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IMF and SAPs 2.0: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Riding into Town

6 min read.

Stabilisation, liberalisation, deregulation, and privatisation: what do these four pillars of structural adjustment augur for Kenya’s beleaguered public health sector?

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IMF and SAPs 2.0: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Riding into Town

The International Monetary Fund’s announcement on the 2nd of April 2020 that it had approved a US$ 2.3 billion loan for Kenya prompted David Ndii to spell it out to young #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) that “the loan Kenya has taken is called a structural adjustment loan (SAPs). It comes with austerity (tax raises, spending cuts, downsizing) to keep Kenya creditworthy so that we can continue borrowing and servicing debt”, adding that the “IMF is not here for fun. Ask older people.” With this last quip, Ndii was referring to the economic hardship visited on Kenyans under the structural adjustment programmes of the 80s and 90s.

Well, I’m old enough to remember; except that I was not in the country. I had left home, left the country, leaving behind parents who were still working, still putting my siblings through school. Parents with permanent and pensionable jobs, who were still paying the mortgage on their modest “maisonette” in a middle class Nairobi neighbourhood.

In those pre-Internet, pre-WhatsApp days, much use was made of the post office and I have kept the piles of aerogramme letters that used to bring me news of home. In those letters my parents said nothing of the deteriorating economic situation, unwilling to burden me with worries about which I could do nothing, keeping body and soul together being just about all I could manage in that foreign land where I had gone to further my education.

My brother Tony’s letters should have warned me that all was not well back home but he wrote so hilariously about the status conferred on those men who could afford second-hand underwear from America, complete with stars and stripes, that the sub-text went right over my head. I came back home for the first time after five years — having left college and found a first job — to find parents that had visibly aged beyond their years and a home that was palpably less well-off financially than when I had left. I’m a Kicomi girl and something in me rebelled against second-hand clothes, second-hand things. It seemed that in my absence Kenya had regressed to the time before independence, the years of hope and optimism wiped away by the neoliberal designs of the Bretton Woods twins. I remember wanting to flee; I wanted to go back to not knowing, to finding my family exactly as I had left it — seemingly thriving, happy, hopeful.

Now, after eight years of irresponsible government borrowing, it appears that I am to experience the effects of a Structural Adjustment Programme first-hand, and I wonder how things could possibly be worse than they already are.

When speaking to Nancy* a couple of weeks back about the COVID-19 situation at the Nyahururu County Referral Hospital in Laikipia County, she brought up the issue of pregnant women having to share beds in the maternity ward yet — quite apart from the fact that this arrangement is unacceptable whichever way you look at it — patients admitted to the ward are not routinely tested for COVID-19.

Nancy told me that candidates for emergency caesarean sections or surgery for ectopic and intra-abdominal pregnancies must wait their turn at the door to the operating theatre. Construction of a new maternity wing, complete with its own operating theatre, has ground to a halt because, rumour has it, the contractor has not been paid. The 120-bed facility should have been completed in mid-2020 to ease congestion at the Nyahururu hospital whose catchment area for referrals includes large swathes of both Nyandarua and Laikipia counties because of its geographical location.

According to Nancy, vital medicine used to prevent excessive bleeding in newly delivered mothers has not been available at her hospital since January; patients have to buy the medication themselves. This issue was also raised on Twitter by Dr Mercy Korir who, referring to the Nanyuki Teaching and Referral Hospital — the only other major hospital in Laikipia County — said that lack of emergency medication in the maternity ward was putting the lives of mothers at risk. Judging by the responses to that tweet, this dire situation is not peculiar to the Nanyuki hospital; how much worse is it going to get under the imminent SAP?

Kenya was among the first countries to sign on for a SAP in 1980 when commodity prices went through the floor and the 1973 oil crisis hit, bringing to a painful halt a post-independence decade of sustained growth and prosperity. The country was to remain under one form of structural adjustment or another from then on until 1996.

Damaris Parsitau, who has written about the impact of Structural Adjustment Programmes on women’s health in Kenya, already reported in her 2008 study that, “at Nakuru District Hospital in Kenya, for example, expectant mothers are required to buy gloves, surgical blades, disinfectants and syringes in preparation for childbirth”. It would appear that not much has changed since then.

The constitution of the World Health Organisation states that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition” and that “governments have a responsibility for the health of their peoples which can be fulfilled only by the provision of adequate health and social measures.”

The WHO should have added gender as a discrimination criteria. Parsitau notes that “compared to men, women in Kenya have less access to medical care, are more likely to be malnourished, poor, and illiterate, and even work longer and harder. The situation exacerbates women’s reproductive role, which increases their vulnerability to morbidity and mortality.”

With economic decline in the 80s, and the implementation of structural adjustment measures that resulted in cutbacks in funding and the introduction of cost sharing in a sector where from independence the government had borne the cost of providing free healthcare, the effects were inevitably felt most by the poor, the majority of who — in Kenya as in the rest of the world — are women.

