by Joash Onsando
Read part 1 here.
“Power is like real estate. It’s all about location, location, location. The closer you are to the source, the higher your property value.”
Frank Underwood, House of Cards.
In part one, I spoke about Interior CS Dr. Fred Matiangi’s meteoric rise to power in the Jubilee administration. Today, few would question the “property value” of the man who many now refer to as “Chief Minister”. I picked him, the subject of this article to illustrate the precarious nature of proximity to power in Kenyan politics.
If the history of Kenyan politics has taught us anything then that lesson would be that smart power is exercised indirectly, through trusted aides. Any politician of note will tell you that highly risky political maneuvers are best carried out by an agent. That way the principal can walk away without egg on their face in case things don’t go according to plan.
Our political past is littered with several examples of such agents. Typically, the agent is a highly effective, zealous and fiercely loyal individual. The principal will normally pick them and elevate them over their peers with resultant perks and trappings of power. The agent is normally a means to an end and as such is quickly disposed of as soon as the end is met. The fierce loyalty of the agent is hardly reciprocated by the principal.
The agent must know their place. They must not let newly acquired power get to their head. They must always remember that they serve at the whims of the principal, and therefore must always remain subservient and accountable.
By virtue of their position, the agent normally attracts envy and admiration in equal nature. Because of the high risk nature of the political maneuvers tasked to them, the agent inevitably makes many enemies, some very powerful enemies in the course of carrying out their assigned duties. It is these factors that make the position of agent, a blessing and a curse.
“Proximity to power deludes some into thinking they wield it”
Frank Underwood, House of Cards
No politician in history used this agency relationship as cunningly and effectively as former President Daniel Arap Moi. The August 1 1982 coup attempt transformed Moi from a soft spoken, amiable character whom some had described as a passing cloud to a seemingly intolerant political chess master who demanded unquestioning loyalty from the rank and file of KANU – the only party then.
It therefore came to pass that on December 17, 1986, after a series of provincial KANU conferences and a national conference at the Kenya Institute of Administration in Kabete, Moi unveiled the KANU Disciplinary Committee, KDC, chaired by one David Okiki Amayo to purge any dissent and disloyalty from within the party.
The committee’s formal brief was to grill members on discipline issues and punish those found to have flouted the party’s code of conduct or brought it to disrepute.
The KDC would quickly gain notoriety as a platform through which political scores were settled with little or no regard to due process. Its grilling sessions began with those summoned stating their name, occupation and whether they had pledged loyalty to the government, the party, the president and the ‘Nyayo Philosophy’. What would follow thereafter would be a charade of trumped up, comical and sometimes childish charges against respondents who were almost always found guilty. For many the best outcome of appearing before it would be writing an apology letter to the party with the worst case scenario being expulsion from the party. With Kenya being a one party state at the time, said expulsion was a death knell for many political careers.
The Amayo led committee was a law unto itself, paying no regard even to the constitutional protections accorded to sitting members of parliament. In 1987, the then Labour minister, Peter Okondo , himself a victim of the committee described Amayo’s conduct of party affairs as “boisterous, bloated and so bombastic as to make utter nonsense of reality and the truth”. Such was the notoriety of the KDC that a cabinet minister would have no recourse but to lament of its excesses in parliament.
On September 10th 1987, upon returning from a trip to Finland and Romania, President Moi unceremoniously disbanded the KDC at JKIA with a few terse words; “I want to dissolve the KANU Disciplinary Committee and it is hereby stamped out. I want wananchi to live without fear!”
And thus ended David Okiki Amayo’s reign of terror. Whilst he had served his purpose, he had also allowed power to get to his head. He had become too big for his breeches, punched way above his station and effectively become a thorn in Moi’s flesh. His political fortunes would slowly dwindle after that having more enemies that he could count. His loss to Phoebe Asiyo in the Karachuonyo Parliamentary race in 1992 ultimately dispatched him to political oblivion.
“For those of us climbing to the top there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted”
Frank Underwood, House of Cards
If I were to pick a historical figure with whom to draw parallels with CS, then it would be Thomas Joseph Odhiambo Mboya. Like Matiangi, Mboya was intelligent, focused, intense and arrogant to boot. Mboya had a way about him, he got things done by employing charm and his exemplary oratory skills. With little effort he managed to cut himself a niche above his peers at the Lancaster House independence negotiations and thereafter. His unique set of skills did not go unnoticed by founding President Jomo Kenyatta who appointed him in his cabinet, first as Minister for Labour and later on as minister for Economic Planning where he is credited to have authored, alongside others, the Sessional Paper Number Ten which defined the country’s economic policies.
Mboya’s first rather overt show of loyalty to Kenyatta, came in response to a report written, ‘Who Rules Kenya’, written by Nigerian journalist Zeeky Rukari. Rukari wrote: “Kenyatta is today one of the biggest land owners. He possesses 6000 acres of choice land”. This statement angered the Kenyatta administration and Mboya, leveraging on his international connections, volunteered to reach out to the Nigerian government, ostensibly to avoid similar embarrassment in the future.
After independence, Kenyatta and Odinga, his Vice President, clashed on many issues, key among them being land and the East- West divide, an ideological rift. This was a far cry from a few years back when Odinga had declared Kenyatta his “next God” whilst demanding for his release before independence! Tables had now turned and Kenyatta needed to neutralize Odinga. He knew Mboya was just the man for the job.
In a genius move, Mboya – then KANU’s Secretary – proposed amending the party’s constitution splitting Odinga’s party vice chair position to eight positions, one from each of the provinces. The rhetoric accompanying the changes was that KANU needed a more inclusive, national face and not seem like a Luo-Kikuyu affair. After long drawn political intrigue expertly managed by the young Secretary General, Odinga’s fate was sealed on March 9th 1966 at the Limuru KANU conference. The eight Vice Chairmen were elected with Odinga, who was absent, missing from the lineup.
Odinga then resigned as Vice President and formed his own party, the Kenya Peoples Union. Not one to take things lying down he planned a motion of no confidence in President Kenyatta in parliament. This was after a slow yet deliberate defection of MPs to the opposition benches in parliament. To forestall the vote, Kenyatta once again turned to his fixer in chief, Mboya. AG Charles Njonjo had crafted a legislation requiring any defecting MP to seek a fresh mandate from the electorate.
The house was called from recess and Mboya was tasked with ensuring that the legislation passed. From the dispatch box, Mboya managed to defend the legislation with such charisma and charm that it passed. The defections from KANU stopped as quietly as they had begun. Faced with the prospect of having to spend resources in fresh campaigns, many MPs simply stay put. In a master stroke Mboya had helped forestall the no confidence vote and significantly weakened the KPU and Odinga.
Unfortunately however, with Odinga out of KANU, Mboya was now more vulnerable to the political intrigue within the party. For being such an effective fixer and by extension a frontrunner in the Kenyatta succession race, he had managed to paint a bright red target on his back, so to speak. Mboya would fall to an assassin’s bullet outside Chhanni’s pharmacy, along the then Government Road (now Moi Avenue) on 5th July 1969.
