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Four Reasons Why Raila Odinga Struggled in the 2022 Kenyan Elections

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With so much effort going into making allegations of electoral manipulation, there seems to have been little time for Azimio leaders to reflect on what may have gone wrong and why.

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Four Reasons Why Raila Odinga Struggled in the 2022 Kenyan Elections
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In the weeks leading up to Kenya’s 2022 presidential election I wrote a piece that attempted to explain why Raila Odinga was not winning by a landslide and sent it in to the Elephant. It started by pointing out that given that Odinga was a long-term opposition leader who enjoyed strong support among the country’s marginalised and disenchanted communities, he might have expected to win the election at a canter after receiving the backing of President Uhuru Kenyatta. After all, the “handshake” between the two leaders appeared to have removed one of the main barriers to Odinga winning a general election, namely the state machinery that he and his supporters have consistently argued has been used to lock him out of power.

Yet despite the Azimio coalition bringing together the sitting president and the country’s most powerful opposition leader, Odinga did not seem to be running away with the election. The feeling I got from different parts of the country was that many voters were disenchanted with the handshake and the prospects of an Odinga/Kenyatta alliance. Opinion polls also suggested that the campaign was struggling to get into first gear, and that his main rival, William Ruto, retained an advantage. So I sat down to try and explain why, and wrote a piece about the four challenges that I thought his campaign faced, and why they meant he could lose the popular vote.

Then something changed.

The opinion polls began to shift. According to newspapers such as the Daily Nation, Odinga first went into a slight lead and then began to pull away. In one influential poll released just six days to polling day, the Daily Nation put Odinga 8 per cent ahead of Ruto. I distrusted these polls for a number of reasons: a nationally representative private poll my research group had commissioned put the election much closer, with Odinga leading by just over 2 per cent; telephone-based and computer-assisted polls would ignore the poorest members of society, who might be more likely to support Ruto’s “bottom up” economic message; some respondent’s may have been worried about saying they would vote for a candidate not favoured by the president; and, the media had tended to favour Odinga in its coverage. But as more and more polls came out giving Odinga a large lead, my belief in my argument waned. Maybe I had got it wrong, and the Azimio campaign had found a way of overcoming its own contradictions.

I soon lost confidence in my argument and, not wanting to publish analysis that I wasn’t sure about, I wrote to the editors at the Elephant asking them to shelve the piece.

In the wake of the announcement that William Ruto had won the presidential election with 50.49 per cent of the vote, my mind has consistently returned to the piece, because I think it may shed some light on the outcome. The results, of course, have been rejected by Odinga’s team which has petitioned the Supreme Court to try and overturn Ruto’s victory. But even if Kenya heads to a “fresh” election, or a run-off, it seems clear that Azimio struggled to excite and mobilise the electorate – including in his “home” counties. Whatever this was, it was not a resounding victory for Odinga and the “handshake”.

So in the hope that it might help those seeking to understand what happened in the elections – and because the analysis will still be relevant if the country requires a second presidential poll – I decided to publish the initial piece. The main analysis – which starts in the first section below – remains untouched. All that has been changed is this introduction, with a new conclusion inserted at the end of the piece to connect the discussion to the actual election results.

My argument ran as follows. Odinga’s campaign suffered from four major challenges: the fact that he lost popular trust following the handshake with Kenyatta, the president’s own unpopularity among key communities and his inability to deliver his own community, the mixed messages being sent out by the campaign, and a complacency that the election was in the bag. These weaknesses threatened to undermine his support not only in competitive areas such as central Kenya, but also in his own heartlands. This might not have mattered against a weak opponent, but Odinga was facing one of the most effective strategists in Kenyan politics. Ruto had begun to lay the groundwork for the 2022 campaign well in advance of 2017, ensuring that his allies were elected in key areas in that year’s general elections. In addition, through his “hustler” narrative and critique of privileged “dynasties” Ruto had hit upon a message that resonated with a cross-section of Kenyans suffering significant economic hardships.

If Odinga’s campaign did not resolve its internal contradictions, I argued, Ruto could well emerge victorious.

From this point onwards, I reproduce original article.

No longer the people’s president  

Odinga’s reputation as an opposition stalwart was hard won and well deserved. He played a key role in helping Mwai Kibaki to mobilise support ahead of the 2002 elections, securing the country’s first ever transfer of power at the ballot box. Odinga then broke from President Kibaki when it became clear that he had no intention of either pursuing constitutional reform or keeping the promises he had made to his allies. Having defeated Kibaki in a constitutional referendum that would have taken the country backwards, he continued to campaign for reform.

Ruto had begun to lay the groundwork for the 2022 campaign well in advance of 2017, ensuring that his allies were elected in key areas in that year’s general elections.

In this way, Odinga played a major role in the introduction of a new constitution in 2010, even if it took the 2007/8 post-election crisis to generate the necessary political will to change the rules of Kenya’s political game. With the introduction of a Supreme Court and a system of devolution that created 47 new county governments, this represented a major democratic breakthrough that has profoundly shaped the country’s politics ever since.

Despite serving as Prime Minister in the power sharing administration that ushered in the new constitution, Odinga’s reputation as an opposition leader was further cemented in the years that followed. On the one hand, he was declared the loser in a series of close and often bruising election defeats in 2007, 2013 and 2017, which were made even harder to take by the fact that each time he was convinced he had been cheated. On the other hand, Odinga increasingly refused to play politics by the rules laid down by President Kenyatta, boycotting the “fresh” presidential election in 2017 and then refusing to accept the legitimacy of Kenyatta’s victory – ultimately being sworn in as the “people’s president” by his supporters in a controversial ceremony in Nairobi.

