Is the government using food as a weapon in this year's election?

Alfred Keroe Wairimu enjoys the remains of ugali that he saved from a demolished food kiosk at Hurlingham in Nairobi in a picture taken on August 03, 2018. [File, Standard]

Food is pure gunpowder. You don’t play politics with it. When it is touched off, the blast rocks nations. It brings governments tumbling down. This is what a gay, frivolous and pleasure-loving French queen found out in the 18th century.

Marie Antoinette (1755 – 1793) is easily the most quoted first lady in world history. She is remembered most for her cynical quip, “If they don’t have bread, let them eat cake.” 

Marie paid for her cynicism with her head. Nearly two hundred years later, world royalty had learnt nothing from history.

Romanian strongman Nicolae Ceausescu (1918 – 1989), and his highhanded wife, Elena Petrescu (1947 – 1989), learned this lesson the hard way.

They detonated gunpowder with their attempt to reduce energy and food consumption in a country they treated like a private family estate, and the people like their serfs. They paid the ultimate price. 

Elsewhere, in The Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos and Imelda, his wife, tumbled from grace to grass, largely due to economic crises in which food challenges were critical, between 1981 – 1983.

The assassination of the opposition leader, Senator Benigno Aquino, in 1986, at the apex of the crises, toppled the Marcoses, in the people’s revolution of that year.  Slightly over a generation later, The Philippines on May 9, this year, elected Ferdinand’s son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as their 17th president. It is testament either to the people’s ability to forgive and forget, or to dangerous memory gaps – or both.

Subsequent generations either don’t know why their countries are on their knees, or they don’t care to know. It is at once a tale of culpable ignorance and brevity of memory. 

Perhaps banking on the ignorance of the people and the brevity of their memory, the Kenya Government has, three weeks to a critical General Election, suddenly woken up to the fact that the cost of living is extremely high.

According to the Kenya Government, “the cost living” is the price of maize flour. Hence the government is providing a subsidy to cushion Kenyans against the cost of living for a few weeks.  

The timing is suspect. Is the subsidy an election bait, or is it genuine intervention? President Uhuru Kenyatta has wondered loudly, “Is it a coincidence that we have an unga crisis months to the election, or is it deliberate?” He suggests that the crisis could be political.

That there is a correlation “to how the price of maize flour goes up and the tempo taken up during elections.”

He blames the political class for what he calls “politicising the misery of the vulnerable.” President Uhuru invites us into the space of conspiracy theories. Who could make political capital out of a bad food situation at election time? First, the opposition (in this case Kenya Kwanza Alliance). To them, the food crisis is a godsend. A packet of unga is worth its weight in gold for them.

They would be foolish not to politically exploit this. But as they do so, they do well to know that unga could push the country to the brink.

Yet that is just about as far as the opposition could benefit from the unga crisis. If this crisis is artificial and political, as the president speculates, then the culprit is right in the government.

Only people in government have the capacity to use food as a weapon of hunger. History reminds us of the Bengal Famine of 1943, when Churchill’s Britain starved three million Indians to death.

Governments that do this will reinvent themselves as saviours. They suddenly lower the cost of food and use that as a bait for popularity.

While the Ruto camp has blasted the government for baiting Kenyans with flour, the Odinga team has celebrated the subsidies. They have promised to lower the cost further, should they be elected. Their glee is hugely suspect. Is hunger a weapon in this election?

Wherever the truth may rest, whoever takes over from President Uhuru has a huge challenge ahead. They cannot allow “the cost of living” to go back where it has been. If they do, they will understand the meaning of food as gunpowder. 

Dr Muluka is a strategic communications advisor.