Whilst it is unlikely that Jomo Kenyatta sanctioned Mboya’s death, it would be foolhardy to assume that he did everything in his power to protect his dear fixer.
The cases of Amayo and Mboya illustrate that proximity to power is a cup containing sweet yet perilous wine.
Granted the consequences of drinking from it could mean a step up to higher political office, an exception to the rule (at least according to history), but are more likely to result in political oblivion or worse!
This is the cup that Dr. Fred Matiangi holds today. He has no choice but to continue sipping on the wine, once you hold the cup, it is difficult to let go. If indeed President Uhuru has elected to neutralize his deputy, William Ruto, as his father elected to neutralize Odinga, and if indeed Uhuru has chosen him as his ‘Mboya’, then the peril increases several fold.
For Matiangi, this cup is a high risk, low return affair. He must develop eyes at the back of his ears, he must build bridges in the most unlikely quarters across the political landscape. He must understand that because perception matters, sometimes more than reality, DP Ruto’s friends are now his foes, and his foes are now his enemies. He must always be stoic even in the most challenging times. More importantly it would be helpful to derive lessons from the late Nicholas Biwott. He should never come too close to the fire as to get burnt, at the same time; he must not go too far from it as to freeze.
In conclusion, if nothing else, those close to power, the agents, must realize one thing, that the power derives from elsewhere. It is akin to the wings Daedalus crafted for himself and his son Icarus. They are wings made from feathers and wax. As they navigate the political scene, from such a precarious position, they must remember not to fly too high, lest the sun melts their wax, nor too low, lest their wings get weighed down by the spray of the water. Ultimately, it seems they are doomed to strive relentlessly until either happens.
Joash is a Kenyan thinker and budding policy analyst, with a passion for public sector governance and democracy. Find more of his work on medium.
Kenya is headed for a bumper maize harvest even as farmers in the North Rift region struggle to sell their last season’s crop.
You only need to look up to know that maize is one of the key foods consumed in the country. Those of us who studied GHC (now social studies) might remember it being listed amidst one of the staple foods of the region. We use it, and have been using it, for a variety of meals. Whether pounded into flour, boiled, burned (yaani choma) or processed we have loved our maize for a very long time. Maize is so important that is one of the key factors considered when calculating the cost of living.
Given that maize is mainly grown in the rift area – a region that has been key in swinging votes over the last couple of elections – it makes sense that the crop itself has been politicized. Coming into a consistent market with high demand both the farmer and the consumers find themselves vulnerable to the whims of those who hold the infrastructure – a vulnerability that is exploited through every election period.
In the 90’s Maize prices were affordable as the buying and selling prices were favorable to households. Despite the fact that there were a number challenges, farmers were able to harvest the cereal and sell it at a price that favored both them and the consumer.
- Maize Price Trends, Soko Directory
In a bid to keep voters happy it is best for any incumbent government to show that they are in control of market forces by reducing the price of unga on the shelves (source: Making Elections Arap – A book on manipulating Kenyan voters by Daniel Moi*) . Last year amidst a drought, two elections and brokered maize from Uganda the maize prices were spiraling out of control and the government had to do something.
Their great idea was to hold the price of unga at 90 bob while subsidizing the prices between millers and wholesalers. Basically, they decided to make everyone happy, win the election, then figure it out later. But, as a wise saying goes, you can’t make everyone happy – you’re not pizza. And neither was this plan. The farmers were left unhappy by the happenings with the price per bag being unacceptable. Knowing that this year things would be better, they held on to their maize.
It’s now later and I never thought that a bumper harvest could be a bad thing. The simple math in my mind goes “more maize = more money.” That’s not what this year looks like. Speaking earlier this year, Timothy Njagi, a research fellow at the tegemo institute, said, “The country has enough maize stock to sustain the country until July 2019 but farmers are extremely broke and not making money. This is a bad year for the maize farmer in Kenya but a good one for the consumer.” Which means that the farmers that held on to their maize from last year find themselves holding onto maize (isn’t the damn crop perishable? How long can one feasibly hold on?) for longer, given the drop in demand.
And it’s not like the guys who sold their crop to the National Cereals and Produce Board(last year) have been paid. The board ran out of cash because it paid brokers who supplied the aforementioned-brokered maize from Uganda. The farmers are owed about KES 3.5 billion according to the Daily Nation. This scandal itself has had far reaching impact with Agriculture Ministry Principal Secretary, Richard Lesiyampe, former NCPB boss Newton Terer, Finance GM Cornel Kiprotich Ng’elechey and 15 other senior officials arrested and charged over irregular purchase of maize worth KES 11 billion.
“Kenya on May 16 announced Sh6 billion subsidy on maize imports to help lower the cost of flour which had shot up due to a regional drought and poor planning.”
“Whatever it is, when your goal is the job rather than the solution policies come last. It’s like the idea is first get the money and get in, second pay it off and then finally try and fix some problems so you can get voted in again. And this kind of thinking leads to myopic ideas that won’t really fix anything in the long term.”
Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem like we are ever on top of the maize problem at all. It is being stolen, illegally imported, underpriced, overcharged unavailable or, as is the case now, over-available. The smart farmers have stopped allocating as much land to maize compared to other plants with one Uasin Gishu farmer only having 79 acres of maize this year down from the 210 acres he had in 2014/2015. Of course, given the cycle, this trend might lead to an undersupply, but there’s little recourse for the farmers faced by an indecisive government and fluctuating prices mostly due to artificial factors.
This takes me back to this government, planning and foresight. Where is the data that correlates maize consumption and the markets? Where is the data that the government uses to project the needs of the people? Do we actually know how much we are consuming and plan for it – ask for allocations and work around them? Or do we continue to react to factors a little planning could have revealed long before they became problems?
*not an actual book
“People should stop panicking about my traversing the country saying it is 2022 campaigns, I’m yet to start my campaigns because when I start they will be in for a rude shock”
“Wiper leader Kalonzo Musyoka now says he will be Kenya’s next president after Uhuru Kenyatta.”
The year is 2018. We had not one but two elections last year, finally Kenya gets the time it needs to take its mind of the divisive nature of electoral politics and focus on unifying, restoration.
“You mentioned democracy, earlier. I have qualms about the nature of our democracy itself. It did not matter whether one went to the polls or not; the ruling class had its own agenda and we were there to make sure it was the legitimate agenda. I dispute the idea that the vote was the ultimate culmination of a citizen’s civic responsibilities, that after this event, one was required to do little else for five years.”
- Okwiri Oduor, Against Voting
It was Socrates who questioned the idea of the democratic vote by talking about how voting is a skill and should be taught to the masses. And only those who are educated in this sense would get a right to vote. Given the current elitist nature of education (and how horribly the electoral college seems to be doing for the US) this might not be the most popular of ideas. But Socrates didn’t believe that this (civic) education should be for a narrow few, rather he was more afraid of creating a system of demagoguery where leaders would gain popularity by exploiting the prejudice and ignorance rather than reasoned deliberation towards possible solutions. Or, the politics of tibim and ngai! versus politics that look towards creating solutions that work in the long term for the betterment of society.