A more recent review of studies carried out on the effect of SAPs on child and maternal health published in 2017 finds that “in their current form, structural adjustment programmes are incongruous with achieving SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] 3.1 and 3.2, which stipulate reductions in neonatal, under-5, and maternal mortality rates. It is telling that even the IMF’s Independent Evaluation Office, in assessing the performance of structural adjustment loans, noted that ‘outcomes such as maternal and infant mortality rates have generally not improved.’”

The review also says that “adjustment programmes commonly promote decentralisation of health systems [which] may produce a more fractious and unequal implementation of services — including those for child and maternal health — nationally. Furthermore, lack of co-ordination in decentralised systems can hinder efforts to combat major disease outbreaks”. Well, we are in the throes of a devastating global pandemic which has brought this observation into sharp relief. According to the Ministry of Health, as of the 6th of April, 325,592 people had been vaccinated against COVID-19. Of those, 33 per cent were in Nairobi County, which accounts for just 9.2 per cent of the country’s total population of 47,564,296 people.

The Constitution of Kenya 2010 provides the legal framework for a rights-based approach to health and is the basis for the rollout of Universal Health Coverage (UHC) that was announced by President Uhuru Kenyatta on 12 December 2018 — with the customary fanfare — as part of the “Big Four Agenda” to be fulfilled before his departure in 2022.

However, a KEMRI-Wellcome Trust policy brief states that UHC is still some distance to achieving 100 per cent population coverage and recommends that “the Kenyan government should increase public financing of the health sector. Specifically, the level of public funding for healthcare in Kenya should double, if the threshold (5% of GDP) … is to be reached” and that “Kenya should reorient its health financing strategy away from a focus on contributory, voluntary health insurance, and instead recognize that increased tax funding is critical.”

These recommendations, it would seem to me, run counter to the conditionalities habitually imposed by the IMF and it is therefore not clear how the government will deliver UHC nation-wide by next year if this latest SAP is accompanied by budgetary cutbacks in the healthcare sector.

With the coronavirus graft scandal and the disappearance of medical supplies donated by Jack Ma still fresh on their minds, Kenyans are not inclined to believe that the IMF billions will indeed go to “support[ing] the next phase of the authorities’ COVID-19 response and their plan to reduce debt vulnerabilities while safeguarding resources to protect vulnerable groups”, as the IMF has claimed.

#KOT have — with outrage, with humour, vociferously — rejected this latest loan, tweeting the IMF in their hundreds and inundating the organisation’s Facebook page with demands that the IMF rescind its decision. An online petition had garnered more than 200,000 signatures within days of the IMF’s announcement. Whether the IMF will review its decision is moot. The prevailing economic climate is such that we are damned if we do take the loan, and damned if we don’t.

Structural adjustment supposedly “encourages countries to become economically self-sufficient by creating an environment that is friendly to innovation, investment and growth”, but the recidivist nature of the programmes suggests that either the Kenyan government is a recalcitrant pupil or SAPs simply don’t work. I would say it is both.

But the Kenyan government has not just been a recalcitrant pupil; it has also been a consistently profligate one. While SAPs do indeed provide for “safeguarding resources to protect vulnerable groups”, political choices are made that sacrifice the welfare of the ordinary Kenyan at the altar of grandiose infrastructure projects, based on the fiction peddled by international financial institutions that infrastructure-led growth can generate enough income to service debt. And when resources are not being wasted on “legacy” projects, they are embezzled on a scale that literally boggles the mind. We can no longer speak of runaway corruption; a new lexicon is required to describe this phenomenon which pervades every facet of our lives and which has rendered the years of sacrifice our parents endured meaningless and put us in debt bondage for many more generations to come. David Ndii long warned us that this moment was coming. It is here.

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Betty Guchu is a writer and editor based in Nyandarua County.

Politics

Blood on the Tea Leaves: Kenyan Workers Demand Reparations From Unilever

In 2007, tea pluckers on a Unilever plantation were brutally attacked in the midst of ethnical violence triggered by a contested presidential election. As the company failed to protect them despite clear warning signs of impending violence, the victims are now taking it to court to demand reparations

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Blood on the Tea Leaves: Kenyan Workers Demand Reparations From Unilever

At least four men armed with machetes and clubs broke into Anne Johnson’s home. They forced her husband and 11-year-old son into the bedroom and kept Anne and her teenage daughters in a separate room. To this day, she doesn’t know for certain if the men who raped her, her husband, and her daughters were her coworkers.  “They spoke the local language,”  Anne testified, but  “they blindfolded us so we could not see who they were.”

By 2007, when the attack took place, Anne and her husband, Makori (their names are pseudonyms to protect the family from retaliation), had lived and worked for more than a decade on a Kenyan tea plantation owned by Unilever, the London-based household-goods giant known for such brands as Lipton Tea, Dove, Axe, Knorr, and Magnum ice cream. In December of that year, hundreds of men from the neighboring town of Kericho would beat, maim, rape, and butcher the plantation’s residents during a week of terror.

