In the recent past, Kenyans have been bombarded with a string of proposed, seemingly petty, laws and regulations targeted at the agricultural sector. Kenyans are bewildered and asking the right questions; what purpose do these bills serve? Whose interests are they securing? Surely not those of small-scale farmers? And how are they connected to the trade deals Kenya recently signed with the US and the UK?
Kenyans first heard of a proposed Livestock Act (2021) that would provide a framework for the regulation and development of the livestock sector at the beginning of June 2021. The provisions relating to beekeeping gathered unusual attention because of the frivolous and punitive regulations they would have imposed on farmers. The bill sought to register beekeepers, and required farmers to, among other things, keep their bees in registered and branded hives prescribed by county authorities. Only a public uproar caused Amos Kimunya- the Leader of Majority in the National Assembly – to shelve plans to table the bill before Parliament.
Several provisions of the bill would have locked out many Kenyans, especially small-scale farmers, from beekeeping. FarmBiz Africa reports that Kenya produces approximately 7,300 tonnes of honey every year against an estimated potential of 100,000 tonnes. A litre of honey is five times more expensive than a litre of oil in Kenya. We need to nurture this sector, not stifle it.
But this was not the first time seemingly frivolous laws relating to the agricultural sector were being proposed or made into law. The Irish Potatoes Regulations were quietly passed into law and gazetted toward the end of 2019, barely attracting public attention that was at the time firmly fixated on BBI shenanigans. The Irish potato regulations that, for instance, sought to register growers, transporters, traders, collection centres and warehouses, only came to the attention of most Kenyans when the Nyandarua County Government issued notice of a sensitization exercise on the new regulations.
Earlier in March 2019, the Kenya Dairy Board was forced to suspend the Draft Dairy Regulations (2019) following massive pressure from the public and farmers. The regressive and repressive dairy regulations were rejected by farmers on grounds such as their attempt to prohibit farmers from selling raw milk to neighbours. This was a clear attempt by those who control the dairy industry to show who is boss; ‘’If you don’t sell to us, your produce is illegal’’. The exploitative milk processors were at the time buying a litre of milk from the farmers at 26 shillings, way lower than the 40 shillings the farmers got from selling that same quantity of milk to neighbours at farm gate prices. The Dairy Industry regulations were finally re-introduced and passed in 2021 without some of the controversial sections that had caused that initial uproar, especially those forbidding small-scale farmers from selling milk to their neighbours and other consumers. The new regulations now set a minimum price for a litre of milk, to be reviewed every six months based on small-scale farmers’ demands.
What mischief is the political elite up to through this endless string of frivolous laws?
Kenya is often portrayed in the news as a developing African nation that has its affairs in order. In the eyes of many, it is a vibrant middle-income country with a young and educated population, with agriculture as its mainstay, and blessed with that African beauty that draws tourists year in year out. The reality, however, is that Kenya is the quintessential neo-colonial state, firmly within the orbit of global finance capital. It is debt-ridden after eight years of the UhuRuto administration that has been characterised by ineptitude and is anchored in an economic philosophy of beg, borrow and steal. With its economy doing poorly and unemployment already high, the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the situation by disrupting livelihoods while adding to the numbers of those unable to find work. Salaries have been delayed in several government departments this year, and the country is basically floating on economic guesswork. Retired civil servants, military officers and politicians cannot get their pensions. Existence for many has been reduced to a daily struggle for survival.
The facade is held together by a calculatingly ruthless state machinery that is very adept at shaping and controlling narratives through sleek public relations campaigns, paid hashtags on social media and intimidation of legacy media. Its security organs—the conveyor belts of its monopoly of violence—have no qualms scuttling peoples’ organising through dispersing protests, arresting activists, or dispatching citizens to impromptu extrajudicial meetings with their maker.
Kenya is the quintessential neo-colonial state, firmly within the orbit of global finance capital.
But what is Kenya? Kenya started off as an economic venture. The Imperial British East African Company was set up and granted a charter in 1888 to run this venture with a view to making profit. The profit turned out to be so good that the British crown wanted full control of the cake. Actually, the whole cake—plus the box. Britain duly declared Kenya a protectorate in 1895, and a colony on July 23rd 1920.
Because of its favourable weather, large swathes of fertile land and strategic location, the British colonial empire made Kenya a settler state. Land was forcefully alienated from the indigenous owners and given to white settlers through a series of punitive measures and laws such as the Crown Land Act. The White Highlands were the jewel of the Kenya colony, and the (in)famous Lunatic Express was soon under construction to ease extraction from the hinterland and on to the ports of Britain—and Europe. The railway project was completed despite fierce resistance by numerous Africans—most notably the Nandi resistance led by Koitalel Arap Samoei.
Thereafter, the Kipande tax, hut or pole tax and the breast tax were introduced to force the African into the cash economy through work, and a system of forced labour was imposed on those unable to pay tax. Yes, African men were taxed for having more than one wife. And for every other female in their household. The colonial enterprise could now concentrate on its main objective, economic extraction.
Kenya’s war of independence was waged for land and freedom, not for bourgeois ideas. The Kenya Land and Freedom Army, popularly known as Mau Mau, went into the forests to fight for freedom and to get back their land. As independence loomed, the land issue remained thorny, emotive and close to the hearts of the people. Most African people are tied to the land, their umbilical cords buried in it at birth.
