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Ridiculous Sums of Money: Why the War on Drugs Has Failed

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The war on drugs has failed. It has failed to stop, or even slow, the production, trafficking and consumption of drugs.

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The drug war
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Nairobi, Kenya – CONSUMERS IN FINAL MARKET COUNTRIES HAVE NEVER HAD IT SO GOOD

The war on drugs has failed. It has failed to stop, or even slow, the production, trafficking and consumption of drugs. The specific aim to destroy and inhibit the international drug trade — making drugs scarcer and costlier, and thus unaffordable, has only been partially achieved.

Most experts agree that the drug war has prevented some drug abuse by making forbidden substances less readily accessible. It has made drugs like heroin and cocaine vastly more expensive than similar agricultural-based psychoactive products such as coffee or tea. One study shows that the increase in price per gram as cocaine moves down its distribution chain is up to 100,000% that of coffee. Also, the fact that illegal drugs are not readily available at your local chemist or supermarket has undoubtedly meant fewer users are able to access them.

However, this is only part of the story. In fact, consumers in final market countries have never had it so good. Overall, the price of most illegal drugs has actually plummeted while the drugs have become even more potent.

A study published in the British Medical Journal’s BMJ Open found that in the nearly two decades between 1990 and 2007, the purity of cocaine available in the United States increased by 11% while its price collapsed by 80%; the purity of heroin shot up by 60% while its price fell by a precipitous 81%; marijuana saw more than a tripling in purity accompanied by a similar drop in price to that of heroin and cocaine. The trends were similar across the Atlantic. In 18 European countries, the street price of cocaine halved over the same period. At the same time, in the decade between 2003 and 2013, the value of the global drug trade grew by over 35% from $320 billion to $435 billion, and, according to the UN, the drug business continues to be the third biggest in the world after oil and arms.

The war on drugs amounts to a transfer of the economic, political, social and environmental costs of prohibition from rich consumer countries to poorer producer and transit countries in return for a few dollars in aid

The number of people using drugs appears largely unaffected by the war on drugs. It is true that increased seizure and crop eradication, coupled with alternative development aimed at reducing the incentives for illicit cultivation, have reduced the amount of cocaine on offer.

TRAFFICKERS ARE FINDING NEW MARKETS AROUND THE WORLD

Still, although the 2016 UN World Drugs Report cautiously concluded that ‘the global cocaine market has indeed been shrinking,’ this is attributable both to declining production as well as changing consumption patterns across the globe, not to a reduction in the total numbers of drug users. Essentially, traffickers are finding new markets around the world even as consumption in the US and Europe stagnates, even declines. ‘The drug trade is becoming truly more global,’ Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, told CNBC in 2013. However, while in mature markets a small proportion of users buy the bulk of the product, their new customers tend to take less cocaine less often. Similarly, the huge fluctuations in the availability of opium – whether due to increased enforcement or not – have not led to dramatic changes in the number of opiate users though for different reasons.

The rub of it is that rather than reduce the number of people on drugs, the drug war has instead funnelled massive amounts of money into the pockets of drug barons and cartels. The global cocaine trade, though utilising a fraction of the land and labor resources required by the coffee industry, rakes in an estimated $85 billion annually from supplying under 20 million consumers with about half a million kilos of the drug. Compare that with the roughly $100 billion the coffee industry shares from providing about 9 billion kilos to the hundreds of millions of coffee lovers. At its peak, the Medellín Cartel in Columbia supplied 80% of the worldwide cocaine market and is estimated to have been generating at least $60 million a day in revenue. In fact, illicit proceeds from the drugs trade now account for half of all income from international organised crime.

In Latin America, drug interdiction efforts are associated with increasing murder rates, not just in the countries where the interdiction is carried out but, when it is successful, in the countries to which the traffickers are displaced

Such ridiculous sums of money make drug dealers immensely powerful and menacing figures. In fact, the war on drugs amounts to a transfer of the economic, political, social and environmental costs of prohibition from rich consumer countries to poorer producer and transit countries in return for a few dollars in aid. These costs include violence, corruption and the loss of legitimacy of state institutions, population displacements and environmental degradation.

In Latin America, drug interdiction efforts are associated with increasing murder rates, not just in the countries where the interdiction is carried out but, when it is successful, in the countries to which the traffickers are displaced. For example, in Colombia, the war against the Medellin cartel in the late 1980s and early 90s saw the homicide rate nearly double between 1985 and 1991. Some 16 years later, a fresh wave of interdiction in Colombia displaced the cartels and associated violence to northern Mexico which, combined with the effect of local policies, saw the homicide rate there triple between 2006 and 2010.

Narco-traffickers are able to corrupt governments and law-enforcement agencies and purchase political influence and even political power. Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellin cartel, created a Robin Hood image for himself in the 80s by building houses and public facilities for the poor. He even got himself elected to the Colombian House of Representatives in 1982. In the Kenyan Parliament, in December 2010, five legislators, Harun Mwau, William Kabogo, Hassan Joho, Simon Mbugua and Mike Mbuvi, were named in connection with the trafficking of narcotics. Two of those have since gone on to become county Governors and one a county Senator. In Guinea-Bissau, which the UN branded Afrca’s first narco-state, the value of the drugs trade is greater than the national income. ‘You walk in, buy the services you need from the government, army and people, and take over,’ was the way one senior official at the US’s Drug Enforcement Agency put it.

