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Freedom Of Religion: A Call To Order

2 min read.

Freedom of religion is one of the most fundamental in the Constitution of Kenya, 2010, brooking a twin understanding; persons are free to practice their religions (Article 32), the so-called free exercise clause and government should not establish any religion (Article 8), the non-establishment clause.



Freedom Of Religion: A Call To Order

To our credit as a country, freedom of religion is one area that has enjoyed relatively few hardships, with persons being allowed to practice their faith unhindered. There have been no major penalties and disabilities hampering the freedom of religion. As a result, we have had exponential growth, particularly in evangelical churches, owing to a relatively free operating environment.

The result of the spreading number of churches has been the mushrooming of unregulated churches, sprouting in virtually every corner of the country. With these many churches, we have had persons of questionable morals and ethics appear and claim the mantle of pastoral authority.

The protection of the exercise of free religion is undoubtedly an essential aim of the Constitution’s religion clauses. The fervor that religious belief excites is powerful and indeed, a significant number of people care profoundly about their religious beliefs and practices. The passion for religion and faith is such that a good number would feel that their religious obligations supersede duties to the state in the event of a conflict between the two. Hence the need for the state to tread cautiously in matters of faith by avoiding interference in so far as reasonable circumstances demand.

However, the recent discovery of bodies in a mass grave at Shakahola forest, the dead believed to be adherents of a church headed by a controversial Pastor Paul Mackenzie, raises the dire prospect of heightened regulation of churches. The lax regulatory structure governing churches has been blamed for unfortunate incidents such as the Malindi mass grave surrounding Pastor Mackenzie.  The approach has been termed by Professor H. Kwasi Prempeh as ‘socially disastrous and no longer desirable’.

The realities of life today call for the regulation of churches and indeed all faith institutions in some form. It can no longer be business as usual considering the unfortunate happenings. We have experienced several bad apples who have taken advantage of the liberalized to not only enrich themselves but to take advantage of vulnerable citizens. The Constitution certainly expects state intervention in its protective capacity whenever the life and limb of persons are at risk. The state must take decisive action and engage church leadership in finding a solution. It can no longer be business as usual.

The state must also resist the temptation of overacting and overreaching when dealing with unfortunate cases such as what happened in Shakahola. The state, in dealing with these serious concerns, must always stay on the path of constitutionalism and the rule of law. Arbitrariness and knee-jerk reactions will not assist Kenya resolve the myriad of problems we face as a country.

Church leaders must join hands with the state in tackling the challenges that are presented by the rogue elements within their ranks. The onus on the church leaders is to ensure that the image and the moral force that faith should hold are not jeopardized by bad apples within their ranks. The leadership of the church and indeed all religious leaders in Kenya, those that serve in truth and are genuine in their calling, must see the Shakahola incident as a wake-up call for urgent reforms and regulation. The traditional resistance to accountability and regulation is no longer tenable. The time for regulation and reform has drawn nigh. Our condolences to the families of the bereaved persons. We hope that there shall never be a repeat of the Shakahola incident.

This article was first published by The Platform.

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The Platform for Law, Justice & Society is published by Gitobu Imanyara & Co every month principally to offer a platform for informed and critical discussion of the National Values and Principles set out in Articles 10 (2) of the Constitution of Kenya.


Biting off More Than We Can Chew: US, GMOs and the New Scramble for Africa

The GMO ban in Kenya was a pre-requisite for the agricultural component of the US-Kenya Strategic Trade and Investment Partnership to be realized but it does not augur well for the people of Kenya.



Biting off More Than We Can Chew: US, GMOs and the New Scramble for Africa

Africa is the belle at a new international ball. Suitors from the East and West are in relentless pursuit, never mind her chequered past. Barely surviving European colonization and shortly thereafter tottering away from the destructive neo-liberal economic policies enforced through the IMF and the World Bank, Africa is no stranger to exploitative “partnerships”. Seemingly the eternal optimist, Africa’s latest expedition to the East has raised alarm bells. Those of us beholden to enormous Chinese loans wonder if she has jumped out of the frying pan into the debt fire.

In a departure from the rest of the region, Kenya’s incumbent government has violently swivelled its foreign policy back to the West. With the firm belief that “Kenya needs more friends”, President William Samoei Ruto is rapidly negotiating the US-Kenya Strategic Trade and Investment Partnership (STIP) which will take the place of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa).

The new trade pact reportedly aims to increase investment, promote sustainable and inclusive growth, benefit workers, consumers and businesses and support regional integration. The initial concept of the trade pact had a broad scope which included 11 pillars covering themes such as anti-corruption, good regulatory practices, protecting workers’ rights and supporting the participation of women and youth.

