Mass starvation is a crime —we must treat it that way

Mass starvation is a crime —we must treat it that way

For once in a long while, conventional media must be congratulated for socially-responsible reporting on hunger-related deaths and thousands of starving people in the north. Citizens had almost forgotten that media could dare point out what government – its biggest client – was denying, including reportedly firing a chief for confirming the deaths. What a travesty!

By the time government was announcing it had “set aside” Sh2 billion to deal with famine, it was two weeks too late, a few more deaths too late and in extremely ill taste, for individuals, including journalists, had already visited Turkana and Baringo to report, donate and attempt to feed their starving and dying countrymen.

Famine has never been an unprecedented emergency. Official statistics about famine in Kenya published by Oxfam in 2018 show that there were famines in Kenya in 1984, 1987, 1994, in 2017 and now in 2019. What is more, the Meteorological Department did warn – more accurately this time than before – there would be drought from as early as October last year, and which areas would be most affected.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network predicted that below-average seasonal rainfall would cause an increase in food insecurity in early 2019. This organization ascribed its prediction to recurring droughts in Kenya which had made it difficult for farmers and herders in pastoralist communities to produce enough food for themselves or their livestock. Before then, the World Vision Famine warning report (2018) had warned that the recurring drought, conflict, and communal instability would possibly lead to severe food shortages.

But, even disregarding the weather and climate warnings, how do we justify, in a country where trucks have been lined up for months at National Cereals and Produce Board stores across the country because the silos are full, these deaths?

This is not an issue of infrastructure.


Kenya possesses institutional capacity to predict and prevent mass starvation. The ministry of Devolution has a Special Programs department that’s concerned with famine, droughts and disaster. Among its primary mandates is to collect data to be used in monitoring and evaluating the signals that indicate the possibility of famine and therefore starvation among the communities living in arid and semi-arid areas. County Governments too are structured to contain the social and economic challenges of the pertinent regions. Kenyans were rightly outraged that neither county nor national governments seemed remotely aware that people were starving, let alone provide requisite response.

In his book The Poor are Not Us, David Anderson argues that Kenya’s model of pastoralism has no future because the pastoralism economy practised among the Turkana, the Samburu and the Maasai is not value additive in a macro-economic sense; it only perpetrates land degradation, droughts, famine and accumulated drought. In another book, Extinguishing Commons (2013), he predicts that the forest living communities of Baringo County will soon be eliminated away by the negative consequences of climate change that have led to reduced biodiversity in the natural forests, rain, insects, honey, roots and herbs that used to support forest dwelling communities like the Ogiek. Because of these scenarios, pastoralist parents feed their children on the low protein content diets that lead to poor academic performance and, consequently, low quality life.

Such research, and more, is as public as research can be made, and is an invaluable tool for shaping development policies to manage regional economies. For example, we do not need to have segments of Kenyans stick to socioeconomic cultures which expose them to insecurity, degraded environments, droughts, instantaneous floods, famine and starvation. In any event, it is almost impossible to peg any kind of social development in a pastoralist economic set up like that of Turkana, where insecurity, famines and harsh environment blend to clash with good intentions of enlightening, uplifting and civilising.

The Oxfam report cited earlier recommends that famines and other disasters must be dealt with through a proactive models that aim to prevent, not react. Distributing relief food, often for PR because we failed to implement the correct policies, to emaciated, half-starved and semi dead citizens is hardly the hallmark of, in the words of Kenya’s Foreign Affairs ministry to the “failed state” of Somalia, “…a normal, well-adjusted and properly functioning modern state.”

There is no honour in government officials posing for the camera with dry cereal for a dried-up old man in front of his hungry, mourning grandchild who watched her father literally waste away just days prior. That is the definition of government violating the constitutional and fundamental human rights of its people through negligence of duty.

It is callous and it is criminal.

*”Alexander Opicho contributed to most of this article.

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