In April 2000, the late firebrand secretary general of the former ruling party Kanu, Joseph Kamotho, caused national outrage when he dismissed members of the Luhya commodity as “mere cooks and watchmen”. His comments were derived from a common Kenyan stereotype, that in Nairobi a disproportionate number of members of this community are employed in these professions.
The anger, however, was caused not so much because the stereotype is a total lie but rather that the comments were uttered with a derogatory arrogance that many members of the elite from Kamotho’s Gikuyu ethnic group displayed regarding all other ethnic groups in the country. Indeed, the flip side of his stereotype is that middle-class employers of domestic help in Nairobi often prefer to hire members of the Luhya community because of their reputation as hardworking, honest and trustworthy!
Last week, after a visit to Uganda, it was reported that President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Ugandan counterpart President Museveni had concluded an agreement that would see Ugandan sugar imported to fill Kenya’s perennial deficit in this commodity. In turn Kenya would soak up Ugandan milk. There was an immediate and heated outcry. It’s still ongoing.
Sugar is a sector where politics long ago overtook economics. For decades the government has implemented measures to protect our sugar farmers much like European or American farmers are. Of Kenya’s eleven sugar factories, five are partly owned by the government. In general, these five have historically been mismanaged. Solid reform programmes in their regard to make Kenya a more efficient producer have been articulated over the decades, but never implemented. Some of the counties where farmers depend on sugar are among the most densely populated in rural Kenya. As such they are some of the most vote-rich in the country. And so it was than that last June the president was welcomed by a cross-section of Luhya MPs when he handed over a cheque for Sh1 billion to help bail out the ailing Mumias Sugar factory. Remember that most of Kenya’s sugar is grown in parts of the country that is currently politically committed to the opposition.
The current legal regime for managing the sector has created a situation where politically connected traders can import sugar and dump hundreds of thousands of tonnes of it into the Kenyan market further bludgeoning millions of small scale farmers mainly in the western side of Kenya. Historically, the dumping of sugar precedes elections and it is commonly held that part of the huge profits that accrue from this dumping go into funding the politics of the incumbent political party. As a result while other countries have drug barons, Kenya has a cadre of wheeler-dealers described as ‘sugar barons’.
That said, the huge and continuing outcry from the opposition is not so much because they are concerned that the usual pre-election round of sugar dumping is about to start. Rather, it seems that they believe that this time more ruthless political calculations are in play. There is fear that a giant spate of sugar dumping could serve to permanently undermine the livelihoods of millions of farmers in the vote-rich western side of the country. Hence, the press statement from the area’s political leaders alleging ‘economic sabotage’.
For an administration adept at messaging aggressively to dissipate and distract from its political problems, the handling of the sugar saga by Jubilee has been surprising. The stakes are so high that both the president and deputy president have weighed in heavily into what has become a high-voltage scrap with the opposition. Three issues have served to compound the blunder of the initial announcement of a deal between Kenya and Uganda on sugar, milk and beef.
First, the Kenyan President’s family is the most prominent players in the milk industry in East and Central Africa. Failing to message about and around this apparent conflict of interest allowed for a toxic narrative to take root; a narrative that holds that the deal was a milk for sugar arrangement between elites. Members of President Museveni’s entourage have been caught out trying to dump imported sugar into Kenya in the past – already packaged in Mumias’ packets! Uganda barely produces enough sugar for its own needs anyway, so the deal has also come to be seen as a mafiaesque arrangement between sugar barons in Kenya and Uganda. Once it was quietly ethnicised this narrative has acquired a life of its own.
Secondly, the scrambling for an adequate response by the government and its supporters has been so incoherent it has served to reinforce the narrative I have just described. Indeed, immediately the deal was announced and the blowback kicked in, it was the President himself who defended it. But then two of his Cabinet Secretaries – Agriculture and Foreign Affairs – denied that any deal had been reached in Uganda. The Industrialization Cabinet Secretary has since contradicted them!
Third, whatever deal or no deal that was struck, it has become clear that the Jubilee regime hasn’t the appreciation of just how deep the mistrust of it is among ordinary Kenyans in the sugar growing areas of Kenya. Whatever government leaders say, the “cooks and watchmen” metaphor kicks in: that this regime is as sneeringly dismissive of the people of the sugar zones as Kamotho’s statement once implied. Given a choice of what to believe regarding the government’s motivations the people from this region they will always believe the very worst; such is the lack of trust.