However, the second round of US-Kenya STIP negotiations held in April has whittled down the previous eleven pillars into five areas of “mutual interest”. The five new pillars are: economic prosperity, trade, and investment; defence cooperation; democracy, governance, and civilian security, multilateral and regional issues; and health. The noticeably slimmer STIP is perhaps a strategic nod towards the Chinese style of development investment, a departure from the usual conditional development assistance characteristic of the West. Fewer conditions on corruption, human rights, democracy and environmental protection, indicates a less normatively prescriptive approach to Africa going forward.

Evidencing as a kind of Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) standards “race to the bottom”, the West is working to counter global Chinese influence, garnered through heavy-duty Chinese investment in infrastructure projects which are collectively known as the “Belt and Road Initiative”. Leaning on its strengths, the US counter-offer to China’s modern take on the old Silk Road has taken on the flavour of a corporate takeover.  The US, seemingly less troubled with the “democratic quality” of its new business partner, has taken on a more transactional approach to trade with Kenya, accelerating trade talks and expecting “rapid progress” in the silent observation that the Government of Kenya is ranked 123rd out of a possible 180 in global corruption indices.

There has been extensive discussion on Kenya’s geo-strategic value as an entry point for foreign interests and investment in the region, and the counterbalance of the nature and extent of Kenya’s state capture, an inability to decisively deal with corruption. In the grim reality of Kenya as a syndicate of special interests that benefits from the corruption status quo and decides what is the public interest in a region with an imbedded anti-public interest culture,  who is getting the short end of the trade-deal stick and what it will cost the Kenyan public is a festering concern.

Substantive concerns 

The frenzied enthusiasm of government officials tasked with negotiating the STIP hides the strangled cries of civil society organizations protesting the opaque nature of the substance of the trade negotiations surrounding agriculture, digital trade and regulatory practice provisions. The most controversial of these has been agriculture.

The US government has been clear and unwavering in its intent to infuse “provisions intended to eliminate or reduce non-tariff barriers that can hamper market access for US agricultural products”. In recognition of one of the darker aspects of globalization, the agricultural component of STIP has raised hackles and pitchforks in response to the lifting of a ban on GMO foods and seeds in Kenya.

First, there is concern that smallholder farmers, who account for 78% of total agricultural produce in Kenya, will be unable to compete with the US agricultural corporations who have vast economies and efficiencies of scale. Corn, a competitor to Kenya’s staple maize crop, is likely to have a devastating effect on the local smallholder markets. As a result, smallholder farmers are likely to suffer a fall in farmgate prices, possibly exacerbating poverty.

Secondly, separate from the concerns that the US-produced genetically modified food that is now available to Kenyan consumers may be harmful to human and animal life, the lack of clarity whether GMO seeds are included in the bundle of agricultural products offered by the US government is causing more apprehension in civil and public spaces. GMO seeds have increasingly been packaged as the answer to the perennial drought and famine issues. Climate-related weather events, aggravated further by the inflationary pressures of COVID-19 and the war in Europe have piled on the pressure on food systems.

However, the GMO quick-fix to a local food systems problem might be an example of when foreign solutions add to local problems. It is clear that the push towards GMOs does not take into account other issues that may be limiting food systems such as the grand corruption that has sabotaged many attempts at food security In Kenya, the consistent leak in the policy bucket that dooms most policies and initiatives in the crucial agricultural sector to failure. A historical survey indicates there is no guarantee that a change in food policy will bring any significant benefit to the mwananchi.

The GMO quick-fix to a local food systems problem might be an example of when foreign solutions add to local problems.

In addition, while GMOs are presented as the answer to the food security problem, there is little discussion of the failure of GMO seeds in other small-scale contexts. The effects of GMO seed adoption on secondary agricultural input markets such as patented seeds, costly fertilizers and pesticides (sourced also from US multinationals) is enough to question if Kenya’s slice of the trade cake will even be fractionally worth it. Finally, the erosion of traditional food culture through the adoption of GMOs, which has kept modern lifestyle diseases such as obesity relatively at bay, feels conspicuously like a kind of American cultural imperialism—a costly one.

Thirdly and perhaps most disquieting, is the potential loss of national sovereignty that might result from the STIP. In an increasingly tumultuous global economy, in addition to the residual impact of COVID-19, and sustained and escalating global conflict, it might be increasingly difficult for Kenya to protect its domestic food supplies after the implementation of the FTA.  If American corn, for example, floods the Kenyan maize market, there is a strong farmgate price incentive for Kenyan small-scale farmers to change to more profitable crops, effectively allowing the monopoly of American corn. Subsequently, if there are fluctuations in the dollar, and American corn becomes more expensive, then Kenyan consumers are exposed to inflationary pressures and possibly shortages. Simply, American supply disruptions become our stability-threatening problems.