Further, drug money distorts the economies it washes through, creating huge inequalities and devastating local living standards. According to a 2009 report by the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada, drug traffickers have laundered approximately $100 million per year through the Kenyan financial system. ‘The proceeds of drug trafficking move through the [Kenyan] banking system,’ John Githongo, the veteran anti-corruption campaigner, told Investigative Reporting Project Italy in 2015. ‘In terms of movement of drug money, Kenya now rates higher even than Nigeria due to the rise of narcotics moving in and through the country, but also because of the country’s sophisticated financial system.’ The effects of such flows are not hard to discern.

The drug money is a significant part of the illicit money entering Kenya from fraudulent trade invoicing, crime, corruption and shady business activities, which by 2013 roughly equalled 8% of Kenya’s economy. Much of this money ends up in the country’s real estate, where it has inflated prices and made decent and safe housing unaffordable for the vast majority of the urban population.

The drug money is a significant part of the illicit money entering Kenya from fraudulent trade invoicing, crime, corruption and shady business activities, which by 2013 roughly equalled 8% of Kenya’s economy

Neither has the war on drugs spared populations in the West where it has contributed to mass incarcerations, and the virtual criminalisation of large segments of the citizenry. In the US, the war on drugs mostly targets minorities, particularly African Americans who, though not more likely than others to use or sell drugs, are much more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for drug offenses.

Further it has led to the increased militarization of police forces and new police powers such as asset seizures – meant to turn drug dealers’ ill-gotten gains against them – have in many cases undermined civil liberties. As detailed in The Economist, in the wake of a sharp rise in drug-related violence in the US, in 1990 Congress ‘allowed the Defence Department to transfer military gear and weapons to local police departments if they were deemed suitable for use in counter-drug activities.’

A WAR DOOMED FROM THE START

The war on drugs was perhaps doomed from the start as it was built on dubious philosophical, moralistic and even racist foundations and made assumptions that those bearing the most costs would continue to be happy to do so.

In 1875, it was racist hysteria over accounts of Chinese immigrants luring white women into opium dens that led to California passing the first anti-opium law

International drug control efforts can be traced back to the 1912 Hague Opium Convention that entered into force in 1919 and targeted opium, morphine, cocaine and heroin. Over the next half century, a series of international agreements would expand the scope of the anti-drugs effort to include restrictions on cannabis (1925), synthetic narcotics (1948) and psychotropic substances (1971). Drug trafficking was made an international crime in 1936.

The treaties negotiated prior to 1945, while imposing some restrictions on exports, did not actually criminalise drug use or cultivation or, indeed, the substances themselves. Rather, despite fierce debate, they were predominantly concerned with regulating the licit trade and ensuring the availability of a range of drugs for medical purposes. (Heroin was created by chemists working for the German company Bayer, and marketed alongside aspirin as a remedy for coughs, colds and ‘irritation’ in children. Cocaine, was first isolated in 1859 by German chemist Albert Niemann, made its debut in toothache drops marketed to children and was famously an ingredient in Coca-Cola.)

While the US increasingly pushed the issue of recreational and traditional use of drugs, it was primarily dealt with through attempts to prevent the leakage of licit drugs into illicit channels. In 1925, the two most ‘prohibitionist’ countries at the time, US and China, withdrew from negotiations on the International Opium Convention, because they considered it insufficiently restrictive.

The US, then in the throes of domestic alcohol prohibition, had hoped to entice the rest of the world into quitting, not just drugs, but booze for good. In fact, the aim of the US was to extend its prohibitive domestic laws across the globe. It was the US that had convened the 1909 Shanghai Opium Commission – which laid the groundwork for the 1912 convention, just 15 days after Congress had passed the Act to Prohibit the Importation and Use Of Opium for Other Than Medicinal Purposes, the first in a long line of prohibitive drug legislation. However, it was opposed by France, Great Britain, Portugal and the Netherlands, whose colonies were then turning a handsome profit from legal as well as illicit sales of opiates to Europe and the US.

According to the report America’s Habit: Drug Abuse, Drug Trafficking, & Organized Crime, issued by the President’s Commission on Organised Crime in 1986, most of the opium reaching the US in the 1920s and 30s was coming from France, Asia and the Mideast.

US efforts to interdict the supply of cocaine – which the US had outlawed in 1914 – and to a limited extent, opium, also included trying to entice its southern neighbours to adopt similar policies. However, few were interested. As detailed by Maria Celia Toro in her book, Mexico’s ‘War’ On Drugs: Causes and Consequences, ‘Those early attempts to enlist the co-operation of Latin American governments in suppressing the drug market were for the most part unsuccessful.’ Some were happy to sign agreements but balked at actually implementing anti-drug policies.

A LUCRATIVE, ANCIENT AND LEGAL COCA LEAF MARKET

Further, Peru and Bolivia, then the largest producers of coca leaf and whose participation Washington prized most, ‘had little interest in curtailing a lucrative, ancient and legal coca leaf market.’ Only Mexico accepted. But not because it particularly agreed with the policy. According to Toro, ‘Rather than trying to appease the US or reduce drug consumption at home, Mexico was trying to influence US conduct regarding antidrug law enforcement.’

