Politics in many parts of Africa is often understood through a metaphor of eating – a point to which Jean-François Bayart drew our attention in his seminal 1989 publication, The State in Africa. In contrast to the social scientific discourse of corruption, the idiom of eating is more neutral and bespeaks necessity. While eating to excess while others go hungry may be corrupt and immoral, everyone must eat to survive. This moral ambivalence is often lost on social scientific thinkers and journalists, who tend to portray “corruption” on the continent (even of the petty or distributive variety) in black-and-white, moralistic terms. Although corruption is a common source of public outrage and complaint, many Kenyans debate the issue in shades of gray, recognizing the sometimes-blurry line between graft and redistribution.
The relationship between politics and consumption is far from abstract. The run-up to the 2017 general elections in Kenya, which has coincided with the rising cost of staple foods, has literalized the “politics of the belly.” This year, inflation reached a four-year high as prices for basic commodities (including cabbage, milk, and sugar) rose precipitously. Kenyans have been particularly hard-hit by the mounting cost of maize flour, used to make Kenya’s most popular (and populist) dish: ugali. In response to spiraling prices, the government waived tariffs for imported maize and, in mid-May, introduced a subsidy on maize flour. These efforts, however, have barely eased consumer suffering.
Ugali politics has since dominated Kenya’s headlines. The opposition and ruling coalitions have blamed one another for the rising prices and flour shortages, trading accusations of negligence and malfeasance. Irregularities surrounding a recent maize import have become fodder for speculations circulating on Twitter and other social media. The Jubilee government has been accused of manufacturing the maize crisis to benefit politically connected commodity traders and using an aptly timed subsidy to win over the electorate. (In typical sardonic fashion, Gado captured these allegations in a series of recent political cartoons). Others charge NASA politicians with politicizing the issue, fueling protests (under the hashtag #ungaRevolution) and obscuring their own responsibility for the maize shortage. While the ruling coalition undoubtedly holds the greatest share of blame for the crisis, it is worth noting that both William Ruto, the sitting deputy president, and Raila Odinga, the opposition’s presidential candidate, have been accused in the past of profiting from the illegal manipulation of the maize market.
Some observers believe that the rising cost of food may fundamentally alter long-standing voting patterns. According to these forecasts, the food crisis will prompt Kenyans to vote on “economic issues,” rather than along “tribal lines,” in the upcoming election. Such arguments rest on a false assumption that material factors are distinct from “ethnic” politics. Economic considerations often drive people’s voting decisions, whether they cast a ballot for a politician of their ethnicity or for a member of another group. For many Kenyans, having one’s “own” in power ensures that a limited amount of wealth (whether through licit or illicit channels) will flow down to ordinary people through social relations of kinship and clientage. These lines of patronage can be essential to people’s survival and should not be readily dismissed as “holdovers” from the past or evidence of “stunted” development. Practically speaking, the reigning alternative (the neoliberal/good governance “consensus”) offers little guarantee of a greater share of the pie.
The food crisis also reveals the need to situate Kenyan politics within a broader understanding of the regional and world economy. The rising costs of food is the result of a confluence of internal and external factors: recent drought in the region, inflationary pressure caused by a strengthened US dollar and rebounding oil prices, dependence on rain-fed agriculture, and profiteering by millers, middlemen, and politicians. It reveals a citizenry prone to elite mismanagement and corruption, susceptible to shocks in the world economy, and increasingly vulnerable to the vagaries of climate change.
The right to “eat” (whether literal or metaphorical) is foundational to the moral economy of politics in Kenya. Certainly, the “politics of the belly” can (and often does) foster elite accumulation, a problem that has reached new heights in recent years. It can also breed divisive forms of nativism, especially during election seasons (a problem encapsulated in the Kenyan expression: “It’s our turn to eat.”*) But there is also subversive potential to the metaphor of “eating,” which can enable citizens to highlight inequality, make claims on the redistributive functions of the state, and publically shame gluttonous and corrupt politicians.
* This expression serves as the title of Michela Wrong’s popular book on John Githongo, the former Kenyan journalist who exposed a particularly egregious case of government graft known as the Anglo-Leasing scandal.