The attackers killed at least 11 plantation residents, including Makori, whom they raped and fatally wounded in front of his son, and one of the Johnsons’ daughters. They looted and burned thousands of homes and injured and sexually assaulted an unknown number of people, who were targeted because of their ethnic identity and presumed political affiliation.

A contested presidential election triggered the violence. The candidate favored by Kericho’s local population—and openly backed by many Unilever managers—lost to the politician perceived to have support from minority tribes. The massacre was not confined to the plantation or to Kericho. More than 1,300 people died in post election violence across Kenya.

Unilever said the attacks on its plantation were unexpected and that it therefore should not be held liable. But witnesses and former Unilever managers say the company’s own staff incited and participated in the attacks. They made these allegations in 2016 in written testimony, after the case was submitted to a court in London. Anne and 217 other survivors wanted Unilever Kenya and its corporate parent in the United Kingdom to pay reparations. Among the claimants were 56 women who were raped and the family members of seven people who were killed.

In hundreds of pages of witness testimony and other court records and in interviews I conducted, the survivors describe how, in the run-up to the election, their colleagues threatened to attack them if the « wrong » candidate won. When they reported these comments, their managers dismissed their concerns, issued veiled threats, or made derogatory remarks of their own.

Former managers from Unilever Kenya admitted to the court that the company’s top management, including then-managing director Richard Fairburn, discussed the possibility of election violence in several meetings but only ramped up the security for its senior personnel, factories, and equipment.

Unilever Kenya insists it is not responsible and blames the police for acting too slowly. Meanwhile, its corporate parent in London maintains that it owes the workers nothing and that the victims should sue the company in Kenya, not in the United Kingdom. But the workers say that a lawsuit in Kenya could spark more violence, including from their earlier assailants, some of whom still work at the plantation.

In 2018, a judge in the United Kingdom ruled that Unilever’s London headquarters could not be held liable for the failures of its Kenyan subsidiary. Now, Anne and her former coworkers are looking to the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, which is expected to decide, over the next few months, whether Unilever has failed to meet the United Nations’ guidelines for responsible business behavior. As Anne explained to me,  “The company promised they would take care of us, but they didn’t, so now they should pay us so we can finally rebuild our lives.”

Unilever’s hilly tea plantation in Kenya’s southern Rift Valley covered about 13,000 hectares in 2007. With a population then of roughly 100,000 people, including about 20,000 residential workers and their families, and boasting on-site schools, health clinics, and social facilities, the estates are essentially a company town, and a cosmopolitan one: The workers belong to several ethnicities from across the country.

The Johnsons hailed from Kisii, a county two hours away from the Unilever estates, and identify ethnically as Kisii. On the plantation, the Kisiis made up nearly half the residents, but in nearby Kericho—the homeland of an ethnic group called the Kalenjins—they were a much smaller minority. And many people in Kericho looked down on the Kisiis and other  “foreigners.” The plantation reflected this divide: The Kalenjins were mostly managers, and the Kisiis and other minorities worked primarily as tea pluckers.

The couple spent the last Sunday of December 2007 as they did any other day—in the field with a basket on their backs—though they expected the evening to be tense, since the election results would be announced in the late afternoon. Earlier in the week, millions of Kenyans had gone to the polls to elect either Raila Odinga, who led the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), or Mwai Kibaki, of the Party of National Unity (PNU), as their new president.

Anne hadn’t voted herself. Weeks earlier, she had applied for leave to travel to Kisii, where she was registered to vote, but her manager declined the request, she said. This experience was common among the members of minority tribes, said Daniel Leader, a lawyer and partner at the London law firm Leigh Day, who represented the survivors in court and whose team interviewed all 218 claimants.

The impending elections had exacerbated tensions between Unilever’s Kalenjin workers and their more junior Kisii colleagues.  “They assumed we Kisiis backed Mwai,” Anne explained, whereas the local Kalenjin population were overwhelmingly pro-Odinga.

In the weeks leading up to the election, survivors say ODM-supporting staff turned the tea estates into a fiercely pro-Odinga space, organizing political rallies and strategy meetings on the property. Anne told me that the perception of the Kisiis as Kibaki supporters led some Kalenjins to treat them with hostility. She said that team leaders, for example, began to allocate her job duties to non-Kisii workers. Other coworkers stopped talking to her altogether. To Anne’s distress, she found leaflets with hateful slogans like  “Foreigners go home” in the residential areas, making her worry that  “something bad may happen after the election.”

Anne was frightened but kept quiet.  “The company is so big. I assumed they would protect us,  “she told me. Those who felt less assured and who asked their team leaders and managers for protection were met with indifference, according to survivors. In court testimony, many recalled how various managers ignored their pleas for more security or dismissed them by saying,  “It’s just politics.” Other managers instructed the concerned workers to lobby and vote for Odinga, saying they would be « forced to leave » if they didn’t.

In the weeks leading up to the election, survivors say ODM-supporting staff turned the tea estates into a fiercely pro-Odinga space, organizing political rallies and strategy meetings on the property.