Against this backdrop, the “handshake” between Odinga and Kenyatta that ended their long-running standoff on 9 March 2018 took many of his supporters by surprise. Moving into government, and securing no immediate concessions in return for calling off his protests, made it look like Odinga had given up his fight for political change. Worse still, it opened him up to accusations that he had sold out those who had made great sacrifices to fight his corner, prioritising his own wealth and security ahead of their dreams.

The impact of this move on Odinga’s reputation continues to be underestimated, even today. At the elite level, it led to figures such as public intellectual and political strategist David Ndii abandoning Odinga and throwing their weight behind Ruto on the basis that he represented the only credible challenge to the corrupt ruling clique. But perhaps the biggest impact was among ordinary Kenyans. In a nationally representative survey conducted in mid-July 2020, only 18 per cent of respondents said that they trusted Odinga “a lot” and 42 per cent said “not at all”. This decline was not only felt among groups that have historically not associated with Odinga such as those who live in central (51 per cent “not at all”), it also extended to western (45 per cent) and even Nyanza itself (31 per cent).

Controversial primaries or “nominations” don’t help this situation. As I wrote at the time, discussing the winners and losers of the process, “Odinga—and his ODM party—have come out rather bruised. They have been accused of nepotism, bribery and of ignoring local wishes. This is a particularly dangerous accusation for Odinga, as it plays into popular concerns that, following his “handshake” with President Kenyatta and his adoption as the candidate of the “establishment”, he is a “project” of wealthy and powerful individuals who wish to retain power through the backdoor after Kenyatta stands down having served two-terms in office.”

What is particularly striking about the trust numbers from July 2020 is that at the time the poll was conducted – the numbers shifted in later surveys – trust in Odinga lagged considerably behind William Ruto. According to the poll, only 23 per cent of Kenyans trusted Ruto “not at all” and this figure was particularly low in key battleground regions such as central (19 per cent). This represented a remarkable turnaround for Ruto – who was once found by a survey to be the most feared leader in Kenya – and meant that Odinga started the 2022 election campaign from a position of weakness.

The Kenyatta problem 

The reputational fallout from the handshake has been reinforced by the strong support Odinga’s candidacy has received from President Kenyatta and his allies. Not only is the president visibly in Odinga’s corner, but his allies in the ruling party are active parts of the Azimio coalition. This has created the perception that Odinga is being used as a stooge by the Kenyatta family and their clique to protect their interests in the next government.

Such an accusation would not have been so damaging in the past, but Kenyatta’s credibility has fallen in the last five years. Against the backdrop of a struggling economy and rising unemployment and poverty during the COVID-19 pandemic, the president’s failure to deliver on key election promises, or to reduce corruption, has created the perception that he and his government are part of the problem rather than part of the solution. This situation is only likely to get worse over the coming months, as the fallout from the war in Ukraine and the food shortages in the region push up the prices of essentials. Petrol prices are already set to be the highest in Kenyan history.

The reputational fallout from the handshake has been reinforced by the strong support Odinga’s candidacy has received from President Kenyatta and his allies.

Odinga’s dependence on Kenyatta for financial and state support is thus as much of a curse as it is a blessing. At a moment when many Kenyans are desperate for change, Odinga’s alliance with Kenyatta makes him look like the continuity candidate.

Yet this is not the worst of it. Being seen to be a “project” or a “puppet” for other interests can be politically fatal in Kenya because it implies that a leader cannot be trusted to deliver to their own communities. Odinga should know this well, because it was in part this accusation that undermined the efforts of Musalia Mudavadi to mobilise the support of his Luhya community in the 2013 general election, and so enabled Odinga to dominate the vote in western province. Mudavadi’s career has never fully recovered.

Odinga may also gain little from Kenyatta’s support in central Kenya itself. At present he is losing the region in most credible opinion polls despite Kenyatta’s support, and it is unclear whether Kikuyu leaders can really rally support for a leader who they have demonised repeatedly for decades. Kenyatta is also highly unpopular in parts of central Kenya himself – in a survey our research team conducted in July 2022, 21 per cent of Kikuyu, Embu and Meru voters said that Kenyatta’s endorsement made them less likely to vote for a candidate, compared to 17 per cent of Luos.

Yet despite this, Azimio has done little to counter the idea that Odinga is not his own man. Instead of creating clear blue water between the two leaders when setting up the new coalition, Azimio appointed Kenyatta as its chairman. And by using Kenyatta’s speeches as a vehicle to demonise Ruto and so try and so limit his support in central Kenya, Azimio has consistently reminded Kenyans that Kenyatta is a central part of the Odinga team. This created a gaping open goal, enabling Odinga’s opponents to score numerous points at his expense. Most notably, Ruto – always one to find a punchy phrase to sum up popular frustrations – has taken great delight in warning that if Odinga were to win, Kenyans would suffer a “remote-controlled presidency”.

Mixed messages 

In the past, Odinga’s messaging was powerful and clear, but it is now unconvincing. This is partly because his campaign has to cope with the internal contradictions of being an opposition leader backed by the establishment. But it also reflects muddled thinking and a failure to capture the public imagination.

Back in the day, you knew where you were with an Odinga campaign. He was in favour of constitutional reform, devolution, and shifting power and resources in the direction of the country’s economically and politically marginalised ethnic groups. This gave him a clear brand and an obvious set of slogans. Things have looked rather different since 2010, however, and it is important to realise that the challenges facing Odinga have a history that predates the 2022 general elections.

Being seen to be a “project” or a “puppet” for other interests can be politically fatal in Kenya because it implies that a leader cannot be trusted to deliver to their own communities.

In one respect, Odinga was a victim of his own success. The achievement of a new constitution complete with devolution took away one of his main demands. Thereafter, Odinga’s team has struggled to find as effective a framing device that would resonate with as wide a range of communities. In post-2010 elections, Odinga has presented himself as the defender of the new arrangements – the only leader who could be trusted to make sure that devolution was protected and extended. In some ways this made sense – devolution was very popular – but as all good politicians know, promising to make something a bit better is never going to excite voters as much as promising something completely new and game changing.

