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At Supreme Court, Kenya Is Also on Trial

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To have honest elections, its not just the electoral machinery but Kenya itself which will have to change.

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At Supreme Court, Kenya Is Also on Trial
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Soon after the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) declared Uhuru Kenyatta the winner of the presidential election on 8 April 2013, I was startled to see a call coming in from Gen. Michael Gichangi, the head of Kenya’s National Intelligence Service. I was in New York, having hurriedly left the country a month before the election because of death threats designed to keep me out of the campaign. Gichangi had been my nemesis during the 2007 election crisis, but once the Kibaki-Odinga Grand Coalition government was formed, we would occasionally have candid chats.

Anyway, Gen. Gichangi wanted to know how Raila would respond to the IEBC verdict. I assured him that Raila would do nothing which might lead to public protests. Oh, so he will accept the election result? Gichangi asked. I said no, he will not, he will appeal the verdict in the Supreme Court. There was silence for a moment before he said, “Even if going to the court could lead to protests and unrest? Are you sure you want that again?”

I was stunned. Raila was being asked by one of the most powerful officials in Kenya to forego his right to challenge the presidential election outcome in our Supreme Court that was newly created with the express mandate of determining presidential election disputes. That was done in part to provide breathing room and hope for redress for the losing candidate’s supporters while the three-week period that the court has to deliver judgement would diminish tensions. Indeed our universally hailed 2010 Constitution that created the court owed its promulgation to the violence that erupted immediately after the results of the bitterly disputed 2007 election were announced.

Gen. Gichangi’s suggestion that Raila desist from petitioning the Supreme Court was for me yet another indication of how far we as a country had fallen despite the new constitution, with the state openly flaunting its power by trying to prevent an electoral challenge.

Fast forward to a decade later—to 15 August 2022, when IEBC chairman Wafula Chebukati declared William Ruto the election winner and president-elect. Within a few hours I was doing a very interesting BBC interview until I was blown away by the presenter’s last question:  Was it right for Odinga to challenge and therefore delay the final election result when Kenya was facing profound economic problems that needed urgent attention?

The question was startling, bizarre in fact, because it came not from a state operative but from the democratic world’s best known broadcaster that constantly pushes for greater democracy and for electoral integrity. Would the BBC discourage a lawful challenge by a losing candidate in a Western nation?

It was not lost on me that the British High Commissioner to Kenya, Jane Marriott, was perceived as being partial to Ruto, a claim she publicly rebutted after he was declared president-elect.

Interestingly, the United States has also been seen as being partial in this election. The US embassy twice put out an election-related travel advisory urging Americans to move about with caution. The first advisory, issued on 3 August, was criticized by Kisumu officials for mentioning only their city, the capital of Raila’s region, as being specifically dangerous. The implication was that Raila was expected to lose the election and that violence by his supporters might break out.

On Friday 2 September, a second US advisory went farther and imposed restrictions of movement on US government personnel in Kisumu ahead of Monday’s Supreme Court decision.  

Separately, a US delegation led by Senator Chris Coons came to Nairobi and held talks with president-elect Ruto on security and anti-terror issues, even though it was known that Raila was to petition the Supreme Court and could potentially become president. Such signals from major powers at critical moments have significant impact as they can be read to indicate political preferences.

To come back to Gen. Gichangi’s 2013 suggestion, it seemed much more acceptable than the interventions of the UK and the US. Kenya’s intelligence and security services are the prime protectors of both national security and the continued rule of our entrenched political and economic establishment. This “establishment” has had an unbroken hold on our country for almost 60 years, ruling by hook or by crook—and through regularly rigged elections.

So it is no surprise that every single one of the four elections that followed our first—and only—fair election in 2002 has been deeply tainted by the actions of the electoral commission and other powerful actors. Such unlawful interference seems to have reached a new peak during the current election, judging by the submissions from Raila and other petitioners.

What has made the difference in the significantly increased revelations of illicit actions is that Raila, the long-time insurgent outsider, had joined forces with President Uhuru Kenyatta. Once seen as a poster child of extreme wealth and leader of the Kikuyu elite, Uhuru has adopted a reformist stance and was committed to neutralizing Kenya’s powerful election subverters (the “deep state”). He has also been preaching a strong multi-ethnic message of inclusion and, at political risk to himself, has repeatedly declared that presidents cannot continue to emanate from only two communities (his own and Ruto’s) for nearly 60 years, while at the same time expecting all Kenyans to feel that they are part of one nation.

So for the first time, the police service uncovered a number of rigging schemes, the most visible being their arrest of the three Venezuelan citizens who were in possession of IEBC election materials that they should not have been in possession of. Chairman Chebukati claimed that he had hired the three as IT specialists but could produce no evidence of such hiring. The police service also produced its own detailed forensic audit of the election tally that has helped identify problematic counts.