This is definitely what it feels like is happening, and has been happening for a while. We have developed a politic that is centered on gunning for the top job and waiting for our turn to eat. Which is why the year after an election still somehow has the news focusing on the next presidency. The current presidency seems more set up as the president and leader of opposition on one side – and brother Samoei on the other. The dynamics of which point towards a conversation around class and heritage.
And this isn’t the first time we see this kind of manipulation. Every presidential election sees coalitions, political parties and allegiances built and dissolved based on winning probabilities (tyranny of numbers anyone?). Often these combinations are revised machines of what we saw from previous elections. Even further, across all sides we often see the same faces in different places. One can confidently say there hasn’t been a really new face at the top level of politics since independence. Somehow, despite battling for freedom, constitutional reforms and numerous hashtags and protests we seem to be in a semi stable, semi monarchy – and 2022 is the first time (at least it seems) that there’s little to hold the kingdom in place.
Which explains why everyone and their laptop thinks that this is the opportune moment to gun for the presidency.
The problem with demagoguery is that it puts aside current issues in favour of the flavour of the month. Rather than focus on looking for ways to fix problems and to find ways to grow us towards a sustainable future we have leaders caught on the current issue. Every week there’s something new to focus on (we’ve written about this before – the cycle of rage). The worst part is even if a leader came in with a proper agenda, where would they begin?
The problem, Socrates shows, is the public’s appetite for immediate answers. He uses the example of a debate between a doctor and a sweetshop owner. The sweetshop owner would simply claim that their product makes you feel good (skimming over the long term effects of excessive consumption of sugar) and it would be hard for the doctor to explain that their solution, while difficult to swallow would be better in the long term.
Perhaps the nature of the campaign has something to do with it. The labour of solving difficult complex societal problems demands one type of person, while the showmanship of the electoral campaign demands another. Rarely do we find these two people in the same body. Maybe it’s our failing education system that leaves the larger population exposed to this type of manipulation.
“As a result the only source for any kind of idea is “I have seen this somewhere maybe it will work at home.” This leads to ideas such as this one, that stem from seeing a (largely) orderly situation and assuming its replication will come from just that – replication.”
Whatever it is, when your goal is the job rather than the solution policies come last. It’s like the idea is first get the money and get in, second pay it off and then finally try and fix some problems so you can get voted in again. And this kind of thinking leads to myopic ideas that won’t really fix anything in the long term. Rather we get debt for flashy but useless projects, roadside policies and a generally shortchanged public. So maybe for a year or three we focus less on who is going to be president think about how to enough go forward momentum as a country that the next time we try and change presidents the space doesn’t grind to a halt
“Kenya’s ban on plastic bags went into effect on August 28, with offenders subject to serious fines or jail time. The ban covers the use, importation, or manufacture of plastic bags. Although it was passed in February, the new ban didn’t go into effect until this month so that Kenyan consumers would have the chance to adjust to the change. The delay also gave importers a chance to challenge the ban in court, which were ultimately rejected by the country’s High Court.”
If Environment CS Judi Wakhungu had her way the ban on plastic bags in the country would have happened in February rather than August 2017. Speedy action from Okiya Omtatah as well as the Kenya Institute of Manufacturers got in her way, delaying the ban for (a further) 5 months. This time could have been spent researching into plastic alternatives and ways to make the transition as seamless for the consumer as possible.
Instead it was spent hoping Okiya won (or lost) his court case.
“I’m tayad of these f***** copy pasting ideas from elsewhere without an actual ground analysis when they can easily pay for benchmarks”
I’m not sure there is much need to argue for or against the Matatu CBD Ban. Finding a solution to mass transit in the country has been the birthplace of many bad/badly-formulated ideas. Just as the plastic ban floated in and out of public conversation, this was an idea that Mr Sonko had played with for a while. First he wanted to turn Uhuru park into a bus terminus, and then he tried banning matatus from the CBD last year before caving to pressure not to. So that he has ideas around what the problem might be is not up for discussion. This is either a problem he feels strongly about – or a pain point he strongly believes dealing with will gain him political mileage. Neither of these reasons pushes me too hard to judge him.
“Where are the pavements?”
But, just like the ban on plastics, the nature of this ban calls all out our models of governance on all their cow feces. Where was urban planning when this ban was envisioned? We are just going through one of the most aggressive road expansion periods – where are the pavements? Where are the walkways? Where is the plan that is supposed to allow for transition, accommodate for the (unfit?) citizens?
The problem might run deeper than we think.
It was Moi’s government that really enforced the roadside declaration as a form of governmental communication. Ministers were fired on the news, high level government officials found out about changes in their docket at the same as the public and the mighty hand of harambee led us all. With most of his opposition coming from the universities it became difficult for the president to trust anything coming out of the places – which also happen to be the birthplace of research. The absence of this research led to government policies being built off hunches, gut feelings and “commissioned papers” (often skewed to show that the original hypothesis is correct). And it seems we haven’t really made much headway since. Kibaki’s government tried to focus on education but much damage had been done, by the time he was done we had free and primary education and Uhuru already wants to make secondary education free from 2019.
But the government is yet to fully reintegrate itself into the university. Worse still – over the period campus politics have grown to ape the politics we have in the country. SONU is now a conduit for corruption tribalism and greed with SONU leaders playing this same divisive politics and then using that as a platform to make it onto the larger political stage.
A good indicator of this is that there are about 5000 PhD students nationally. Larger societal questions are often answered at this level through rigorous study and data collection. But the truth is that there is little reason for PhD students in any field to believe that the information they collect will be put to good use – or that their conclusions will be implemented (after all, it’s not like we have a great track record implementing any of the reports generated by the government themselves). So they leave.
“And while we might already be on our way there all on our own, one wonders what it means to allow the path to development to follow its own natural winding – perhaps allowing us to create different sustainable models and allows of livability on our own”
As a result the only source for any kind of idea is “I have seen this somwhere maybe it will work at home.” This leads to ideas such as this one, that stem from seeing a (largely) orderly situation and assuming its replication will come from just that – replication. Without really thinking (for example) that Kenya has only 24 cars per 1000 people whereas Israel has 384, USA 910 and South Africa 165 to name a few – how do you replicate an idea in an area where the number of people walking is destined to be significantly more? In Foreign Cities, Local Talent I ask about what it means to develop and implement solutions based on our own realities. Maybe the first step is finding a way to remind the government where the data they are seeking resides – and to demand plans before declarations.
Or we could carry on with this force now, questions later approach and see plastic bags replaced by plastic nets again.