In 1916, the Mexican Revolution was still raging. The country had just emerged from a year-long civil war and was still battling an insurgent guerrilla group. The last thing it needed was conflict along its border. And border conflict is exactly what the US bans on cocaine and opium (and later alcohol) created. ‘What at the beginning of the century constituted legal exports of minimal value soon became a significant smuggling activity,’ writes Toro. Citing historian F. Arturo Rosales, Curtis Marez in his book Drug Wars: The Political Economy of Narcotics, describes it thus: ‘In the 1910s and 1920s, liquor and drug wars involving competing smugglers and US police … rivalled the border battles fought by political factions during the revolution. These contraband wars left numerous smugglers and border agents dead.’

But by joining the American prohibition bandwagon beginning with a ban on opium imports in 1916, Mexico created the very conditions for the violence and instability it was trying to avoid. Toro writes that smuggling ‘later turned into a black market problem after different Mexican administrations outlawed trade and production of opium and other drugs.’

John Ehrlichman: We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities

Further, a distinctly racist attitude and fears of economic competition by minority groups informed US approaches to the regulation of drugs. In 1875, it was racist hysteria over accounts of Chinese immigrants luring white women into opium dens that led to California passing the first anti-opium law. Cocaine was similarly criminalised for its association with black communities. The white community’s economic fears of freed slaves gaining a foothold in the economy following the US civil war provided fertile ground for racist rumours of a drug that had the capacity to incite them to violence. With the New York Times running headlines warning ‘Negro Cocaine Fiends are a New Southern Menace,’ New Orleans became the first city to enact laws against cocaine in the early 1900s and the trend quickly spread. The banning of marijuana was a reaction to the influx of low-wage Mexican immigrants in the 1920s, sparked in part by the Mexican revolution. With the Great Depression creating massive unemployment, the ‘evil weed’ was the subject of lurid national campaigns that linked it to violence, crime and other socially deviant behaviours. By 1931, some 29 states had outlawed marijuana.

HOW PROHIBITION INCENTIVISED VIOLENCE AND DRUG SUPPLY

There are a number of things to note here. First, the US has been the primary driving force behind global prohibition efforts and has essentially sought to use international conventions to impose its drug puritanism on the globe and to export the problems drugs caused at home. Second, there was little appetite in the West, at least in Europe, for criminalising drugs when they were the countries that were benefiting from their illegal trafficking. Third, other countries initially resisted US-style prohibition and when Mexico caved in, it was for reasons other than the utility of prohibition in fighting drugs. Fourth, the effect of prohibition on drug prices immediately incentivised both violence and increased drug supply. In fact, the President’s Commission on Organised Crime acknowledged, ‘Heroin trafficking in this country first became big business in the 1920’s.’ And finally, the prohibition of drugs is fuelled at least as much by economic fears and cultural prejudice as by concerns over health effects and the social harm they cause.

All these trends have come to define the international drugs war in the decades after World War II. The US emerged from that conflict as the most powerful country in the world and the global prohibition of drugs was embedded into the DNA of the post-war order it crafted. However, unlike 20 years prior, it could now apply the necessary pressure to impose it on other countries via the United Nations system.

In 1961, the US initiated the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which sought to consolidate the various international agreements into one regime governing the global drugs trade. But more than that, it included provisions that were not in previous treaties including controls over the cultivation of plants from which narcotics are derived, which placed a heavy burden on producer countries in the developing world where the cultivation and widespread traditional use of opium poppy, coca leaf and cannabis were concentrated at the time. The Single Convention institutionalised prohibition and targets for abolishing traditional and quasi-medical uses of opium, coca and cannabis within 25 years. The Convention was also notable, for it was the first time that penal provisions were included in a widely accepted international drug control treaty. Further it required countries to regulate not just production, manufacture and export, but also possession of drugs.

A decade after the Single Convention was signed, a parallel process started to emerge with the signing of the1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances. Replicating the trends witnessed during the pre-war treaties, Western countries attempted, according to the President of the International Association of Penal Law, Cherif Bassiouni, ‘to impose strong controls over the cultivation, production and traffic of natural drugs originating in the developing countries, [but] were unwilling to impose the same types of control over their own chemical and pharmaceutical industries.

THE TARGET: ANTI-WAR HIPPIES AND BLACKS

That same year, President Richard Nixon famously declared what came to known as the ‘war on drugs’ in an address to Congress. Drug abuse, he said, was America’s ‘public enemy number one,’ despite the fact that consumption was not any worse than at any other time in history. What Nixon and his henchmen didn’t tell the public was that the ‘war’ was little more than a cynical ploy to fire up their political base using the tried and tested methods of the 1930s, and to curtail domestic dissent. John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy chief who served time for his role in the Watergate scandal, made this stunning admission to journalist Dan Baum in 1994: ‘The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: The anti-war left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.’

Seeing its political effectiveness, subsequent US presidents prosecuted the fake war, culminating in Ronald Reagan, who launched a period of mass hysteria over crack cocaine in the 1980s. As in the 1930s, the media painted crack users as violent, poor urban and most significantly, black. Crack and powder cocaine are the same drug. Crack is basically powder cocaine mixed with water and baking soda and the person who has the crack actually has less pure cocaine overall. For this reason, it is cheaper and preferred by low-income users. However, Congress, driven by the racist hysteria, concluded that crack was indeed the more dangerous drug and deliberately imposed much harsher penalties. The ‘Negro Cocaine Fiends’ of half a century before had become ‘crack-fiends,’ and mothers of ‘crack-babies.’ In three decades, the country quadrupled its prison population — all with no change in the rates of crime or drug use.