Process concerns 

it is important to point out that the removal of the GMO ban in Kenya was the necessary pre-requisite for the agricultural component of the STIP to be realized. However, how the ban was lifted augurs poorly for the people of Kenya and their democratic processes. In a cabinet meeting chaired by President Ruto, the executive revoked the ten-year ban on the importation and cultivation of GMO products.

The Constitution of Kenya 2010 requires that citizens be involved in decision-making processes at all levels of government as part of the conduct of public affairs, either directly or through freely chosen representatives. The executive decision to lift the GMO ban did not meet the constitutionally required threshold of meaningful public participation. If subordinate policies and their instruments must submit to the process of public participation, it is unclear why the decision to lift the GMO ban was exempt. Exhibiting a level of executive dominance that any champions of democracy should be uncomfortable with, the Ruto administration has shoved GMO Food down our collective throat without asking.

While GMOs are presented as the answer to the food security problem, there is little discussion of the failure of GMO seeds in other small-scale contexts.

I have previously discussed why the public interest in Kenya is often overrun by political and foreign interests and this is one manifestation of the same inherited pattern. Specifically, the biggest beneficiaries of the lifting of the ban are likely the corporations that are part of the American agricultural industrial complex. Those firms that produce GMO food products and seeds will now have a captive market through the STIP.

Known for their teleopathic pursuit of profit, is it wise to entrust our food supply to American multinational corporations? In the hyper-capitalist society that Is the United States where Big Pharma profits from medical emergencies, the military-industrial complex profits from war, I shudder to think how Big Agriculture will seek to maximize profits in Kenya and East Africa.

The ongoing FDI standards race to the bottom where Western countries re-define democratic values for the sake of trade access, the proliferating anti-public interest culture in Kenya and a distinctly totalitarian tilt to the Ruto administration are creating the perfect imperialist storm. The new scramble and partition of Africa is gaining momentum and food might be the final frontier.

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The Sudan Crisis Has Been a Long Time Simmering

The weakness of central state institutions has enabled the paramilitary Janjaweed to carve out its own power base. An attempt to muscle in on this power by the army has led to the current crisis and leaves hopes of a transition to civilian rule in tatters.



The Sudan Crisis Has Been a Long Time Simmering

Sudan has been plagued by military rule for most of its existence since it became an independent state in 1956. Every intermission of civilian rule has been interrupted by military coups. Since independence, there have been six successful and five unsuccessful coups in Sudan. The civilian rulers lacked a national vision, and the political parties were weak and unable to unite the country, making them easy targets for the military.

The only party that appeared to have any national political agenda was the Sudanese Communist Party but in a predominantly Islamic society, it always seemed out of place and vulnerable. The country’s first political party, the Umma Party was dominated by the Al-Mahdi family and although they were prominent in Sudan, the party lacked a national platform. Sudan has had a collection of other parties that have tried but failed to leave a legacy.

Out of this rose General al-Bashir, a former military officer who ruled Sudan with an iron fist for thirty years. Al-Bashir collaborated with Hassan al-Turabi to overthrow the democratically elected government of Sadiq al-Mahdi in 1989. The partnership of al-Turabi and al-Bashir transformed Sudan, entrenching hard-line Islamist ideals and Shariah law. The morality police in Sudan acted with impunity and have been known to publicly flog women for minor “infractions” like wearing trousers.

Regional violence

The “Southern question” has proved chronically destabilising. A racist Khartoum elite who saw themselves as Arab were ill-equipped to deal with South Sudanese who do not share that identity and had been administered separately by the British during colonial rule.

Pre-independence violence in the region may have cost the lives of three million people before South Sudan seceded in 2011, and a territorial dispute with Sudan around the oil-rich Abyei area meant more fighting and eventually the sending of a UN peacekeeping contingent.

Al-Bashir collaborated with Hassan al-Turabi to overthrow the democratically elected government of Sadiq al-Mahdi in 1989.

The Darfur area in Western Sudan was equally marginalised and became the country’s epicentre of violence at the beginning of the century, bringing Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti) to political and military prominence. What differentiates Hemedti is that he is not an insider or part of the Khartoum elite that has dominated politics since independence. Hemedti presided over the paramilitary force known as Janjaweed that led the fighting in Darfur. His ruthlessness won him al-Bashir’s trust and propelled him to the limelight.

Al-Bashir became the first sitting president to be indicted by the International Criminal Court for the Darfur genocide. He escaped arrest when he ventured to South Africa in 2015 because he was allowed to slip out of the country against the recommendations of the South African High Court.

