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Patriarchy, Sexual Abuse and Impunity: As the Catholic Church Confronts Its Crisis, Will the UN Follow Suit?

So ingrained is the Old Boys’ network within the UN that persecuting whistleblowers is part of a culture of male privilege. Will Sec-Gen Guterres turn the tide?

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Patriarchy, Sexual Abuse and Impunity: As the Catholic Church Confronts Its Crisis, Will the UN Follow Suit?
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In an unprecedented move, the Catholic Church, under the leadership of Pope Francis, has decided to finally address an issue that has plagued the church for decades: that of sexual abuse of women and children by priests, a scourge that has left many victims around the world broken. The bold step by Pope Francis to confront this uncomfortable issue – even at the risk of tainting the Catholic Church’s reputation – is one that even the aid industry, particularly the United Nations, has been reluctant to tackle head on, despite growing pressure from the #MeToo movement. Many observers, including yours truly, believe that recent efforts by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to address sexual harassment and abuse by UN employees could be merely cosmetic; they will not change anything because the UN has a strongly embedded culture of impunity. As one former UN staff member wrote in the New York Daily News, the UN has “an anti-MeToo culture” and is “an old boys’ club”.

Nine months ago, I wrote an article on why I believed that the #MeToo movement would have little or no impact on the United Nations’ male-dominated, highly hierarchical and secretive work environment. I was convinced that because the UN is generally unreceptive to criticism, it was highly unlikely that victims of sexual harassment or assault would come forward or be listened to. I showed, through various examples that UN employees accused of sexual harassment or assault are rarely reprimanded or punished. In fact, some of those implicated have been conveniently transferred or allowed to resign or retire quietly with full benefits – a practice that the Catholic Church perfected when confronted with sexual abuse cases.

However, internal surveys and pressure from women’s rights advocates may have finally forced the UN to take a good hard look at itself, and could bring about some changes in how the world body is governed and managed. An internal UN survey, conducted by Deloitte, whose results were released in January this year, found that a third of UN staff members surveyed had been sexually harassed. The survey noted that the most vulnerable targets were women and transgender personnel aged between 25 and 44. Two out of every three harassers were male and only one out of every three employees who were harassed took any action against the perpetrator. About one in ten women reported being touched inappropriately; a similar number said they had witnessed crude sexual gestures.

Internal surveys and pressure from women’s rights advocates may have finally forced the UN to take a good hard look at itself, and could bring about some changes in how the world body is governed and managed.

Abuse of authority and defective leadership

However, the UN Staff Union says that sexual harassment is only one among many abuses of authority that take place at the UN. Results from its own survey show that sexual harassment makes up only about 16 per cent of all forms of harassment. Forty-four percent of those surveyed said that they had experienced abuse of authority; of these, 87 per cent said that the person who had abused his or her authority was a supervisor. 20 per cent felt that they had experienced retaliation after reporting misconduct: “The results confirm that this has a debilitating effect on staff morale and work performance, and that there are continued barriers to reporting, including fear of retaliation and a perception that the perpetrators, for the most part, enjoy impunity,” admitted UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a letter to UN staff.

An internal UN survey…found that a third of UN staff members surveyed had been sexually harassed. The survey noted that the most vulnerable targets were women and transgender personnel aged between 25 and 44.

Findings from the two surveys come at a time when women’s rights activists, including the International Center for Research on Women, the Center for Women’s Global Leadership and Gender at Work, have been advocating for a more “Feminist United Nations” that fosters gender equality and parity, especially at the highest levels. The upper echelons of the UN are still predominantly male and no woman to date has served as the Secretary-General. The activists would also like to see the UN to take sexual harassment cases more seriously.

In response to this campaign and the momentum generated by the #MeToo movement, Guterres has taken some actions, including installing a sexual harassment hotline and establishing a Task Force on Sexual Harassment.

However, he has not taken any action against senior officials accused of sexual harassment or against those who protect the perpetrators. For instance, no action has been taken against the UNAIDS Executive Director, Michel Sidibe, who has been accused of failing “to prevent or properly respond to allegations of harassment, including sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power” at UNAIDS. An independent panel also found that Sidibe’s “defective leadership” had fostered a dysfunctional work environment at the organisation where employees believed they could get away with anything. Meanwhile, Sidibe has not been fired by the UN Secretary-General though he has said that he will step down in June this year, a decision he made voluntarily without any pressure from the UN Secretary-General and without any sanctions.

In response to this campaign and the momentum generated by the #MeToo movement, Guterres has taken some actions, including installing a sexual harassment hotline and establishing a Task Force on Sexual Harassment.

Systematic racial discrimination

A recent spate of revelations by whistleblowers at the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows how ineffective leadership allows abuse to continue. Three emails addressed to WHO directors, which were leaked to the Associated Press, complained of rampant racism at the organisation and theft of funds intended for Ebola victims. At WHO’s headquarters in Geneva, stated one email, African staff members suffer “systematic racial discrimination”.

However, Guterres has not taken any action against senior officials accused of sexual harassment or against those who protect the perpetrators. For instance, no action has been taken against the UNAIDS Executive Director, Michel Sidibe, who has been accused of failing “to prevent or properly respond to allegations of harassment, including sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power” at UNAIDS.

The emails also spoke of widespread corruption and mismanagement of funds. One whistleblower claimed that logistics and procurement officers at WHO are known to be corrupt and that during one Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo last year, a plane was hired to transport three vehicles from a warehouse in Dubai at the highly inflated cost of one million dollars.

Last year, Al Jazeera featured a documentary that showed how Big Pharma is also influencing the way WHO’s senior management makes decisions about global public health crises. The documentary suggested that the 2009 swine flu pandemic might have been fabricated to benefit pharmaceutical companies manufacturing the swine flu vaccine. One former delegate to the European Council stated: “The WHO officials have no idea about such things [pandemics]. They depend on scientists. And the scientists are allocated to them by the countries and by the organisations that finance the WHO. And many of them gave advice and made decisions that benefited the pharmaceutical industry.”