An estate manager admitted to the London court that Unilever Kenya’s senior management—including Fairburn, the managing director—had been aware that « there would be unrest and that the Plantation could be invaded. » They had discussed the need for extra security in at least three meetings in December, he said. But management took measures only to « secure company property, factories, machinery, stores, power stations and management housing, » while « no thought was given to increasing the security of the residential camps in order to protect the workers. » Another former Unilever manager corroborated this claim.

Fairburn, who was allegedly present at them, refused to comment on the meetings when I called him. To this day, Unilever claims that it could not have predicted the attacks, even though the media in Kenya and internationally, including the BBC, Al Jazeera, The New York Times, and Reuters, had reported on the impending ethnic violence.

“Anyone who knew anything about the Kenyan election in 2007 knew it had the potential to end in significant and widespread violence, and that this violence would largely break down along lines of identity and affiliation, » said Tara Van Ho, who teaches law and human rights at the University of Essex. Both Unilever Kenya and its corporate parent in London should have known that the workers and their families were at risk, she continued. To protect them, she argued, Unilever could have hired extra security guards, trained its security personnel and managers, and solidified their buildings or evacuated residents for the period immediately surrounding the election.

Instead, said Leader, the workers’ London attorney, Unilever « created a situation where [these employees] were sitting ducks—at risk because of their ethnicity. “

Meanwhile, Unilever Kenya’s managing director and other executives went on holiday before the crisis, according to the former managers, and the company evacuated the remaining managers and expats on private jets once the violence broke out.

When the news of Kibaki’s victory came on Sunday evening, Anne was preparing supper with her family. Moments later, she heard people screaming outside and knew they were in danger. « We quickly locked our doors, » she said.

That night, hundreds of men armed with machetes, clubs, kerosene jars, and other weapons invaded the plantation. They looted and burned thousands of Kisii homes—which they marked with an X—and attacked their inhabitants.

Court records paint a harrowing picture of what unfolded on the plantation over the next week. People were gang-raped and viciously beaten and saw their coworkers set on fire. When they fled for safety to the tea bushes, the attackers pursued them with dogs.

“We do not know the total number of people who were raped, killed, and permanently disabled, » Leader told me. He thinks the 218 claimants he represented are not the only surviving victims. « Many people are too scared of retribution or renewed attacks from colleagues who they continue to work alongside of,” he said.

Concern about violent reprisals was one reason the survivors wanted to sue Unilever in the United Kingdom. Another was that Leigh Day represented them for free, whereas in Kenya the survivors would not be able to afford legal counsel.

Leigh Day argued that their Kenyan clients had a right to sue Unilever in London, since UK law allows workers from international subsidiaries to sue the UK-based parent companies if, among other things, they can show that the corporate parent plays an active and controlling role in the subsidiary’s day-to-day management. Unilever, Leigh Day argued, clearly did.

Unilever’s lawyers nonetheless insisted that the victims should file their case in Kenya and suggested the tea pluckers  “band together” and  “raise funds from friends and family.”

Multiple victims said they recognized their attackers as Unilever colleagues. One woman told the court she was “started beating me with a metal rod on my back and on my legs and were going to rape me,” she stated in witness testimony, until  “a Kalenjin neighbor who was a male nurse intervened to stop the attack.”

In court, Unilever denied that its own staff participated in the attacks. But when I asked Unilever representatives how the company knew this, they declined to comment further on the issue.

After the attackers left, the Johnsons fled and hid for three nights in the tea bushes before making their way to the police station in nearby Koiwa, covered in mud and blood. From there, police officers escorted them to safety, and the family was able to escape to Kisii where they kept a small plot of land. Without savings, they could not afford the hospital costs for either their eldest daughter, who suffered severe injuries and got weaker by the day, or for Makori, who had internal bleeding. In the months that followed, both of them died in their mud house in Kisii.

Anne said that the only communication she received from Unilever since the attacks was an invitation to return to work months later and a letter offering her about $110 in compensation. The letter suggests that this amount was set and paid for by Unilever’s corporate headquarters in London.

In court, Unilever denied that its own staff participated in the attacks. But when I asked Unilever representatives how the company knew this, they declined to comment further on the issue.

“On behalf of the entire Unilever Tea Kenya Ltd family,” it reads,  “we thank Unilever for their understanding, material and moral support and we hope that this timely gesture will go a long way to bring normalcy back to our employees and their families.”

Anne told me she never returned to the plantation because she can’t leave her son, now in his mid-20s.  “He developed very bad seizures and panic attacks after what happened and needs constant care,”  she said. Severely traumatized and unable to afford the psychological treatment they need, her son and daughter both stopped going to school.  “We live off gifts from relatives and neighbors and the little maize we grow on our land,” she said.

The claimants say that Unilever owes them meaningful reparations, but Unilever insists it has already compensated them. The company’s spokespeople told me that it has paid all of the workers who eventually returned to the plantation with cash and new furniture and has also offered their families free counseling and medical care. But they won’t say how much the company gave them or comment on the letter that Anne shared with me.