Campaigning on the same issue also risked making Odinga look like a one trick pony – something that his then Jubilee rivals took full advantage of. In 2013, for example, Jubilee leaders sought to tap into popular excitement at the new technological opportunities transforming the country by claiming that they were “digital” while Odinga was “analogue”.

The 2022 campaign has brought with it even greater challenges. By presenting himself as the opposition candidate on the side of Kenya’s hard working “hustlers”, Ruto has appropriated Odinga’s approach and updated it for a new generation. At the same time, the closer relationship between Odinga and Kenyatta has generated suspicions that an Azimio government would predominantly benefit their Kikuyu and Luo communities, respectively. The obvious implication of this is that an Odinga presidency would preserve rather than challenge the greater economic and political opportunities that communities that have held the presidency currently enjoy. Along with Odinga’s damaged reputation, this has made it much harder to craft a message that resonates with communities that have never tasted power – i.e. with Odinga’s historical support base.

These issues have led Odinga to make a series of speeches that have been couched in warm tones, identifying important lessons from Kenya’s past without presenting any clear blueprint for how to navigate its future. Such narratives no doubt evoke warm memories, in particular the role that Oginga Odinga and Jomo Kenyatta – Raila and Uhuru’s fathers – played in the nationalist struggle. But they are unlikely to excite the county’s youth, who are too young remember this history, have borne the brunt of recent economic downturn, and represent more than three-quarters of the population.

These challenges could have been overcome by a creative campaign that highlighted past government failings and promised to put them right. But Azimio has gotten itself in such a mess that such a campaign has not been possible. There are two aspects to this. First, it is unclear who is actually in control of Odinga’s campaign. Strong rumours suggest that powerful figures around Kenyatta – most notably his influential brother Muhoho – have as much sway as long-time ODM leaders. It is not hard to see how such a situation would lead to mixed messages and undermine Odinga’s ability to position himself against Kenyatta’s legacy. While the president is understood to have informed Odinga’s team that he understands that they may need to distance his candidacy from the current government, others around Kenyatta are said to be extremely sensitive about any criticism, binding the hands of Odinga’s speech writers.

As all good politicians know, promising to make something a bit better is never going to excite voters as much as promising something completely new and game changing.

Second, the Azimio coalition has struggled for unity and purpose. The difficulty of integrating its numerous parties into a common organization and slate of candidates was so great that it proved to be easier to change the law to allow coalitions to be registered as parties than to create a more unified political vehicle. Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza alliance is not without these challenges, but the greater number of leaders and parties involved on the Azimio side mitigates against a clear and coherent structure and leadership. As Pamoja African Alliance (PAA) spokesperson Lucas Maitha put it, as his party tried to quit the coalition: “There is a lot of confusion in the coalition today. Nobody knows who is calling the shots in Azimio”.

The lack of integration within the coalition also means that it risks fighting against itself when it comes to some downstream races for Governor, Senator, Member of Parliament and MCA. Kenyans don’t have to look back far in history to see the impact that this kind of fragmented campaign can have. It was exactly the same set of challenges that undermined the campaign of President Kibaki’s Party of National Unity in 2007, and led to what was effectively the “incumbent” grouping losing control of the National Assembly.

The complacency of the powerful

You might have thought that the challenges outlined above would lead to significant changes to the campaign structure and a real sense of urgency. Instead, what is striking is the apparent complacency within the Azimio coalition. This appears to be rooted in two assumptions. The first is that Kenyan politics is still essentially an ethnic census, in which success simply requires you to recruit the most “Big Men” (or “Big Women”). The second is that whichever candidate has the backing of the state is bound to win. On that basis, Odinga cannot lose.

But these are flawed and deeply dangerous assumptions. Many of the leaders behind Odinga have no capacity to direct the votes of the communities they claim to lead. Odinga gained ground on Ruto when other leaders such as Kalonzo Musyoka officially joined his side, but the likes of Gideon Moi and Charity Ngilu bring few votes with them. Ruto has also demonstrated a remarkable ability to penetrate the support base of his rivals, and is currently the most popular candidate among the Kikuyu, turning assumptions about ethnic voting on their head.

The assumption that the state can simply deliver an election is also problematic. Spending more money doesn’t mean you necessarily get more votes – especially if the money is seen to be tainted by corruption. Using the security forces to intimidate rival voters or applying pressure to the electoral commission can be effective, but if Odinga remains behind in the polls, any blatant attempt to manipulate the process would return Kenya to the political crisis of 2007/8. Moreover, with the emergence of an assertive Supreme Court that just rejected Odinga’s proposed “Building Bridges Initiative” constitutional changes, even these more cynical strategies can no longer guarantee victory.

Spending more money doesn’t mean you necessarily get more votes – especially if the money is seen to be tainted by corruption.

Azimio leaders therefore have no room for complacency. Yet that is just what they are demonstrating.

The original text ends here; what follows is a reflection on the official results of the election, and what they tell us about the accuracy of the foregoing arguments.

The 2022 election results: The Handshake blues

It is too early to know what the 2022 election results will look like after a Supreme Court petition, and correlation is not causation, but some of the results suggest that the intuitions outlined above may have been on the money.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the results was the strength of support for Ruto in Central Kenya. Most notably, neither Kenyatta nor Odinga’s running mate Martha Karua proved able to mobilise much support in the region. While Odinga performed better than he had done in 2017 – demonstrating that he did gain something from his chosen alliances – Ruto convincingly defeated him in Kenyatta and Karua’s home polling stations. In Murang’a County, Ruto secured over 343,000 and Odinga just over 73,000, with a turnout of 68 per cent. In Nyeri, Ruto won with 272,000 votes and Odinga just 52,000, on another 68 per cent turnout. And in Kiambu Ruto polled a massive 606,000 to Odinga’s 210,000 on a 65 per cent turnout.