Al-Burhan and Hemedti: An unholy partnership

In 2019, Sudan was shaken by protests triggered by inflation and the rising cost of bread. As demands for political change grew, al-Burhan and Hemedti—al-Bashir’s operatives in Darfur—together with former spy chief Salah Gosh, betrayed  al-Bashir and seized power.

A career military man and part of the Khartoum elite, General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhan is now the head of the army and the chair of the Sovereignty Council that runs Sudan. Hemedti began as a camel trader before rising through the ranks to lead the paramilitary Janjaweed (re-named the Rapid Support Forces) and partnered in the coup against al-Bashir.  He served as the deputy chairman of the military council.

Following the coup in 2019, a transitional coalition of civilians and military was formed with the stated intention of eventually holding elections and returning the country to civilian rule. A civilian technocrat Abdalla Hamdok, was appointed as prime minister, but he never wielded much power.

Hamdok served for two years in the so-called transitional arrangement that saw the three in a troubled triangular game. Hamdok was put under house arrest in October 2021 and reinstated in November 2021. He eventually “resigned” in January 2022, one month before the transition to civilian rule was originally due to take place.

Despite Hamdok’s troubled short tenure, Sudan was removed from the list of “international sponsors of terrorism”, sanctions were lifted, and some money from international financial institutions became available. Yet, his efforts were interrupted by Sudan’s ambitious general and the promise of civilian rule looks to have evaporated.

Al-Burhan vs Hemedti

After the coup that brought them both to power, al-Burhan wanted the Janjaweed to be integrated into the army within two years. Hemedti wanted a more gradual integration over the course of a decade and he viewed al-Burhan’s move as a consolidation of power that threatened the patronage he had built. This created an impasse that triggered the current crisis.

A transitional coalition of civilians and military was formed with the stated intention of eventually holding elections and returning the country to civilian rule.

Now Hemedti and al-Burhan are head-to-head against each other, with both sides well equipped and prepared for a long drawn-out fight that is putting civilians in harm’s way and bringing violence to the capital, Khartoum.

Sudan is bordered by seven countries: Egypt and Eritrea to the northeast, Libya to the northwest, Chad to the west, the Central African Republic to the southwest, South Sudan to the south, and Ethiopia to the southeast. Most of these countries are plagued by their own instabilities, have porous borders and share overlapping ethnic groups with Sudan. The threat of violence spreading must be taken seriously.

The nation-state model appears to be crumbling in the Horn of Africa and Sudan is providing another example of dysfunction and disintegration.

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Kenya: Are We at the Beginning of a Media Renaissance?

In recent days, the Kenyan media appears to have rediscovered journalism with more critical investigative stories and fact checks.



Kenya: Are We at the Beginning of a Media Renaissance?

From colonial times to the present, the Kenyan media has experienced massive growth and change. From its establishment at the dawn of colonial occupation to the present, it has alternately thrived and weathered serious challenges, with its form and role in society morphing, and its performance not always matching the expectations of Kenyans. Thirteen years ago, one study asserted that “Kenyan audiences trust media. In fact, they almost perceive media reports as ‘gospel truth’” citing a survey from 2007 that showed 80 percent of respondents professed faith in the media’s reporting on the government. Today, however, the situation is markedly different. According to a report from the  Media Council of Kenya, between 2019 and 2022, the proportion of Kenyans who said they has “a lot of trust” in the media dropped by nearly half, from 48 per cent to 21 per cent, although the total proportion of those who said they had at least a measure of trust, small or a lot, stayed the same at around 70 percent.

The declining fortunes of Kenya’s media partly reflect the declining fortunes of media around the world. A study carried out last year in 46 countries by the Reuters Institute found “interest in news and overall news consumption has declined considerably in many countries while trust has fallen back almost everywhere”. With a brief interruption during the covid years when people were perhaps reminded of the value of reliable news sources, this loss of trust and relevance has been pretty much a feature of 21st century journalism, though not necessarily felt in exactly the same way in every nation.

In Kenya, the media has always had to evolve and has almost always been defined by its relationship to the state. In the beginning, served the interests of the privileged groups like white settler colonists, administrators and missionaries that played a role in the creation of the Kenyan state. It was then coopted by other groups, including South East Asian immigrant workers and local activists and nationalists like Harry Thuku and later, Jomo Kenyatta. With the exception of The East African Standard, most of the publications established in the colonial era were short-lived affairs and did not survive due to a mixture of commercial pressures and suppression by the colonial state.

