KANYINGA, CHEESEMAN, RUTEERE & WILLIS – Kenya Goes to the Polls in 2022: But Where is the Nation? – The Elephant
National politics used to mean a relentless insistence on Kenyan unity as a counter to ethnic politics but now Kenya has a politics of nations that revolves around particular claims by communities.
When William Ruto unleashed his new rallying cry, campaigning to mobilise support for his vision of a “hustler nation”, public attention focussed on the “hustler” part of that phrase. Since then, both social and traditional media has been awash with talk of hustlers and their supposed opposites – privileged dynasties. Much less attention has been paid to the second part of that famous phrase: the hustler nation. Yet in Ruto’s attempt to be seen as an inclusive leader willing to govern in the interest of all Kenyan hustlers, that word does just as much work.
“Nation” is a weighty word. Sixty years ago it helped bring an end to colonial rule across Africa. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century history had weaponized “nation”, turning the word into an irrefutable claim to sovereignty – nations should govern themselves. A generation of African politicians turned that power against European rule with dramatic results: they were nationalists, their goal was national freedom – and they triumphed.
After political independence, Africa’s new rulers found themselves in a global system that made nationhood an obligation as well as a claim: national flags, national anthems, national holidays – every government had to have these. The very word “international” is significant: it insists that the world is made of nations. So powerful was this idea in Africa that it crushed ideas of alternative political futures, both within and beyond the borders of new states. Regional federations and unions were eclipsed by the nation; opposition political parties were suppressed in the name of national unity.
In Kenya, as elsewhere in Africa, the nation was omnipresent for decades after independence. Nationalism became a demand for obedience as well as a statement about unity. Kenya was the nation and it was the task of everyone to build it. Both the title and the slogan of a newspaper created just before independence reminded readers of this fundamental truth, with the ubiquitous legend: “Daily Nation – the newspaper that builds the nation”.
From presidential speeches to chief’s barazas, no public event was complete without a reminder of the importance of nation-building. The name of almost every public institution restated the point, from the National Theatre to the National Cereals and Produce Board. There was only room for one nation in Kenya.
That singularity has slowly slipped away. The 2010 constitution says in its preamble that Kenya is “one indivisible sovereign nation”; President Uhuru Kenyatta still talks of nation building, just as his father did. Yet somehow, without anyone remarking on it, it has become entirely normal to talk of multiple nations across Kenya. Sometimes these nations are avowedly cultural in form: evoked to preserve custom. But more often they are explicitly political, and social media spaces devoted to them tend to fill up with partisan discussion. As the election campaign hots up, nations multiply in cyberspace and calculations of ethnic support and claims-making by politicians and activists are routinely expressed in the language of nationhood.
So now the voting intentions of people who live in western Kenya are discussed in terms of the Mulembe nation; politicians demand that the Mijikenda nation be recognized; commentators chide the Kikuyu nation; and, Maasai leaders assert claims on behalf of the Maasai nation. In this popular whirl of nation-making, the relationship between nations is unfixed: the website of the “Sebei nation” describes it as part of the “Kalenjin nation”.
“National” politics used to mean a relentless insistence on Kenyan unity as a counter to ethnic politics. Now Kenya has a politics of nations that revolves around particular claims by communities. The style of politics is not new, of course: behind the rhetoric of nation-building, ethnicity has always been a way to mobilise and make claims. But how these claims are made has changed, perhaps because since the destabilising violence of 2007/8 major leaders have been wary of making explicit appeals to ethnic sentiment, conscious that this might leave them open to criticism and even, in extreme cases, prosecution. In this new more cautious political age, the word “nation” is used to authorise ethnic politicking.
Kenya’s multiplying nations are mostly ethnic – but not all of them. As we have already discussed, the deputy president’s campaign revolves around another new collective – the “Hustler Nation”. That tag gives nation a new meaning – now it is a term that evokes how people make a living, not ethnicity or culture. The Hustler Nation – which also, of course, has its Facebook page – aims to mobilize a sense of economic marginalization as a collective claim.
Behind the rhetoric of nation-building, ethnicity has always been a way to mobilise and make claims.
Ruto’s messaging readily identifies some members of the Hustler Nation: the mama mboga and the boda boda riders, for example. It is less clear about who is not in his Hustler Nation, however – does it embrace everyone? Is it only “dynasties” that are excluded? Or also those who do not seek to work hard – a message that would return Kenya to the political mindset of harambee that characterised the Jomo Kenyatta years? Harambee is, after all, back in vogue as a term, both for Ruto and for Raila Odinga. Sometimes the deputy president still talks about Kenya as a single nation that his “movement” seeks to build on new terms:
“We must be a nation that is equal. . . . This is the Hustler Way; this is the way to change Kenya”.
Raila can also wax lyrical on the singularity of the nation: “We must unite our entire Nation”, as the text of his Jamhuri Day speech put it.
