Ruling Class Paralyzed

It struck me forcefully recently that Kenya’s political class have become irrelevant and will remain that way until they address head on the problems facing the country. The revelation came while considering the food crisis in Haiti – people are starving to death reduced to eating mud-cakes to fill their stomachs because of an IMF inspired food shortage. Policies enforced by the IMF have seen a country once self-sufficient in rice become dependent on US agribusiness rice. The ruling class are nowhere to be seen during this crisis only surfacing to make statements about the inevitability of the tragedy unfolding and urging popular patience while foreign UN blue helmets have mercilessly killed people driven to protesting and rioting on the streets of Port au Prince as hunger grips and panic sets in. It became clear that the ruling class are completely untouched by the panic that has gripped those they lead and as long as they faithfully act as stooges to the imperium they will continue to be protected from the vagaries of acute social unrest by UN peace-keeping forces. Haiti’s rulers like Marie Antoinette when hearing that there is no bread say “let them eat mud-cakes.” Haiti is undeniably a failed state. And what of Kenya?

Since the so-called disputed Kenyan election none of the causes of the violence that consumed the country have been discussed by politicians. Not a word about the constitution. Then there’s been a lot of ducking and diving to avoid addressing the theft of the election so far and there’s also been less of an inclination to begin addressing land issues, the rise of war-lordism while the situation with Kenya’s internally displaced people, some 500,000, has not received attention from the political class it is crying out for. It was assumed by the political class that these things could be sorted when other more pressing matters such as the division of ministerial seats and the flotation of Kenya’s mobile phone company Safaricom were taken care of first. But now the food crisis has come along. This is threatening to develop into the perfect storm.

It was when Kibaki and Odinga shared a platform with the VP Kalonzo Musyoka during their recent Rift Valley “Peace Tour” that the penny finally dropped for me. We were told that the crowd that was in attendance were grateful that the leaders had taken time to come and address them. An elderly woman who wanted to hand-deliver a letter to Kibaki as he stood on a dais was wrestled by security. To his credit, Kibaki demanded that the woman be left alone and promised to address her concerns. But it was clear during this rally that the connection between the political class and those they supposedly represent has been damaged severely.

While the Big Three concerned themselves with petty protocol, displaying to all the rivalries that exist between them, the lack of respect for all but the PM Odinga was much in evidence. The Nation reports that the biggest issue facing the leadership is that of the pecking order…

In Eldoret, trouble started when Security Minister George Saitoti called on Mr Odinga to make his speech. This presupposed that the VP would come next and then officially invite President Kibaki to give his address.

The prime minister did not like this. He responded to Prof Saitoti by gesturing toward Mr Musyoka to be asked to speak before he did. The latter declined to do so, and Mr Odinga was forced to speak first. He immediately embarked on a tirade about he and the President being “equal” partners while the V-P was a rung below.

The crowd were displeased by VP Musyoka’s behaviour and booed. Some of the crowd left in disgust. Earlier, sections of the crowd, had booed Mr Ruto, Mr Kones and Mr Bett when they were introduced. Musyoka, who has been dubbed “Judas Iscariot” for splitting the vote, was heckled when he tried to take the stage and address the crowd after Odinga’s speech. Odinga had been trying to pass the mike to Kibaki but Musyoka muscled his way in and grabbed the mike much to the displeasure of the people in attendance. Musyoka apologised to the crowd for the “position” he had taken during the last elections and pleaded that he was attempting to heal the country. Later when Kibaki referred to Odinga by his first name “Raila” the crowd heckled him insisting that Kibaki call Odinga by his title “Prime Minister”.

This must have caused some annoyance to Kibaki who admonished the crowd by saying, “These are the people Jesus said should be forgiven for they do not know what they are doing. I wish they knew where we’ve come from and where we’re going. You’re doing all this because you do not know what you are doing.”

It was the stealing of the election by Kibaki that has created this mess in the first place and it is he who knows not what he has done. It was Kibaki that tried to side-step every reconciliation initiative while people were being raped and killed. That was apparent from the minute he was hastily sworn in at State House as the president and holed himself up there even as the country descended into lawlessness.

Then his inaction contributed to people being left to the mercy of the mob. He only left State House with a security detail to travel to Addis Ababa where in the presence of other African leaders he felt secure enough to criticize the Kofi Annan initiative from a distance and insist that he was the duly elected president. Also recall that later and in the face of ongoing violence he together with Odinga showed more concern in the floating of Safaricom shares on the Nairobi Stock Exchange than in rolling up his sleeves and putting the country back on the path of peace and stability.

It is clear that the political class are divorced from the realities of the people they rule hence the pomposity they exhibit now. The people in the Rift were the worst affected by the violence and insist they are going nowhere despite presidential demands they vacate the IDP camps and return to their homes. Kalenjins have said they will display zero tolerance to displaced people who return to their farms to try to pick up the pieces of their lives and their hoes, some ominously gesturing that they would slit the throats of those that return to reporters.

The leaders standing together and showing unity at this juncture was so important in terms of signalling to Kenyans that all must pull together, irrespective of rank or tribe, to rebuild the country – the leaders couldn’t even organize that!

Something must be said about the imminent food crisis facing Kenya following the election. William Ruto has been put in charge of Agriculture and says the country has enough stocks to provide the country with food for the next four months. In the meantime the price of staples like maize and rice have shot up. He recognizes that displaced farmers must return to their homesteads urgently but how when security is absent?