At the Supreme Court hearing of the petition, what stood out was Chief Justice Martha Koome’s skilful handling of the complex proceedings, comfortably asserting her authority and mastery of the law, as well as her decisive rulings. She also demonstrated collegiality and respect for the autonomy of the other Justices. I recall the difficulties she faced from what was a moderate vetting group who thought she rooted too much for women! How her mastery has grown—and now both top posts at the judiciary are held by women! This is among the many remarkable achievements Kenyans have been recognized for globally.

Raila had a strong petition, presented by his team of eminent and highly experienced lawyers who have long supported his democratic politics. Other petitioners’ lawyers added significant value to the case as well.

We have no idea if the Supreme Court will find the numerous allegedly unlawful actions to have decisively refuted Chebukati’s declaration of Ruto as president-elect. But the verdict that will be delivered on Monday will have a high degree of credibility. There is intense anticipation and excitement over the possibility that the Supreme Court ruling will be historic. We will know Monday.

The Supreme Court verdict does not, of course, automatically put an end to legal wrangles. In 2017, Raila’s petition led to the election being annulled by the court for “irregularities and illegalities”. It was a stunning verdict, the first ever in Africa. A re-run was ordered—but it was to be conducted by the same electoral commission that had committed the irregularities and illegalities!

Raila refused to run, and Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto were re-elected. The famed “Handshake” between Raila and the president took place the following year, in 2018, designed to overcome decades of political turbulence with a much more inclusive and collaborative model to unite the country. The last four years have seen a significant easing of historical political tensions, but there have been quite a few hitches too.

There is intense anticipation and excitement over the possibility that the Supreme Court will uphold Raila’s petition, which would be a huge boost for democracy and electoral participation.

So, if the justices accept the petitions, how will they propose to move forward? Clearly, Chebukati and his team cannot be entrusted with any responsibilities. Moreover, there is the question whether the 60-day constitutional limit within which the next election must take place can be amended through special constitutional measures.

Time has been a huge constraint in every petition. In 2013, a substantial chunk of Raila’s petition was disallowed by Willy Mutunga’s court for having been filed late. In many countries, there is a much longer lag between the election and assumption of office. In the US, it is over 75 days. In some countries it is four months. It is time to review the Supreme Court’s intense electoral experience over its decade-plus existence to see what lessons have been learned.

The rigging of four elections in a row is a shameful stain not just on the electoral machinery and the election officials but also for our nation and its many institutions. With election after election providing evidence of irregularities and illegalities at a minimum, faith in our democracy has been slowly dying. As observed, the turnout on 9 August was dramatically down, to about 65 per cent. It was 85 percent in 2013. 

It is extremely ironic that the only fair presidential election ever held in independent Kenya took place in 2002 under the highly anti-democratic autocrat, President Daniel arap Moi. He had served his second and final term under the constitution but his anointed successor, Uhuru Kenyatta, lost to an unprecedented cross-national opposition— the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) led jointly by Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga.

(There is a widely mistaken notion that the 1963 election was the first fair election held in independent Kenya; it was held in May of that year under colonial rule).

Electoral misdeeds are an extension of the rampant, massive corruption and theft that is literally killing Kenyans as the wealth of the country is siphoned off by the growing number of shilling billionaires. This is nothing less than the taking of food from the mouths of babes by those who have already made fortunes but show no sign of being sated!

With election after election rigged, faith in democracy was dying in Kenya. The turnout on 9 August was dramatically down, to 65 per cent at most, compared to 85 per cent in 2013.

This is grand corruption at its worst, very deeply entrenched and seemingly uncontrollable. Ironically, it is that vast pot of corruption gold that makes Kenya’s winner-take-all results of presidential and other polls so very desirable for those seeking riches and power. For some, even assassinations are part of their toolkit for success.

In the 2017 election, Chris Msando, the IEBC’s chief ICT officer responsible for ensuring the integrity of the election, was murdered just before the election. An incorruptible civil servant, he had assured Kenyans in a television interview that only he had the necessary electronic passwords and that the election would be fairly tallied. Photographs of his mutilated body were published, sending a clear message to those who might want to be brave.

Roselyn Akombe, an IEBC commissioner who was on sabbatical from the United Nations, resigned soon after and fled the country during the rerun of the presidential poll. Akombe had received many death threats and, alluding to Msando, said “You’d be suicidal to think that nothing will happen to you.”

In the current election, the Returning Officer for Nairobi’s Embakasi East Constituency, Daniel Musyoka, was whisked away after he briefly stepped out of his office; his body was found 150 miles away. The media has hardly probed into this awful killing by those who want to sway elections without having worked hard to win votes. If we did not enjoy close ties with the West, we would be pariah nation.

Assassinations of election officials occur because that tool has been used as a matter of course since right after independence. Elections are in fact a microcosm of all the horrors that afflict our nation. Kenya has had more political murders of potential future leaders—including renowned ones who were not part of the inner sanctum of power—than any other democratic country in the world. Fortunately there have been none in the last few years.

Kenya’s elections per capita are just about the most expensive in the world, costing a remarkable one third of a billion dollars each time. The electoral commission basically gets what it wants as Kenyans are willing to pay whatever it takes to have a secure, honest election. What they invariably get is the opposite.