JUST LEGALISE IT, FOR GOD’S SAKE

Still, as discussed earlier, it has been producer and transit nations that have paid the highest price for the war of drugs. But many have begun balking at this and are openly questioning whether prohibition has been worth the cost. In 2009, three former presidents, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, César Gaviria of Colombia and Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil declared that prohibition was simply not worth it. ‘Prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalisation of consumption simply haven’t worked,’ they said. ‘The revision of US-inspired drug policies is urgent in the light of the rising levels of violence and corruption associated with narcotics.’

It is not surprising; Latin America, the region that perhaps more than any other, has suffered the consequences of prohibition. To understand how they feel, consider this thought experiment related by Daniel Mejia and Pascual Restrepo in their essay, Why Is Strict Prohibition Collapsing? ‘Suppose for a moment that all cocaine consumption in the US disappears and goes to Canada. Would the US authorities be willing to confront drug trafficking networks at the cost of seeing the homicide rate in cities such as Seattle go up from its current level of about five homicides per 100,000 individuals to a level close to 150 in order to prevent cocaine shipments from reaching Vancouver? If your answer to this question is ‘perhaps not,’ well… this is exactly what Colombia, Mexico and other Latin American countries have been doing over the past 20 years.’

Across the continent, many are rethinking their approach to drugs and rolling back prohibition. In 2010, Argentina’s Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to punish people for personal use of marijuana. Mexico has legalised limited amounts of all drugs for personal use. But it is probably in Europe that the greatest challenges to the prohibition orthodoxy have emerged.

The Dutch famously decriminalised cannabis in the early 70s and it has been available for recreational use in certain ‘coffee shops’ since 1976. Though technically illegal, possession of up to 5 grams for personal use is decriminalised. Italy too has decriminalised possession of less than half a gram of most illegal substances. Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands have successfully made heroin legally available to addicts through networks of government-run dispensaries.

However Portugal provides the most extensive, and most successful, example of decriminalisation. In July 2001, the country decriminalised all drugs, including cocaine and heroin. As is the case in several other European jurisdictions, purchase and possession for personal use and drug usage itself are still legally prohibited, but are dealt with as administrative, not criminal violations. Drug trafficking, however, is still a serious criminal offense.

No other country has gone so far, and Portugal is still the only country in the EU with a law explicitly declaring drugs to be ‘decriminalised.’ The results have been jaw-dropping. The expected tsunami of drug tourists never arrived. In a white paper for the libertarian think tank Cato Institute, constitutional lawyer and journalist Glenn Greenwald cites empirical data indicating that ‘decriminalisation has had no adverse effect on drug usage rates in Portugal, which, in numerous categories, are now among the lowest in the EU, particularly when compared with states with stringent criminalisation regimes.’

Dan Baum writes that ‘the lifetime prevalence of adult drug use in Portugal rose slightly, but problem drug use — that is, habitual use of hard drugs — declined after Portugal decriminalised, from 7.6 to 6.8 per 1,000 people. Compare that with nearby Italy, which didn’t decriminalise, where the rates rose from 6.0 to 8.6 per 1,000 people over the same time span. Because addicts can now legally obtain sterile syringes in Portugal, decriminalisation seems to have cut radically the number of addicts infected with HIV, from 907 in 2000 to 267 in 2008, while cases of full-blown Aids among addicts fell from 506 to 108 during the same period.’

Prohibition, and its misbegotten offspring, the war on drugs, have failed to bring about the promised drug-free world and have instead visited misery upon millions of the poorest people on the planet

Prohibition is under attack even in the US itself, though to a much lesser extent. Several states, including the District of Columbia, have allowed a legal trade in marijuana though at the federal level it remains prohibited. ‘We’re confronted now with the fact that the US cannot enforce domestically what it promotes elsewhere,’ a member of the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board, which monitors international compliance with the conference’s directives, told Baum.

GOOD RIDDANCE TO BAD LAWS

It is clear that prohibition, and its misbegotten offspring, the war on drugs, have failed to bring about the promised drug-free world. That they have instead visited misery upon millions of the poorest people on the planet is a fact that is only now starting to dawn on global policy makers. However, there is no consensus on how to move forward and in places like China and various Muslim nations where drug offences still attract draconian sanctions including the death penalty, there is little to suggest a changing mindset.

Still, the growing recognition of the failure has opened up the policy space and given reformers the room to imagine different approaches to dealing with drugs. No country is yet willing to experiment with full legalisation, but a broad spectrum of policy choices now exists under the banners of decriminalisation and de-penalisation (which eliminates jail terms for drug offences). One thing we can say for sure – the days of a simplistic, moralistic, one-size-fits-all solution to the challenge posed by the availability of drugs are very much over. Good riddance!

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Mr. Gathara is a social and political commentator and cartoonist based in Nairobi.

Politics

No War, No Peace: Life and Death in Eritrea

Thirty years after Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia, there has hardly been any meaningful development in this small nation in the Horn of Africa. On the contrary, the government’s authoritarian policies have undermined democracy and forced young people to flee the country.

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No War, No Peace: Life and Death in Eritrea
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Eritrea was an Italian colony from 1890 to 1941. Following the defeat of Italian forces by the Allied Forces during World War Two, Britain occupied Eritrea until its federation to Ethiopia in 1952. However, by 1962 Emperor Haile Selassie had annexed Eritrea, declaring that it was part of Ethiopia, and in this way ending the federation.