Much less commentary has focussed on the elections in what are usually thought of as Odinga’s home areas, in part because much of the Azimio accusations of electoral manipulation have focussed on central Kenya, but there is an interesting story to be told here as well.

Things don’t look that damaging for Odinga if you just scan the numbers quickly without putting them in context. In Homa Bay, Odinga polled almost 400,000 votes and Ruto got under 4,000 on a 74 per cent turnout. Odinga also won overwhelmingly in Siaya (371,000 to 4,000) on a 71 per cent turnout and in Kisumu (420,000 to 10,000) on a 71 per cent turnout. These landslide victories are the stuff of politicians’ dreams, and turnout percentages in the 70s look healthy compared to most parts of the world.

Indeed, these results look pretty good until you remember that these counties are in Odinga’s electoral base, where he was hoping for the kind of overwhelming wall of support he received in previous elections. In 2013, turnout in Nyanza was 89 per cent. Homa Bay recorded 94 per cent, Siaya, 92 per cent, Kisumu 90 per cent – an average of around 20 per cent higher than 2022. Moreover, comparing the 2022 turnout in these areas with Ruto’s heartlands reveals striking differences. In Bomet, Ruto won 283,000 votes to Odinga’s 13,000 on a turnout of 80 per cent. In Elgeyo Marakwet, he secured 160,000 to Odinga’s 5,000 on a 78 per cent turnout. And in Kericho he polled 319,000 to Odinga’s 15,000 on a turnout of 79 per cent. Overall, the four counties in the country with the highest turnout all went to Ruto.

Odinga also suffered from a similar drop in turnout in other areas that have historically supported him. While he won the vote at the Coast, in a number of counties it was much closer and turnout collapsed. In Mombasa, Odinga polled 161,000 votes to Ruto’s 113,000 on a turnout of just 44 per cent. Azimio leaders will complain that this was due to the last minute cancellation of the governorship election, and that that may have had an impact, but Mombasa was far from the only county in the Coast to see a decline. In Kwale, it was 125,000 for Odinga and 52,000 for Ruto on a 55 per cent turnout. Back in 2013, turnout had been 66 per cent in Mombasa and 72 per cent in Kwale. While turnout declined in every county in 2022, the route to victory planned by the Odinga team assumed that they would be able to at least match his 2017 performance in his home areas now that he was backed by the power of the state.

Taken together, these figures suggest a common story. Potential Azimio voters in all three regions were unpersuaded by the handshake. In central Kenya, former Kenyatta supporters were not prepared to accept Odinga and instead flocked to Ruto. In Nyanza and the Coast, some Odinga supporters, disenchanted by his alliance with Kenyatta stayed at home, denying him the numbers needed for victory. Had Nyanza and the Coast turned out as they have done in the past, Odinga would not just have secured a second round run-off, he would probably have won outright.

Odinga also suffered from a similar drop in turnout in other areas that have historically supported him.

This is not to imply that Ruto did not earn his victory – he campaigned hard on a message cleverly designed to profit from Odinga’s difficulties, and many of the votes he won were not simply negative rejections of the handshake but a vote for change. But that message was so effective against Odinga – the archetypal “change” candidate – precisely because the handshake and his alliance with Kenyatta undermined his ability to persuade potential supporters that his presidency would deliver anything different to the last eight years.

This core challenge will remain if the presidential election needs to be re-run, and even now it seems like key lessons are not being learned. With so much effort going into making allegations of electoral manipulation, there seems to have been little time for Azimio leaders to reflect on what may have gone wrong and why. Even if those around Odinga believe they were hard done by in Central, it doesn’t seem plausible that their performance was undermined by manipulation in Nyanza, an area in which Ruto’s team has had very little presence. Yet there seems to be little recognition that Azimio may have simply have gotten its tactics badly wrong.

If the campaign strategy remains the same, with the added challenge of having to re-mobilise citizens who are tired of the election and may blame Azimio for further disruption on the basis that they refused to accept defeat, the outcome of a “fresh” election is unlikely to be different to the first.

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Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is Professor of Democracy and the editor of www.democracyinafrica.org

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Why Kenyans Are Not Mourning the Queen

Those who know the psychological, social and economic damage that colonisation caused in their countries have been vocal about Queen Elizabeth’s failure to acknowledge the harm her empire inflicted on colonised subjects, or even to issue an apology.

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Why Kenyans Are Not Mourning the Queen
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The non-stop coverage of Queen Elizabeth’s death on international media for more than a week was met with various levels of disbelief in countries that were once colonised by Britain. The BBC, naturally, covered the Queen’s death and funeral as if it was a global tragedy, while CNN and Al Jazeera devoted hours to the ceremonies preceding the funeral, including interviewing the thousands of people who stood in long lines to pay their respects to the late monarch. The coverage reeked of British exceptionalism, as if what happens to Britain and its royal family is of immense significance to the entire world.

There seems to be a general sense of amnesia surrounding the Queen Elizabeth and her rule, especially the horrors her empire was unleashing in many parts of the world when she ascended to the throne in 1952.  A friend based in Oxford told me that the police are even arresting people in Britain who are publicly protesting the Queen’s legacy. This kind of censorship seems bizarre in a land that describes itself as a champion of democracy and freedom of expression. It has become almost blasphemous to criticise the Queen and the monarchy.

Worse, British colonialism under her rule has been whitewashed and sanitised as if it never happened, or was a good thing. Most British people have also conveniently forgotten that the wealth their country enjoys today was built on the backs of African slaves who worked on the British Empire’s plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean, and through the exploitation of its colonies around the world, including in Africa.

