its “moral compass” but which falls silent when the immoral surfaces in the public domain—from sexual abuse, grand corruption, to irregular extensions of political term limits and extra judicial killings. Religious institutions are in most cases motivated by a desire to benefit from looted national resources and they are loudest when it comes to the regulation and control of women’s bodies. Their failure to be an effective “moral compass” in society is laid bare by weak health systems and poor infrastructure—education, water, transport—that are at the heart of the effective management of the spread of COVID-19. The rise of “religious charlatans” is a by-product of the decadence of the political class.

Humour, as illustrated above, has provided a much needed reprieve in the wake of the lockdowns, quarantine and social distancing measures occasioned by COVID-19. However, in laughter there is also an opportunity to examine where a society stands on specific issues. Humour in such moments as these has the potential to catalyse action against ills that have existed but which are now magnified by circumstances. The sharing of humour through social media mobilises communities which are ordinarily not engaged in professional civil society work or which are not to be found in “policy advocacy” spaces. However, humour can also be an avenue to sustain and reinforce existing biases in the society as is evident in issues of gender inequality. Ultimately we must ask, will the critiques generated by and through humour turn into demands for structural transformation or will society and its leaders laugh their way to their deaths, their coffins carried by Ghanaian funeral dancers?

Note: We have based our analysis on material we received through social media. However, it is often difficult to trace the origin of videos and cartoons that circulate on social media.

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David Mwambari, PhD, is a lecturer in African Security and Leadership Studies at the African Leadership Centre, King’s College, London, United Kingdom. Awino Okech, PhD, is a lecturer at The School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS), University of London, United Kingdom.

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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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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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