As a biting drought cuts through a swath of suffering across much of the north and northeastern parts of Kenya, imperilling nearly a million people, government officials and journalists have been locked in an obscene public relations battle over whether anyone has actually died.
Despite the heart-wrenching pictures and footage of emaciated villagers published on newspaper front pages, broadcast on TV channels and shared on social media, the officials continue to insist that the situation has been blown out of proportion.
“There should be no cause for alarm at the moment. The government has put in place intervention to manage the current drought,” Deputy President William Ruto said in mid-March.
“Yes, deaths have been reported. But the reports we’ve gotten from our multi-agency team on [the] ground have not linked the reported deaths directly to drought,” added James Oduor, the head of the National Drought Management Authority, whose mandate is precisely to ensure that drought does not result in disaster.
Yet the images Kenyans have seen and the testimony of the people on the ground belie the assertion that there is no emergency. One newspaper has reported at least 20 deaths from starvation across two of the worst-hit counties. It is repugnant that those who have been forced to watch helplessly as their relatives slowly starve to death are essentially being told it didn’t happen by a government that is more focused on covering its backside.
The irony is that not only was this tragedy predicted months ago, but there is actually more than enough food in the country to feed everyone. In December, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, which monitors food insecurity across more than 36 countries, warned that poor households in the northern counties of Kenya would experience heightened food insecurity in February and March.
This, however, did not spur any concerted action to avert the suffering.
In fact, at the time, President Uhuru Kenyatta‘s administration was steeped in a scandal over the irregular import of maize, the country’s staple, which had flooded the market and precipitated losses among farmers. None of that maize, it seems, made it to where it was urgently needed.
In the decades since Kenya gained independence, folks in the marginalised and neglected northern regions have developed a depressing familiarity with drought and hunger. According to the Institute for Security Studies, the drought cycle has decreased over the years, from once every decade, “to every five years, further down to every two to three years, and currently every year is characterized by some dry spell.” While this is attributable to factors, such as climate change that are largely beyond the government’s control, the accompanying food crises are not.
Although adequate information exists to predict and thus avoid food shortages, the government has eschewed forward planning in favour of emergency interventions once crises are under way. Further, there has been little in the way of long-term measures to build resilience within communities or even to integrate the remote regions into the country’s food economy, which would allow surpluses in other areas to flow there.
One study, for example, notes that poor infrastructure means transport costs account for nearly two-thirds of the cost of maize and that “maize moving from surplus to deficit regions is levied multiple local taxes for traversing different local government municipalities.”
The humanitarian crisis that hit the Horn of Africa region in 2011 and affected 13 million people, including nearly four million Kenyans, prompted a change in the approach of governments, donors and humanitarian organisations away from emergency responses and towards building resilience within communities to extreme events and climate variability.
Kenya has committed itself to ending drought-related food emergencies by 2022, yet three years to that deadline, officials are still blaming the weather. It is thus more than a little ironic for Eugene Wamalwa, the cabinet secretary under whose docket this falls, to claim he now wants to end “this relief food business” and “focus more on resilience”, as if the government has not had a decade to do this.
The Kenya Red Cross has also come in for a bit of stick after it launched an appeal for Kenyans to donate $8m to help the people the government insists are not dying. A similar appeal in 2011 raised some $10m in cash and kind promising to invest it in long-term resilience.
However, many of the projects that money initiated were not themselves sustained and were abandoned long ago. In reality, such appeals, when unaccompanied by demands for accountability for the governance failure that makes the crises possible, have only served to keep people chronically vulnerable to hunger by substituting charity for policy action.
“Famines are easy to prevent,” declared Indian economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. So are drought-related emergencies, “if there is a serious effort to do so, and a democratic government, facing elections and criticisms from opposition parties and independent newspapers, cannot help but make such an effort.”
In the end, the real reason why people are starving in Northern Kenya has little to do with rain or climate-change and everything to do with a government, politicians and media that for decades have been indifferent to their plight. In challenging the government’s narrative, the media is perhaps attempting to atone for its part in this. But it is too little and has come too late.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.