For those who see the British Empire as a sinister force that destroyed communities and plundered people and territories, the extensive coverage of the Queen’s funeral appears like a slap in the face. An outfit called Economic Freedom Fighters in South Africa even issued a statement describing Queen Elizabeth as “the head of an institution built up, sustained, and living off a brutal legacy of dehumanisation of millions of people around the world”.

Kenya stood out as one country where the Queen’s death did not generate mass grief, even though the newly elected president William Ruto made an obligatory trip to London to attend her funeral and the outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta declared four days of mourning. Kenyans on Twitter and other social media spaces did not send out messages of condolence to the Queen’s family, nor were there special state-led commemorations for the late monarch. This is not because Kenyans disliked the Queen; frankly, most of us view her as a nice – albeit extremely privileged – person who was trapped by her royal duties and did the best she could under the circumstances. But that is not the point. It is not the Queen that we resented but the institution she represented – and her failure to acknowledge the harm that the institution inflicted. As Kenyan journalist Rose Lukalo commented, “The Queen’s death and burial has resurfaced the uneasy truth of Kenya’s unfinished business with colonialism.”

Kenya stood out as one country where the Queen’s death did not generate mass grief, even though the newly elected president William Ruto made an obligatory trip to London to attend her funeral.

Many British people actually believe that the net impact of British colonialism around the world was positive because it established schools and railways and introduced Christianity to people who purportedly had no religion. They are not told that British colonialism in Kenya and other places was brutal and exploitative. It robbed indigenous people of their land, and created a class of landless people and squatters – terms that were virtually unknown in traditional African societies because all land was communally owned.

The history of slavery and Britain’s role in it is similarly whitewashed. Britain is often lauded for abolishing slavery in 1883, but what is not widely known is that when the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, there were more than 40,000 slave owners in Britain. What is also not talked about often enough is that one year after slavery was abolished, Britain and other European powers embarked on colonising Africa at the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, thereby unleashing another form of slavery on Africans.

The British Empire’s establishment of a “settler colony” in Kenya was particularly pernicious. In 1923, Britain forcibly possessed the most fertile parts of the Rift Valley – the so-called “White Highlands”, an area comprising 5.2 million acres.  The locals were moved to “reserves” where they were expected to pay taxes to a government that basically stole their land from them.

When the locals rebelled, the Empire’s lackeys tortured them and put them in concentration camps. Caroline Elkins’ book, Britain’s Gulag, documents these atrocities in detail, including the rape of women deemed sympathetic to Mau Mau freedom fighters that had taken hold in Central Kenya, and whose members were jailed and tortured by the colonial regime. It is worth noting that the places where these Mau Mau revolutionaries were arrested, detained and tortured in the 1950s was not far from the Kenyan Aberdares mountain range where the young Elizabeth and her husband found out that her father, King George VI, had died and she was the new British queen.  It is also worth noting that it took some 5,000 former Mau Mau members more than 60 years to receive compensation from the British government, a legal battle that has been lauded for its tenacity and boldness.

Colonialism’s lingering impact

Societies that have experienced the trauma of colonisation often become dysfunctional. Forced to abandon their traditional values and social security systems, uprooted from their ancestral lands and natural resources, and brainwashed to believe that they are inferior beings, these societies begin to manifest all the symptoms of a sick society. Colonisation separated families and introduced an economy based on exploitation, which changed the nature of African societies and economies.

Post-colonial governments did not reverse this sad state of affairs. On the contrary, post-independence Kenyan elites benefitted from colonial policies that alienated Africans from their own land and became the biggest beneficiaries of post-independence land grabs disguised as land redistribution or adjudication. It is believed that one of the main reasons Jomo Kenyatta was selected to lead the country’s transition to independence was because he had made a secret pact with the British colonial government not to hurt British and white settler interests in the country.

It took some 5,000 former Mau Mau members more than 60 years to receive compensation from the British government, a legal battle that has been lauded for its tenacity and boldness.

According to Kenya’s Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission report, “rich businessmen and businesswomen, rich and powerful politicians who were loyal to the colonial administration, managed to acquire thousands of acres at the expense of the poor and the landless.” Hence, “instead of redressing land-related injustices perpetrated by the colonialists on Africans, the resettlement process created a privileged class of African elites, leaving those who had suffered land alienation either on tiny unproductive pieces of land or landless.” Even today in Kenya, members of freedom fighting movements remain landless and poverty-stricken while those who sided with the colonialists are among the richest people in the land.

No royal apology 

People who know the psychological, social and economic damage that colonisation caused in their countries have been vocal about Queen Elizabeth’s failure to acknowledge the harm her empire inflicted on colonised subjects, or even to issue an apology. Many royalists have insinuated that perhaps the Queen was not aware or had not been informed of the atrocities committed by British colonial officers in places like Kenya. But as Elkins stated in a recent article published in TIME magazine, this argument is highly implausible. She wrote: “Beginning with her first prime minister Winston Churchill, the queen’s ministers not only knew of systematic British-directed violence in the empire, they also participated in its crafting, diffusion and cover-up, which was as routinised as the violence itself. They repeatedly lied to Parliament and the media and, when decolonization was imminent, ordered the widespread removal and burning of incriminating evidence.”

Shashi Tharoor, the Indian author and politician, has a similar view. He believes that even if the Queen was not in charge when the Empire committed the most violent atrocities, she had a duty to at least acknowledge that these atrocities took place. “We do know that much of colonialism’s horrors over the centuries were perpetrated in the name of the Royal Family but when she and her consort visited Jallianwallah Bagh, she could only bring herself to leave her name in the visitors’ book, without even an expression of regret, let alone of contrition or apology, for that vile British act of deliberate mass murder,” he said. (Jallianwallah Bagh was a site in the city of Amritsar where hundreds of pro-independence activists were killed or injured in April 1919. Although Elizabeth was not queen then, the scale of the massacre was so shocking that it has been viewed as one of the worst atrocities that the British Empire committed against civilians.)

