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Resistance against the neoliberal economy in Kenya and across the world
Picture credit: deCOALonize

The authors draw our attention to the danger of growth at all costs, especially to the environment and the livelihoods of marginalised communities, especially in Kenya and other developing countries.  

If Kenyan politics makes it into the international mainstream media it is likely through the lens of electoral politics. Ever since post-election violence made global headlines in 2007, this is the narrow lens through which Kenyan politics is viewed. 

The presidential elections of 2017 brought Kenya to a standstill; a state from which it has not yet recovered. Following the logic of electoral obsession, the cited reason for the mayhem was the need for electoral reforms. Mobilisations around this demand, and the state-led repression they triggered, threw the country into a vortex for months. 

The mainstream media was saturated with key events in the unfolding electoral spectacle. Themurder of an Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission [senior] official, the “fraudulent electoral tallying systems” and finally the High Court’s decision to annul the presidential results brought the instability to a head. Between August and October 2017, the country was divided along economic and ethno-nationalist lines, and violence broke out in different regions. The state responded with the argument that this “forced” them to deploy close to 200,000 security officers to maintain peace in the otherwise “volatile areas.”

Critically, all of these events were framed by local and international media as isolated incidents, related only to the elections, rather than understood as symptoms of a deeper, underlying crisis in Kenyan politics – a protracted struggle between a minority that doubles as the political and economic elite, and a population determined to live dignified lives representative of their political, economic, social and cultural aspirations.

In this narrative, which dominated the mainstream media, what wasn’t brought to the surface was the widespread feelings of increasing frustration, outrage, and distrust of state power as well as the various forms of resistance against it. The months leading up to the election had exposed a deep rot in the structures governing the nation’s political economy. 

Economic growth as an indicator of progress

Kenya, in the official “postcolonial democracy” story, with its “well functioning and growing” neoliberal economy, is a thriving nation.By telling a story of progress based on a growing gross domestic product (GDP), Kenya has managed to secure admiration - as well as loans - from colonial and imperialist interests; both for its potential as a regional hegemony and a promising global financial hub. Projects mostly funded by foreign governments, multi-national companies, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have been seemingly endless.

These projects are aimed at developing economic hubs, which are connected into a regional network. Similar to the extractive colonial set-ups, infrastructural project like the railways, roads, oil pipelines, sea and air ports provide passageways that will ease the flow of goods and services- and are the major markers of the country’s progress towards building sustainable development. 

The deliverables of these material projects include promises of enhancing social infrastructure, security and access to service delivery for everyone alike. The reality has however been growth for a few, propped up by increased taxes for the majority peasant and working classes, in an increasingly unequal society.

At the core of enabling this expansion has been the silencing of community voices that are resisting and desisting the corporatisation of their natural resources and are articulating the threats they pose to nurturing, preserving and enabling the survival of their cultures, environment, ways of life, and future generations. 

Save Lamu and #DeCOALoniseKenya 

As the government continues to push this neoliberal growth model, decentralised organising amongst communities is pushing back. An increasing number of voices are opposing - in one way or another - the current economic system and the narratives that support it

Lamu - a coastal county of Kenya known for its unique biodiversity, preservation of ancient cultures and a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation world heritage site - is a central node in the government’s GDP-growth-at-all-costs policy. The main focus in this area has been natural resource exploration and infrastructural projects. 

In addition to awidely contested 200 billion shillings (US $ 2 billion) “clean coal” power plant,the Lamu Port-South Sudan Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET) is a 2.7 trillion shillings(US $ 27 billion) flagship project aimed at achieving Kenya’s Vision 2030, a neoliberal agenda to transform the country into a newly industrialised, middle-income country.

Save Lamu, a coalition of over 35 community-based organisations, has been campaigning since 2009 to encourage their communities to divest from, as well as name, the impact of these investment plans to the environment and their communities. At the heart of this organising are grave concerns including, but not limited to, lack of access to information around the development of the port; community marginalisation in decision making processes; internal displacement of indigenous communities without compensation from their ancestral lands; destruction of bio-culture and ways of life within the communities that depend on fishing, pastoralism, eco-tourism and farming to sustain their livelihoods; and devastating environmental consequences for the wildlife, biodiversity, marine and terrestrial life around the areas where LAPSSET will cover.

Locally, the struggle of the people of Lamu is not different from environmental struggles of communities and environmental activists who are opposing the construction of Kenya’s new railway through the Nairobi National Park, and pastoralists in Northern Kenya who find themselves either already displaced or facing potential displacement under the guise of conserving the environment.

More importantly, this struggle of the people of Lamu reverberates with stories across the world, where communities continue to expose the violent underbelly of economic growth.

A particularly resonant example comes from Mexico, where a group of community activists, artists and civil society actors came together to launch and won a campaign to halt the construction of an international airport, NAICM. This mega-project is intended to run over a tract of rural commons and home to indigenous Nahuas peoples, and would destroy the sacred lakebed of Texcoco Lake. Part of their organising tactic and demands was an outright rejection of the narrative that economic growth is the prime indicator of progress. 

As stated in the article, “Mexico is on the Verge of a major Human Disaster”by Paloma Martinez and Jason Hickel,the #YoPrefieroElLago organisers argued that, “the easy equivalence between growth and progress might have seemed reasonable back in the 1950s, when the environment was relatively stable. But as our global civilisation bumps up against the harsh realities of climate change, mass extinction, and ecological collapse, it makes less and less sense. In fact, the usual narrative has it exactly backwards: as we scramble to reverse ecological breakdown, growth is emerging as the greatest enemy of progress.”

As communities around the globe continue to resist the seizure of their natural resources by corporate and neo-colonial interests, the questions being posed at the forefront of every socio-cultural, political and environmental struggle remain the same. Is perpetual economic growth sustainable on a finite planet? What are the implications of the growth-at-all-costs model for our planet and livelihoods? And most importantly, whodoes economic growth really work for?


* Gathoni Blessol is an Activist and Community Strategist in Kenya. Sungu Oyoo is Coordinator at Kenyans For Tax Justice.