One whistleblower who has for years been seeking compensation from WHO for a work-related injury told me that her ordeal was so harrowing that it had left her emotionally depleted and had ruined her financially…

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s Director General, has promised an internal investigation into the recent racial discrimination and corruption allegations. While this is a good sign, we must also remember that the UN is essentially a political organisation and that influential member states and its biggest donors often have a greater say in how the organisation is run – and who gets punished – than those who have less influence and clout. There is also a general tendency to cover up a wrongdoing than to address it, and to punish those who expose the crimes committed.

Shooting the messenger

Guterres’ stated commitment to improve gender parity and to look more seriously into sexual harassment cases could just be a whitewashing exercise to calm down critics until the dust settles. This is what has happened in the past. For instance, not one company or individual has to this day been charged with diverting money or receiving kickbacks from the scandalous UN Oil-for-Food Programme in Iraq, which resulted in the loss of billions of dollars that were supposed to help the Iraqi people. By the time the Kofi Annan-initiated Volcker Commission came out with its findings on the programme and revealed names of those involved in the theft, Saddam Hussein had been deposed by American and British coalition forces, and the programme had been closed.

Similarly, UN peacekeepers accused of raping or sexually exploiting displaced or refugee women and children in strife-torn countries suffer few consequences; recent such cases have not resulted in any convictions though there are now efforts to bar countries whose peacekeepers have been implicated in sexual abuse from serving in peacekeeping missions.

On the other hand, the majority of UN whistleblowers who have reported misconduct, including corruption, abuse of authority and sexual harassment and assault, have been fired, demoted or reprimanded. Few of their allegations are investigated, and even if they are, the findings are rarely made public. In 2014, for instance, Anders Kompass, the director of field operations at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, was suspended and even “investigated” after he revealed to French authorities cases of sexual abuse of displaced boys by French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. Kompass eventually resigned from the organisation. He told a journalist that his ordeal had left him “disappointed and full of sadness”.

Those who have sought justice from the UN’s internal justice systems have hit a wall, which suggests that these systems were designed to protect the perpetrators and the UN’s reputation rather than to safeguard whistleblowers and to bring about remedial action.

The majority of UN whistleblowers who have reported misconduct, including corruption, abuse of authority and sexual harassment and assault, have been fired, demoted or reprimanded.

In my own research, I found that the emotional toll of whistleblowing in the UN is so huge that most whistleblowers never fully recover from their traumatic experience. The decision not to report wrongdoing is thus often based on self-preservation.

The irony is that most UN whistleblowers don’t even realise that they are blowing the whistle; most believe they are simply doing their job by reporting wrongdoing. It is only when the retaliation against them begins that they realise that they have stepped on some very big toes.

Those who are fired from the organisation or whose contracts are not renewed find themselves shut out of the closely-knit international development community, which blocks their future career development. Vindictive senior managers are known to blacklist whistleblowers and ruin their reputations, which results in the latter not being considered for jobs in similar organisations. One whistleblower who has for years been seeking compensation from WHO for a work-related injury told me that her ordeal was so harrowing that it had left her emotionally depleted and had ruined financially – this from an organisation that is committed to promoting global health!

Toxic work environment

Many people have asked me how an organisation that is so multicultural and which is devoted to the advancement of human rights can allow sexism and racism to thrive within its own corridors. I tell them that an organisation is only as good as its people; if you hire racists and sexists, you will end up in a racist and sexist work environment, regardless of the noble aspirations of the organisation.

And if the organisation does not have in place policies and practices that deter abuse and discrimination – and especially if these policies and practices are not followed diligently – then that organisation will simply reflect the negative values of the wider society (possibly at its worst because there are few or no penalties for those who demonstrate racist or sexist behaviour). This creates a highly toxic and unhealthy work environment, especially for women.

As someone who has worked for the UN for more than a decade, I can tell you that the people who work there are not superhuman, nor are they particularly interested in the progress and protection of human beings. Some, especially at the top echelons, are political appointments who come with the baggage and privileges that they inherited from their own particular social, political or cultural backgrounds. They are simply reflections of their societies. And because they are political appointees, they feel no need to follow the dictates of the UN or its global mandate. (This explains why representatives from countries with some of the most dictatorial and repressive regimes end up being voted into the UN Human Rights Council.) There is no test that UN staffers have to pass to show their humanitarian or development credentials. Most are simply careerists who seek a comfortable job abroad with generous tax-free perks. So what you are left with are cynical and paranoid bureaucrats whose only mission is their own career development.

In my own career at the UN, I have seen how senior male professionals will have no qualms about ganging up against a female colleague to intimidate her or to force her out of the organisation. They will even go to the extent of assassinating her character to support a member of their “boys club”. The unwritten rule (which I found out about rather late) is that senior male managers will stick together and defend each other. In a highly publicised 2004 case, for example, the then UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, publicly stated that allegations of sexual harassment made by a Geneva-based UN staff member against his friend, the then UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, “could not be substantiated” even though an internal investigation had confirmed her account.

It is possible that the recent push by the #MeToo movement and women’s rights activists may finally turn the tide and make the UN a more egalitarian, woman-friendly workplace. It is possible that the UN is not completely beyond reform – that it can put in place systems that minimise abuse of authority and weed out those who are doing most harm to the organisation and to its ability to fulfill its mandate of promoting human rights and justice around the world.

One reform measure would be to order thorough and credible investigations into allegations of wrongdoing and to punish the perpetrators. This is a tall order because, like the Catholic Church, the tendency at the UN’s top echelons is to cover up the crime (especially sexual abuse and theft) rather than expose it, and also because the people who report wrongdoing are often junior or mid-level professionals who can be easily intimidated by their superiors and bullied into not speaking up. Unless the culture of retaliation against whistleblowers is stopped, there is little hope that whistleblowers will get any justice and that wrongdoing within the organisation will be curtailed.