We suffer from a range of disasters as a country: flooding, fire tragedies, terrorism, corruption, diseases and epidemics, and drought – these reduce our quality of life, destroy our infrastructure, disrupt our economy, and cause a diversion of resources intended for other things. They also ensure that we remain underdeveloped.
Our country is particularly drought prone. Only 20% of our country receives high and regular rainfall. The other 80% is classified as Arid and Semi-Arid Land (ASAL), where annual rainfall is low, so drought is a regular thing. Currently, four counties (Isiolo, Garissa, Kajiado and Tana River) are classified in the alarm phase according to the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) in February 2018. Ten counties have moved into the alert drought phase up from six in December, with most counties reporting a worsening trend. Only four out of the 23 ASAL counties (which make up a majority of Kenya’s land mass) recorded a stable trend.
The Kenya Red Cross also said that about 3.4 million people concentrated in 10 ASAL counties are facing food insecurity, and possibly famine, as a result of prolonged drought and failed rainfall. As a result, they are seeking KES 1.044 billion to fund their 2018 drought response and recovery program which is projected to reach 1,373,294 people.
In many ASAL areas, the October-November-December 2017 seasonal rainfall started late, had poor temporal and spatial distribution, was below average in total amount and stopped earlier than usual. This has affected the major harvest that was expected as a result of these rains in February 2018. In almost all counties, the vegetation situation was worse in January than it was in December. This may mean that most people, including subsistence farmers, will be relying on markets for their food. This scarcity and high demand will lead to much higher food prices.
Considering that the drought hits pastoral areas the hardest, their livestock will be malnourished, given the unavailability of water and forage. They won’t be able to fetch their usual prices. This means that pastoralists, too, will need food aid. It also means higher meat prices, because much of the livestock will die, as we have already began to see.
Drought is a weather condition. An extended period of dryness. We cannot prevent it, though we can predict it and prepare. There are three kinds of drought. Meteorological drought, which is when rainfall falls below a certain level that would lead scientists to consider it a drought. This could be seasonal. There is hydrological drought, which is often caused by meteorological drought. This is when water body levels fall below a certain amount. Finally, there is agricultural drought, which is when there is a significant reduction in crop yield, such that it may fall to a certain level considered to be a drought. This is also usually caused by the first two types of droughts. Kenya experiences all three types.
Famine on the other hand, is an economic condition. It is man made, because it is caused by a failure to plan. A failure to manage food supplies. For famine to occur, there has to be unavailability of food. Which does not necessarily need to happen when a drought occurs, because it is not like drought comes out of nowhere. It is not a surprise. Famine leads to hunger and starvation. A drought need not lead to famine, but in Kenya, it always does. We have a long history of famine and drought.
In 1997, we had a drought that affected the lives of 2 million people. In 2000, Kenya had its worst drought in 37 years. It affected 4 million people, who all needed food aid. In 2004, the long rains (normally expected between March and June) failed, leaving 2.3 million people in the need of aid. In 2005, famine was declared a national catastrophe, affecting 2.5 million people in Northern Kenya. In 2010 and 2011, we had our worst drought in 60 years. Across Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, 13.3 million people were affected. In 2014, we had a drought that affected 1.6 million people. In 2015, approximately 1.1 million people needed food aid because of rainfall shortages.
In 2017, over 2.7 million people were in need of food aid according to the NDMA. This number represents around 20% of the population in pastoral areas, and 18% in marginal agricultural areas. Maize yields fell by 50%, beans by 40 to 50%, and sorghum by 30% as compared to 2015. Some places experienced as much as a 70% drop in crop yields, and livestock was selling for as much as 25% less than 2015 prices. Because the February 2018 estimate is that more people will need food aid (at least 700,000 more people), we can project that the situation may be even worse this year.
Drought is one of the reasons we are unable to achieve the sustainable development goals – such as the ones related to attainment of food security, poverty eradication, and promotion of environmental sustainability. It makes no sense that we continue to rely on rainfall in our agricultural sector, knowing that our country is mostly arid and semi-arid. Whenever our rains fail, we have drought, followed by famine, which causes hunger and starvation. This continues to happen yet agriculture is a key driver for our social and economic development. This continues to happen even when we have an early warning system, and a drought management authority.
This is baffling. Most water for human consumption and other uses is derived from rivers whose recharge depends on rainfall. Our grid is also largely powered by hydroelectricity, so drought also leads to power shortages. In the year 2000, Kenya Power lost USD 20 million, and the national GDP contracted by 0.3%, because of drought. Drought also accelerates the process of desertification and biodiversity loss. People lose their jobs when industries shut down as resources get depleted, children drop out of school because their parents can’t afford to pay their fees because of the economic impact of drought, as well as the suspension of school feeding programmes when there is a famine.
The funds the Red Cross is seeking will go to nutrition, cash transfers, food vouchers, rehabilitation of watering points and animal slaughter. Which is odd, because this is the sort of thing a country with a government should be able to do for itself. While we cannot let people starve, if we continue to fundraise from our already overtaxed pockets to cover things we already pay taxes for, aren’t we encouraging our government to continue with its corruption?
Drought is an all-round disaster, and it is sad that we continue to take it lightly. Or government, and not the Red Cross, should be able to have enough food relief for affected people with special food formulas for the most affected, such as children, the elderly and mothers. They should have in place resources for human disease control and treatment, as well as animal feed and supplements. They should have enough water reserves for both humans and livestock, and allocate cash for all this because drought is not a surprise. They should plan for livestock disease control, shelter for these animals, debt relief for their owners, destocking, restocking, distribution of seed, the list is long.
We also need to have the government championing practices that will help the average Kenyan in such times. For example, promotion of water harvesting and storage (which is illegal in Nairobi), training water user associations, planning for new water sources, deepening wells, removing silt from water pans, and planning future interventions. They also need to promote animal production and drought resistant crops, improve extension services, and develop our cereal banks. They need to ensure we have enough pasture & water for livestock, building up, strengthen networks between herders, develop livestock markets, conserve and protect pasture.
They also need to establish a common approach to disease control for livestock, vaccinate, deworm, and maintain cattle dips. The crops they promote should be drought resistant, early maturing crops and indigenous plants that require little water. They also need to promote agro-forestry for fruits, fuel, fodder and medicine, and have proper pest and disease control in place. This is their responsibility.
They may claim that many things “begin with us” as citizens, but famine definitely begins with them.
Kenya is now in the unique position of having two “presidents” – Uhuru Kenyatta, the current head of state, and Raila Odinga, the self-declared people’s president. Raila Odinga was sworn in at Uhuru Park on 30th January 2018 in the presence of massive crowds. It was an an oddly peaceful event because the police were not present. In the days following the event, I have observed with much concern the open movement towards fascism by Uhuru Kenyatta, his deputy William Ruto, and the state in general.
If it feels like we’re on the verge of the breakdown of democracy as we know it, it’s because we are. World over, the rug has been pulled from underneath our feet. But for Kenyans, this is nothing new. It’s just more pronounced now. There is no simple, straightforward way to describe fascism. It has its roots in Benito Mussolini’s Italy. In 1919, there was a movement called the Blackshirts in Italy, named after the black shirts they used to wear.