In 1961, a year before the annexation, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) started an armed struggle for independence from Ethiopia. The armed struggle continued for 30 years against successive Ethiopian regimes until 1991, when the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), who had replaced the ELF, defeated the Ethiopian forces in Eritrea. Eritrea became formally independent following a United Nations-supervised referendum in 1993.

From the beginning, the EPLF (now the People’s Front of Democracy and Justice – PFDJ)’s strategy for achieving liberation and national unity was for it to dominate all social, political, and economic spaces. The PFDJ implemented a highly centralised and opaque two-track system of administration: an unseen, powerful inner circle of elites; and public structures that projected an image of egalitarian self-sufficiency. This centralised and opaque model of governance continues today.

Since liberation, PFDJ has banned all opposition parties and treats all non-mass-movement organisations (i.e. independent civil society) with suspicion; hence there are no independent national civil society organisations in the country. Without any consultation, the PFDJ has nationalised all land; it has established a unitary form of government, and it has changed the administrative boundaries within the country. Despite these totalitarian tendencies, in 1994, the PFDJ, as the Provisional Government of Eritrea, set up the Constitutional Assembly to draft the Constitution. The task was completed in 1997. But the Constitution remains unimplemented.

Border dispute

In 1998, hostilities and war between Eritrea and Ethiopia resumed over border demarcation issues, particularly in the town of Bademe. By December 2000, the two countries signed the Algiers Peace Agreement and established the Eritrea Ethiopia Border Commission (EEBC) to determine the limits of their shared border.

The EEBC delivered its border decision on 13th April 2002, placing the town of Bademe, the flashpoint of the border conflict, on the Eritrean side. The Ethiopian government contested the allocation of Bademe to Eritrea. Therefore, a situation of “no war, no peace” ensued between the two countries as President Isaias Afewerki refused any dialogue on the issue because the parties had agreed that the decision of the EEBC was final and binding.

President Isaias Afwerki, who is also the chair of the PFDJ, took advantage of the strained relationship with Ethiopia to:

  1. indefinitely postpone the implementation of the 1997 Constitution as well as the general elections;
  2. arrest and disappear dissenters, especially University of Asmara students and the members of the government known as G15 who promoted a democratisation process (2001);
  3. close the independent media and arrest journalists (2001);
  4. abolish the Eritrean National Assembly (i.e. the Eritrean Parliament) (2002);
  5. maintain a high level of militarisation of the country.

To maintain a high level of militarisation, the government vertically integrated the National Service to the National Development Programme (i.e. the Warsay Yikaalo National Development Programme) and to Education. This integration allows the Eritrean government to move students into the National Service and the National Development Programme from high schools (i.e. Grade 12) and indefinitely extends the period of service of the conscripts, hence taking full control over the working population.

In 1998, hostilities and war between Eritrea and Ethiopia resumed over border demarcation issues, particularly in the town of Bademe. By December 2000, the two countries signed the Algiers Peace Agreement and established the Eritrea Ethiopia Border Commission (EEBC) to determine the limits of their shared border.

Through the integration of the National Service into the Warsay Yikaalo National Development Programme and Education, the government has limited the citizenship rights of conscripts who while in service cannot: legally obtain a mobile phone or SIM card; get or renew a business licence; access land; and access travel documents and exit visas. Deserters or objectors are denied any rights and cannot access state services. Thus, the official Eritrean concept of citizenship is intrinsically linked to conscription and the fulfilment of National Service duties.

The National Service is a combination of military training and civil service, working for little pay in non-military activities such as agriculture, the construction of roads, houses and buildings and mining. The Warsay National Development Programme relies on the deployment of te National Service (Warsay) and defence personnel (Yikaalo) as a labour force. The programme operates under the umbrella of the Ministry of Defence.

Since 2003, the government has closed the University of Asmara (the only university in the country). It has also required that all Eritrean students complete Grade 12 at the Sawa military training camp. Students who have not completed their final year of secondary school at Sawa and have not sat for the National School Certificat, cannot access college education. The PFDJ has replaced Asmara University with regional colleges, which are administered jointly by an academic director and a military director.

National Service conscripts work for an indefinite period on development projects, the administration of ministries and local authorities, as well as in PFDJ-owned businesses. Such work is carried out for very little pay and in conditions that a UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea described as “forced labour”.

The Eritrean authorities’ control over the people includes the restriction of movement both internally and externally. Therefore, all Eritreans aged five and above cannot leave the country without an exit visa. The government will not issue an exit visa to any Eritrean above the age of five, irrespective of their situation (i.e. family reunification, health, etc.)

The government’s control over the Eritrean people is a political, social and economic process of deprivation and human rights violations for which it refuses to take any responsibility. It is systematically impoverishing the population. Therefore, Eritrean youth face having to choose between the life of slave labour or exile. They describe their situation as slavery: “[The] situation in Eritrea and long time ago with slaves is the same. We build the houses of the elites without money. We work on farms of government officials for no money. If you are educated, they deploy you to anywhere…for a short time, you can tolerate it…but this is for life.”

Faced with accusations of human rights violations, the government reverts to “threat” mode. It labels any reference to human rights violations as “lies” and “ploys” of its enemies to undermine the state. The PFDJ Head of Political Affairs, Mr Yemane Gebreab, dismissed the findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human rights by saying: “….[it is] really laughable……There is no basis to the claims of the Commission of Inquiry…”

The Eritrean authorities’ control over the people includes the restriction of movement both internally and externally. Therefore, all Eritreans aged five and above cannot leave the country without an exit visa.