Why have Kenya’s nations proliferated? Kenya is not alone in these competing evocations of nation – the United Kingdom, after all, is chronically uncertain over whether it is one nation or four (or possibly more – Cornish nation, anyone?). Across the world, the word nation has been turned against the nation-states that claimed it – it has become part of the rhetorical toolbox of movements for indigenous rights as well as secessionists. That is part of the word’s pedigree, after all – it has often been a way to challenge the legitimacy of established political orders, which is why Kenya’s nationalists once found it so useful. It’s not surprising that such a powerful word is being turned to new uses.
Does this matter? This change might be welcomed as a sign of political maturity – if the word “nation” no longer requires such jealous guarding, might that be a sign of confidence and stability? And as we have noted, “nation” now stands in for a form of ethnic politicking that was more explicit and hence potentially divisive. But there is also a hazard to the proliferation of nations.
For decades Kenyans have been urged to build the nation and encouraged to think of themselves as having a duty of obedience to national leaders. If Kenya’s nations multiply – and get smaller – that might shrink the space for ordinary people to make political choices and further flatter the egos of politicians who imagine themselves as speaking for their nations. After all, national unity was once valued precisely because it papered over ethnic cracks and fostered unity.
Could creating too many parts undermine the whole? How many nations are possible, after all?
We could look elsewhere in Africa for a lesson here. Ghana, for example, regularly sees close elections and, if one looks at just the data, significant patterns of ethnic/regional voting. Yet the fact that the main presidential candidates largely avoid speaking and campaigning in strictly ethnic terms – and avoid referring to “the Asante nation” or the “Ewe nation” – has helped to sustain the collective (and valuable) myth that what motivates voting behaviour is solely adherence to one of two ideological positions, and the performance of the sitting government.
Kenya’s politicians might have reason to follow suit, because popular attitudes to the proliferation of nations may be more ambivalent than first appears. Although Kenyan politics is often described in terms of an ethnic census, things have never been quite that simple. Communities such as the Kikuyu and the Luhya have regularly divided their vote, and the most dangerous accusation that can derail a politician’s career is that they are a “tribalist”.
As the recent book, The Moral Economy of Elections in Africa demonstrated for Kenya, Ghana and Uganda, politicians can excite their ethnic base by using exclusive and hostile language, but this comes with a cost: they are unlikely to be viewed as “presidential material, undermining any attempt to run for national office – even by some members of their own community. This can be fatal – especially when it comes to the presidential election in countries like Kenya, where successful candidates must now receive 50 per cent +1 of the ballot.
Afrobarometer survey results: National vs. Ethnic identity in Kenya
Indeed, many readers may be surprised to learn that the proportion of citizens who say they feel more “ethnic” than “national” has actually fallen over the last decade, despite the fact that Kenya has repeatedly held close and contested elections. According to the nationally representative survey conducted by the Afrobarometer, the share of people saying they only feel an attachment to the “Kenyan nation” has increased from 24 per cent to 43 per cent since 2005 (The question asked is: Let us suppose that you had to choose between being a Kenyan and being a [respondent’s ethnic group]. Which of these two groups do you feel most strongly attached to?)
While it seems unlikely that those participating in the survey don’t feel any sense of ethnic identity at all, the fact that an increasing proportion of people wish to present themselves in this way tells us something important: however many nations exist in cyberspace, many Kenyans wish for a world in which the nation is a singular, unifying concept.
Nation is a powerful word. That motivates leaders’ desire to put the term to political use. But they do so at their peril – stripping the term of its unifying force can help to rally hardliners within a given community, but is likely to be unpopular with the wider electorate once they head to the ballot box.
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Professor Karuti Kanyinga is a Research Professor and Director, Institute for Development Studies (IDS), University of Nairobi. Nic Cheeseman is a Professor of Democracy at University of Birmingham. Justin Willis is a Professor of History at Durham University.
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Burkina Faso Guinea and Mali are under the military boot awaiting return to civilian rule. But whether the juntas in place will deliver credible elections at the end of the respective transition periods remains to be seen.
On Friday 30 September there were reports of gunfire in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou. Within 24 hours it was announced that the country’s military leader Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba had been removed from power and Captain Ibrahim Traoré was now in charge.
This is the country’s second coup this year.
Together with Burkina Faso, fellow West African nations Mali and Guinea have also made headlines over the last two years following military coups d’états, the worst nightmare of many a leader.
In all three countries, announcements that their respective armies had taken control left their populations and regional and international authorities anxiously awaiting news of the whereabouts of the leaders that had been removed from power.
While many of us followed the news from abroad, awaiting updates while going about our daily business, for those in these countries the unfolding events were not just headlines; they were the lived reality.
So what is it really like when a coup unfolds in your country?
I spoke to people in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea about exactly what happened on the day of the coup and what life has been like since then.
On 18 August 2020, news emerged from Mali that soldiers had detained the country’s president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) and Prime Minister Boubou Cissé.
This followed months of widespread protests that saw people take to the streets demanding Keïta’s resignation; critics blamed him and his administration for the country’s economic and security woes.
On 19 of August, Keita announced his resignation on television, adding, “I wish no blood to be shed to keep me in power.”