It was built on the disenfranchisement of the every-man by industrialization. Mussolini harnessed this disenfranchisement and diverted it into political action. When he founded the fascist party, he said that fascism “is the wedding of state and corporate power.” His followers were nationalist and totalitarian, and used violence to consolidate political power in him. The more his power grew, the worse they became. This ideology is fundamentally violent, and praises war and conflict.
Mussolini believed that war was the highest expression of human ability and society, and that life was a continuing conflict between people for limited resources. This same thought was shared by his German counterpart at the time, Adolf Hitler, which is why he wrote a book called Mein Kampf – which translates directly to My Struggle. To fascists, war and conflict are good things. They let nations or “races” decide who the strongest is, and who deserves the already “limited” resources. Yet not all modern day fascism can have direct lines drawn between it and Mussolini’s fascism. Or Hitler’s. It cuts across multiple forms of government, and multiple ideologies. Yet, its traits are always the same.
Fascists are nationalistic. I’ve talked about nationalism and why it’s dangerous here before, as well as the differences between nationalism and patriotism. Fascists believe in the exceptionalism and greatness of their nation for no reason other than they were born there. Everything they do is said to be for the good of the nation. They speak in terms of greatness in past days. For example, Uhuru Kenyatta’s focus on Kenya being a powerhouse regionally and in the continent even when his government does everything possible to undermine this in reality.
In the aftermath of Raila Odinga’s swearing-in, Uhuru Kenyatta and his government have broken multiple laws in the name of national security, and gone against the spirit of our constitution – they allegedly summoned media stakeholders to State House the day before the swearing in for a lecture on why they must not cover the events. When the chairperson of the Kenya Editors Guild brought to light these events and said they would not be intimidated, they waited until the next day and switched off Citizen TV, Inooro TV NTV and KTN – a gross violation of press freedom. After seven days, NTV and KTN were back on air on the 5th of February 2018. However, Inooro TV and Citizen TV, owned by Royal Media Services, remain switched off.
They have outlawed the National Resistance Movement, which amounts to outlawing the opposition, listing it as an organized crime group. Other groups on this list include terrorist/vigilante/militia groups like Al Shabaab, Mungiki, Chinkororo, Forty Two Brothers and the Baghdad Boys. Yet, NRM agitates for electoral reform and the boycott of companies they perceive to be “wedded to the state” (as Mussolini may have described it), while the other groups routinely commit murder.
Arrests were also made of parties involved in the swearing in, such as Tom Kajwang, George Aladwa, and Miguna Miguna. The charge is treason, which attracts the death penalty. Miguna, in particular, was arrested on the 2nd of February 2018 for administering Raila Odinga’s oath and being a member of an outlawed group. The High Court ordered his release on a bond of KES 50,000. He was not released. The court then ordered the police to produce him in court at 2pm on the 5th of February 2018 or risk the Inspector-General of Police and Director of Criminal Investigations being held in contempt of court. He was not produced.
The executive arm of the state seems to gleefully undermine the judiciary, as if to say they do not care about the law – they are a law unto themselves. Fascism cannot operate without divisions. A fascist leader has to create an in group and one that’s the enemy. The in group tends to be a majority that this leader controls and feels he belongs to. The enemy? That tends to be minorities. Which is why under fascist regimes, women suffer. Queer people suffer. Ethnic minorities suffer. Foreigners suffer. Religious intolerance thrives. Sexism thrives. Racism thrives. Xenophobia thrives. Tribalism thrives. Homophobia thrives. Anyone that does not belong to the in group suffers.
This is why, despite harping on and on about it, the Jubilee regime has not made a dent in youth unemployment. Why they have not passed the two-thirds gender bill despite having a parliamentary majority. Why they run around the country screaming “I have been unable to perform because of Raila.” Fascists are able to get away with this behaviour partly because of their charisma – they know how to sell the dream. I remember when Kenyans were convinced we were going to achieve great things when Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto wore matching red ties early in their first term. Adding onto their charisma is their love of controlling and gagging the media. Uhuru Kenyatta famously said newspapers were only good for wrapping meat. Recently, he shut down TV stations and drunkenly kicked the media out of an event they were covering. His regime has been in a covert tussle with the media since he invited them for tea and snacks at the beginning of his first term.
A charismatic fascist will sell you a ticket to hell for twice the price and you will go gladly, thinking you got a deal. How else do you explain Uthamaki, which is a nonsensical concept engendered by older generation Kikuyus (and some very misguided young ones)? How else do you explain the Nairobi Business Community? They believe that leadership is rightfully theirs. That uthamaki belongs to muthamaki (the fisherman). This fisherman being a fisher of men, currently Uhuru Kenyatta. Who is stoking this fascist sentiment? This is why we are forever caught up in tribal politics and clashes. Because every “tribe” ends up wanting Uthamaki.
Fascist leaders, and their states, easily trample on human rights. If you don’t belong to their in group, you may as well not exist. Fascists are terrible for the working classes. Under them, ethnic cleansing is routine, detainment for arbitrary reasons is the norm, and slums and ghettos thrive because they do not care about inequality. We only need to look at the state of our public schools and hospitals, and the high rates of unemployment to see proof. Our public schools are in shambles, with a majority of the children who sat KCSE last year not making the cutoff for university. Look at our public universities, where lecturers are perpetually on strike because of poor pay, yet that is where most can afford to take their children to school. Under fascism, the common man comes last.
Fascists are excellent at corporatism. Everything must be privatized. This is why our president sees no problem with a company he is associated with (Brookside Dairies) basically owning and controlling Kenya’s entire dairy sector. This is also why instead of fixing our public healthcare system, he prefers to entice private investors to offer more expensive healthcare. They love public-private partnerships and corporate takeovers of industries and sectors that have no business being privatized. When a fascist is done, there are little to no public goods and services. Instead, all you have is rampant corruption, fraud, cronyism and corporate greed.
Fascism is contradictory, as it is packaged to appeal to the every-man, yet the every-man is most harmed by it. It is irrational – it does not make sense because it is not supposed to make sense. It merely capitalizes on emotions and societal tensions and directs them towards political actions that the fascist in charge fancies. Under a fascist regime, a drought can be stopped by a president’s prayers for rain. Defying all logic and good sense, people will believe that the president’s prayers made it rain. They will believe that if he continues to pray, a drought, which is man made and curable by policy and not prayer, will end.
Fascist leaders are masters at shifting goalposts. For those who feel secure within the in group but are not in power, or those who do not belong to the fascist’s group of cronies – security is not guaranteed. One minute you are in, the next, you are an enemy of progress. Only the fascist knows where the goalposts are, and he can shift them at will.