In addition to taking control over the working population, the government also took control of the economic sectors, including finance, import and export, transport and construction. It has achieved control over the economic sphere through a process of unfair competition with private business, facilitated by the fact that it does not pay taxes and does not comply with labour, environmental, and other regulatory requirements. Also, as the regime has control over the working population, it has unlimited access to a large pool of free labour, effecting a net transfer of the workforce away from the private sector. This policy of moving human resources to labour sites identified and controlled by the government has crippled the private sector, especially the agricultural industry, which still relies to a large extent on subsistence farming.

The government’s control and domination of the economy have not increased economic activity or productivity. The economy is stagnating, further weakening the private sector and restricting economic opportunities for Eritreans.

Notwithstanding PFDJ’s rhetoric, Eritrean youth experience the state as an albatross around their necks. They understand the state in terms of spy networks; as a human rights violator curtailing civil, political, and economic rights and as the as the source of torture and deprivation. They see it as the source of all restrictions and deprivations. This is the reason why they flee the country.

Peace Agreement with Ethiopia and its aftermath

In April 2018, the Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy announced the acceptance of the EEBC decision, in particular the allocation of the flashpoint town of Bademe to Eritrea. In this way, he started a process that led to the signing of the Ethiopia Eritrea Peace Agreement in July 2018, thus ending two decades of “no war, no peace”. The land borders opened to much jubilation in 2018. However, by April 2019, the Eritrean government had closed them all. So far, the only achievements of the Peace Agreement are the reopening of embassies and telecommunication lines and the resumption of flights.

The signing of the Peace Agreement immediately raised expectations that there would be a normalisation of relations between the two states. It also raised expectations regarding reforms within Eritrea that would lead to a reduction in the number of Eritrean youth fleeing the country. Soon after the signing of the Peace Agreement, the Eritrean Catholic priest Aba Teklemichael pointed to the sweeping reforms implemented by Prime Minister Abiy in Ethiopia, and urged the Eritrean government to also undertake necessary reforms in Eritrea and to democratise the government. By Easter 2019, the Eritrean Catholic bishops were also calling for a constitutional government and the rule of law. They also encouraged the government to release political prisoners and start a process of reconciliation within the country. However, to date there have been no reforms in the country, a state of affairs confirmed by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Eritrea who at the start of this year reported that she had: “ ……no tangible evidence of a meaningful and substantive improvement in the situation of human rights in Eritrea”.

The signing of the Peace Agreement immediately raised expectations that there would be a normalisation of relations between the two states. It also raised expectations regarding reforms within Eritrea that would lead to a reduction in the number of Eritrean youth fleeing the country.

The ongoing peace process is not transparent; it has mostly remained an elite political level agreement unable to deliver on the economic front or to resolve the issue of Bademe as both Prime Minister Abiy and President Isaias Afewerki have marginalised the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) for political motives. The Eritrean government has increasingly identified the Tigray State and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) as an existential threat to Eritrea, thus justifying the maintenance of a high level of militarisation. Consequently, Eritrean youth continue to flee the country. In 2018, UNHCR ranked Eritrea as the ninth-largest refugee-sending state in the world.

Ailing health sector

The totalitarian agenda of the Eritrean government did not spare the health sector either. The task of reconstructing the Eritrean health system after the liberation struggle and following the 1998-2000 Eritrea-Ethiopia border war was monumental. It was an undertaking that the late and former Minister of Health Saleh Meki undertook with passion, commitment, and zest from 1997 to 2009 when Ms Amina Nurhussein replaced him.

In his efforts rebuild the Eritrean health system, Saleh Meki sought to establish strategic partnerships with critical international health institutions, private practitioners, faith-based organisations, such as the Catholic Church, as well as professional members of the Eritrean diaspora. The former Minister of Health carried on with his efforts despite the enormous pressure to conform to the dictates of President Isaias Afwerki, and the concerns generated by the closure of international non-governmental organisations, as well as the restriction of movement imposed on all organisations working in the country. Against all the odds, he re-established the medical school known as the Orotta Medical School.

Saleh Meki died on 2nd October 2009. Soon after his death, all the medical missions of international organisations that he had worked so hard to bring to Eritrea ended. By 2011 the Eritrean Government forced the closure of all private medical clinics. And, by 2018 a total of 29 Catholic health facilities providing maternal and child health support and serving some of the more remote communities in the country were closed. The seizure and closure, of the Catholic health facilities was carried out in complete disregard to the health and safety of the patients, most of whom were left to fend for themselves.

There was no clear justification for the closure of the private health facilities. However, the closure of the Catholic health facilities was justified as an enforcement of the 1995 Proclamation to standardise and articulate religions institutions (Proclamation No 73 of 1995). The Proclamation prohibits religious bodies from engaging in social and welfare services. This position is contested by all faith-based organisations, especially since there was no consultation in the development of the law. The Eritrean Catholic bishops’ communication with the government on the seizure and closure of their health facilities point out that the facilities operated by abiding with all the requirements of the Ministry of Health.