Like the Catholic Church, the tendency at the UN’s top echelons is to cover up the crime

The most effective method, both in the UN and in other large bureaucratic organisations like the Catholic Church, is for the leadership to take action against those committing offences. Even Pope Francis has acknowledged that this is an important deterrent – and is the kind of justice that victims of sexual abuse would like to see in the Catholic Church. Sexual abusers and their protectors and those who abuse their power should be fired and stripped of their titles. The UN Secretary-General can establish all kinds of hotlines and task forces, but unless he is seen to be going after those who are abusing their authority, sexually harassing employees or sexually exploiting and abusing vulnerable women and children in poor war-torn countries, nothing will change, and the UN will continue to remain a safe haven for sexual predators and bullies.

The UN Secretary-General can establish all kinds of hotlines and task forces, but unless he is seen to be going after those who are abusing their authority…nothing will change, and the UN will continue to remain a safe haven for sexual predators and bullies.

This would be unfortunate, because in a world witnessing rising ultra-nationalism, fascism, misogyny and intolerance, the United Nations is perhaps the only hope for a more just and inclusive world order.

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Rasna Warah

Ms Warah, the author of War Crimes, a sweeping indictment of foreign meddling in Somalia, and A Triple Heritage, among several other books, is also a freelance journalist based in Malindi, Kenya.

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An Injustice in Kenya’s History: The TJRC Report Six Years On

Six years later, writes GABRIELLE LYNCH, little progress has been made on Kenya’s Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) despite on the gross injustices and abuses that the report outlines.

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An Injustice in Kenya’s History: The TJRC Report Six Years On
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On 21 May 2013, Kenya’s Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) handed over a four-volume report to President Uhuru Kenyatta. The report outlines a range of injustices and abuses that occurred in the country between December 1963 and the end of the post-election violence in 2008, and provides a range of recommendations and a clear implementation plan. Six years later, little progress has been made on its dissemination or the implementation of its recommendations.

The TJRC Commission collected over 40,000 statements – the largest number of any truth commission to date – and 1,000 memoranda. The Commission also held public and women’s hearings in 35 locations across the country, as well as a series of adversely mentioned person (AMP) and thematic hearings

This is unsurprising given the fate of previous commissions of inquiry, the credibility crisis that surrounded the TJRC’s chairman, and the limited media coverage that the Commission’s work enjoyed. Nevertheless, I find this depressing.

The reason is that, while many paid the TJRC little attention, a significant number of Kenyans opted to relay their stories, pain and fears. This is evident from the numbers; the Commission collected over 40,000 statements – the largest number of any truth commission to date – and 1,000 memoranda. The Commission also held public and women’s hearings in 35 locations across the country, as well as a series of adversely mentioned person (AMP) and thematic hearings.

To be fair, the TJRC’s founders were aware of the inadequacies of speaking, which is why they included “justice” in the title and gave the Commission powers to recommend further investigations, prosecutions, lustration (or a ban from holding public office), reparations, institutional and constitutional reforms, and a limited amnesty.

It is also evident from my own observations; in 2011 and 2012 I spent months following the TJRC around the country attending hearings, speaking to victims, alleged perpetrators and interested parties. From these interactions it was clear that, while many who came before the Commission welcomed the chance to speak, the majority submitted statements or memoranda or provided testimony in the hope that they would be heard and that some action would be taken. As one woman explained to me after a women’s hearing in Nakuru, she was glad that she had spoken as now the Commission would “come in and help”.

To be fair, the TJRC’s founders were aware of the inadequacies of speaking, which is why they included “justice” in the title and gave the Commission powers to recommend further investigations, prosecutions, lustration (or a ban from holding public office), reparations, institutional and constitutional reforms, and a limited amnesty. However, on the question of whether recommendations would be implemented, the Commission rather naively relied on the TJRC Act (2008), which stipulated “recommendations shall be implemented”. However, such legal provisions proved insufficient; in December 2013, parliament amended the Act to ensure that the report would first be considered by the National Assembly, something that is yet to happen.

But how did the TJRC come about and what was its mandate?

The Commission was informed by the belief that, while the post-election violence of 2007/8 was triggered by a disputed election, it was fuelled by more deep-rooted problems.

The establishment of a TJRC was first considered in 2002 at a moment of great optimism and hope after Mwai Kibaki and the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) ousted President Moi and Kanu from power. However, a task force recommendation that a TJRC be established was ignored by the Kibaki government. The idea was later revived following the post-election violence of 2007/8 and the formation of a coalition government.

The TJRC was established by an Act of Parliament in 2008, began its work in 2009 and submitted a final report in 2013. The Commission was informed by the belief that, while the post-election violence of 2007/8 was triggered by a disputed election, it was fuelled by more deep-rooted problems. It was thus mandated to investigate a wide range of injustices – from perceptions of economic marginalisation and periods of ethnic clashes to state repression and torture – from Kenya’s independence in December 1963 to the end of the post-election violence in February 2008. As a result, while some insights into colonial rule were provided as context for post-colonial realities, the report is silent on Kibaki’s second term in office and Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidency.

In addition to documenting the past, the Commission was able to offer various recommendations including further investigations and prosecutions, reparations, institutional reform and amnesty for non-gross human rights violations. The aim was to contribute to truth, justice, reconciliation, and sustainable peace.

The Commission’s task was thus impossibly large and it also faced additional challenges including a credibility crisis around the Commission’s Chairman and limited media coverage. It was also upstaged by parallel proceedings at the International Criminal Court and was working in a context in which there had been no real transition.

Given these challenges, the report is actually pretty impressive.

Critically, it does not pretend to be exhaustive and recognises how – over four years and in a single report – it could not provide a “definitive history of the broad range of violations committed and suffered” over the course of 45 years (TJRC vol. 1 2013: v).

