Can Kenya be turned into a banana republic?

President William Ruto appends his signature on Cabinet Secretaries' documents at State House on October 27, 2022. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

“How much could a banana republic cost?” Olufemi Taiwo, an assistant professor of philosophy at Georgetown University once asked.

He was referring to a time in the 1950s, the United Fruit Company - an American multinational attempted to buy Guatemala. And when Jacobo Arbenz, President of Guatemala refused to be bought, United Fruit got the CIA to do a coup on him. O Henry in his book ‘Cabbages and Kings’ coined the phrase “Banana Republic”. He referred to Honduras as a “small time banana republic”.

Not so much because the economy of Honduras relied entirely on bananas. But more because of the influence US agricultural companies had over the Honduran state.

We ask this question because in President William Ruto’s first 26 days in office he met US officials and agri-business billionaires 8 times. But there’s more. This week the largest landowner in US and the world’s 5th richest person, Bill Gates visited Ruto. And nobody knows why!

It is not illegal to speculate, so I will. The Americans billionaires are here to grow GMO food and sell it in the global north. We are not the market. The GMO billionaires will grow food at a cheaper cost, then export it to global markets. And because we have cheap land and labour, we will see a run on Kenya’s arable land like never before. But before I go on with my hypothesis, allow me to tell the story of United Fruit. In 1899, after the Spanish-American war, the three largest American banana importers came together and formed United Fruit. The multinational traded in tropical fruit-mainly bananas grown in Central America, but sold in North America and Europe. 

And so in 1899 they bought thousands of banana plantations in Costa Rica, Honduras and Guatemala. They made so much money that they built roads, rail and ports on behalf of those three governments. They didn’t just own the land. They owned the infrastructural linkages that connected Central America to Europe and the Global North. 

United Fruit became so big that in 1901, the government of Guatemala contracted it to run the postal service. By 1930s the company owned 3.5 million acres or (14,000 km2) of land in Central America and the Caribbean. It was also the largest land owner and employer in Guatemala.

Then in 1952, Guatemala military junta proposed a law that would have government expropriate 1.5 million acres from multinationals like United Fruit and settle 100,000 families. This incensed United Fruit! “How dare they bite the hand that fed them?”

United Fruit made Guatemala President Jacobo Arbenz an offer. They said: “If you want democratic self-government so badly, you can have it but for a small fee. It’ll cost you $19.3 million.” He refused.

United Fruit then called US President Dwight Eisenhower for backup. Eisenhower through the CIA approved a clandestine operation to show who was in charge. And on June 27, 1954, Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown.

Corporate America had overthrown a democratically elected president.

What’s my point? If the US Ambassador to Kenya, a dollar billionaire has done more visits to State House than any other balozi, it is because her reputation precedes her. She is a businesswoman. She is a deal maker. And there is nothing wrong with that.

Put differently, if Bill Gates, United Fruit and Cargill were to own 1.5 million acres in Kenya, and are backed by US government, the thought of uninstalling Ruto would not be a far-fetched idea.

If Bill Gates and the GMO billionaires are given 99-year leases on agricultural land and they disagree with Ruto at some point, Ruto will take them nowhere.

And that’s because, if Bill Gate’s worth is equivalent to Kenya’s GDP - he can afford to ask: “How much could a banana republic cost?”

-The writer is a research fellow and political risk consultant at The Consulting House. Twitter: @kmaina