Now that the Queen is dead, will her son King Charles take the responsibility of confessing to the sins of his mother and the Empire she presided over? Not likely, given that the idea that the British monarchy is above reproach has become even more entrenched since her death.

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Dandora Dumpsite: Where the Recycling Dream Goes to Die

While recycling is the preferred solution of plastic producing corporations, it is not environmentally sustainable as recycled plastic eventually returns to the environment leaving the original problem intact.

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Dandora Dumpsite: Where the Recycling Dream Goes to Die
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“Less plastic is fantastic,” says James Wakibia, an environmental activist who was instrumental to the 2017 ban on single-use plastic carrier bags in Kenya. And the world agrees with him. In fact, nations came together at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 5.2) in March 2022 and agreed to deal with the plastic problem by concluding a binding plastic treaty by 2024. Plastic pollution has become a pressing problem that affects every ecosystem in the world.

In Kenya, 4,400 tonnes of plastic waste are generated every single day. Of this waste, 73 per cent remains uncollected while 27 per cent ends up in dumpsites such as Dandora and other unsanitary landfills. The collected waste is mostly from urban centres that are the major polluters compared to rural areas. In urban centres such as Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu and Nakuru, the waste is only collected in the formal settlements; slums and other informal settlements, such as Kibera in Nairobi, have no waste collection services. Their waste is either dumped by the roadside, in rivers or burnt.

It is this glaring lack of solid waste management and the untethered use of plastics that has prompted the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) to develop the draft Plastic Management Regulations 2018 that are yet to pass into law. David Ongare, Director in charge of compliance at NEMA, explains that plastic pollution in Nairobi has led to clogged drainage that causes flooding in the city each time it rains. Ongare further explains that microplastics from disintegrating plastic waste dumped in the environment are now being found in the human body. The toxins and particulate matter released when city dwellers burn plastics cause ill health among Kenyans and contribute to climate change.

The ill effects of plastics on human health and their long-lasting impact on the environment have led to calls from some quarters for a ban on nonessential plastics such as single-use plastic bottles. Some sectors have taken action, such as the tourism industry in Kenya where the Kenya Wildlife Service has banned single-use bottles in Kenyan parks. However, the call to ban single-use plastic bottles such as soda and water bottles has been fought vigorously by corporations in the business; they claim that there is no need to ban nonessential plastics since they can be recycled.

Stanley Didi, project coordinator at Nairobi Recyclers, says that recycling of plastic had stopped for a time due to the high cost of electricity in the country and the low prices that recycled plastic fetches on the Kenyan market. Didi explains that before Nairobi Recyclers advocated for a price increase to between US$0.13 and US$0.20 per kilogramme, recycled plastic was trading at US$0.034 per kilogramme. A hard-working waste picker could barely collect 10 kilogrammes in a day, earning the equivalent of just US$0.34, an amount that was not enough to buy one meal, let alone three.

Nairobi’s waste pickers work at the Dandora dumpsite, Kenya’s largest dumpsite that opened in 1975 and was declared full by public health officials in 2001. It is still in use over two decades later despite a June 16th 2021 court ruling ordering its closure within six months. The Dandora dumpsite receives over 2,000 tons of waste a day, making it the most viable working site for waste pickers to find plastics and other items that can be recycled.

Waste pickers at the Dandora dumpsite have no Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), which exposes them to toxins such as lead, dioxin and mercury. Moreover, poor pay that barely covers food means that most waste pickers sleep rough on the streets and are undocumented as they lack the means to access government services. The kind of life they lead also takes a toll on their mental health, causing them to use and abuse marijuana, glue, jet fuel and other drugs that are said to turn them into zombies.

Four waste pickers died of unknown causes even as the UNEA 5.2 convention was ongoing. They had been feeling ill but had no money to visit the hospital, Didi explains. Poor health is common among waste pickers who are exposed to toxins from burning plastic. Neurological impairment, kidney failure, lung and prostate cancer, irritation of the lungs and gastrointestinal tract, kidney damage, abnormalities of the skeletal system and suppression of the haematological system are some of the health complications suffered by waste pickers and recyclers because of the pollutants to be found in the waste.

But the recycling challenges are not confined to waste pickers at dumpsites. Wakibia explains that the manner in which the recycling process is handled in the various plastic recycling plants that he has visited across the country leaves a lot to be desired. Workers at these plants also lack PPEs, which exposes them to dangerous toxins while the plastics themselves are mixed and smelted without regard to classification which results in a recycled plastic product of low quality. After use, the recycled plastic product returns to the environment and as it can no longer be recycled, the original problem of plastic pollution remains unsolved. Moreover, recycling plants pollute the air and release untreated wastewater directly into the environment. A process that seeks to mitigate the effects of plastic pollution ends up creating more pollution.

“The problem is that Kenya operates in a linear economy where the producer’s responsibility ends once the goods are placed in the market and takes no concern on the post-consumer stage”, says Ongare. The “polluter pays” principle should be in use in Kenya where the corporations responsible for polluting pay for the cost of clean-up and compensate those that have been negatively affected by their actions.

But this has been difficult to put into practice. With its 41.7 per cent share of the PET plastics category, Coca Cola has been named as the leading plastic polluter in Kenya. The company has consistently preached recycling. Dandora HipHop City is a group that exchanges plastic bottles for food for the children of Dandora who would otherwise sleep hungry. The group depends on donations as the low income from recycling plastics cannot sustain its activities. When the group sought support for their recycling programmes from Coca Cola, they were offered a fridge full of plastic bottles of soda. Following a similar request, Nairobi Recyclers received a donation of plastic gurney bags. And nor did Clean Up Kenya fare any better; when the group organised cleaning events in conjunction with Coca Cola, the corporation provided only soda in plastic bottles  at the end of the gruelling day.