Given this impossibility, I am keenly aware of how my attempt to summarise a report that runs to over two thousand pages involves further simplification and omission – for which I apologise. Despite this, I think it is worth marking the six-year anniversary of the report’s submission – and recognising all those who engaged with the process – by saying something about the Commission’s findings.

First, it was clear that each regime – from the colonial period through the Kenyatta, Moi and Kibaki eras – had overseen widespread abuses through acts of commission and omission and that Kenyans had suffered (and many continue to suffer) as a consequence.

The establishment of a TJRC was first considered in 2002 at a moment of great optimism and hope after Mwai Kibaki and the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) ousted President Moi and Kanu from power. However, a task force recommendation that a TJRC be established was ignored by the Kibaki government.

The commission found that all three post-colonial regimes had been responsible for gross human rights violations and concluded that state security forces had been “the main perpetrators of bodily integrity violations of human rights in Kenya including massacres, enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment, and sexual violence” with northern Kenya standing at the “epicenter of gross violations of human rights by state security agencies” (TJRC vol. 1 2013: vii).

More specifically, the report outlined how the Kenyatta regime (1963–1978) was responsible for the largest number of political assassinations, and how the repression of dissent reached its apex under the one-party rule of Daniel arap Moi (1978–2002). In turn, while the commission recognised the reforms initiated by the first Kibaki regime (2002–2007), it also drew attention to ongoing corruption, ethnic favouritism and inter-communal violence, and to the collapse of the NARC coalition and the increase in extra-judicial killings, problems which, in its opinion, prepared “fertile ground (…) for the eruption of violence” in 2007–8 (TJRC vol. 2A 2013: 28–29).

The TJRC also highlighted the socio-economic effects of gross human rights violations. These included, for example, the challenges faced by former political detainees in finishing their education, securing employment and caring for their children. At the same time, the report sketches out some of the ways in which socio-economic factors impacted upon bodily integrity rights at a more general level through, for example, the relative vulnerability of marginalised people during conflict.

In terms of inter-communal conflict, the commission blamed the emergence of “negative ethnicity” on colonial rule and Britain’s adoption of a divide and rule strategy and alienation of large tracts of land, with historical grievances over land cited as the “single most important driver of conflicts and ethnic tension” (TJRC vol. 1 2013: vii).

However, all the post-colonial regimes were blamed for the perpetuation of such politics as, rather than provide redress, successive administrations “alienated more land from already affected communities for the benefit of politically privileged ethnic communities and the political elite” (TJRC vol. 1 2013: xiv) and favoured members of their own ethnic groups in employment and appointment processes (TJRC vol. 1 2013: x). According to the commission, a sense of ethnic competition was then exacerbated by multi-party politics, as “ethnicity became an even more potent tool for political [organisation] and access to state resources” (TJRC vol. 1 2013: ix–x). This combination of factors then led to “a volatile environment in which violence had been normalised and ethnic relations had become poisoned” (TJRC vol. 2A 2013: 29).

The commission also emphasised the “pervasiveness of socio-economic violations” across the country (TJRC vol. 1 2013: xv). More specifically, it found that – in addition to the socio-economic impacts of gross human rights violations – the “government’s exclusionary economic policies and practices in the distribution of public jobs and services inflicted suffering on huge sections of society at different historical moments” (TJRC vol. 1 2013: xv), with corruption in turn linked to everything from violent state security forces to poor health and education services.

In terms of spatial inequalities, the commission found that northern Kenya – taken to consist of former North Eastern, Upper Eastern and North Rift Valley provinces – together with former Coast, Nyanza and Western provinces suffered particularly harsh economic marginalisation as a result of biased or indifferent state policies. However, the commission also recognised how even residents of regions that were not identified as economically marginalised – namely, former Central, Nairobi, South Rift Valley, and Lower Eastern provinces – considered “themselves marginalised at one time or another” (TJRC vol. 1 2013: xv). The implication was that no single province had escaped economic marginalisation, with hardships often passed on to subsequent generations through a cycle of limited education and employment opportunities.

Women, minority groups and indigenous people were also found to have suffered state-sanctioned discrimination. In summary, minority and indigenous peoples were found to “have suffered gross violations of human rights on account of their membership in these communities” (TJRC vol. 2C 2013: 281). Women were found to have “suffered unspeakable and terrible atrocities … in the majority of cases … for no other reason than that they are of the female gender” (TJRC vol. 2C 2013: 151) and children were found to have been “subjected to untold and unspeakable atrocities” (TJRC vol. 4 2013: vii).

However, while the Commission suggested that most (if not all) Kenyans are victims of some injustice, it did not suggest that all Kenyans suffered, or continue to suffer, equally. On the contrary, some individuals were deemed to have suffered more severe harm or multiple injustices, while some groups were presented as having suffered more than others. For example, a minority were found to have suffered direct bodily integrity violations at the hands of state operatives, while, overall, women were said to have suffered more than men, and some regions or ethnic groups to have suffered more than others.

The Commission was “not just interested in what happened…. [but] in why things happened the way they did, what was their impact and who was responsible” (TJRC vol. 1 2013: 43). Regarding the why and the impact, the report is of mixed quality, but it is in establishing the who that the TJRC had the least success. Instead, the report details how the Commission met a wall of silence, denial and justifications. At the same time, the Commission found that the state had historically “covered-up or downplayed violations committed against its own citizens, especially those committed by state security agencies” and had “demonstrated no genuine commitment to investigate and punish atrocities and violations committed by its agents against innocent citizens” (TJRC vol. 4 2013: 10).

The commission concluded that the underlying causes of violations and contributing factors were complex and included centralised power, a culture of impunity, inter-ethnic competition, uneven development, under-employment and patriarchy.

These findings informed wide-ranging recommendations that included further investigations, lustration and prosecution of those allegedly involved in assassinations, massacres, land grabs and so forth. It also included specific apologies by the head of state for various atrocities suffered – from the torture and unlawful detention of political dissidents to acts of sexual violence committed by state security agencies during operations and periods of violence, and the state’s sanction of discrimination against women.