This is why fascists are so disdainful of intellectuals and artists. Naturally, these people will call them out on their actions, and they don’t want that. So they berate them publicly, as you may have witnessed Uhuru Kenyatta do many times, and work hard to stifle the creative sector as Ezekiel Mutua and others in the government are doing. They also defund arts programmes, as William Ruto and Fred Matiang’i hope to do. Make no mistake, this is intentional. They have to do this to quash dissent now, and in the future.
How do we counteract this? The first step is recognizing and accepting that we live in a fascist state. Fascists and their followers live in an alternate reality where “alternative facts” exist – we do not have that luxury. Fascism, unfortunately, cannot be fought purely through facts and logic. It is a heightened emotional state. We have to appeal to the people’s emotions, just like the fascist. Why are they afraid? What are they afraid of? Because many times, fascism stems from a fear of the “other.” What is this that is so bad, it makes them hateful and intolerant towards their fellow citizens and human beings?
How do we make them trust us? How do we bring them into our shared reality? It all boils down to trust. The rest of us cannot trust our fascist governments, and the supporters of fascist governments cannot trust us.
On January 12th 2018, just a day after he had spirited battles with Nairobians online, and just after he impounded cows and asked us what to do with them on Twitter, Polycarp Igathe resigned. He had served as Nairobi’s Deputy Governor for less than six months.
He said, once again on Twitter, “Dear Nairobians, it is with a heavy heart that I resign my seat as elected Deputy Governor of Nairobi City County effective 1pm on 31st Jan 2018. I regret I have failed to earn the trust of the Governor to enable me to drive Admin & Management of the county. Without fear, favour or ill will I step down to avoid abusing or betraying my oath of office to Kenyans, Nairobians and my family. Thank you for the encouraging support given to me so far.”
This brings about questions as to the role of a deputy governor, and the process to replace one when they leave the role for whatever reason. According to the constitution (Cap. 11, Article 180): “Each candidate for election as county governor shall nominate a person who is qualified for nomination for election as county governor as a candidate for deputy governor. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission shall not conduct a separate election for the deputy governor but shall declare the candidate nominated by the person who is elected county governor to have been elected as the deputy governor.”
It goes on to say (Cap 11, Article 182): “(1) The office of the county governor shall become vacant if the holder of the office:
- resigns, in writing, addressed to the speaker of the county assembly;
- ceases to be eligible to be elected county governor under Article 180 (2);
- is convicted of an offence punishable by imprisonment for at least twelve months; or
- is removed from office under this Constitution.
(2) If a vacancy occurs in the office of county governor, the deputy county governor shall assume office as county governor for the remainder of the term of the county governor.” The constitution does not specify what happens when the office of the deputy governor falls vacant.
The County Governments Act (2012) Section 32 that designates the functions of a deputy county governor is also vague, and does not state what should happen in case this office falls vacant. It says: “The deputy governor shall take and subscribe to the oath or affirmation as set out in the Schedule to this Act before assuming office. The deputy governor shall deputize for the governor in the execution of the governor’s functions. The governor may assign the deputy governor any other responsibility or portfolio as a member of the county executive committee. When acting in office as contemplated in Article 179 (5) of the Constitution, the deputy governor shall not exercise any powers of the governor, to nominate, appoint or dismiss, that are assigned to the governor under the Constitution or other written law. The governor shall not delegate to the deputy governor any of the functions referred to in subsection (4).”
The Election Laws Act (2011) Section 18 only anticipates the change of a deputy county governor candidate, as is expected. It says: “A county governor candidate or a political party shall not at any time change the person nominated as a deputy county governor candidate after the nomination of that person has been received by the Commission: Provided that in the event of death, resignation or incapacity of the nominated candidate or of the violation of the electoral code of conduct by the nominated candidate, the political party may substitute its candidate before the date of presentation of nomination papers to the Commission.”
We are in uncharted waters. We have two options – Mike Sonko could either appoint a new deputy, or he could complete his term without one. The law leaves the role of a deputy county governor vague. They appear to serve at the pleasure of the county governor, otherwise the process of replacing one would have been specified. It is unclear the pool available to Mike Sonko from which to select a deputy, which makes this option politically volatile, as it could be used to reward cronies. This option may be untenable, though, as neither the Constitution, County Government Act, nor the Election Laws Act give a county governor the power to do appoint a new deputy. This would likely be the subject of a matter in court, after which we would thankfully have jurisprudence on the issue.
He could also govern until 2022 without a deputy governor, something he has suggested he will do. He has said that he is not ready for dialogue with his former deputy, and that he will consult the electorate and work with other leaders, both from Jubilee and other parties. He also stated that he will work with other elected leaders and professionals to ensure service delivery in Nairobi County.
Now that this has happened, we need to amend the County Governments Act (and perhaps the Election Laws Act) to clarify what should happen when the office of a deputy county governor falls vacant. Until then, Nairobi will likely remain without one.
As the year ends, I am reminded of the highs and lows we have been through as Kenyans – two presidential elections (one which happened during the 2017 general election), an election annulment, an election boycott. a doctors’ strike, a nurses’ strike, the election of Kenya’s first women governors, the refusal of parliament to pass the two-thirds gender bill, the collapse of Nakumatt, the ban on plastic bags, extrajudicial killings by the police, to name a few.
As Charles Dickens would say, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. These are the pieces that stood out to us in 2017 [click on the title to read the full piece.]
by Marilyn Kamuru
“Whether from ignorance, ineptitude or misogyny, the silence and complicity of these groups means that they lack the moral credibility to offer non-partisan leadership to Kenyans. The current administration’s de facto policy of violating the Gender Principle, and the acquiescent brand of leadership practised by the business and religious community, are largely to blame for our current situation.”
by Isaac Otidi Amuke
“Karl Marx’s last public engagement was on the evening of Thursday, 5 March 2009. A group of University of Nairobi students witnessed the execution of two men riding in a white Mercedes Benz. The students had chanced on the killings on State House Road while walking back to their hostels. One of the students, assuming that the two, shot at point blank range, were dangerous criminals, asked the shooters, already in flight, why they weren’t taking the men’s bodies off the scene. The usual police ritual is to throw the bodies into a truck and dump them at Nairobi’s public morgue. The shooters, dressed in identical suits, looked like members of an elite death squad. One of them replied that “others” would do the cleaning up.”
by April Zhu
“That particular sunset marked the end of that day’s heavy demonstrations throughout Nyanza. And cruelly ironic in its magnificence, it marked the end of another life taken by police brutality. This time, his name was Michael Okoth. At approximately 2pm, the eighteen-year-old died near Kondele in Kisumu City with a gunshot to his neck. At the mortuary, his grandmother wept and wailed, speaking to him over his body. ‘We thought you were home. My child, we thought you were home. We didn’t know you had gone out to see the protests.'”
