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Why politics of food has not broken the chains of ethnicity

By Christine Mungai | July 8th 2017
Photo: Courtesy

The reality is most Kenyan families are in the same boat financially speaking, though the strident political and ethnic rhetoric might make it seem otherwise.

As the August General Election draws closer, corruption, development and national debt are some of the big issues currently dominating the campaign trail.

These are loaded terms that can be analysed and unpacked in many ways by experts and commentators, but a recent survey by the Kenyan chapter of Twaweza East Africa shows there is one salt-of-the-earth issue that cuts deep into the Kenyan consciousness – food.

The average Kenyan household needs Sh99 per person per day to cover daily running costs, data from Twaweza’s nationally representative, mobile phone survey shows.

This figure is slightly higher in urban areas, at Sh113, compared to rural areas, where you can get by on Sh90. Wealthier households also tend to spend more, about Sh117 per person per day, compared to the poorest ones, which spend about Sh102.

But the vast majority of citizens (81 per cent) – rich and poor alike – say their income is not enough to cover household needs. What is even more intriguing is that this view is consistent across urban and rural areas, and across different wealth groups.

There was hardly any difference between the wealthiest and poorest Kenyans when asked, “Is the income obtained by (your) household enough to cater for the household needs on a daily basis?”

More than three-quarters (77 per cent) of Kenyans in the wealthiest fifth of the population said incomes did not meet needs, almost the same as 81 per cent in the poorest fifth.

Even more damning for a country supposed to be growing at 5-6 per cent per year is that three in four of all respondents say at some point last year, they worried that their households would run out of food due to lack of money. More than half reported that their households had actually run out of food during the three months preceding the survey done in December 2016, and they coped by eating less than they should or eating less healthy food.

Why are all income groups in Kenya struggling to make ends meet?

Declined incomes

First, inflation has wiped out earnings of even better off households. Data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) shows from the base date of February 2009 the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose by 60 points in subsequent seven years, an indication of sustained inflation.

Over the same time, even though salaries of middle-income employees nearly tripled – increasing 172 per cent from Sh117 billion in 2009 to Sh292 billion in 2015 – inflation pressures meant that real per capita incomes actually declined. In other words, inflation has completely eroded wage growth over the past seven years.

Second, as poorer families struggle to make ends meet, they tend to seek help from their families and friends, who may be nominally better off. It is a form of social redistribution that makes up about a third of incomes of rural households, a huge chunk of support that cannot be taken for granted. But it also puts pressure on the giving household.

The Twaweza survey reveals that four in 10 respondents identified inflation and cost of living as the main problems facing their families today. Corruption came a distant second, named by 14 per cent of citizens.

Similar trends are seen when respondents were asked what they believed were the biggest problems facing the country. Inflation and the cost of living came out again as the top issues, chosen by one in three respondents (34 per cent). Again, corruption took second place, at 17 per cent.

That a need as basic as food would be front and centre of family concerns in Kenya is a sobering indication of just how disconnected political conversations are with the reality of life for most Kenyans.

Few households are untouched by financial pressures, the data suggests; even the wealthiest fifth struggle to make ends meet.

The exception is a small elite, says the Twaweza survey. Quoting Knight Frank’s Wealth Report for 2017, there were 9,400 dollar millionaires in Kenya in 2016, who together control two-thirds of the economy.

Run out of food

In the meantime, half of Kenyan households had run out of food completely last year, and that was even before drought had sparked the maize flour and milk shortages that hit hard this year.

The reality is, most Kenyan families are in the same boat, financially speaking, though the strident political and ethnic rhetoric might make it seem otherwise.

In other words, though ethnicity is one of the key organising factors of Kenyan politics, its effectiveness in guaranteeing community prosperity fails miserably, the Twaweza data suggests.

This raises the question why class hasn’t emerged as a powerful organising tool in Kenyan politics. If the vast majority of households – even those relatively better off – are struggling to make ends meet, why hasn’t solidarity across ethnic lines emerged? The answer may be found in Kenya’s unique, and conflicted history with the notion of class.

Kenya is one of the very few countries in Africa that have never had a socialist government or even formally dabbled in a socialist-leaning political ideology.

Every other country in Africa spent the first few decades of independence experimenting with socialism to various extents, with the notable exception of Malawi (led by avowed Anglophile Hastings Kamuzu Banda).

The forays into socialism were an attempt to right the wrongs of colonialism, and reorient the nation-state towards solidarity and community spirit, that had been the organising principle of African life for centuries.

But in Kenya, those who filled the ranks of the post-independence governments were mainly collaborators (home guards) who had actively put down the 1950s Mau Mau uprising, and then inherited the colonial state and all its machinations virtually intact. Suppressing the liberators – and with them, the ideology and vocabulary of class – worked in favour of the new elite.

In a 1963 speech, founding President Jomo Kenyatta memorably said, “We are determined to have independence in peace, and we shall not allow hooligans to rule Kenya... Mau Mau was a disease which had been eradicated, and must never be remembered again.”

It is not a coincidence that Kenya is the only country in Africa that banned its liberation movement after coming to power. In this regard, Kenya is a clear outlier in Africa.

Consider the few countries in Africa that had an armed struggle for independence. In Algeria, the National Liberation Front (known by its French initials FLN) fought a bitter guerilla war from 1954 to 1962, and conservative estimates put the total death toll in the war at 700,000. But the FLN emerged victorious and first independence President, Ahmed Ben Bella, was one of the nine core members of the FLN’s leadership.

Pillar of politics

In the post-independence era, the FLN has remained the pillar of Algerian politics except for a few years between 1990 and 1996.

In Zimbabwe, the ZANU Patriotic Front (PF) and former guerilla leader Robert Mugabe was elected prime minister of an independent Zimbabwe in 1980. He remains at the helm today.

In the Portuguese colonies, all the liberation movements later formally took power as independence parties. In Angola, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), in Mozambique, the Liberation Front of Mozambique (FRELIMO), and in Portuguese Guinea, the Marxist African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) formed their respective governments.

And of course, South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) had its armed wing, the Umkhonto we Sizwe, which Nelson Mandela co-founded in 1961 before he was sentenced to life imprisonment for terrorism in 1963.

We know how the story ends, with Mandela free and the ANC leading the first democratic government in 1994.

So it’s quite unique that the Mau Mau in Kenya did not “officially” win the war, neither were they ever part of the clique that took over power with the departure of the British in 1963. The legacy of this erasure is that though lip service was given to “African socialism” through the famous Sessional Paper No 10, the reality was that a pure form of capitalism was the official philosophy of an independent Kenya, without even the memory of revolution to moderate things.

With that, the ideology of class never took root in the Kenyan public consciousness. No wonder that today, the ability to imagine class as an alternative, cross-ethnic organising principle of politics is a struggle.

- The writer is a journalist and executive editor of Africa data explainer site Africapedia, and a 2018 Nieman fellow at Harvard University.

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