The report also called for the implementation of recommendations from previous commissions of inquiry, the fast-tracking of ongoing reforms of state institutions, such as the security services and judiciary, and the enactment of key pieces of legislation.

It also set out extensive guidelines for individual, collective and symbolic reparations. These included a framework for individual compensation, development policies to address the historic marginalisation of certain regions, and the establishment of public memorials to commemorate particular places, events and people.

Finally, the commission recognised how the recommendations of earlier truth commissions and commissions of inquiry had largely been ignored, stressed the mandatory nature of the commission’s recommendations, and set out a clear timeline for their implementation together with detailed guidelines for an implementation and monitoring mechanism.

The report and recommendations are thus wide-ranging, and their dissemination and implementation was always going to be a problem. However, the collective decision of members of parliament to change the Act in 2013 and their failure to discuss the report to date is – at least to me – a further injustice that marks Kenya’s history.

 

A full copy of the TJRC report as well as transcripts of many of the hearings can be found online courtesy of Prof. Ron Slye – one of the TJRC commissioners. Parts of this article draw directly from Gabrielle Lynch’s book, Performances of Injustice: The politics of truth, justice and reconciliation in Kenya (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Gabrielle is a Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Warwick in the UK.

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Memo to Political Busybodies: There Is No Value Addition in Processing Coffee. It Is a Cockroach Idea

As long as cartels and cockroach ideas rule the roost, coffee farmers will continue to vote with their feet. Because farmers owe themselves an income, be it from bananas or avocados, it does not matter.

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Memo to Political Busybodies: There Is No Value Addition in Processing Coffee. It Is a Cockroach Idea
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Paul Krugman, 2008 economics Nobel Laureate and prolific New York Times columnist narrates how as a young man he went to work for Government and an old hand, presumably a senior government economist, explained to him that their job was mostly about fighting bad ideas. The bad ideas, the old hand went on to explain, are like cockroaches, “No matter how many times you flushed them down the toilet, they keep coming back.”

The idea of value addition is closely related to the concept of agricultural value chains. But many people who talk very forcefully about value addition do not actually understand what a value chain is.

One such cockroach idea is that we are losing money by selling our coffee raw, and we could add a whole lot of value by processing it domestically. I first wrote an Op-Ed on this idea fifteen years ago, I read sometime back that a venturesome cooperative in either Nyeri or Kirinyaga had set up a coffee processing operation but couldn’t sell the product. Someone forgot to tell them that it is at the business end – market entry, product launch marketing, distribution and all that – that the rubber hits the road. Still, hope springs eternal. I have learned that Moses Kuria, the mouthy MP for Gatundu South, has drafted a bill intended to make domestic processing of coffee mandatory.

A supply chain analysis starts with the procurement of raw materials and ends with the delivery of the product to the shelf where the final consumer picks it. A value chain starts at the other end – with the value proposition to the customer – and traces how and where that value is created along the chain all the way back to the raw material

The idea of value addition is closely related to the concept of agricultural value chains. But many people who talk very forcefully about value addition do not actually understand what a value chain is. If they did, they would not be so cocky. More often than not, they are talking about a supply chain. A value chain captures the production-to-market linkages that generate value for the customer. A supply chain captures the processes that transform raw materials or commodities into products.

A supply chain analysis starts with the procurement of raw materials and ends with the delivery of the product to the shelf where the final consumer picks it from. A value chain starts at the other end – with the value proposition to the customer – and traces how and where that value is created along the chain all the way back to the raw material. Value proposition means the characteristics that a consumer likes or prefers about a particular product that makes them choose that product, and even pay a premium over similar or competing products. The value proposition can be price, taste, appearance, durability, convenience, image, or all of these attributes and more.

Consider sneakers. A supply chain view of sneakers will seek to understand the sourcing of raw materials that go into manufacturing sneakers, the logistics of getting these materials to the sweatshops in Asia and elsewhere, volumes, sizes, styles and colours, production cycles, inventory, distribution channels and such like. A value chain analysis will start with why customers are willing to pay three or four times more for their Air Jordans than for generic products or cheaper brands, and work through the chain to see how and where the value is created.

The most expensive coffee in the world is an Indonesian coffee called Kopi Luwak, also known as Cat Poop Coffee. Kopi is coffee, Luwak is the local name for the Asian civet cat. Kopi Luwak is retrieved from the poop of the civets, which eat the cherry but do not digest the beans. A cup of this coffee will set you back anything from $35 to $100 (Sh3,500 to Sh10,000) and $200 to $1,200 (Sh20,000 to Sh120,000) per kilo of beans, about 20 times the price of other premium coffees. If exactly the same coffee bean was processed by human beings as opposed to being pooped by a civet, it would not fetch more than $40 a kilo. In effect, at least 80 per cent of the value of Kopi Luwak is generated by civets.

The Espresso & Coffee Guide lists its top ten coffees of 2019 – in no particular order – as Tanzania Peaberry, Hawaii Kona, Nicaraguan coffee, Sumatra Mandheling, Sulawesi Toraja, Mocha Java, Ethiopian Harrar, Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, Guatemalan Antigua and Kenya AA. Jamaica Blue Mountain gets an honorable mention and Kopi Luwak a dishonorable one. Most other coffee reviews have more or less the same list. The reason that Jamaica Blue Mountain does not make the list is because it is expensive, costing according to the website, double the price of Kona and four times the price of Kenya AA. But the review does acknowledge that Jamaica Blue Mountain is consistently rated as the best coffee in the world. Kopi Luwak gets a thumbs down for the ridiculous price, lack of traceability (i.e. authenticity certification) and animal cruelty reputation issues.