Bamako-based photographer and blogger Ousmane Traoré went out to take photographs on the day of the coup as well as on the following day. He says people were out cheering on the army, many ecstatic. “There was jubilation, people were happy, the blow to the president was expected, because the situation had been tense between those in power and the demonstrators who demanded the departure of the president.”
Like Traoré, business consultant Kalilou Malick was not surprised by the actions of the army. He was sitting in his home in Bamako when news of the coup came through, “Most Malian people were not surprised to see this coup happen after several months of social and political instability and protests across the country. Particularly in Bamako, we were convinced that the team of former president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was overwhelmed by the complexity of the situation then. People were not scared or angry at all. The coup happened as if to free Malians from a bad governance. I still remember that the Place de l’Indépendence (downtown Bamako) was crowded just a few hours after the coup—a way for people to manifest their support to the military,” he says.
The days following the coup saw international actors condemning the actions of the coup leaders and demanding that Keita be reinstated as president. ECOWAS suspended the country from all its decision-making bodies, closed borders with Mali and dispatched a delegation led by mediator Goodluck Jonathan.
While all this unfolded, Malick says, the atmosphere in the country was largely normal. “For many Malians, what happened should not even be considered a coup; it was a popular protest which pushed the military to intervene. Thus people were going about their usual business.”
While Traoré had found the majority of the population were happy about the coup, Malick says that, in the aftermath, people began wondering whether the military would organise elections and what the impact of the actions taken by the international community would be.
“For many Malians, what happened should not even been considered a coup, it was a popular protest which pushed the military to intervene.”
A month later, the country’s former defence minister Bah Ndaw was named president while Colonel Assimi Goïta, the leader of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP) which had led the coup, was appointed vice president. This civilian-led caretaker government was to lead the country for up to 18 months, after which elections would be held.
While for people like Traoré and Malick life continued largely as usual, others noted that the military had installed its officers at senior levels in a range of public institutions, suggesting that while Ndaw was president, the military was actually running the show.
Nine months after the coup that removed IBK, President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane were taken to the Kati military camp following a cabinet reshuffle that Colonel Assimi Goïta said he had not been consulted about. Ndaw and Ouane resigned and Goïta declared himself the country’s president, ultimately carrying out what can best be described as “a coup within a coup”.
This move led to widespread condemnation from the international community and threw the planning of elections within 18 months off course.
In Bamako, hairdresser Amina Guindo was at work when reports of Ndaw’s arrest began streaming in: “It was not a shock to see Colonel Goïta takeover, the trust in politicians had been low for a long time, he was simply acting on this. However, many of us became concerned regarding whether ECOWAS would impose sanctions again and also, while we wanted this fresh new system in place to start our democratic process again, we have seen throughout history on this continent what can happen when people get into power and then do not leave.”
The back and forth about when the elections would be held continued between ECOWAS and Mali’s military junta. The regional bloc was keen for elections to be held in February 2022 while the government said it wanted to hold a national consultation before setting a date. In December 2021, it was announced that the transition period could last up to 5-years, to which ECOWAS responded with sanctions, including the closure of Mali’s land and air borders and the freezing of Malian state assets held in ECOWAS banks.
The urgency for elections was not felt by everyone. Both Traoré and Malick said rushing elections is not the solution, that problematic polls were what led to the popular protests in the first place. Thus, for many in Mali, the quality of the polls was of utmost importance, while at the same time concerns regarding when these would be held had begun to grow.
In terms of the ECOWAS sanctions, Malick says these created an even greater feeling of patriotism in the country as people felt that ECOWAS serves the interests of presidents and not the people.
Prior to the removal of IBK, protestors had demanded that French troops leave the country and such sentiments continued to be heard after the coup, while tensions between the junta and Paris led to Mali expelling the French ambassador.
Malick says that while dislike of France has always existed in the country, the perceived rise of such sentiments could actually be because many had felt unable to express anti-French sentiment under previous governments whereas under the military they now could.
On 3 July 2022, ECOWAS announced the lifting of sanctions on Mali. This came after the junta set an election deadline of February 2024.
For people like Amina this was a welcome move: “The sanctions affected access to products and did not help the rise in the cost of living. We needed this.”
Despite the challenges the country has faced over the last two years, Malick and Traoré say most people look back at that day in August 2020 and believe that removing IBK was for the best: “What we need now is stability.”
On the night of Saturday 22 January 2022, finance officer Aïcha Sawadogo heard the sound of gunfire which seemed to come from one of the military barracks in the Burkinabé capital Ouagadougou.
“Despite the noise everyone was relatively calm. The next day rumours circulated that President Kaboré had been detained. Internet access was also patchy. On Monday morning it was business as usual for all of us at the office when it was confirmed that the military had taken over.”
What perhaps is most striking is that Sawadogo says that the coup did not come as a surprise: “Since November 2021 there had been whispers that the military were planning to take over.”
Demonstrations had been taking place for months demanding that Kaboré stepdown over an escalating security crisis that has enveloped the Sahel region. “We were unhappy with the Kaboré government over its failure to protect people from terrorists, and thus many were in support of the army. There were big celebrations.”
