African Leaders Nothing but Prison Mongers

Published on 10th January 2006

Ethiopian born writer Hama Tuma in his short story titled The Case of the Prison Monger narrates about a man who was keen on being a prison addict. The accused was young, robust, and healthy. He could contribute to the building of the New Ethiopia. But no! For the last ten years, he had been continuously in and out of jails. As soon as he served one sentence out, he went to commit another crime in order to come back again…He had shown great inventiveness in managing to get himself behind bars. Delivering a verdict on one of his prison stints, the Judge sentenced him to freedom.

“Whoever finds joy in prison…goes against the order of things, goes against the expected…If such feelings as yours are spread, our society will be in chaos…You are hereby sentenced to immediate freedom,” the Judge ruled.

Described as a low-income food-deficit country with an Aggregate Household Food Security index of 71.7 by FAO and ranked 51st out of 61 countries with 43% of the population living in absolute poverty, Kenya is in the hunger prison again. In Mandera District, 30% of the animals are reportedly dead. In Nakuru District, 75% of the divisions are food insufficient. Gruesome reports are hailing from Kwale, Kitui, Makueni and Machakos Districts. The government has declared hunger a national disaster and calls for Kshs 28 billion to stem the tide.

Is Kenya a victim of nature or a hunger monger? Although nature and sorry state of infrastructure does bear some blame, the hunger is not an emergency the way the Kenya government wants to treat it. “The Problem is bad planning,” says Oketch Kendo, Alternate Editor of The Standard’s Weekend edition.

Eastern Kenya, for example, has been a perennial recipient of food aid.  Over Kshs 50 million was spent in this region in 2005 alone on relief food.

“The government is behaving like the fire brigade,” says Kioko “It rushes to quench the fire but never addresses the cause of the fire.  Our problem is lack of water.  Relief food will never satiate the need for water.”

History clearly documents that Eastern province has faced famines since the 1840s.  Isn’t it sufficient time for existing governments to have formulated coping mechanisms? “Prevention doesn’t sell much,” says Stefanie Savariaund, spokesman for the UN WFP in Niamey, “The world has to wait for images of dying children to react.”  This is done to give relief bodies and governments permit to spend as they want.

“When aid comes, all our policy makers do is strategize on how to get more,” says James Shikwati, Director of the Inter Region Economic Network. 

Spending over Kshs 50 million every year in food relief is philanthropy in reverse. This money should be used to drill lasting boreholes hence liberating the victims from water scarcity. A country that can spend 4 billion on relief food can spend the same on irrigation driven agriculture.

It is ironic that as hunger bites, maize farmers from the North-rift are complaining that their maize is rotting for lack of market and cumbersome bureaucracy leading to congestion at the NCPB depot. As Bishop Cornelius Korir of Eldoret Diocese aptly puts it, “It is sad that Kenyans are dying in their own country due to hunger while some parts of the country have food but no market.” 

Governments of Africa have intervened heavily both in the farm and non-farm sector.  In their attempts to stimulate industry, they have enacted high tariffs and licensing restrictions, subsidies and minimum wage rates resulting to transfer of resources from more productive areas into less productive ones. African countries that have food to spare can’t easily share it because tariffs on agricultural products within Sub- Saharan Africa average as high as 33% compared with 12% on similar products imported from Europe. Removing all obstacles to the movement of factors of production would increase the efficiency of the market by allowing all factors to be employed in their most value – productive uses. 

The World Bank in its classification of countries according to their degree of “price distortion” or market intervention notes that the greater the degree of intervention, the slower the degree of growth. Nations with a low distortion index” have a high rate of economic growth; high savings– to income ratio; higher annual industrial growth rate and increased agricultural production and export volume. 

Historically, the conversion of cropland to non-farm use has been a sign of economic advance.  The average American is better fed today than, say, in 1776 when a much larger proportion of the cleared land was devoted to agriculture and over 90 per cent of the people were farmers. By the same token, the average American is better fed today than he was in 1776, even though only about 3 per cent of the population is directly involved in farming.  How can one explain the seeming paradox between regional declines in agricultural output, which is historically associated with economic advance, and failing incomes, an obvious indication of economic deterioration? 

Direct production makes one the proverbial “jack–of–all trade” but “master of none.” It precludes specialization and economies of scale, thus forfeiting all the associated economic benefits and is characteristic of economic backwardness. Recognizing that some areas are better suited for growing certain types of food and agricultural products than others, opens up the possibility for specialization and gains. As markets expand, some individuals find that the best use for their land lies in nonagricultural pursuits as industry, manufacturing, or services. Production for the market – because of the tremendous gains in both productivity and utility resulting from the division of labor, specialization and free trade – is a far more efficient method of satisfying one’s needs than direct, subsistence production. A policy of laissez faire will determine precisely where natural comparative advantage lies, facilitate the efficient allocation of resources and encourage savings and capital investment.

As 11 million people in Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia face starvation, blaming it on God and logging may prove soothing. Distributing food amidst clicks of media cameras may seem momentarily worthwhile but as Mai Sali, a local employee of Doctors without Borders (an international relief organization) in Eastern Niger puts it, “Crisis Aid is not the answer. We need to find other long-term solutions.  We can’t just address emergencies.”

There is no doubt that with good policies in place, African nations are able to feed themselves but African governments have subjected their citizens to hunger stints for too long in anticipation of the accruing international aid. It is time these governments were sentenced to immediate freedom by the international community to chart their own course.




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