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No one with a good conscience can oppose the charcoal ban

In January 2018, Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu banned trade in charcoal outright. [File, Standard]

One of the indices of an underdeveloped economy – a term used to denote Third World status – is the dominance of charcoal in the kitchen. People in developed economies use gas to cook. Charcoal is strictly for grilling meats outside the house in the summer.

Charcoal is being phased out even for grilling as more people turn to gas-powered grills. Four years ago, the Kitui County Assembly passed the Kitui County Charcoal Management Act.

In January, Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu banned trade in charcoal outright. The reason for the ban is incontestable – logging and felling of trees for charcoal have devastated the fragile Kitui ecosystem and environment. There’s been a huge kerfuffle over the ban of charcoal trade in Kitui.

Charcoal is king in Kenya. Charcoal has made many economic kingpins in Kenya. None was more famous than the late Njenga Karume. A practical illiterate, Mr Karume used his village cunning and native ingenuity to become one of the richest men early in the history of the independent republic.

Karume – a charcoal billionaire – took advantage of his closeness to Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and Gema to turn charcoal into black gold. That’s how he built his business empire. Although I don’t have statistics about how much of his charcoal came from Kitui, I bet it was not insignificant. My point is that Kitui charcoal has made many Kenyans filthy rich. This is the question – at what cost to the environment?

Before devolution in 2010, various indigenes couldn’t effectively defend their native or residential environments. Districts and provinces were instruments of coercion, repression, and exploitation of the people under Nairobi’s thumb. That’s changed under devolution.

The people directly elect their rulers at the county level and can hold them accountable. Equally important is the ability of the people at the county level to determine how their resources and funds will be exploited, developed or utilised. Nairobi – the central state – has been neutered. That’s why people in Kitui can rise and demand that their county ban, or manage, trade in charcoal to stop or mitigate the despoliation of the environment. It would be criminal if they failed to do so.

No one with a good conscience can oppose the right of the people to defend their environment. That’s why I was flabbergasted when Kiambu Governor Ferdinand Waititu shamelessly attempted to tribalise the Kitui charcoal ban. Mr Waititu even led a placard-waving mob against the ban outside his office in Kiambu.

Waititu’s tribal incitement came after several trucks ferrying charcoal from Kitui were waylaid and set alight by angry youth. Waititu and others accused Governor Ngilu of orchestrating the burning of the lorries. Governor Ngilu denied any involvement and in fact denounced the attacks on the trucks. Nevertheless, National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) chair Francis Ole Kaparo initiated a groundless investigation against her. It was a low moment for Mr Kaparo and the NCIC.

No law-abiding person condones vigilante attacks on commercial trucks carrying charcoal. If the trade has been banned, then it’s incumbent upon the police to impound the lorries ferrying the contraband so the illicit traders can be prosecuted. My guess is the youth took the law into their hands of their volition because the police were asleep at the switch. After all, it’s the youth who bear the brunt of a dilapidated ecosystem while the charcoal millionaires and billionaires live the high life in their mansions elsewhere. No one has a right to Kitui charcoal. Not Governor Waititu, or any other person. Governor Waititu should fell trees and log in Kiambu if he’s that desperate for charcoal.

On February 16, the Star, called for the charcoal ban in Kitui to be extended to the whole country. That came after Nyeri Governor Mutahi Kahiga had decried the high rate of deforestation in the Aberdare Forest. Let me assure Governor Kahiga that the people of Kitui feel his pain several times more deeply. That’s because Kitui – more than Nyeri – has an exponentially more delicate environment. Kitui needs all its trees to arrest aridity and increase rainfall. In fact, Kitui residents need to plant trees like maniacs, not cut them down. What sense does it make for Kitui residents to permit greedy and shortsighted traders – local and external – to destroy vegetation and ground cover?

Kenyans will pay a price for the ban on charcoal. But what’s worse – the inconvenience of charcoal for cooking, or a desert country? Recently, I went for “koroga” at Sahara City, the sumptuous food eatery off Mombasa Road. I was told “koroga” is over because Kitui charcoal – the best in Kenya – was either unavailable, or the cost had quadrupled. I get it. But imagine how Kitui will look in twenty years if we allow unmitigated, selfish and wanton destruction of trees for charcoal. 

- The writer is SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of KHRC.  @makaumutua