Despite the challenges the country has faced over the last two years, Malick and Traoré say most people look back at that day in August 2020 and believe removing IBK was for the best.
This was in stark contrast to the 2015 coup attempt in the country, which Sawadogo says had left people terrified. She says military presence on the streets was minimal this time round.
“The week of the coup felt surreal in that people were celebrating the Burkinabé football team progressing in the Africa Cup of Nations tournament while these big political changes took place around us. Once the army lifted the curfew it had put in place, you would find people out at night watching AFCON while discussing what would happen next. A popular sentiment was ‘perhaps the military will fix the security situation’”.
The following week, coup leader Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba was named interim president.
While ECOWAS pushed for the junta to name an election date, people in the country were initially in no rush, “In the entire Sahel region it’s like elections change nothing because the system is corrupt. Many Burkinabé felt that let’s clear up the democratic process first.”
While in agreement with this, Sawadogo had her own concerns, “The junta named a 15-person committee to plan for the elections but the lack of diversity in terms of gender was astonishing. This was a real red flag.”
The junta’s initial proposal for a three-year transition period also rang alarm bells. “People wondered if the military just wanted power; ultimately, a country is not like your father’s house that you can just come and take over.”
The last few months have seen the junta agree on a February 2025 election, while its relations with ECOWAS have somewhat thawed.
“Since November 2021 there had been whispers that the military were planning to take over.”
We speak again on the 2 October 2022 as she reflects upon the country’s second coup: “The same instability, the same confusion and the same frustrations have found their way to us again.”
Amid it all, Sawadogo says one issue remains: insecurity.
“Fifty people killed in a massacre in Madjoari in May, 86 dead in an attack in Seytenga in June, 22 people killed by armed men in Kossi Province in July, 50 civilians missing following an attack on a convoy in Gaskinde in September. What does it matter who is in power if people are still dying? And now a second coup, a second leader suggesting there is no unity in our army or government. So how are they to fix this situation?”
On 5 September 2021, journalist Aminata Sylla received a call from a military source saying that President Alpha Condé had been detained by the army.
Later that day Sylla watched a group of soldiers appear on state TV where coup leader Colonel Doumbouya announced that he was acting in Guinea’s best interests and that the state of the country suggested that it was “time to wake up”.
In the following days Sylla saw pockets of celebrations as members of the opposition and pro-democracy groups took to the streets. Meanwhile, a clip of an irate Condé sitting on a sofa surrounded by soldiers was circulating on social media.
“A lot of commentary which surrounded that video featured people making jokes. Very few were concerned that the army would mistreat him. The referendum he held to remove term limits had been the last straw for people,” says Sylla.
For Sylla, one question was at the forefront of everyone’s mind:
“What next? 11 years Condé had been in power, now he was gone. So, what next? That’s the most terrifying part of living in a system where leaders don’t step down and then are either removed or maybe die in office. They leave behind a trail of instability.”
A month after the coup, Colonel Doumbouya was sworn in as president.
In the eleven months since Condé’s removal, Sylla has noted a change in the public mood: “The FNDC [National Front for the Defence of the Constitution] opposition and civil society coalition have called for demonstrations against the junta. We saw three of its members brutally arrested during a press conference in July. This made us all wonder: are they any different from Condé?”
Meanwhile, ECOWAS has expressed dissatisfaction with the junta’s proposed 36-month transition to elections and has imposed targeted sanctions including asset freezes and travel bans. But while the people of Guinea are focused upon the return of democracy, they want something more: justice.
“Authorities have imposed charges against Condé and members of his government, and that needs to be seen through. We cannot look to the future without clearing the ills of the past,” says Sylla.
ECOWAS has expressed dissatisfaction with the junta’s proposed 36-month transition to elections and has imposed targeted sanctions including asset freezes and travel bans.
While many would argue that coups are at their core anti-democratic and thus there is no such thing as a “positive coup”, it is likely that the leaders in Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea would choose to disagree.
Throughout history, coups have made headlines and captured the imagination, creating a sense of intrigue and drama. Yet behind it all, there are very real consequences for those directly affected by them—those that want peace, justice, freedom and security in their homelands. Whether these military strongmen will be the ones to deliver this remains to be seen.
The public furore that followed in the wake of the announcement that farmers may be allowed to farm in forest areas is testimony to the dissonance that ails our understanding of our own natural heritage.
In some of his recent remarks, the Deputy President of Kenya, Rigathi Gachagua, mentioned the potential of working with farmers in forest areas to produce food and reverse our currently perilous food security situation. His political mettle was instantly tested by the volume (if not the technical content) of the protests that followed. As an environmental policy specialist, I was intrigued by the responses, but this soon gave way to despair as I realized that the vast majority of the commentary (and the most raucous) came from people who didn’t seem to have the faintest idea what they were talking about. Sadly, this included op-eds written in major news publications. This majority rightly lamented the low proportion of forest cover in Kenya (currently standing at 7.2 per cent) and how we couldn’t afford to lose any more of it. This emanated from a strange belief that the proposals were to cut down forests in order to create room for agriculture and the failure to understand that what they were discussing was actually a scheme for expansion of forest cover.