The electoral commission engaged in rigging the last four elections. But the current one became much harder to pull off when Raila, the long-time insurgent, joined forces with President Uhuru Kenyatta.

From 2007 onwards, Raila Odinga has been the petitioner in all the four deeply tainted elections. He is indisputably the only presidential aspirant who has fought for real, pro-people change in the last 25 years, having earlier made major sacrifices including nine years as a political prisoner. But he rarely, if ever, speaks about any of the profound traumas that have been visited upon him and his family.

Like some credible independent analysts, I am convinced that Raila won the 2007, 2013 and 2017 elections. But not only has he kept going without a hint of bitterness, he has remained a larger-than-life figure, returning again and again to fight for a better Kenya.

And yet Raila is routinely referred to as the candidate who never accepts defeat. He has lost narrowly in the last four elections, and with regards to 2007 and 2017 (when the election results were annulled by the Supreme Court), there is consensus that he did not lose those elections. Did he lose the August 9 2022 polls? We will know Monday.

Because he is the only presidential candidate who fights for pro-people change and is immensely popular because of it, Raila is naturally the target of all the other major candidates, none of whom have reformist credentials. He is also the target of some foreign countries too.

The most vivid example of international anti-Raila animus came after the 2017 election, when former Secretary of State John Kerry, the senior-most US observer in Kenya representing the Carter Center, noted “Election day voting and counting processes had functioned smoothly with only isolated instances of procedural irregularities [which] did not appear to affect the integrity of those processes.” To make sure that his message was clear, Kerry publicly asked the “losing” candidate, Raila Odinga, to “move on”.

As we know, the Supreme Court annulled that election. Kerry was forced to publish an op-ed in the New York Times to camouflage his blunder. This episode again confirmed that foreign observers have no clue about whether an election has been free and fair. They mainly go by how voting day went, which in Kenya is invariably peacefully. But a peaceful election does not a fair election make. Africa needs to review the observer system from the ground up; and certainly, observers should specifically indicate what particular elements they looked at in their assessment.

The international media’s perception of Raila fails to reflect his commitment to reforms and change. To give a more current example than the interview mentioned above, a recent BBC article explored whether “results sheets were altered as Odinga claims?” “We’ve compared images of the original results sheets from these polling stations with those registered on the electoral commission website” it wrote. “In every case the results from the polling stations matched the official tallies published by the electoral commission.”

To have honest elections, it is not just the electoral machinery but Kenya itself that will have to change.

Given the BBC’s reputation and reach, people around the world will take this to mean that charges of fraud by the Raila team do not have a lot of credibility. But Prof. Walter Mebane, a renowned election expert at the University of Michigan, extensively studied this election’s results and found significant fraud, indicating however that the polling stations the BBC studied had revealed very low or no fraud.

The New York Times also shows a strong anti-Raila bias. Right after William Ruto was declared president-elect last month, the paper published a lengthy article portraying Raila as a leader who had lost even his hold on his ethnic base, quoting five of Raila’s kinsmen and Nic Cheeseman, a British scholar, to back its claims. The authors seemingly could not find a single voice with a differing perspective of Raila!

In a second article, the New York Times went harder at Raila. Prof Cheeseman now equated him to Donald Trump after the latter lost the 2020 election: “Misinformation, one side making wild accusations to excuse defeat, and a significant number of people who believe their candidate didn’t lose — it’s very Trumpian,” he said.

The article, titled In Kenyan Elections, the People Decide First. Then Come the Judges, asserted that “his legal team appear to have taken a kitchen sink approach, making a wide range of charges that, analysts say, range from the plausible to the outlandish.”  The article goes on to mention “vicious personal attacks directed at the same electoral commission chairman who only recently was being praised for a polling process seen by many as a model for Africa, and beyond.”

I would like to mention that I have never heard anyone describe Chebukati in terms remotely approaching such hagiography. In 2017, it was he and his commission who were blamed by the Supreme Court for the “irregularities and illegalities” that led to the election’s annulment.

I think most readers will get the idea of what the New York Times thinks of Raila’s election petition. This is a man who at a minimum came close to winning the last four presidential elections. You would never realize that from reading any of these articles.

To avoid any misunderstanding, I should mention that I am not remotely implying that Raila cannot be criticized or his political weaknesses pointed out. I am a media person myself and I criticize people regularly. But unless I am writing about a recognized pariah, I avoid demonization and try to find a bit of balance.

We look forward to Monday’s decision by the Supreme Court on the petition filed by Raila. Whatever the decision, one can say that an awful lot of electoral re-thinking is urgently needed.

I can also say we will never have free and fair elections as long as corruption is not curbed, and addressing the extreme inequality and mass deprivation that are now part of Kenyan life becomes the nation’s most urgent priority.

A President Raila Amolo Odinga is what we need to get this clean-up process started. I very much hope the Supreme Court upholds his petition.

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Salim Lone is a Kenyan journalist who was Prime Minister Raila Odinga's Spokesman, and before that was a Director Communications under Kofi Annan at the United Nations, where he worked for two decades until retiring in 2003.

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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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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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