Why is Jamaica Blue Mountain so much more expensive than other comparable coffees? The simple answer is, it’s a matter of taste. Like wine grapes, different climates and soils produce different coffee flavours. Jamaica Blue Mountain is distinctly mellow, East African coffees are more intense, and Asian ones are more spicy but, in the end, the brand premium reflects Jamaica’s success in positioning and marketing its national brand

Homegrounds.co – a coffee e-commerce website whose top ten coffees also overlap with those on the Espresso & Coffee Guide – has Jamaica Blue Mountain as the most expensive, with several offerings retailing at between $50 and $100 a pound (Sh11,000 – Sh22,000 a kilo) and a Central American Geisha from Costa Rica and Panama in the same range at $70 a pound (Sh15,400 a kilo). All the rest, are priced between $18 and $24 (Sh4,000 and Sh5,300) a kilo. Kenya AA is priced at US$20 a pound (Sh4,400 a kilo)

Why is Jamaica Blue Mountain so much more expensive than other comparable coffees? The simple answer is, it’s a matter of taste. Like wine grapes, different climates and soils produce different coffee flavours. Jamaica Blue Mountain is distinctly mellow, East African coffees are more intense, and Asian ones are more spicy but, in the end, the brand premium reflects Jamaica’s success in positioning and marketing its national brand.

What these price differentials are not about is processing. There is no amount of domestic processing of Kenyan coffee that can increase its value from $20 to $50 a pound. Beans and ground coffee generally cost the same. A decent kitchen grinder costs Sh3,000 at the supermarket, cheap ones half that. Moreover, roasting brings shelf life issues into play; raw beans will last well over a year, although they begin deteriorating after six months. Once roasted, coffee is best consumed within 24 hours. Once ground, it loses its freshness within half an hour. Discerning coffee drinkers don’t want stale coffee, and will pay more for coffee roasted as they wait, or for green beans for that delectable treat of serving your dinner guests fresh coffee, roasted right before their eyes. It is of course possible to preserve some freshness by vacuum packing, but supermarket coffee buyers are price not value customers. The import of Moses Kuria’s “value addition” bill is to lock Kenyan coffee out of the value market.

We are then left with the question that, if Kenyan coffee can fetch well over Sh4,000 a kilo, how much of that is the farmer getting? The February 2019 market report from the Nairobi auction – the most recent on the Nairobi Coffee Exchange website – gives prices of $70 and $320 for the low “T” grade and the top grade AA, respectively, and an average of $220 per 50 kg bag. These prices translate respectively to $1.40 (Sh. 140), $6.40 (Sh640) and $4.40 (Sh440) per kilo of clean coffee, meaning that the farmer is getting no more than 10 per cent of the shelf price. It is of course the case that not all Kenyan coffee ends up in the premium market; some ends up in supermarket roast and ground blends – but that does not mean that it is of less value.

I cannot emphasise enough that there is no value addition to speak of that happens between the Kenyan AA bought at the auction at Sh640 a kilo and the Sh4,400 shelf price in the destination market. But even locally, the retail price is on average three times the auction price, The coffee trade has all manner of commercial and technical explanations, but it is hard to see them as anything but self-serving seeing as it is the trade itself that appropriates the premium. The simple answer is: middlemen – a powerful ruthless global cartel politely known as “the trade” (“the craft” would be more apt).

Let’s start with the national brand Kenya AA. You will have noticed that most coffees are named for their geographical origin. Jamaica Blue Mountain is grown on the Blue Mountains range that dominates the Jamaican landscape. Ethiopia has two coffees in our top ten list, Yirgacheffe and Harrar and Indonesia has three: Sumatra, Sulawesi and Java.

But the crux of the problem is the fact that the law denies farmers control over their product. Converting coffee cherries (the ripe fruit that farmers pick) to coffee beans that you can roast at home is a simple process that can be done on the farm manually, even on a small scale.

So, why Kenya AA and not Mt. Kenya Peaberry or Aberdare Ruiru 11? AA refers to bean size, known as screen size. AA are the largest beans.The next size is AB, which in the February market report averaged $4.40 (Sh450) a kilo. In effect, coffee from the same bush can end up having a 30 per cent price difference on account of a one millimeter difference in the size of the bean. The reason for sorting out coffee beans by screen size is roast evenness, that is, to ensure that when beans are roasted, some are not undercooked and others overcooked. Once roasted, the AA beans and the AB beans sold at a discount can be re-mixed, packaged and sold as Kenya AA. These are the “trade secrets.”

But the crux of the problem is the fact that the law denies farmers control over their product. Converting coffee cherries (the ripe fruit that farmers pick) to coffee beans that you can roast at home is a simple process that can be done on the farm manually, even on a small scale. Yet farmers are compelled by law to sell their coffee through the auction, or to appoint members of the trade as marketing agents. Cooperative members lose control of their coffee as soon as they deliver the cherry to their local pulping factory, while those with their own pulping plants lose control after milling (milling entails removing the beans from the husk, and is not very different from hulling maize).

The $100-a-pound Jamaica Blue Mountain offerings come with names like Wallenford, Clifton Mount Estate and such like. These are coffee growers, and such coffees are known as single origin coffees. This is how value is added to coffee – by market segmentation, and positioning single origin brands in different niche markets. Jamaica produces only 8,000 tonnes, and sells 80-90 per cent of it to Japan. Kopi Luwak production is between 500 and 1,000 tonnes a year. The more distinct the coffee and more niche the market, the higher value. The difference between the price of green and roasted beans of a certified single origin Blue Mountain coffee is immaterial.

Fifteen years ago, my colleague Githuku Mwangi, myself and the late Julius Mimano (the man at the helm of Kenya Railways when trains ran on time) who was then chairperson of the Kenya Coffee Growers Association – and coffee farmer par excellence – developed a plan to give control of coffee to the farmers so as to enable them to sell single origin coffees. We did all the homework, including mapping all the growing regions, developing a brand book, and securing the support of the Specialty Coffee Association to implement the specialty coffee certification system. We got many stakeholders behind the initiative but the trade cartel wore us down. A decade and a half later, so called coffee reforms are still going round in circles.