Independence in 1963 failed to address the land question. And it remains a thorny issue to date. No one actually fought for the independence project, though the collaborators wanted “independence” in order to replace the colonialists in the various spaces they occupied— ownership of prime property, lucrative jobs, club memberships, living in leafy neighbourhoods with servants, et cetera. Land redistribution schemes were hijacked and vast swathes of land shared out among Jomo Kenyatta and his coterie, while the petty bourgeois were allowed to acquire some relatively smaller parcels to not only create a semblance of equality but also fabricate a belief among the struggling masses that it was somehow possible to climb up the social and economic ladder, that hard work paid.
Kenya’s war of independence was waged for land and freedom, not for bourgeois ideas.
Many of the Mau Mau and their children were never compensated or resettled by the independence government. They were never allowed to access or control the land they had fought for in such brave fashion. Most of the fertile and highly productive land remained in the hands of this tiny clique of Africans, mostly former colonial collaborators, and those settlers who chose to stay on after “independence”. These are the people who still own the big tracts of land in Kenya, together with an ensemble of crooks and tenderpreneurs.
Control over the land and its abundant resources gives them the economic power that most of them use to purchase political power that they then use to consolidate their economic power in unscrupulous fashion. Others prefer to remain anonymous, but wield considerable power behind the scenes, flexing their economic muscles every once in a while to keep the political landscape in tune with their interests and those of their masters across the ocean—those same masters of misery who just a few decades ago perpetrated the exploitation and subjugation that Mau Mau and other liberation heroes sought to confine to the dustbin of history.
Enter the Kenya-US Free Trade Agreement
In February 2020, President Uhuru Kenyatta met US President Donald Trump in Washington DC to push forward a free trade agreement (FTA) between the two nations. In July 2020, the two countries began negotiations on the FTA, with Kenya especially going against the regional protocols and collective trade deals it had ratified via the East African Community (EAC), the Common Market for East and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Despite the uproar from the region, Kenya went full steam ahead with its plans. (Upon conclusion, Kenya will become the second African country to sign an FTA with the United States, after Morocco in 2006.) The voices of Kenyans who could see that the deal only served to entrench extractive and exclusionary colonial patterns of economics were either ignored or drowned out by the public relations campaign that followed. The ruling class had again smothered voices from below.
Similarly, in early 2021 Kenya and the UK, Kenya’s former colonial masters, signed a trade deal that gives British companies that have been extracting since the colonial epoch a 25-year tax holiday despite opposition from small-scale farmers and Kenyans in general. The people had no say about it.
According to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, Kenya and the United States traded US$1.1 billion worth of goods in total (two-way) trade during 2019, with the US importing goods worth US$667 million from Kenya. In the same year, the US imported edible fruits and nuts worth US$55 million (KSh5.5 billion) from Kenya.
A joint statement released on July 8 2020 to signify the start of negotiations partly states that ‘’Increasing and sustaining export performance to the United States requires a trade arrangement that is predictable and guarantees preferential market access for Kenyan products’’.
But whose products? Who has the capital and technological know-how to meet the stringent standards set out in such deals and reinforced by ridiculous legislation like those highlighted at the beginning of this article? Certainly not the small-scale farmers who account for over 70 per cent of Kenya’s agricultural production. It is the class that ensures political power is subservient to its economic power. The Kenya-US Free Trade Agreement is an economic partnership of the bourgeoisie. It prostrates our collective existence as an untapped market, and is aimed at extracting resources for the insatiable consumerism of America. Locally, it only serves to entrench the hegemony of the elite.
There is nothing new under the sun
The neo-colonial state is full of wonders and oxymorons. It has adapted and perfected colonial tools of political and economic domination for continued extraction. It has equally been moulded in the punitive nature of empire, crushing those who stand in the path of primitive accumulation of wealth, and especially land.
The capitalist system behind it continues to thrive using slave labour as it has done for the last four centuries, this time through wages that leave workers struggling to put a single meal on the table, let alone pay a myriad of bills.
The Kenyan elite have perfected use of the state and its organs to meet their personal interests, negating the common wants and demands of the motherland. They have further perfected the art of moulding law, culture, ideology, religion, et cetera to serve and defend their economic interests.
Kenya and the UK, Kenya’s former colonial masters, signed a trade deal that gives British companies that have been extracting since the colonial epoch a 25-year tax holiday.
What is the difference between last year’s eviction of Korogocho residents who possessed valid land ownership documents and the land alienation perpetrated by the British colonial empire of the early 20th Century? What is the difference between the colonial laws that limited what crops black African farmers could grow, and these new laws that today aim to criminalise our people, their daily work, their produce and means of sustenance?
The difference is the same.
Although the basic structure of the exploitative system remains the same, today’s agents of neo-colonialism do not blatantly criminalise production. They only restrict access to the large and lucrative international trade in select goods for small-scale farmers and peasant producers. That is why the state has put minimal effort into enabling the millions of existing small-scale producers to increase production, carry out local value addition through their cooperatives, or meet the standards demanded by external markets. It is instead focussed on criminalising their toil, sweat and produce. With an abundance of young jobless Kenyans, labour remains cheap. The seemingly frivolous laws serve this purpose.
There is nothing new under the sun.