Poor COVID-19 response

The closure of health facilities has reduced the number of available beds and the overall capacity of the health system. Hence, Eritrea, with a score of 0.434, was ranked 182nd out of 189 countries by the 2019 Human Development Index. The low Human Development Index combined with a hospital bed capacity of 7 beds for 10,000 people, and no available data as to the number of health professionals (i.e. doctors and nurses) available per 10,000 people, suggests that the situation might be even more dire. And the poor connectivity of the country (i.e. mobile phones, internet, broadbands) means that the country’s capacity to deal with pandemics such as COVID-19 is low.

The low capacity of the Eritrean health system to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic was also of concern to the diaspora Eritrean Healthcare Professionals Network (EHPN), which urged the Eritrean government to immediately implement the World ealth Orbanization (WHO) and Centre for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines and advisories to contain the pandemic. EHPN expressed concern that the country lacks the necessary prerequisites to implement hygiene measures because: “There is a shortage of water, disinfectants, laboratories that carry out diagnostic tests and medical professionals, including nursing and technical staff. There is also a lack of functioning intensive care units with adequate ventilation equipment needed to properly treat patients. The reality is that many Eritreans will not be able to seek and obtain medical treatment in their homeland or neighbouring countries. In short, the Eritrean health system is not adequately prepared for COVID 19.”

Fears regarding the poor state of the Eritrean health system were further heightened when the Eritrean government refused COVID-19 emergency supplies donated by the Chinese billionaire Jack Ma and his Alibaba Group. Mr Hagos “Kisha” Gebrehiwet, the head of Economic Affairs in the ruling PFDJ, justified the rejection of Jack Ma’s donation by saying that it was unsolicited.

The government’s willingness to reject donations has, however, launched a COVID-19 appeal among citizens. The appeal is remarkable for the lack of information as to how the funds raised will be used. There is no single COVID-19 emergency response bank account designated for the appeal; hence, in the diaspora, funds are collected in different foreign bank accounts set up by Eritrean embassies. Consequently, there is a real danger that the funds will never enter the country and will disappear into the government’s opaque offshore financial system. Also, there is no information as to how the Ministry of Health will use the funds. Reports by Eritrean human rights activists say the appeal is coerced, confirming the lack of transparency and accountability of the fundraising process.

There is also no transparency in the COVID-19 data that the Eritrean government is providing. It reported the first four COVID-positive cases on the 21st and 23rd of March. One patient was an Eritrean national resident in Norway, and the other three positive patients were Eritrean nationals returning from Dubai. Because of these events, by 26th March, the government banned all commercial passenger flights for two weeks. It also closed schools. And, by 1st April, it imposed COVID-19 lockdown measures.

Fears regarding the poor state of the Eritrean health system were further heightened when the Eritrean government refused COVID-19 emergency supplies donated by the Chinese billionaire Jack Ma and his Alibaba Group. Mr Hagos “Kisha” Gebrehiwet, the head of Economic Affairs in the ruling PFDJ, justified the rejection of Jack Ma’s donation by saying that it was unsolicited.

The lockdown measures did not include the closure of the Sawa military training camp or the release of political prisoners. The government has recently released 27 Christian prisoners, who were imprisoned without charge or trial for as long as sixteen years. Their release is conditional on their family lodging their property deeds with the government as a guarantee that the people released will not leave the country.

While maintaining a strict lockdown, the Eritrean government has allowed mass gatherings to celebrate the graduation of the 33rd round of Sawa military training camp graduates as well as the transfer of Grade 12 conscripts to the facility.

From 1st April to 18th April, the Eritrean government reported 39 COVID positive cases, all linked to Eritreans visiting or returning from their travels. Then, for two months, there were no new cases reported. After that, the number of COVID-positive cases increased, and by the 12th of October, Eritrea reported a total of 414 COVID-positive patients and 372 recoveries.

Though the government makes repeated references to quarantine centres, it has not shared a list of the centres, their location or capacity. It is also not reporting the daily number of COVID tests. Nor has it reported any COVID-related deaths or any community transmission of the virus. It continues to attribute all the new COVID cases to Eritreans returning through “irregular land and sea routes” from Ethiopia, Sudan, Djibouti and Yemen. But there is no explanation as to why so many nationals are travelling despite the government’s strict lockdown procedure that prohibits all movement between towns and that restricts te movement of any vehicles, including buses and taxis, which require movement permits. Such permits are not easy to obtain.

Finally, there are only five incidents of Ministry of Information reporting the number of individuals tested or in quarantine:

  1. 3,000 quarantined – 8th May 2020;
  2. 5,270 quarantined – 3rd June 2020;
  3. 7,158 nationals returned through irregular land and sea routes. Not clearly stated but the implication is that they were all quarantined – 14th June 2020;
  4. 18,000 citizens allegedly returned through irregular land and sea routes. This movement occurred in the last four months. Again, not clearly stated but the implication is that they were all quarantined – the 12th October 2020;
  5. 41,100 tests – 12th October 2020.

In a recent report, the Eritrean Ministry of Information asserted that the rate of COVID infection in the country was “a paltry 0.02%”, based on one (1) positive result during 4659 random tests done in Asmara”. The data shared by the government (41,100 tests and 414 COVID-positive cases) suggests that the rate of infection is just 1 per cent.