by K’eguro Macharia
“In many cases, “this is Kenya” is uttered at a scene of violation and exhaustion: after a demand for a bribe, after being told a file is missing from a government office, after being insulted by a state agent, after attempting to use legal channels and being frustrated, after being sexually assaulted and attempting to seek help from friends and family, after witnessing police brutality, while paying more for food, while struggling to afford private healthcare because the public system is broken, while trying to afford school fees for private schools because public education is broken, while reading yet another report about theft of public land, while reading yet another report about theft of public money, while trying to navigate Kenya’s rape culture, while trying to navigate Kenya’s heteronormative culture, while trying to navigate Kenya’s misogynist culture, while trying to navigate Kenya’s ethno-nationalist culture.”
by Nanjala Nyabola
“But beyond establishing high democratic standards for elections in Kenya, this ruling was also about reaffirming judicial independence. It put Chief Justice David Maraga in history books as the first African chief justice to oversee the annulment of election results. Less than a year into his term, there were already strong indications during a testy pre-election period that judicial independence was of utmost importance to the Maraga-led court. At least three times in under 12 months, the chief justice and the judicial service commission issued statements defending the independence of the judiciary after attacks from the president and the National Assembly majority leader.”
by Matt Carotenuto
“In a country where political elites are known by the fancy cars they own (wabenzi — those who drive Mercedes Benzes) and roughly 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, Kenyans recognize that, while they don’t all have a common language or religion, they share a landscape of growing inequality. “Super highways” in Nairobi cut right through informal settlements that lack running water. Colonial-era country clubs sit against sprawling slums, where golf balls routinely ping off the roofs of makeshift tin shacks. The same elites strolling the nearby fairways often collect rent on the properties behind the concrete barriers.”
by Ivy NyaYieka
“Nairobi was liberated from British colonialism by female prostitutes who procured ammunition for Maumau fighters. However, it has been reluctant since independence to let women into public spaces— let alone political office. The Truth Justice & Reconciliation Commission report developed after Kenya’s 2007/08 post election violence to examine historical injustices puts it eloquently: “Women are over-represented in the poorest social segments of society and underrepresented in decision-making bodies.” Every morning, Nairobi rises on the backs of bent women, opens its eyes hesitantly, yawns, stretches and stands up, looking taller than it is because it has low-income women below its feet. These elections will be a test of whether Nairobi will recognize these women’s contributions.”
And these were your favourite pieces from Brainstorm this year:
by Brenda Wambui
“What is it about maize that makes it so susceptible to such scandals? It’s our consumption. Our average maize consumption per person is 60 kg a year, according to our Bureau of Statistics. Maize accounts for a quarter of our food consumption in terms of calorific intake, 56 per cent of our cereal calories and 47 per cent of our starchy food calories. Maize is also the best value for money starch that is widely available. It’s also easy to dispose of as it is a staple food not just in Kenya, but in other African countries as well. As a thief, you can sell it quickly and have your stolen money.”
by Brenda Wambui
“These sentiments are, to put it simply, elitist. And many people are elitist. It is what motivates most of us in our work. We want to move as far away from poverty and as close to richness as we can. As we do, we develop a disdain (both subconscious and conscious) for poverty. As a result, we do not want reminders of poverty in the nice, clean spaces we believe we have worked so hard for. What are these reminders? Kiosks, matatus and second hand clothes, of course. We forget that most Kenyans continue to have them as hallmarks in their lives, though. Where do the rich expect their workers to buy their supplies, for example? When someone works from eight to six at your home, where do you expect them to shop? Do you feed your workers? If not, where do you expect them to eat? Do you provide private transport for them to and from your home? If not, how do you expect them to get there and go back to their homes?”
by Brenda Wambui
“Our feminism, first and foremost, must target the end of rape culture and violence against women. Why? Because it is intended to limit the extent to which women can participate in society. It is intended to keep women small, and in their place. They can only go as far as men will let them. Venture any further and what happens? Violence. Which is why women politicians are permanently being threatened with rape, stripping and other forms of violence. Why they have to have more security. Why their entourages are heckled and even stoned. It is also why men harass women on the streets, and why the go-to threat for many men towards women is ‘we will rape you.'”
As usual, this list is not exhaustive – so much has been written about Kenya or in Kenya in 2017. Any other pieces that we should have included? Share in the comments. Thank you for coming along on this journey in 2017. We look forward to an even better 2018. Happy new year!
On October 10th 2017, Raila Odinga stated that he was withdrawing from the presidential election redo set for October 26th. He cited fears that it would be marred by the same irregularities and illegalities that got the August 8th election result annulled. In doing so, he seemed to grant Uhuru Kenyatta’s wish from the day before for him to step aside if he was not ready or willing to participate. “Kenyans are tired and want to move forward. If you do not want elections, step aside so that the country can move forward,” said Uhuru Kenyatta.
Raila Odinga later called for a boycott of the election by his supporters, as an act of resistance and civil disobedience. He asked Kenyans who value democracy and justice to hold vigil and prayers away from polling stations, or just stay at home. The chairperson of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), Wafula Chebukati, had earlier made a statement that seemed to suggest he could not guarantee a credible election under prevailing conditions and with a divided commission. Days before, IEBC Commissioner Dr. Roselyn Akombe had resigned from the commission and fled Kenya for the USA (where she is also a citizen) citing fear for her life, as well as an inability to conduct a free, fair and credible election on the IEBC’s part.
Faced with the very real possibility of disruption and violence, a petition was filed before the Supreme Court to postpone the election until the IEBC could guarantee a credible election, only for the case to be adjourned, with apologies from Chief Justice David Maraga, because of a lack of quorum (the bench needs at least five judges to meet quorum). Only two out of seven judges were present when the court convened. Justice Isaac Lenaola was also present. However, Deputy Chief Justice Philomen Mwilu was unable to attend because her driver/bodyguard was shot shortly after dropping her off at home, in what appeared to be a warning shot to her from unknown persons. Justice Njoki Ndung’u was unable to find a flight back to Nairobi (she was out of town), Justice Mohamed Ibrahim was abroad seeking medical treatment, and Justices Smokin Wanjala and Jackton Ojwang simply said they were unable to make it.
As a result, the October 26th election proceeded as planned. With one hitch – most registered voters failed to show up to vote. Official voter turnout was placed at 38.84% by the IEBC, though others claimed it was less than 35% when the total number of registered voters (19,611,423) is used. On August 8th, turnout was 79.51%, meaning that more than half of those who voted saw it fit to boycott this election. Perhaps it was due to Raila Odinga’s call. Perhaps it was due to fatigue and the desire to “move on” to other things. Perhaps it was because it was clear that their votes would not count based on the events described above. Perhaps it was because of fear of police violence.
Whatever the case, Uhuru Kenyatta won 98.27% of the votes (he garnered 7,483,895 out of 7,616,217 valid votes), even though 25 out of 290 constituencies did not participate in the repeat election “because conditions were not conducive to elections” mostly due to protests and violence. As if their voices and votes do not matter, the IEBC decided that it would not hold elections in those constituencies because doing so would not result in a material change to the outcome, which is a second Uhuru Kenyatta presidential term (regardless of its lack of legitimacy).