In the summer of 2018, Anne and a group of other victims rebutted these claims in a letter to Paul Polman, the company’s CEO at the time:  “It’s not right that Unilever has said it helped us when we know that is not true,” the letter stated. It continued:

Unilever just wanted us to go back to work as if nothing happened [and those of us who did] were told we must not talk about what happened. We are still scared that we will be punished if we speak about the violence.

Unilever says that after the violence every employee was given  “compensation in kind” to offset our lost wages and that we were given replacement items or cash to buy new items to replace our stolen property…but those who were too afraid to return got nothing and only some of those who returned were given KES12,000 [$110], a little more than a month salary, and a little maize, which was then deducted from our salary. We were told that if we saw people with our belongings we should say nothing.

Polman appears not to have responded to the letter.

Under UK law, a parent company can only be held liable for the health and safety breaches of its subsidiaries if it exercises a high degree of control over their safety and crisis management policies.

To prove to the court that the UK parent company did indeed exercise such control over Unilever Kenya, Leigh Day submitted witness statements from former workers, who testified to the frequent visits made by London managers, and from four former managers, who gave evidence that the head office shaped, supervised, and audited the safety and crisis management policies of Unilever Kenya and even made its own safety protocols compulsory. This meant that, as one senior manager with over 15 years of experience with the company put it, Unilever Kenya was « confined to strictly complying with the policies and procedures which had been cascaded down by [Unilever] Plc.  “Another senior manager stated that London’s « checklists and detailed policies had to be complied with or an employee would be dismissed or face some other sanction.”

These testimonies seemed to support Leigh Day’s claim that the London headquarters shared liability. Yet to prove it to the court, the law firm needed access to the actual text of the protocols that the managers described. However, since these were pretrial proceedings—meaning that the court had not accepted jurisdiction—Unilever had no duty to disclose relevant materials and simply refused to hand over the documents.

Under UK law, a parent company can only be held liable for the health and safety breaches of its subsidiaries if it exercises a high degree of control over their safety and crisis management policies.

The judge’s ruling made clear that the  “weakness” of their evidence played a major role in her decision to deny the Kenyans jurisdiction. Human rights scholars and corporate accountability advocates condemned the ruling. The court had created a catch-22 for the workers, Van Ho observed:  “The claimants couldn’t get the documents that showed Unilever UK did something wrong until they had the documents that showed Unilever UK did something wrong.”  It’s  “dizzying,”  she said, and  “an unfair expectation for employees who have a lot less power than the multibillion-dollar company that employed them.”

Anne said she remains hopeful that international human rights advocates will support her cause. With other victims, she recently filed a complaint against Unilever at the United Nations, arguing that the company violated the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights. One requirement is that companies must ensure that victims of human rights abuses in their supply chain have access to remediation. Van Ho anticipates that the UN body, which is expected to reach a decision soon, will agree that Unilever breached these guidelines.  “Hiding behind legal loopholes and refusing to disclose relevant information to avoid paying reparations is the exact opposite of what the Guiding Principles prescribe,” she said.

Though the United Nations can’t force Unilever to pay up, Anne hopes the case will generate the attention and public pressure necessary to push the company in that direction. When asked what it would mean to her if the workers succeed, she told me,  “It would be the greatest moment in my life.”

Editors Note: This is an edited version of an article first published by The Nation. It is republished here as part of our partnership with Progressive international. 

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Politics

Will an Unga Revolution Follow in the Wake of the Coronavirus?

Unga has been an effective rallying call to agitate for food rights, but Kenyans are yet to fully realise that access to food is a fundamental right that they must aggressively fight for.

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Will an Unga Revolution Follow in the Wake of the Coronavirus?

Writing for the Route to Food blog on 8 January 2019, University of Nairobi don Celestine Nyamu Musembi and Patta Scott-Villiers, a research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Sussex University, said: “Though Kenya’s (im)moral economy was forged at a time of colonial rule, the pattern of the weak response to undernourishment has persisted. Kenyans on low income do not feel that they have a right to not feel hungry, despite the words of the constitution.”

And what do the words of the 2010 Constitution state? They guarantee food for all – that no Kenyan should go without food. That food is a basic need and an undeniable human right. Specifically, Article 43 (1) (c) states that, “Every person has the right to be free from hunger, and to have adequate food of acceptable quality.” This state of affairs, of poor and underprivileged Kenyans not “knowing” that they have “a right to not feel hungry”, has been particularly evident during the global coronavirus pandemic.

The onset of COVID-19 in Kenya in March 2020 exacerbated an already bad situation insofar as the food crisis was concerned. By February, the government had already been sending warning signals indicating that the maize reserve was depleting and could not last for the next six months. The pandemic is a phenomenon Kenyans of all shades have never experienced before; when it hit them, it hit them really hard, leading to many poor people losing their sources of livelihood.

It is estimated that 820 million people, 10 per cent of the world population, are suffering chronic hunger caused by the devastating COVID-19 outbreak, the deadliest pandemic since the Spanish Flu of 1918. Many of these people, in Kenya as in the rest of the world, come from the working class.