The language and tone also pointed to an urban, middle-class demographic that is psychologically far removed from nature, other than as a playground. Some even pointed to the excision of forests that occurred during the Daniel Moi presidency as an effect of the “shamba system”, rather than simple impunity. Never mind that the DP’s remarks were in reference to a scheme introduced in the Forest Act of 2005, after Moi left office. Because of my well-known opposition to foreign NGO control of our natural resources, I posed a public question on a social media platform suggesting that the presence of local forest users might be a deterrent to this kind of annexation. The comments this elicited ranged from outrage at my suggestion that people be allowed to use forests rather than be kept out, to open declarations that NGO annexation is a better outcome than forests “being grabbed” by locals. To me, the most startling aspect of the (non-factual) noise, however, was the absurdity of the elite visiting opprobrium on the proletariat for excesses perpetrated by the elite themselves.
This level of self-contradiction at a societal scale is typical of Kenyans’ thinking around natural heritage, because almost 60 years into our nationhood, we haven’t shaken off the romantic Western paradigm that designates our natural heritage as chattel. We are therefore unable to value these resources intrinsically or based on what they mean to us, as opposed to what a foreigner will pay to see, own or destroy them. What foreigners and their interests do is never questioned by this “passionate” elite. For instance, there is a radioactive materials dump in a fenced, labelled concrete structure in the forest right at the Naro Moru gate to Mt. Kenya National park. All the elite visitors to the park cannot miss it on their way in, but I have never once heard or read a word about it, other than what I have personally said and written.
There is a radioactive materials dump in a fenced, labelled concrete structure in the forest right at the Naro Moru gate to Mt. Kenya National park.
In over two decades’ experience in the conservation sector, I have visited all the different forest biomes in this country and one indisputable fact is the vast spectrum of biotic, edaphic, environmental and human factors around them. There is no single, one-size-fits-all policy or management action that is either applicable or not applicable across all forests. Yet, judging from the vast majority (and most strident) of voices against the so-called “shamba system”, the fortress conservation movement has successfully spread a single crisis story about the policy that has been taken up in its entirety by the lay population, including the false “corporate ownership” narrative.
The plaintive cry from elites for peasant farmers to keep out of “our” forests is bizarre in the way it perceives locals as interlopers and places the non-farming population in the exalted position of “ownership” as conservationists. As is the case in other fields, Kenyans have learned very well from the prejudiced forest management playbook written by the colonial government in the mid-20th century. Forests were to be used by tourists, hunters (before the change in law) and fly fishermen, but not those seeking fuelwood, food items, medicinal plants, etc. Basically elite lifestyle pursuits were given precedence over local livelihoods, a paradigm that remains unchanged over a century later. This policy position instantly criminalized forest-dependent or forest-resident communities like the Ogiek, Sengwer, and Ndorobo, a disadvantaged position that has persisted to this day. As a field biologist studying wildlife, my training always required that I be a keen observer of my environment for both professional and safety reasons. Having carried this into the policy field where I primarily work currently, it is obvious that Kenya’s natural heritage has become a “white space” where even the normally power-retentive Government of Kenya has strangely relinquished its authority to Western interests.
As is the case in other fields, Kenyans have learned very well from the prejudiced forest management playbook written by the colonial government in the mid-20th century.
I have written extensively elsewhere about the reasons for this so in this instance, I will focus on the residual effects of this abdication on the Kenyan psyche. Indigenous Kenyans have been successfully deleted from the intellectual arena surrounding our natural heritage. The profiteering from Kenya’s natural heritage either through tourism investments or donor funds has therefore become inextricably anchored in the absence of black people, or the myth of “wilderness”. This was the basis of the creation of national parks by the colonial administration and the establishment of “protected areas” under various other guises in post-independence Kenya.
In order to have any sensible discourse on this issue, we must get on to the same page as per the definition of what we’re casually referring to as the “shamba system”. The official terminology used by the state authority is PELIS (Plantation Establishment and Livelihood Improvement Scheme). Basically, this is a scheme introduced after enactment of the Forest Act of 2005, with implementation beginning in 2007. Local or “forest adjacent” communities are the primary beneficiaries of the scheme where they are temporarily allocated plots upon which they plant seedlings, tend them until they form a canopy while practicing agriculture on the allocated plots. The farming is done under the supervision of the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) and their officers, who also determine when the tenure of the allottees ends and they must move out, with reference to the growth of the trees.
Looking at the spirit of this law, it is a welcome acknowledgement that indigenous people in Kenya depend upon natural resources for their livelihoods, and this includes rangelands, wetlands and forests. The state conservation structures in Kenya that were contrived by the colonial government were based on the Victorian gamekeeper model, where natural heritage was reserved for the edification of the elite at the expense of the proletariat. Needless to say, in rural African societies, which had their own natural resource use norms, the application of this model required perpetual, slow-burning violence in the form of fences, strict laws, armed guards and assorted forms of retribution for those in breach. From the mid-19th century, Kenya adopted this system to establish tree plantations by means of cheap or totally free labour, in order to meet the demand for timber.