Corporations such as Coca Cola prefer to deal with Kenya PET Recycling Company Limited (PETCO), an organisation bringing together plastic dealers in Kenya that was created in 2018 when calls to ban single-use plastics in the country began to gain momentum. The organisation, which is housed within Coca Cola’s premises, has done little to contribute to recycling efforts in the country, says Didi. As of this year, recycling in Kenya was still at a bare 8 per cent.

The government also sings the praises of recycling while leaving it to waste pickers, volunteers and nongovernmental organisations. In fact, waste pickers and recyclers have to pay NEMA and county governments approximately US$259 annually for permission to pick or recycle waste. 

Kenyans thus find themselves in a plastic quagmire. Plastics are choking their cities, their homes, their streets, their rivers and parks. Nairobi’s only dumpsite is full and can no longer handle the 4,400 tons of plastic waste that Nairobians dump each day. Recycling, the preferred solution of plastic producing corporations, is not only environmentally unsustainable but it releases long-lasting toxins into the air Kenyans breathe and the water they use. Devolution of waste management to the counties has not led to an improvement of the situation and the government continues to face a growing solid waste management problem.

For how long will plastic pollution continue to cause harm before the country says enough is enough? It is time to pull the plug on all nonessential plastics in the country. Kenya has done this before with the 2017 ban on single-use plastic carrier bags. Not producing and not using plastics is the only formula that will work in the fight against nonessential plastics.

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Kericho County: Tea, Foods and Shifting Weather Patterns

Kericho County has experienced a gradual change in climatic conditions over the past three decades, with rainfall becoming irregular and unpredictable and drought more frequent. As a result, the region’s agricultural output is deteriorating.

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Kericho County: Tea, Foods and Shifting Weather Patterns
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Climate change has become a central topic in recent conversations. And however much we may wish to bury our heads in the sand and act like the implications aren’t dire, we must acknowledge that the impact is profound. From the inconsistencies in the weather patterns and the rise in temperatures among many other indicators, we are now seeing the effects of neglecting our environment.

Kericho County lies within the bread basket zone that is Kenya’s Rift Valley, enjoying adequate rainfall, a cool climate, and fertile soils that have made it a food hub and a cog in the wheel of Kenya’s urban food supplies. According to the 2014 Agricultural Sector Development Support Programme (ASDSP), agriculture was the primary occupation and a direct and indirect source of livelihood for over 50 per cent of Kericho’s the residents.

However, a worrying trend highlighted by climate experts points to a gradual change in the region’s climatic conditions over the past three decades. With rainfall becoming irregular and unpredictable and drought more frequent, the region’s agricultural output is deteriorating.

A June 2020 report by the Kenya Meteorological Department, and a March 2020 report by the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), show growing disparities in how the climatic shifts affect different regions. Kericho’s daytime temperatures have gone up by 11 per cent while night-time temperatures have increased by 24 per cent. The changes have brought with them their fair share of problems and challenges to the region. For instance, the county is now witnessing crop diseases that were previously unheard of. Moreover, failures and reduced yields are forcing farmers to look for alternatives to crops like tea and coffee that used to do well in the county.

An estimated 79 per cent of the land in Kericho is arable and a majority of residents live in the county’s outlying rural areas such as Cheborge, Soin, Londiani, Chepseon and Buret where farming thrives. The county has four agro-ecological zones: Upper Highlands, Lower Highlands, Upper Midlands, and Lower Midlands. The main crops farmed in the county include tea, coffee, maize, and beans. Potatoes, wheat, flowers, and pineapples are also grown in parts of the county while dairy farming also does well in the region. Data from Kericho’s Second Generation County Integrated Development Plan 2018- 2022 indicates that on-farm employment accounts for over 50 per cent of all the jobs in the county, while the Tea Agricultural Authority affirms that tea farming supports over 5 million people directly and indirectly nationally. Kericho, Bomet and Nandi counties produce 46 per cent of all the tea grown in Kenya, an indication of the significance of tea to Kericho’s economy.

Tea farming in Kericho involves both smallholder farmers and large-scale multinational companies such as Finlays, Kaisugu, and Unilever.  However, available reports show that incomes from the cash crop have been dwindling over the years, mainly due to the changing weather patterns that have contributed to low yields, while the crop is fetching less in the international markets. Some tea farmers in the region are now uprooting their tea plantations that have been adversely affected by prolonged dry spells, hailstorms, frost, and crop diseases, opting instead to venture into real estate, dairy farming, and farming of crops that can withstand the changing climate. While the shift is important in ensuring food security and sustainability of livelihoods, it also to a significant degree puts a dent in the county’s revenues owing to reduced tea exports.

Besides providing food to the country, agriculture also contributes to improved livelihoods. Managed well, it spurs economic growth, drives national short and long-term goals, and contributes to sustainable natural resource use and ecological balance within the farming communities. Agriculture also contributes significantly to household nutrition, savings, and county revenue, and is therefore a crucial sector in terms of investment and innovation. 

However, climate change is making it impossible to sustain high agricultural production in a county where residents rely on rain-fed agriculture for their livelihoods, with poor yields translating to loss of income for those who rely on agriculture both directly and indirectly.

Crop failure means reduced incomes for farmers and other key players in the production value-chain, leading to a lower purchasing power and lower yields for other businesses that rely on farming. Low purchasing power means that the farmer cannot purchase farm inputs, which leads to poor yields in subsequent seasons. Moreover, low purchasing power affects education in the county, as farmers become unable to keep their children in school, thereby increasing the number of dropouts in the region.

Climate change is making it impossible to sustain high agricultural production in a county where  residents rely on rain-fed agriculture for their livelihoods.