The food crisis is being exacerbated by rising fuel and fertilizer costs which has meant the costs of growing a staple like maize has risen. It’s harder to squeeze profit out of maize where today an acre of maize will only yield £40 profit when 2 years ago that was closer to £100 per acre. As a result, many farmers are switching to horticultural products and reducing the acreage they devote to maize.

Experts are warning that maize production could fall by 30% beneath the country’s present requirements. This could not have happened at a worse time for the 500,000 Kenyans who were forced to flee their homes for IDP camps in urban areas.

Another 3.6 million Kenyans are subsistence farmers who live outside the formal economy and will be left relatively untouched by inflated food prices. Those who live in the urban areas however are already feeling the pinch of shortages and increased prices of rice and maize. Inflation is running at about 20%. Residents in Nairobi are cutting back on some items. For the working class such steep rises leave them no wiggle room, when more than 80% of their daily cost of living is being spent on food already a 20% rise in food stuffs will be felt almost immediately.

So what is being done to avert a food shortage and acute social unrest that will unvariably follow? Not much. The ruling class appear paralyzed.

The biggest problem facing Kenyan farmers is low yields, lack of investment and security. Structural adjustment programmes have hurt the poor globally as governments were forced to liberalize their economies and let “free market” principles regulate prices. The IMF and World Bank viewed intervention by the state in agriculture with hostility while in the US and Eurozone, farmers were being paid huge subsidies to grow biofuels or else to make the cost of their produce so cheap they easily put smallholders out of business. This has been coupled with speculation in food by investors following the bursting of the credit bubble. Well the chickens have come home to roost now. World Bank boss Robert Zoellick is belatedly calling for a “New Deal for Global Food Policy” but that’s too late for millions that have already died senselessly over decades because of World Bank policies to date.

I wonder whether Bob remembers the Berg Report of 1981 which blamed the African Tragedy on mismanagement by African governments? The Berg report claimed excessive state intervention led to the destruction of agricultural producers incentives to increase output and exports. Under neo-liberalism the WB and IMF looked sternly upon the state managing agriculture, the best minds said that governments should butt out of every sector including the provision of social services. In following national goals of development governments were, according to these international institutions, interfering with market mechanisms. So Sub-saharan governments were effectively relegated to implementing structural adjustment programmes which included privatizing national assets and treasures alongside disciplining their workforces and dampening aspirations. The big decisions were being made in Washington DC and receipt of aid became conditional on countries agreeing to abide by the IMF, the real masters of the universe.

As a result investment by donors in agriculture dropped by 43% between 1990-02 and 2000-02 and stands today at about 4%. Kenya exports flowers to Europe because the World Bank says so. It’s more lucrative than growing food for the domestic market but does it matter people can’t eat flowers? Not when there’s crippling interest repayments to repaid for loans they were advised to take by the IMF when the world was awash in dollars and before the Volcker shock which effectively exported US inflation to the world’s poorest nations. Loans which have been repaid many times over.

Contrast this with prime minister Gordon Brown offering Northern Rock £50bn to stop it from going under and effectively privatizing it, thereby interfering with market mechanisms – because of the credit crunch – it does demonstrate that “where there’s a will there’s a way” and when it suits us we will bypass the market because costs can always be diverted to the subordinate nations and classes – so read Zoellick’s New Deal closely (edited to add that there is much for Sub-saharan Africa to be wary of in this so-called New Deal). Western economists warn that interfering with the market with regard to the food crisis is a recipe for disaster but they have been subsidising and stepping in to protect their economies since the Bretton Woods agreement, at the expense of the south.

Can the progressive elements within the Kenyan government similarly pursue measures that support Kenya’s farmers? The state must be able to do more than just liberalize and open the economy up to predatory capitalists. The Cochabamba Water wars of Bolivia are perhaps the best expression of what happens when you follow the developmental pattern preferred by the rich north. Sub-saharan governments must be able to feed people and ensure that people are being lifted out of poverty, they must be able to provide security and stability. But none of this they can do effectively when they serve masters in Washington D.C.

William Ruto must help farmers return to their farms and credit should be extended to small farmers to assist them in getting their hands on seeds, fertilizer and equipment immediately. Then there has to be major investment in transportation and distribution centres to ensure that small farmers can get their produce to market. If the country can find money to pay for the bloated cabinet and their assistants it can surely afford to invest farming, in fact maybe the politicians can lead the way by demonstrating their altruism and donate their first month’s salary to an investment fund to help relocate and subsidise Kenyan farmers. This would make a refreshing change from the displays of self-aggrandizement that were much in evidence during the Rift Valley Peace tour.

Those that attended were left disappointed by what they heard and saw. They still want change and they want to know what Kenya’s leaders are doing to bring that about. Kibaki revealed his bankruptcy by appealing for respect from those whose homes burned while he fiddled, aside from some paternal homilies about living together he offered no solutionsm, none of the leaders did. The heckling he and others received on their platform came close to being a Ceaucescu moment. Without security those who have fled their homes are not likely to return soon. Without stability the suffering of many will continue unabated. And without firm contingency plans in place now the food crisis could quickly escalate into social unrest as it has done in Haiti, Egypt, Senegal, Pakistan…


1 Response to “Ruling Class Paralyzed”

  1. 1 kenyanobserver April 28, 2008 at 4:22 pm

    You can tell this is a disaster waiting to happen when you walk into a mega-superstore (Sam’s Club) in the United States and you are restricted to the amount of rice you can buy.

    I cannot imagine what impact this is going to have on our brothers and sisters in Africa.

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