These reforms would have enabled the coffees from the different growing regions to distinguish themselves and find the consumers who have the taste and are willing to pay good money for their coffee. Mt. Kenya coffee might make a name for itself in California, Kisii Highlands coffee in Sweden or somewhere else. If the farmers were to get 70 per cent of the consumer price, the additional cost and risk of roasting, packing and marketing would not be worth taking. On the other hand, as long as the middlemen are in control, processing coffee locally makes no difference for the farmer. Whatever benefits might accrue will still end up with the middleman.

At the peak in the late 80s Kenya produced 130,000 tonnes of coffee. By 2003 when we got involved, production was down to 50,000 tonnes. With our reforms, we estimated we could get it back up to 80,000 in three years, and to 150,000 in a decade, averaging $10 a kilo, which at $1.5 billion in export earnings (Sh150 billion) would have catapulted coffee back to the country’s top foreign exchange earner. We are now down to 40,000 tonnes, earning about 15 per cent of that (Ksh. 23 billion last year).

As long as cartels and cockroach ideas rule the roost, coffee farmers will continue to vote with their feet. Because farmers owe themselves an income, be it from bananas or avocados, it does not matter. They do not owe trade cartels or the Government coffee.

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Cloak-And-Dagger Intrigues: An Insider’s Account of Why the TJRC Report Was Delayed

In his book, The Kenyan TJRC: An Outsider’s View from the Inside, Prof. Ronald C. Slye reveals the intrigues that intensified near the date of the TJRC report release in May 2013 and how various top State House mandarins sought to influence the contents of the report.

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Cloak-And-Dagger Intrigues: An Insider’s Account of Why the TJRC Report Was Delayed
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Sometime in June 2012, I got a call from the Kenyan Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) asking if I would be willing to edit the commission’s report, which the caller said was around 1,000 pages long and needed to be edited within a tight deadline of ten days. I told the caller that an important report of that size and significance would require a minimum of one month to edit, if not two months, and that it was impossible for me to edit it in under two weeks. (For those who may not know, editing is not simply a matter of correcting spelling and grammar; it often involves consultation with the author(s) to ensure logic and consistency, and in some cases, to verify facts.) I did not think I could do a professional editing job in such a short period, so I declined the offer.

A few days later, I happened to be in Mombasa when two members of the TJRC’s staff approached me and pleaded with me to take on the editing assignment. I told them that I would, but only on the condition that another editor work with me on the report. They agreed and so I was quickly booked into the Serena Hotel in Mombasa where the TJRC team was temporarily based to put the final touches to the commission’s report.

Upon arrival at the hotel, I was immediately struck by how youthful the TJRC staff were. The majority were born and raised during the Daniel arap Moi era, and I remember wondering if they had the experience and knowledge to understand the extent of the horrors of the injustices and human rights violations that had occurred in Kenya during both Jomo Kenyatta’s and Moi’s regimes.

But what became obvious to me within the first days of my arrival was the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere of the commission. It was clear that many of the commissioners who were staying at the Serena were not comfortable in each other’s presence, and while there was a shared camaraderie between the staff of the commission, there was an air of suspicion about who could or could not be trusted. For example, I was told that every document that I would edit would be password-protected and that I should not leave my computer without logging out as even the waiters and the cleaners in the hotel could not be trusted.

At first I thought that the tense atmosphere was the result of the controversy surrounding the chair of the TJRC, Ambassador Bethuel Kiplagat, who refused to resign despite questions being raised about whether he could be an impartial chairman given that he had been a witness to some of the human rights violations committed during the Moi regime, in which he had held important positions in various capacities. His failure to withdraw from the commission had even led one of the commissioners, Betty Murungi, to resign.

Prof. Slye’s book shows that the request for an extension was not so much due to the staff needing more time to finish the report, but because the political establishment did not want the findings of the report to influence the outcome of the March 2013 presidential elections

However, having read Prof. Ronald C. Slye’s book, The Kenyan TJRC: An Outsider’s View from the Inside, it is now clear to me that something much more sinister was afoot. I had entered the commission at precisely the time when a plot was being hatched to not release the report in 2012, as per the TJRC’s mandate, but the following year – after the 2013 elections to be precise. Indeed, during my stay at the Serena, I was told that what I and my co-editor were editing may not be the final report after all, as the commission would be asking for an extension to complete it. At the time, I thought that asking for a delay in the release of the report was probably a good idea; while many sections of the report were well written, some chapters clearly needed more work, and probably needed to be redrafted.

Prof. Slye’s book shows that the request for an extension was not so much due to the staff needing more time to finish the report, but because the political establishment did not want the findings of the report to influence the outcome of the March 2013 presidential elections. Given the nature of the TJRC report – which sought to gather evidence and make public all the human rights violations and historical injustices committed by Kenya’s ruling elite since independence – it was understandable that many prominent people would not be happy with its contents, and would prefer that the report not be made public. For instance, Uhuru Kenyatta, whose father has been associated with various land-related injustices, would not want such a report to influence his chances of becoming president in 2013, particularly and especially because he was at that time also indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity committed after the disputed 2007 election.

However, that commissioners appointed to the TJRC (all of whom have impeccable professional credentials) would succumb to political pressure and agree to delete some sections of the report that adversely mentioned the Kenyatta family is something that I did not expect. Slye – a professor of law at Seattle University and one of three foreign commissioners at the TJRC – shows in his book that by the time the commission was finalising its report, several commissioners had already been compromised or had been coerced into taking political sides, and that by the time the report was released in May 2013, chances of the report’s recommendations being implemented were virtually nil. In addition, some of the commissioners were actively colluding with the new government of Uhuru Kenyatta to delay the release of the report.