The initial “shamba system” was introduced as a way to press locals into providing labour to supply firewood in “exchange” for farms in the early 20th century, and persisted in that format for several decades. After independence the narrative was adjusted to include seeking to involve landless communities in forest conservation, and by the 1980s, problems associated with the system started emerging, particularly the encroachment of exotic monocultures of cypress, pine, and eucalyptus. These exotics were planted to supply timber, paper pulp, and other wood products. The thriving tea estates are notable drivers of plantations, because (eucalyptus) wood fires are still the only method used for curing tea.
Under the regime of Daniel arap Moi (1978-2002), there existed a situation where the executive had absolute power to excise and de-gazette forest lands at will, basically for agriculture and settlement. On paper, these were described as actions to settle the poor or landless people, but on the ground, forest land became political currency, used by the high and mighty to reward themselves and their cronies. Philosophically, it is vital to note here that the destruction of forests was driven, perpetrated and normalized by the elite, who accepted the tea estates, tourism and recreational facilities thus established. The proletariat were as always, kept away by means of state violence. Our society’s inability to mentally traverse the two decades and presidencies that have gone by between the Moi era and now, is partly due to our indolence and the manner in which the media is treating the issue. A notable example of this is a report by Citizen TV on 25th September 2022 headlined “DP Gachagua pledges return of Moi-era shamba system”. Mainstream media in Kenya has rarely been distinguished as a driver of sensible public discourse.
The advent of PELIS under the new Forest act of 2005 therefore was intended to mitigate the violence, restore the lost resource rights to a certain degree, and most importantly provide livelihoods and contribute to Kenya’s food security by structuring forest usage. The importance of a policy underpinning the use of forests cannot be overstated because food cultivation is only one facet of it. People use forests for non-timber products like honey, medicinal plants, fruits, vegetables, and pasture.
The nature of forests in Kenya is extremely varied, from the tropical rainforest in Kakamega, to montane forests in Mt. Kenya, dry highland forests in Samburu, coastal delta forests, and mangrove forests. Not all these forests are used by local communities in the same way, and the PELIS scheme is only applicable to the restoration of forests that have already suffered damage from illegal activities, and to plantation buffer zones that surround indigenous forests. It is inapplicable, for example, in the saltwater mangrove forests or the rocky dry highland forests. There are some forest like Giitune forest in Meru, or Kiagonga gia Agikuyu in Nyeri, which are recognized by both the state and communities as sacred and cannot be used for PELIS, regardless of government policy. There are also the dry highland forests in the arid North, which are more important as dry season pastures, rather than arable land because of the prevailing climate and wildlife populations therein. Sadly, though, most of the latter have been annexed by amorphous entities called “conservancies” which deny their owners access to these resources in favour of tourism investors and buccaneers involved in the global money-laundering scheme known as “carbon trade”.
Under the regime of Daniel arap Moi, there existed a situation where the executive had absolute power to excise and de-gazette forest lands at will.
PELIS is far from universally applicable in all forests but its importance (apart from enhancing food security) cannot be overstated as a policy platform on which forest-adjacent communities can negotiate and build their user rights. The ongoing furore has also laid bare the abject failure of KFS to educate the wider public about the details and provisions of this crucial policy. On the surface this may look like basic negligence, but it may also be a deliberate political effort to roll the policy back in favour of the elites and NGOs who are the primary beneficiaries of unutilized forests and who have a strong foothold in the KFS management. Whatever the case, this studious silence is unacceptable from a taxpayer-funded state authority.
Kenya is currently in the process of transition to a new government, and this may well be an opportunity for us citizens to revisit the way in which we relate to our natural resources and embrace the complexity thereof. We aren’t tenants here; we are the owners of this heritage. Neither are we immigrants, because Kenya is widely acknowledged to be the cradle of mankind. We must disabuse ourselves of the Western notion that “Africa is a village” with uniform problems that require universally applicable external solutions. Even at country level, Kenya’s forests, landscapes and ecosystems are extremely varied, requiring a more sophisticated management approach than the simplistic tools that were imposed by exploitative foreigners a century ago. The reason why our natural resource management is so costly is because the methods we employ are largely unsustainable and exogenous. This is why the boards of the state authorities in charge of our natural heritage are never free from the consumers of the said resources and are so reluctant to speak on the rights of local users. Hopefully, the state authorities will also become agile enough to take considered positions on policy implementation and take responsibility for changing or modifying these positions as and when necessary.
The ongoing furore has also laid bare the abject failure of KFS to educate the wider public about the details and provisions of this crucial policy.