Which brings us where we are today – with Uhuru Kenyatta’s supposed popularity coming second only to Paul Kagame’s in East Africa (who won Rwanda’s presidency with 98.6% in the 2017 election), followed closely by Hailemariam Desalegn, who became Ethiopia’s prime minister with 94.9% of the vote. It should concern us that we are headed in the direction of East Africa’s more authoritarian regimes.
Both Rwanda and Ethiopia are de facto one party states where political repression is the norm. Both countries persecute journalists for doing their jobs and have experienced a year-on-year reduction of freedom of the press. They are intolerant to any opposition, be it from citizens or opposition political parties. Extrajudicial killings are routine (they have been on the rise in Kenya too), and civil society/NGOs are constantly under attack for “undermining government.” Their work on human/women’s/children’s rights, governance and peace building is interfered with both directly and indirectly, until they are unable to act meaningfully.
They invade their “unstable” neighbours (Rwanda has invaded the DRC, Ethiopia and Kenya have invaded Somalia), because this empowers them in two ways: it allows them to shut down internal opposition by rallying around external enemies, which then provides them with “threats” through which they attempt to legitimize their autocracy both locally and internationally (which is why Paul Kagame/Rwanda is a darling of the people both in Africa and the west, and why Uhuru Kenyatta is poised to join him). Because such leaders tend to come to power through farcical elections that are religiously held despite prevailing circumstances, they appear to be democratic and in line with global institutions and norms. This delicate balance of “democracy” and repression also enables their supporters locally to defend them, yet they do not follow the spirit of their laws/constitution, and occasionally fail to follow its letter. However, unlike Rwanda and Ethiopia, our economy is suffering, our people are getting poorer, and we are on course to kill our public institutions (such as schools and hospitals) because of greed and corruption.
This reads like a reenactment of Daniel Arap Moi’s 24 year presidency. If it sounds worrisome, that’s because it is. We must resist authoritarianism.
After three previous unsuccessful attempts to ban the use, sale, manufacture and import of plastic bags in 2005, 2007 and 2011, we finally managed to do it on 28th August 2017 when the ban came into effect. It was gazetted by the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Professor Judy Wakhungu, on 28th February 2017 and Kenyans were given a six month grace period to prepare themselves for lives free of plastic bags.
The ban is with good reason: plastic bags take between 500 to 1,000 years to break down, and are a major contributor to the 8 million tonnes of plastic dumped in the sea every year. At current rates, it is estimated that by 2050 we will have more plastic in the ocean than fish. About 100 million plastic bags were handed out to Kenyan shoppers (before the ban) each year according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and many of these bags found their way into our food chain through cows, goats, fish and other animals. Professor Wakhungu stated that plastic bags constitute the biggest challenge to solid waste management in Kenya.
Indeed, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) cites the inability of plastic bags to decompose (which affects soil quality), the littering plastic bags in various parts of the country, the blockage of sewerage and water drainage infrastructure (causing floods during the raining season), damage of ecosystems and biodiversity, death of animals after consuming plastic material, endangering human health when used for packaging food (in particular hot food), producing poisonous gases (for example, when used as fuel to light charcoal) and air pollution when disposed by burning in open air. All these are solid reasons.
Kenya becomes one of more than 40 other countries to take a tough stance on plastic bags, though our ban is by far the harshest. The only plastic bags exempt from the ban are garbage bin liners, plastic bags for disposing medical waste and chemicals, as well as plastic bags used for industrial packaging of products. If found contravening this law, one is “liable to a fine of not less than two million Kenya Shillings, and not more than four million Kenya Shillings, or imprisonment of a term of not less than one year but not more than four years, or to both such fine and imprisonment.”
If this sounds Draconian, it’s because it is. Plastic bags are such everyday things in Kenya that many people can’t imagine their lives without them. We are accustomed to buying fruits, vegetables and other household goods and having them packed in plastic bags. When we buy fruits, roast maize or even roast meat on the roadside, the vendor will most times have their hands covered in a clear polythene bag so as not to directly touch/possibly contaminate our food. This is because it is difficult to maintain good hygiene given the limited access to tap water in many places. We have even had cholera outbreaks for this reason. In informal settlements, due to the lack of a proper sewage/waste management system and sanitation facilities, flying toilets (where people relieve themselves and throw the plastic bag out) have been the norm.
Because of the central role plastic bags play in Kenyans’ lives, many understandably panicked when they realized that this time the country was actually going through with the ban. Questions were asked (and continue to be asked) about the extent of the ban – it was these questions that led to garbage bin liners to be excluded from it. Even more questions need to be asked.
For example, why is it that government agencies chose to be antagonistic about the ban’s implementation? Many Kenyans reported being stopped on the streets for random police searches without warrants, and when found with plastic bags, being extorted for a bribe in order to be released. This led to scaremongering online until NEMA clarified that it had not sanctioned these searches, and that their initial target with regards to compliance was manufacturers and suppliers. Why was this not communicated beforehand to avoid the seemingly unavoidable victimization of Kenyan citizens by state organs? Why is it that we keep paying for state laxity?
Something else that stands to me was that there seemed to be little concern over the jobs that would be lost – the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) estimated that over 60,000 jobs would be lost and 176 manufacturers closed. This is not to say that the manufacture, sale and use of plastic bags should continue, but to ask why we care so little about the incomes of average Kenyans. Are there any efforts to ensure that they are able to find other jobs? If their skills are highly specialized, are we thinking of how they could be retrained for other opportunities? Or does that not matter in Kenya?
The ban is also a continuation of the Kenyan policy mindset that prefers punishment to reinforcement. Why? As opposed to long jail terms and Draconian fines intended to decrease the manufacture, import, sale and use of plastic bags, why not treat Kenyans as allies, as opposed to enemies? This would involve educating Kenyans on why we are banning plastics, and taking them along on a journey – from conceptualization to actualization – until we reduce and afterwards end the use of plastic bags. What are the viable alternatives for plastic bags in all the scenarios they are used in Kenya? What do people do with the stash of plastic bags they have at home?
We need to understand why plastic bags are such a key feature of Kenyan life. Perhaps, however, we do already understand. It is the work of our national and county governments to guarantee our health and safety – something at which they have failed consistently in the recent past. When people use flying toilets, it is because of government failure. When people are unable to have accessible/reliable water supply and have to wrap their hands in plastic bags, it is because of government failure. When people pay private garbage collection services, it is because of government failure. It could be that the state is well aware of this, and as opposed to fixing the situation, it is committed to band aid solutions that fight the symptoms but not the disease.
I am fully behind global and local efforts to end the use of plastic bags (and plastic in general) in favour of eco-friendly alternatives. However, these efforts need to centre the people they affect. We need to ask ourselves what failures got us here as a world, and as a country, and how we can solve them with the majority’s buy in, while providing viable solutions. The reason plastic bag use is so prevalent in Kenya is because of system failures. Until we fix these failures, the use of plastic bags will continue to be a problem.