The COVID-19 containment measures imposed by the government caused a majority of Kenyans — those who live in the ghettoes and the crowded suburbs of Kenya’s towns and cities — to lose their daily (casual) jobs, their kadogo economy businesses and other self-employment hustles; they started going hungry. This was Julia Renner’s central thesis when she presented her paper Kenya’s Government Under Pressure: Lockdown increases Hunger and Unrest at the Alumni Network Sub-Saharan Africa ANSA Conference 2020 in Passau, Germany.

We want food

Sections of Nairobi’s underclass and those living in low-income areas attempted to organise food protests in the hope of prompting the government to help them with food rations. On 11 May 2020, Eastleigh residents woke up to demonstrations, with people waving placards reading “We want Food”. The demonstrators were peaceful, and their message was targeted at the national government which has the capacity to provide relief food. The government’s usual response towards any demonstration is to come down hard on the protesters; the demonstration was scattered by armed police within hours.

In their blog Musembi and Scott-Villiers further stated that “Moral economies emerge and are renewed each time there is a subsistence crisis when state responsibilities and the rights of citizens are made clear in formal responses. These episodes leave an imprint in people’s hopes and expectations that can last for decades. Kenya’s contemporary moral economy was forged during the colonial famines of the early 20th century. One of the most severe was between 1943-45 [in the thick of World War II], when the rains failed in successive seasons . . . .”

Unga Revolution

But have Kenyans always been docile when it comes to agitating for food rights? Not always.  The 2011 food protests dubbed the Unga Revolution proved that when pushed to the limit, poor and low-income Kenyans can mobilise and organise themselves to fight for their right to affordable food

Unga is the Kiswahili word for the white maize flour which is used to make ugali – a thick gruel that is the staple food in many homes in Kenya. Up until President Mwai Kibaki’s reign, this was the most affordable staple for low-income households. When he came to power in 2003, a two-kilogram packet of unga cost KSh30. By 2011, during Kibaki’s second term —which was a coalition government between him and Prime Minister Raila Odinga — the price of unga had shot up to KSh120.

Granted, the country was going through a devastating draught and there was a global rise in food and oil prices, which led to Kenya experiencing a 14.5 per cent inflation that obviously hit the Kenyans hard, especially the urban poor. Yet, it is in times of such crises that the government should act to cushion the poor and underprivileged by providing them with the necessary basic foodstuffs.

But truth be told, the Unga Revolution was not a spontaneous reaction to soaring food prices, or to Kibaki’s insensitive government policies and attitude towards the poor. It was the expression of the accumulated anger and frustration of a people talking to a “deaf” government over a period of time. By the end of Kibaki’s first term the price of unga had nearly tripled; a two-kilogram packet of maize flour was now costing KSh80. The plaints were audible, and the people hoped the government would hearken to their cries.

The bangled 2007 presidential election led to internecine warfare in Kenya’s breadbasket, mainly in the central and north rift regions where most of the country’s maize is grown. The post-election violence (PEV) displaced about 600,000 people, most of them farmers, and many lost their lives. Predictably, the country experienced a severe maize shortage in the aftermath of PEV; 35 million bags of maize had been destroyed in the violence. Hunger loomed.

It is in times of crises that the government should act to cushion the poor and underprivileged by providing them with the necessary basic foodstuffs.

Because of the looming hunger, there were “maize” protests in 2008 that pressurised the government to re-evaluate its “maize policies” by, among other measures, asking the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) to import three million bags of maize to plug the gap.

The high maize prices in 2008, the shortages and the hoarding, were threatening to get out of hand. A woman alighting from a matatu at the infamous Kibera slum was spotted carrying supermarket shopping that included packets of unga. Rowdy youths accosted her and relieved her of the packets of maize meal. In Mathare and Mlango Kubwa slums, the ghetto dwellers would not wait to die of hunger; they invaded homesteads that reared pigs, grabbed the animals and slaughtered them.

So, by 2011, there was already a groundswell of angry and hungry citizens because prices of foodstuffs had not stabilised or come down as they had hoped, in particular the price of maize meal. The coalition government did not seem to have any strategic plan to ensure that poor Kenyans did not go hungry because of unaffordable maize meal prices. Cobbled together as a result a peace accord supervised by Kofi Annan, the Kibaki/Raila government seemed unable to tame the ever-soaring prices.

The Unga Revolution started as a movement among the urban poor in the slums of Nairobi. By sheer coincidence, the build-up of the protests began against the backdrop of the Arab Spring that was taking place in the North African countries of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Locally, the protests reached a crescendo on 7 July 2011, Saba Saba Day, a date associated with the pro-democracy second liberation movement of the 1990s.

Today, Saba Saba Day is commemorated by Kenyans to remember the day President Moi cracked down on opposition figures and on Kenyans in general, and by brute force stopped them from congregating at the hallowed Kamukunji grounds to agitate for plural politics.

