Tiffs over sugar, migrants' crossings, just the soundtrack of African lives (Daily Nation (Kenya))

Recent days have been the kind that should humble us. You think you know something, and then boom, someone throws a spanner into the works that makes you think again.

Let us start, briefly, with that issue that has set off a mother of all word wars between Jubilee politicians and the opposition Cord – Ugandan sugar.

When President Uhuru Kenyatta went west visiting with Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, among other things, they signed a deal that apparently allows Uganda sugar unfettered access to Kenyan markets, and in exchange Kenya will export milk and beef to Uganda.


Sugar is a hot political potato in Kenya, and that deal didn’t go down well in all quarters. The debate has been furious.

One thing that’s still puzzling is that in all the coverage and politicking, a simple fact was not referred to – for a while now, Kenyan supermarkets have been carrying Ugandan sugar.

In other words, the business people had figured out how to do their thing. Also, if you live in eastern Uganda, you probably drink Kenyan milk. Any agreement between Kenyatta and Museveni would therefore be mostly ceremonial. The sugar and milk are already being sold.

Reminds of the time some time back when I was in Pokot, and went to a milk plant. The chaps who transport the milk for the local cooperative are from Uganda. So I asked, How come you use trucks from Uganda, not Kenya?

I got very puzzled looks, then my host answered as gently as he could so as not to make me look stupid; Well, Uganda is just a few minutes across, and it’s how we have always done business. The nearest Kenyan truck would take hours to get here, he said. My mistake was that I was looking at Kenya and Uganda as states. My hosts in Pokot look at them as markets.

So after some Twitter debate on the Uganda sugar beef, I woke up on Wednesday to a cryptic tweet from a Kenyan. His point was that the increased sugar capacity in Uganda in recent years was due partly to Kenyans investing in sugar mills there!

If he is correct, then President Kenyatta is really not helping Uganda sugar companies, but Kenyan sugar millers! This stuff can mess with your head.


Then there was an online debate about those African migrants who are drowning in the Mediterranean crossings. If, the question goes, Africa is rising, i.e. growing richer, why is it that so many of its people are making those desperate and dangerous journey to Europe in rickety boats?

But how dangerous are the crossings? First, you are more likely to be murdered during a robbery in Nairobi or Johannesburg than to drown in the Mediterranean crossing to Europe.

However, there is something else. Eritrea is one of the leading sources of these immigrants, and from Eritrea to get across the Sahara desert and into Libya, some pay up to $3,000. Then another $1,000 for the boat rides to Italy, making it $4,000.

What is striking about that is if you had a visa and flew from Nairobi to Rome, you can do so for a $800 bargain ticket – just 20 per cent of what a poor migrant from East Africa might do to get on the boat. So perhaps blame the difficulty of getting a visa, more than anything else, for the plight of the emigrants.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the majority of Africans looking for opportunities don’t take a trip outside the continent.

According to World Bank and African Development Bank data, more than 50 per cent of African emigrants head not to the West, but to other African countries.

In sub-Saharan Africa, it’s even higher, with nearly 70 per cent of international migrants going to countries within their region (as the South Africans will tell you), the largest intra-continental movement of people in the world.

We don’t know about these movements mostly because we, the media, don’t report them. The Mediterranean ones, which are just a tiny percentage of movement by Africans, grab headlines because drowning is dramatic, and there is a race factor – white Europe being overrun by black swarms to use UK premier David Cameron’s words.

So, as we said at the outset, we should be humbled because whether it is sugar, milk, or Mediterranean, we know the stories, but are very ignorant of the realties.


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