There is a famous market near Kinale on the Nairobi-Naivasha highway named “Soko Mjinga” because of the prices of produce there that used to be ridiculously low. What’s undeniable is the quality and quantity of fruits and vegetables on sale there, in addition to the substantial amount that is transported daily for sale at Wakulima Market in Nairobi. It is a favourite shopping stop for Nairobi elites who drive along that road with their families. This urban elite group have been the most vociferous in opposing peasant farming around forests, yet at least 70 of per cent of the produce they so love to buy at Soko Mjinga is produced under the PELIS programme in the Kereita and Kieni forests. You’d be hard pressed to find a more elegant snapshot of the dissonance that ails our understanding of our own natural heritage.
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.
With William Ruto’s ascension to the presidency, we now have a string of governments in the East African region that hold no genuine or valuable ideological position. The job is to manage the expanding exploitation of the region’s resources on behalf of foreign capital.
The basic idea behind hustling is not to change the world, but rather to game its rules so as to change one’s status within it, going from low to high. This ultimately means accepting the world as it fundamentally is.
Kenya’s new president William Ruto has demonstrated this most ably, even using it to ramp up his campaign persona during the recently concluded elections. Having started out as a ruling party hatchet man in the 1990s Moi era, he rose to become a key player in the ethno-politics of the Kenyan Rift Valley. It was the interest taken by the International Criminal Court in the 2007 post-election violence that created a marriage of convenience between himself and what was until then his nemesis: Uhuru Kenyatta, scion of an earlier hustler-founded, but now grand, family, the epitome of what Ruto had been pitched against his whole political career—the entrenched interests of a new and landed elite.
This became an opportunity to operate fully on the national stage. This last election became in part the story of his successful determination to stay there, despite the best efforts, or so it would appear, to dispose of him once the threat of ICC convictions had receded.
A problem here is that what Kenya has always desperately needed is fundamental change. Candidate Raila Odinga’s biggest handicap was his having lived a life of being half-and-half; on the one hand, he presented himself as the anti-establishment player, determined to smash this system of historical exploitation and undeserved wealth. In that respect, he was the last of the dwindling band of 1980s would-be revolutionaries that led a meandering and error-plagued voyage in search of the kind of change needed in a former European settler economy and Western anchor-state.
On the other hand, he was also a scion of an established political dynasty. In this way, he more than once made himself part of inter-factional elite schemes and plots—of which taking the endorsement of outgoing President Kenyatta against his own Deputy President candidate Ruto was arguably the latest gambit—which only served to dilute whatever claims he may have still been making to be the progressive candidate.
Despite coming from a political dynasty of his own, birthed by his father’s own long record as a contemporary, comrade and finally victim of Jomo Kenyatta, Raila has always positioned himself as an outsider seeking to enter the system in order to break it. Then candidate Ruto’s message was the same in reverse: an actual outsider who was going, not to smash the system, but to hustle his way to its topmost levels. With his ascension, or more relevantly, with the defeat of Odinga, one can say the last of the hopes and memories of a kind of change that could favour the ordinary Kenyan are dead; this victory finally cements Kenya as a place impervious to radical political change, in which a dominant oligarchic system will remain in control, no matter who wins or loses a particular election.
“There is now in place a regime of right-wing thuggery that will run this plantation for the next twenty years.” one veteran Kenyan Kenya observer, glumly wrote to me.
However, the real point here is that this can be said of the whole region. And with this development in Kenya, a circle has been closed and the country has become fully like the rest of East Africa.
The failings of the Kenyan progressive/revolutionary movements of the 1970s and 1980s (of which Raila Odinga was a very visible part), left a situation whereby change was not going to come from outside the system, leading eventually to this “hustler” culture. First by the wider civil society that joined in the post-Moi governments in pursuit of change, and then the more directly cynical exploits that have culminated in the Ruto presidency.
“There is now in place a regime of right-wing thuggery that will run this plantation for the next twenty years.”
The few but significant reforms that actually enabled the Ruto victory to be declared were ironically the only real change that the civil society movement managed to bring to the very rigid political system. So, the irony is that these came to serve Ruto in a way they never served Odinga, despite his years of struggle that helped put them in place.
Apart from the social migration of that section of anti-colonial figures who made peace with the system and agreed to form the post-colonial regimes in partnership with those Africans that had worked for the repressive colonial state to begin with, most Kenyans remained poor, landless and exploited.
In this, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, veteran anti-colonial agitator, co-founder of the Kenya People’s Union and of course father to fifth-time losing candidate Raila, represented the first political tradition, while Jomo Kenyatta, father to the outgoing president Uhuru, famously represented the second.
This began the great dichotomy in the mainstream of Kenyan politics: between those who felt that Independence could and should mean more for the ordinary Kenyan, and those who felt that the struggle had done enough and, increasingly, it was for every citizen to make the best they could out of the new circumstances. In short, hustlers.
There were always more options. But in the politics of pragmatism, the most accessible position, least burdened of principles, usually wins.
Hence, Museveni over Nabudere in the Ugandan struggle against Obote; Garang against the void that killed him in the quest to shape a post-Arab-Apartheid Sudan; Desire Kabila over the impenetrable musings of dia Wamba during the race to remove Mobutu, and so forth.