Spearheaded by Bunge la Mwananchi (the people’s parliament), the Unga Revolution gained momentum as a grassroots movement. It organised the people from the slums of Huruma, Kariobangi, Kibera, Mathare and Mlango Kubwa among others, to come together and press for fairer maize meal prices. Gacheke Gachihi who was actively involved in the protest remembers how the organising and even the framing of the term revolution came about.

“The first meeting of the Unga Revolution took place in Kwa Negro in Mathare. We’d sourced some funds and printed 1000 leaflets written ‘Unga KSh30’ and distributed them in Mathare, Huruma and Kibera slums. At the Kwa Negro meeting, we demanded from the government that the price of unga drops back to what the people were used to: KSh30. We also used the meeting to signal to the government that we were serious on confronting the state on the matter of affordable foodstuff prices for the underclass.”

Following that meeting, Bunge la Mwananchi plotted how they would organise a protest march into Nairobi’s central business district. They also agreed that they needed to properly frame their message for it to have greater visibility and impact.

“That’s how we came up with the term Unga Revolution. I think I coined the term,” recalls Gacheke. “So, from the Unga KSh30 leaflets to Unga Revolution, we radicalised our message and hoped that the people, our people, would join us in demanding from the government, an overhaul of the maize meal prices.”

But even though on 7 July 2011 the Bunge la Mwananchi-driven Unga Revolution was prevented by a combined force of the police and the paramilitary from accessing downtown Nairobi and proceeding to Harambee Avenue where both the Office of the President and that of the Prime Minister were situated, it captured the national imagination and helped to spur a modern food rights movement in Nairobi and throughout Kenya. “The unga campaign was a major force. It led the government into asking the maize millers to start packing the five-kilogram unga bags for the rank and file,” said Gacheke.

A year after the Jubilee team of President Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto took power, in March 2013, food activists were back in town. This time they were demanding that the government reject a bill proposing 16 per cent value added tax (VAT) on essential food commodities. Their campaign was dubbed No Unga Tax. The activists printed 100,000 posters and plastered them across downtown Nairobi.

In May 2018, food activists took to the streets once again: “The government must subsidise the cost of food. It is not fair for the poor to be suffering with high food prices, yet the government has not increased salaries,” said an angry Tom Aosa, one of the protest organisers. “On Monday [June 1, Madaraka Day, a public holiday] your families will eat chicken, meat and chapatis. What do you expect us to eat if we cannot afford to make ugali?” shouted a protester.

Food protests have throughout history been instrumental in shaping government policy regarding access to adequate food for all. And while unga has been used effectively as a symbol to rally Kenyans into agitating for food rights, Kenyans are yet to fully realise that it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that its citizens are fed, and that access to food is a fundamental right which they must aggressively fight for, just as they have in the past fought against the curtailment of their right to freedom of association and freedom of speech. Will the coronavirus pandemic reignite in Kenyans the spirit of the Unga Revolution?

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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Indian Farmers Protests Continue Amid COVID Surge

The latest COVID-19 crisis in India is overshadowing a farmers’ revolt over land and agriculture. That revolt holds lessons for Africans.

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Indian Farmers Continue Anti-Farm Law Protests Amid COVID Surge

No other Republic Day—a national holiday in January marking when India became an official republic in 1950—has witnessed such unprecedented levels of public claims over their nation. The streets of Delhi were enlivened with spontaneous marches of hundreds of thousands of peasants who wanted a serious say in Res Publica or public affairs. Within a bouquet of lame excuses intended to stop the peasant march, one had been particularly ironic—that this demonstration was a “conspiracy” to defame India before the world by having a tractor parade in the capital on Republic Day.

The struggling peasants proved that they held high the banner of the “world’s largest democracy,” while the present regime is hell bent on trampling down and doing away with whatever democratic values are left in the country.

Earlier, in an interesting twist to the tale, the Union government on January 20 proposed to suspend the three contentious farm laws for one and a half years, and set up a joint committee to discuss the legislation. However, Samjukta Kisan Morcha rejected the offer the very next day. It resolutely clarified that the movement will continue until the three anti-farmer laws are completely repealed. The All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) was also determined to carry out its scheduled tractor parade on Republic day.

Not long after that,the Supreme Court had expressed intentions to stay the implementation of the controversial agricultural laws. It proposed to form an independent committee chaired by a former Chief Justice to “amicably resolve” the stand-off between the farmers and the government. Of course, there were serious questions about the “independence” of the committee. Nevertheless, the first signs of backing down were obvious.

Government forced to step backwards

Given the belligerent and antagonistic attitude of the current government, the announcement of the Union Agriculture Minister, Narendra Singh Tomar, about delaying the laws might have appeared a little unusual. But it was not entirely surprising. The unions were determined to have a tractor rally on Republic Day. The government hoped that it would force them to rethink their months-long agitation and tamely vacate their blockade of the national capital. Various measures, including threat and intimidation, to dissuade the farmers were tried and tested earlier, all in vain.

