A Jittery leadership might be good for prevention of famine

The JKIA inferno brought to the fore the age-old debate about our country’s ineptitude in dealing with disasters. In an attempt to add a voice to this debate, I feel strongly that a jittery leadership is a pivotal factor in disaster management. And to defend this position, I call to mind the 1982 coup d’état attempt and the 1984/85 food emergency.

100 soldiers and more than 200 civilians are recorded to have died during the putshe attempt. However, in a curious twist of events, this failed attempt might have aided to avert what might have been a more fatal disaster-famine.

The 1984/85 food emergency was the worst to hit Kenya in the 20th Century. Livestock losses of up to 70% were recorded and production of major food security crops such as maize, wheat and potato dropped by 50%, 70% and 70% respectively. These very low yields and loss of livestock was caused by a drought that began with the failure of the short rains in northern and north-eastern Kenya in 1983. Only the central and western highlands received enough rain to produce maize. However, in 1984, the long rains almost completely failed, except in the narrow strip along the coast and in the western highlands. Hence, the drought was felt heavily in the Central highlands where a majority of natives were not enthusiastic about Moi’s presidency.

The failed coup d’état jolted President Moi to the realization that all was not well. Although, it was primarily planned by persons loyal to the late Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, rumours have it that a few Kikuyus within the disciplined forces were warming up for a coup but the Luos beat them to it. Hence, with this background in mind, President Moi acted fast to mitigate the effects of the drought as he feared deterioration of the drought into famine might result in discontent and political instability.

His government established an inter-ministerial drought response coordinating committee chaired by the Chief Secretary in his office. The committee moved swiftly to assess the situation, establish a government response policy, begin commercial imports of food, negotiate with the donor community for food assistance, and establish a Task Force to manage the food import and distribution program. The first shipment of yellow maize arrived in September 1984. It was 30% less costly than white maize and had a secondary positive effect of encouraging informal rationing by those consumers who had access to alternative food supplies.

The Planning Department of the Ministry of Finance and Planning collected information on the school feeding programs, commodity prices in various local markets, domestic commodity transport costs, livestock conditions, nutritional status of selected low income communities, voluntary organization programs and the status of the railway rolling stock. These were analysed and made available at all levels of personnel involved in the drought response. Unconditional relief in the form of free food rations were given out to vulnerable households in the affected areas. The identification of such households was carried out by the provincial administration which relied on relief committees and local chiefs. In 1985, the long rains were about average and drought emergency was considered over.

The government response to the 1984/85 food emergency was pivotal in the prevention of a famine and it was lauded the world over. However, an often overlooked fact is that a jittery presidency was fundamental to its success.

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