There is always the one “who is” versus the idea of the “who might have been”. In Kenya, this has been Raila Odinga against just about every Kenyan President from Daniel arap Moi, onward. Until now.
William Ruto’s coming to power is the ultimate triumph over idealism, an ultimate mass endorsement of the idea of pragmatism over idealism in Kenyan politics. In that sense, Kenya now fully folds into the regional template of practical fixers and hustlers willing to work within the strictures historically imposed on their people, as opposed to embarking on a quest for genuine change.
This tells us one thing, that the largest and best organized-for-extraction economy in the region is now firmly in the grip of a very determined set of interchangeable oligarchs. Their mission in life will be to do what oligarchs do: get richer.
We can now look forward to the consolidation of a region-wide elite consensus regarding the purpose of power: which, put simply, is to get rich, and then richer.
I have written it before: the wealth of Congo has enriched many a Ugandan elite group. My prediction is that our region’s politics will increasingly take on the look of a region-wide joint elite conspiracy against the ordinary peoples of the countries therein. The entire East African region, and its resources, seems up for grabs. And the vast riches of the DRC will be at the epicentre.
William Ruto’s coming to power is the ultimate triumph over idealism, an ultimate mass endorsement of the idea of pragmatism over idealism in Kenyan politics.
President Ruto’s decision to immediately implement a commitment to the long-mooted idea of an East Africa “peacekeeping” force helps to confirm this suspicion. Kenya deployed a contingent of its Special Forces just days after President Ruto’s inauguration. This idea has always been curious; apart from the United Nations force (in its second form), Uganda’s military, and occasional forays from Rwanda (and “friends”), this adds a new layer of military presence in the country: not quite African Union, and not fully EAC either, as there is no joint command. But the goal is clear: a colonial-type pacification of the natives, so as to enable elite-managed foreign extraction.
To that end, apart from Rwanda’s occasional presence, the Congolese government made up of its own notoriously ambitious elites seems to present no real objection to other interventions, but the opinion of the general population is becoming increasingly different.
An ideal situation for the hungry wolves in Kampala would be for a consensus to emerge from among the regimes of the region as to how the region’s resources can be best looted in a sustainable way, under its overall leadership as the regime that has the best, deepest and longest established links with the Western corporations that are in need of them.
President Ruto publicly acclaimed President Museveni as the “father of the region”, which is certainly a step up from the usual “father of the nation” sobriquet pressed upon perennial African incumbents.
Long-time watchers of the Museveni regime will find this description of President Museveni as apt as it is worrying. On the one hand, it helps consolidate the long-held view that Uganda effectively works as the West’s anchor state for the region.
We may finally be reaching a point of harmony among the rulers, which will be good news for their cronies and those who want to loot the region, but disastrous for the ordinary people.
Such looting involves indentured labour, displacement, environmental destruction, as well as the attendant state-backed violence to ensure that this happens. Put bluntly, a regional “peacekeeping” force would simply be a modern version of Belgian King Leopold’s Force Publique and other colonial forces rolled into one, and designed to bring a concentration of arms to bear on any localised native rebellion protesting this state of affairs.
Progress is no longer the business of government. Democracy is no longer the concern, what we have is mere electoral-ism. Within the expanded East African Community region, we now have a string of governments that hold no genuine or valuable ideological position on the long-standing, long-held, often diverted and suppressed quest for a national conversation about these things. That has finally come to an end.
The job is to manage the expanding exploitation of the mineral, labour, wildlife, fertility and energy resources on behalf of incoming foreign capital. As long as one can assure them of their security, and also help fend others off, then life is fine.
Democracy is no longer the concern, what we have is mere electoral-ism.
We may therefore finally be at a point where we have a region that thinks as one, where there are finally shared goals and talk of greater regional integration for markets, labour mobility and infrastructure. Unfortunately, these goals do not mean the same thing in their mouths, as they do in the mouths of the older traditional voices of pan-Africanism.
Instead, whatever the long-term plans of corporate America and the wider West in the region, these may now move ahead more smoothly. We can make a fairly informed guess as to what the key elements of those plans will be: “conservation”; agribusiness; energy, all with a knock-on effect on planning for massive urbanization, which means corporate finance for real estate. This may create just enough career jobs to settle the small but historically influential and noisy middle class into complacency. Certainly, the domestic Kenyan banking sector has been very nimble in getting into the DRC financial market already.
The Great Lakes Region/Nile Valley should now be best understood as a single space. It is a vast network of nearly all the major fresh water bodies on the continent. We should observe the privatisation and commercialisation of water in Kenya as the nascent stage to capture the regions water resources. With the expansion of the EAC to include the DRC, the imperialist dream of a single economic space from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic as sought by the lumpen-explorer Henry Morton Stanley, is finally realised.
In his career-long quest to always be of the greatest use to Western imperialism (and thereby guarantee his incumbency), one can be sure that President Museveni has long been positioning himself as the conductor of this grand orchestra.
While we may now have unity at last, it would not be a unity in the interest of ordinary Africans.
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