In an attempt to discredit the agitation, a section of the ruling dispensation hurled accusations of infiltration by Sikh separatist elements. This foul play resulted in a backlash and the government ministers in charge of negotiations with farmers’ unions had no option but to dismiss the allegations, washing their hands of them.

Peasants fight for livelihoods

Can this be termed a partial advance? Sure. Are there reasons to celebrate? Of course, yes. While it is important not to be overwhelmed or get carried away, there are enough reasons to feel confident about this collective action that has put the government on the back foot. Certainly, the credit goes to millions of peasants of this country who have relentlessly fought with their backs to the wall. The peasantry is clearly fighting for control over its own destiny (lives and livelihoods) against corporate control of agriculture ushered in by this government.

A deep agricultural crisis has engulfed the country for the last three decades. It has led to over 300,000 farmers committing suicide due to severe indebtedness. This chronic rural distress has forced thousands to leave their villages and migrate towards urban centers in search of an uncertain future. This situation cannot be undone so easily. We need a larger political battle to defeat it. But the current struggle is a significant step in that direction. It has instilled hope in the minds of millions who want to fight this fascist regime and regain the democratic soul of the nation.

The recent farm bills, plus the new labor codes, are attempts to carry out an unprecedented degree of reform that gives the big bourgeoisie a free hand to run the economy. There is no doubt that they are backing it very strongly. The labor codes are an attempt to flexibilize employment by giving owners the right to “hire and fire” employees and doing away with minimum legal guarantees. The farm bills can be seen as a response to the agrarian crisis from the Right. They are ably supported by the media and a pet group of economists, attempting to craft popular public opinion about the laws. Many have gone to the extent of heralding them as something that will revolutionize the Indian agricultural sector. Fortunately, the farmers are oblivious to such enlightened counsel.

The strength and the prestige of the agitation stems from the courage and tactical ingenuity of a movement that has a real economic base. It is an endorsement of the fact that the neoliberal agenda, internalized by all political parties in India including sections of the mainstream Left, continues to be resisted from below. The resilience shown by the peasants, mostly from Punjab and Haryana, and their organizations is exemplary and, frankly, much more radical than the politics of the existing Left parties.

The crisis of the Left

The crisis of the Left partially explains the relative inertia on the part of the trade unions and the overall workers movement to come out in full support of the current protests. There have been minuscule attempts by workers to join in unison with the agitating farmers. One fears that they are squandering a golden chance to launch similar offensives, in their own interests, while the iron is hot.

Unfortunately, the major trade unions of the country are controlled by one political party or the other. They fail to act as authentic expressions of the working class. In the absence of genuinely independent organizations, these unions function as transmission belts of their “parent organizations.” Perhaps this party-unionism explains the weak working class response.

Can the situation be reversed? Difficult but not impossible! Is it worth giving a try? Yes, we have no other choice!

This movement is very important for the Left. While any attempt to see this as a peasant uprising to capture state power would be foolhardy, it is also not “a movement of only rich peasants” as claimed by certain sections of the Left (adherents of a stageist Socialist Revolution). The farmers are fighting for their immediate and longer term survival. It would be criminal for the left to be so steeped in deep sectarianism that we squander this opportunity to form a redoubtable opposition to Hindutva (Hindu nationalism).

We must seize the moment and make all efforts to transform these protests into wider peoples’ struggles against the fascist regime and give it an anti-capitalist character. The current momentum can be deepened by including the demands of various sections of working people. Demands for employment generation, food security and food sovereignty among others would serve to reinforce the appeal and strength of this movement among the masses across different regions. Pursuing these demands would not only help the movement to gain support among the working people, but it would also push the representatives of sections of the rich peasantry to the margins.

There is an urgent need to build solidarity with the working-class struggles taking place elsewhere.

Strong movements from below

The current struggle also helps us to throw light on another important question. Can the fascist forces be defeated by forming electoral coalitions or are they best dealt with by powerful mass mobilisations from below? While not entirely ruling out the possible electoral scope, we need to pay attention to the evolution of Indian elections and the trajectory of the Right wing. The Sangh Parivar and the other Hindutva forces have maintained a consistent ultra-right direction since the 1950s, unhindered either by electoral defeats or any alliance with “secular” forces. One vividly recalls the optimism of a section of the liberals when the extreme-right entered the Janata party to form the government in 1977. With Vajpayee as the foreign minister in Morarji Desai’s cabinet, many saw the Hindutva project contained, tamed and civilised.

History has treated such optimism with contempt. No electoral misfortune is enough to uproot this agenda and any genuine battle against the Hindutva project must acknowledge this. A long-term political project to deal with it must be based on class struggle. Any search for a lesser evil (i.e. relatively “harmless” bourgeois allies) will act as a serious roadblock to vibrant opportunities for class agitation and mass movements.

The Farmers struggle and its partial advance has shown us the way. Strong movements from below can have the potential to take on the Hinduvta juggernaut much more than stitching together electoral alliances.

This is an edited version of an article first published on an Indian website GroundXero. This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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