In the immediate post-independence period, the watchdog role of the press was overshadowed by its role in promoting nation-building, practicing what came to be referred to as ‘development journalism’. In this way, the media was more a mouthpiece for increasingly authoritarian Kanu dictatorship and while it was allowed a limited degree of freedom, that was strictly circumscribed. In the eighties and nineties, however, the media played an important role in the push for multiparty democracy and reform of the Kanu state.

Since the election of Mwai Kibaki in 2002, the media have been in what noted columnist Charles Onyango-Obbo, in 2013 described as “Establishment Mode” where they “cease to aggressively challenge the political system, become vested in “stability”, and begin to worry about what will happen if the system breaks down”. With that comes a larger focus on sustainability of media houses as a business and reduced emphasis on its “fourth estate” functions. Thus the media has been implicated in the state’s subversion of laws and suppression of rights during elections, such as in 2013 when despite clear evidence of widespread failure and fraud, it would not challenge the state’s assertion if a free and fair vote. In the next election cycle, it went even further and not only corruptly accepted government payments for running clearly illegal advertisements during the campaign period, but media owners and senior management were also complicit in the state’s attempts to ban live coverage of Raila Odinga’s mock swearing in as the People’s President.

This latter period has also coincided with the rise of the internet which has hugely impacted revenues at media outlets. With Google and Facebook gobbling up advertising, without a historical subscription model to fall back on, and unable to build sustainable revenue models around their electronic and digital offerings, the largest media houses are struggling, with most of them forced to live off declining revenues from their nearly anachronistic print divisions – for example the Nation Media Group’s  63-year-old flagship newspaper still accounted for nearly three-quarters of revenue in 2021, although its circulation has declined precipitously.

This reality is leading to a reappraisal of the role the media will play going forward. As evidence by the staff layoffs and salary payment delays, establishment mode is clearly not working. The question is what comes next. And perhaps the increasingly critical coverage of the William Ruto regime, as well as the growth of small independent upstarts like The Elephant, Africa Uncensored and Debunk Media, points to some answers. In recent days, the Kenyan media appears to have rediscovered journalism with more critical investigative stories and fact checks. The desperation generated by falling revenue may be leading to a reappraisal of business models – rather than selling audiences to advertisers, media may be going back to the future and prioritising selling news content to audiences.

If this is the case, and it may still be too early to tell whether it is, Kenyan media may be on the verge of a new and exciting and hazardous phase. For while putting the needs of its audiences front and centre may seem to be the obvious thing to do, it is far from clear how that can be done profitably. Even in its hey-day, when the cost of a newspaper was significantly subsidized by advertising, probably less than two million Kenyans, largely in Nairobi and other towns, got to read a newspaper. Everyone else listened to the radio, which they did not have to pay for. Now people are flocking to social media and free public broadcast TV for the same. And the challenge of how to get the news to pay for itself is further complicated by the cost of living crisis.

However, the same digital technologies that have doomed traditional media houses may also be riding to their rescue. “Going forward bulk of the revenues will come through going digital. The legacy media like print will still remain for a few years but distribution will be mainly digital,” NMG chairman Wilfred Kiboro said last year. With digital distribution especially via mobile phone, one can innovate around the sorts of news products one is selling. For example, people could only pay for the stories they want to read rather than subscribe to the entire newspaper which would force journalists to concentrate on quality rather than on quantity.

However, even this would require a revamping of how news is collected and paid for. At the moment, about 70 per cent of the stories in a Kenyan newspaper are not written by staff journalists, but rather produced by freelance correspondents who are paid by how many stories are accepted and how many column-inches they take up. The incentive is thus for these correspondents to produce as many stories as possible and not to spend too much time on any one – a well-researched 200 word piece will be paid the same as a poorly-researched one. Within newsrooms, this conveyor belt mentality and tight deadlines means sub-editors and editors only edit for language and space, and rarely for content. A world where digital content is truly king has no publication deadlines and newspapers can essentially partner with reporters to produce engaging, well-researched stories, each of which could be offered to millions of readers at a few cents, or a few shillings, per download, and the revenue shared between the media house and the reporter.

In such a world, the media would be transformed into a true online public square. Rather than determining agendas, its role could be to work with journalists in much the same way book publishers work with writers. The aggregation of views/downloads of a story would replace the front page or story order as the measure of a story’s importance. The low cost of individual stories which could be achieved would make public entry into the square meaningful, and by their choice of what to buy, the public, not editors, would dictate which issues mattered to them and thus what would be profitable for journalists to pursue.

If this were to happen, and again, it is not automatic (or perhaps even likely) that it will, it might mean that Kenyan media may finally live up to the expectations that Kenyans have had for it for generations.

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