Prof. Slye says that when he asked some of the other commissioners why they had asked for such a long extension, even though the report was nearly complete by mid-2012, he was told that it was not the commissioners who wanted an extension, but the government of Mwai Kibaki, presumably so that the report would not be released before the 2013 election (which suggests that Kibaki and his cronies did not want the report’s contents to influence that election). Slye believed that this would be counterproductive because “if our report had been released in a timely manner before the [presidential] debates, it would have provided an opportunity for the voices of the thousands of Kenyans we had heard throughout the country to be included in this important national discussion”. In other words, if Kenyans had had a chance to debate and discuss the contents of the report prior to the 2013 election, they might not have been so eager to support an Uhuru presidency.

The government of Jomo Kenyatta’s son, Uhuru, used his powers to cajole, bribe and threaten commissioners and senior staff of the TJRC to have this and other references to his father’s land grabbing removed from the report, including the testimony of Toza

In his book, which was published last year, the law professor reveals the intrigues that intensified near the date of the report’s release in May 2013 and how various top State House mandarins sought to influence the contents of the report, in particular, references to land grabs by Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta. The Office of the President seemed particularly perturbed by the testimony of a man from Kwale named Toza who claimed that he and his community had lost 250 acres of prime beach land to President Jomo Kenyatta. “The owners of the land were offered the equivalent of US$84 per acre of land, far below the then market value,” writes Slye. “Toza’s father refused the payment and, with other dispossessed residents, unsuccessfully fought to keep the land in the hands of the local community.”

According to Slye, “The government of Jomo Kenyatta’s son, Uhuru, used his powers to cajole, bribe and threaten commissioners and senior staff of the TJRC to have this and other references to his father’s land grabbing removed from the report, including the testimony of Toza.”

Why would Uhuru Kenyatta’s government go to such extraordinary lengths to doctor the report? After all, it is common knowledge that the Kenyatta family became the richest family in the country within just one generation because the patriarch Jomo went on a land-grabbing spree shortly after independence and used his enormous political influence to dispossess people of their land. This narrative is well-documented in various reports, inquiries, books and articles, and as our recent history has shown, has had little impact on the Kenyan electorate, which went on to elect Jomo’s son in the controversial 2013 and 2017 elections, even though the latter was at that time facing charges at the ICC. So why fear the obvious?

Alliance of the Accused

Slye’s book suggests that while the delay in the report’s release probably had to do with the fact that Kibaki did not want the report’s contents to influence the 2013 election, the behind-the-scenes machinations to change the report after Uhuru became president were motivated by a desire to whitewash the new Kenyan presidency. The combined “Alliance of the Accused” between the two ICC indictees, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, was viewed as “a shift away from accountability and a further entrenchment of impunity in Kenyan politics”. Both Uhuru and Ruto portrayed the election as a “referendum against the ICC”, and so probably did not want the report’s findings and recommendations to influence the ICC’s case against them. (Both cases eventually collapsed due to various reasons.)

This shift in accountability, whereby the electorate voted for candidates not despite the fact that they were indicted by the ICC, but because they were indicted, dramatically changed the political landscape in Kenya. Slye believes that it had a direct effect on the final days of the commission:

“My first indication that something was seriously amiss occurred on May 6 [2013] when I happened to visit our printer’s office to check on the status of the production of the report. When I arrived, I found commissioners [Margaret] Shava and [Ahmed Sheikh] Farah standing over our staff and directing which parts of the report to remove concerning the Kenyatta family. When I asked them under what authority they were changing the content of the report, they replied that we had to remove references to Kenyatta, as the matters were considered sub judice.”

This assertion was clearly false as none of the testimonies referring to Kenyatta were before a Kenyan court. In fact, few, if any, of the over 40,000 statements and testimonies gathered by the TJRC, including from families of the victims of the Wagalla massacre and those who were tortured by the state’s security forces, were cases that were being tried by Kenya’s justice system.

All three of the foreign commissioners – Ronald C. Slye from the USA, Berhanu Dinka (now deceased) from Ethiopia, and Gertrude Chawatama from Zambia – then signed a dissent opinion on the land chapter of the 2,000-plus pages of the final report. Part of the dissent statement reads: “With much regret, and after many tireless days of trying to reach a reasonable compromise, we are obligated by our conscience and the oath we took when we joined this Commission, to dissent completely from the amendments made after 3 May 2013 to this chapter in this Volume devoted to Land – Chapter 2 of this Volume B.”

The TJRC website, which carried the final edition of the report, has since been dismantled. The only available online version of the report, including the dissent and other related documents, can be found on Seattle University’s website.

Neither Prof. Slye nor most of the other seven commissioners were present when Ambassador Kiplagat handed over the report to President Uhuru Kenyatta on 21 May 2013. The ceremony was a hurried, low-key affair, which was surprising given that much time and many resources had gone into the commission and its work.

In March 2015, nearly two years after the TJRC report was published, President Uhuru Kenyatta, in his State of the Nation address, made a public apology to all those who had suffered human rights violations and injustices under previous regimes, and promised to establish a 10-billion-shilling fund for those affected. To date it is not clear if these funds have been disbursed to victims or their families.

Meanwhile, the TJRC website, which carried the final edition of the report, has since been dismantled. The only available online version of the report, including the dissent and other related documents, can be found on Seattle University’s website.

As part of his legacy, Uhuru Kenyatta must claim the TJRC report on behalf of all Kenyans, and ensure that its recommendations are fully implemented.

Which goes to show that this government would prefer to erase the report and its findings not just from Kenyans’ memories, but from the public domain as well. This is unfortunate because it was lack of acknowledgement of the atrocities committed by various regimes that had led to the bloodletting of 2007 and 2008. The recognition that historical injustices needed to be addressed eventually resulted in the establishment of the TJRC. By suppressing the TJRC report, and failing to implement its recommendations, the Uhuru Kenyatta government may be laying the foundations for similar violence in the future.

Wounds may heal, but painful memories and resentments can simmer for generations. As part of his legacy, Uhuru Kenyatta must claim the TJRC report on behalf of all Kenyans, and ensure that its recommendations are fully implemented.

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