PRICE OF ETHNICITY

Perils of economic tribalism

Government well-placed to reward or punish any tribal community.

In Summary
  • Kenyan tribalism is not just a matter of culture, language or history. There is nothing superficial about it; rather there is a powerful economic foundation to it.
  • It is surprising how entire regions have had their local economies collapse due to policy failures and corruption.

Over the years I have seen many projects supposedly designed to “fight tribalism” in Kenya come and go without leaving any impact, beyond that of having provided short-term contracts for unemployed young “activists”.

These have been mostly donor-funded programmes supported by well-meaning Western diplomatic missions and their fellow-traveller NGOs.

And it seems to me that the reason many of these well-intentioned projects end up in failure, is that there is little appreciation that Kenyan tribalism is not just a matter of culture, language or history. There is nothing superficial about it; rather there is a powerful economic foundation to it, which ensures that any Kenyan government is well-placed to reward or punish any tribal community in the country.

 

This makes Kenyan presidential elections a highly toxic contest that largely determines which regions will prosper, and which will be condemned to penury.

Consider this example: For many decades past, arguably the most profitable cash crop in Kenya was ‘miraa’, which is also known as ‘khat’ in many countries, and generally defined as “a mild narcotic”. It is consumed recreationally by chewing its twigs.

And for some reason I have never quite figured out, this crop – this tree, actually – was grown mostly in what is now Meru and Tharaka Nithi counties.

The rest of the country knew very well just how profitable this crop was. And it’s not as if it was impossible to get a few stems of miraa to grow in a different part of the country, using various scientific grafting methods available. But all the same miraa growing continued to be a near-monopoly of the Ameru community.

Perhaps the most cynical example of “economic tribalism” was revealed during the rule of President Moi, when the coffee growers of Central Kenya – the bedrock of political opposition to his government – were allowed to gradually sink into destitution, while the tea growers, receiving timely governmental interventions, continued to thrive. It is no accident that it just so happened that tea is not only grown in Central Kenya, but also in Moi’s political backyard of the Upper Rift Valley.

Miraa has since been banned in some of its former top markets like The Netherlands and the UK. But this has not stopped the government and the Ameru leaders from agitating for its re-legalisation in those countries.

During the 2017 presidential election, for example, just about every prominent candidate held a rally in Meru; very conspicuously chewed a fistful of miraa; and promised to help the farmers regain their lost markets.

But this was just tokenism. Nothing has been done to help the miraa growers. And in the rest of the country, nobody really cares whether miraa exports to Europe are ever revived or not. In this way, miraa illustrates one of the economic realities of Kenya: That most of the cash crops that have any potential for lifting small-scale farmers from absolute and abject poverty to the lower middle-class, have a strange geographical limitation when it comes to the regions where it is grown.

 
 

Some of these regional crop-growing patterns are unavoidable. Tea, for example, does best in the highlands, and so we find tea grown in Limuru, Nyeri, and other parts of Central Kenya; and then also in Kericho and Nandi counties of the upper Rift Valley.

But all the same it is surprising how entire regions of the country have had their local economies collapse due to policy failures and corruption, which undermined the production as well as the sale of a key cash crop.

The closing down of the Kenya Cashewnuts company, for example, reduced thousands of small-scale cashewnuts farmers in what is now Kilifi county to total destitution. But outside of Kilifi, hardly anyone else noticed or cared.

In the same way, cheap sugar imports reportedly controlled by “cartels” have ensured that formerly prosperous sugarcane growers have long been uniformly poor and reduced to subsistence farming. This has mostly affected the Luhya and Luo communities.

Perhaps the most cynical example of “economic tribalism” was revealed during the rule of President Moi, when the coffee growers of Central Kenya – the bedrock of political opposition to his government – were allowed to gradually sink into destitution, while the tea growers, receiving timely governmental interventions, continued to thrive.

It is no accident that it just so happened that tea is not only grown in Central Kenya, but also in Moi’s political backyard of the Upper Rift Valley. This protected the Central Kenya tea growers from state neglect and from the mismanagement of the tea subsector. The coffee growers of Central Kenya were not so lucky.