Forty-six-year-old Pauline Kimengich, a teacher in Kericho County, observed that there were cases of students in the region opting for early marriage after their parents were unable to raise money for their high school education, a trend which threatens the literacy levels of the county. Her sentiments are echoed by Enoch Tanui, 52, a small-scale farmer who admits to having his children help him out on the family farm because of lack of school fees.

According to the Agricultural Sector Development Support Programme (ASDSP), most of those involved in the various agricultural activities in the region are the youth and women, although the men do participate in information-sharing and decision-making. For instance, most of the workers in the tea farms are women and youth who work primarily as tea pickers. Given the role a woman plays in the community, loss of income due to dwindling fortunes in the agricultural sector adversely affects the running of households in the region.

Moreover, loss of income forces a change in the eating habits of families. Changes in eating habits pose nutritional challenges to the family which affect, most notably, children’s health, and lead to early marriages and increased levels of crime. According to the National Crime Research Centre’s 2018 report, Kericho’s recorded rate of theft stood at 42 per cent against a national rate of 40.4 per cent. This can be attributed to the loss of income as a result of changes in climatic conditions, as a majority of the county dwellers depend on agriculture. Moreover, the county also recorded high rates of cattle rustling (34.3 per cent), burglary and break-ins (21 per cent) and theft of farm produce (15.5 per cent) which can also be linked to the dwindling fortunes in agriculture.

The changes in farming techniques and the resulting challenges and strain on the food system are a wake-up call for all interested parties to act. When a county such as Kericho, which feeds our national forex basket through exports, feels the impact of climatic changes to such a great extent, one can assume that other cash-crop farming counties have not been spared either.

Climatic changes that lead to prolonged droughts and low agricultural yields mean that the government must invest heavily in relief programmes and other measures to mitigate their effects. This may imply the government diverting resources meant for development towards curbing the effects of climate change. Through the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Fisheries (MoALF) and with funding from the World Bank’s International Development Agency, the Kenyan government is implementing the Kenya Climate-Smart Agriculture Project (KCSAP) to build resilience against climate change and increase agricultural productivity.

By establishing Climate Risk Profiles, county governments are made aware of the climate change risks and opportunities in their counties and how to best incorporate these perspectives in their planning and county development projects. The National Climate Change Response Strategy (NCCRS), developed in 2010, recognizes the impact of climate change on a nation’s development. The formation of NCCRS birthed the National Climate Change Action Plan (NCCAP) in 2012, whose core mandate is to provide an implementation strategy for the proposals of the NCCRS. These two bodies have been fundamental to how Kenya responds to climate change and the steps to be taken towards achieving meaningful change.

Climatic changes that lead to prolonged droughts and low agricultural yields mean that the government must invest heavily in relief programmes and other measures to combat the effects.

The creation of county chapters of NCCAP that can work closely with the agriculture dockets in the counties to identify the challenges on the ground would be ideal in combating the effects of climate change as opposed to having an umbrella view of the situation. Farmers at the grassroots need to feel the impact of these programmes and benefit from the extension services if the country is to witness a meaningful impact.

The risks have led both national and international agencies to take action to fix the problem. With the world warming faster than at any time in recorded history, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) 2020 Emissions Gap Report proposed a solution across six sectors—energy, industry, agriculture, ecological, transport and cities—that member states can adopt. In agriculture, it proposes reducing wastage, adopting more sustainable diets, safe agricultural practices, and cutting back on emissions.

In the case of Kericho County, while the government is encouraging diversification, crops that can do well in the region but are only grown on a small scale need to be considered. For instance, local vegetables, chicken-rearing, and other agricultural produce should be produced on a large scale to reduce the over-reliance on one crop. This will ensure that people in the county have a source of livelihood even when one crop fails. Further, agricultural extension services, especially in the rural areas, need to be given a shot in the arm to ensure that farmers employ safer farming methods and are enlightened on the best ways to maximize yields while being mindful of their environment.

Rivers in Kericho such as Sambula, Chebilat and Tuyiobei have been drying up, reducing the water available for livestock and farming. Encouraging agroforestry, reforestation and afforestation will not only increase the diminishing forest cover but will also ensure water catchment areas are replenished.

Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and Article 25 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights recognize access to food as a legal right, as does Article 43 of the Constitution of Kenya. The right to food gives rise to three obligations by governments: the obligation to respect this right by not taking measures that deprive people the right to food; the obligation to protect this right by enforcing laws that prevent third parties from infringing on others’ right to food; and the obligation to fulfil this right by facilitating and providing for the empowerment of people to feed themselves.

The reduction in the yields of different crops imperils the right of all Kenyans to live a dignified life, free from hunger and malnourishment. Poor crop yields further reduce the purchasing power of farmers, which has a ripple effect on other sectors that are dependent on agriculture. The effects of climate change and poor agricultural yields also mean that food suppliers have to import or seek alternatives to meet demand in the market. This leads to an increase in rural-urban migration, which creates congestion in the urban centres and puts a strain on the available resources and opportunities in the urban settings. The failure of the tea crop, specifically, means that the nation loses export revenues, shifting the equilibrium in the balance of trade.

The reduction in the yields of different crops imperils the right of all Kenyans to live a dignified life, free from hunger and malnourishment.

Changes in climate also mean that those farmers who previously relied on tea will be forced to look for alternative means of livelihood. In an economy where creation of employment is low, job losses in the agricultural sector aggravate the dire situation in the already flooded job market. Lack of employment leads to crime as those formerly employed in the agricultural sector strive to fend for their families.

These changes underline the importance of environment conservation and working towards combating climate change. Good weather leads to flourishing agriculture. Investing in agriculture opens up employment opportunities in the farms and other industries that depend on agriculture, which reduces unemployment and brings down crime rates. Employment opportunities improve the purchasing power of citizens, enabling them to make informed and better choices in nutrition, education and other areas which translates to improved livelihoods and a more prosperous nation.

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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