The COVID lockdown in Eritrea, like in other countries, has brought economic activities to a standstill. The difference between Eritrea and other countries is that the Eritrean economy was already on its knees before the lockdown and the Eritrean government has not made any attempt – beyond extorting donations from its citizens – to alleviate the suffering of the people with economic support packages. Consequently, Eritreans are hungry and desperate and have started to ignore strict lockdowns. They are on the streets selling all kinds of goods. Women are out in the streets, making tea and cooking food for sale. Family and friends describe Asmara, the capital city, as full of mobile tea shops.

In a recent report, the Eritrean Ministry of Information asserted that the rate of COVID infection in the country was “a paltry 0.02%”, based on one (1) positive result during 4659 random tests done in Asmara”. The data shared by the government (41,100 tests and 414 COVID-positive cases) suggests that the rate of infection is just 1 per cent.

The Eritrean Afars have, through the Red Sea Afar Human Rights Organisation (RSAHRO), issued a press statement, describing their situation under lockdown as a: “… siege imposed by the Eritrean regime on the citizens of the region.”. They warn of the danger of hunger in their area. They also describe confiscation of boats, camels and supplies by the military, closed health centres, unprepared quarantine centres, as well as lack of medical supplies. The human rights organisation also accuse General Tekle Manjus of confiscating trucks of emergency food sent from Asmara for distribution among the Afar.

The Afar coastal area is not the only area in danger of hunger. The information from Eritrea is that hunger is very real all over the country. The government media and social media accounts do not report the danger of hunger or any of the difficulties that the people are facing during this COVID-19 emergency. Their postings give the impression that Eritrea is doing just fine.

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The Search for a Puppet Chief Justice

The emotional energy invested in controlling the recruitment of the next Chief Justice could turn out to be a source of great frustration when administrative fiat and bench-fixing do not deliver the anticipated results.

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The Search for a Puppet Chief Justice
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Anxiety over who will replace Chief Justice David Maraga exploded into the public domain on Friday, October 16, 2020, when a member of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) alleged a plot to delay the recruitment process. Macharia Njeru, one of the two representatives of the Law Society of Kenya (LSK) to the JSC, claimed in a public statement that the Chief Justice and a few others were “hellbent on derailing the orderly recruitment of his successor and leaving the institution of the Judiciary in a crisis of leadership”.

LSK immediately dissociated itself from Macharia’s position and asserted that the “state capture of the Judiciary and the Judicial Service Commission would not be executed through its representatives”.

The parliamentary Justice and Legal Affairs Committee had earlier failed to prevail on Justice Maraga to take early terminal leave, and subsequently published a proposal to change the law on when to begin recruitment of a new Chief Justice. The Chief Justice will officially retire on January 12, 2021, when he turns 70, but he is expected to take leave on December 15, 2020.

Powerful individuals in the country’s politics cannot wait to see Justice Maraga’s back because of his surprising show of spine. On September 1, 2017, the mild-mannered and soft-spoken jurist led a four-judge majority of the Supreme Court to annul the presidential election in a decision that reverberated across the globe. Last month, Justice Maraga advised the President to dissolve Parliament for failing enact laws to increase representation of women in national elected leadership on the strength of a High Court declaration and six petitions.

Between the two monumental decisions, the Chief Justice has called out the President over judiciary budget cuts, disregard for court orders and verbal attacks on the institution he leads.

Justice Maraga’s name conjures up odium and foreboding in state organs at the executive and legislative levels, expressed through punitive budget cuts in the Judiciary, disregard of courts’ authority, and derisive rhetoric. None of these backhanded actions have brought the politically powerful any satisfaction, hence the abiding desire to find a more user-friendly Chief Justice.

Vacancies in the Judiciary can only be advertised fourteen days after they open up, according to the law, which means that the Chief Justice, who also chairs the JSC, plays no role in recruiting his successor. Previously, individuals in the presidency unsuccessfully sought to influence who becomes Chief Justice since the Constitution of Kenya, on its promulgation in 2010, retired Justice Evan Gicheru in February 2011. At the time, President Mwai Kibaki nominated the Court of Appeal’s Justice Alnashir Visram for Chief Justice without inviting applications or conducting interviews. He was countermanded by the newly-constituted JSC, which then conducted one of the most brutal public interviews for the position before choosing civil society icon and law scholar Willy Mutunga.

Justice Maraga’s name conjures up odium and foreboding in state organs at the executive and legislative levels, expressed through punitive budget cuts in the Judiciary, disregard of courts’ authority, and derisive rhetoric.

Dr Mutunga’s transparent recruitment freed him from the usual baggage that would accompany a political appointment to lead the transformation of the judiciary into an independent, publicly accountable institution [Full disclosure: I was communication advisor in the Office of the Chief Justice from 2011 to 2015]. By the time Dr Mutunga chose to retire a year early in June 2016, he had trebled the number of judges to increase efficiency, built confidence and secured the highest funding ever for the institution. He also ring-fenced decisional independence that would enable courts to act as a check on executive and legislative power.

After the Supreme Court upheld the 2013 presidential election, an internal corruption investigation in the Judiciary sucked the institution into a confrontation with the National Assembly, which petitioned the President to appoint a tribunal to investigate six members of the JSC. A five-judge High Court bench neutered the tribunal before it could sit and presented the first contest between Dr Mutunga and President Uhuru Kenyatta.

President Kenyatta would play possum with a list of 25 judge nominees presented to him by the JSC, first appointing 11 and then keeping the other 14 in abeyance for a year. An amendment to the law to require the JSC to send the President three names from which he could choose the Chief Justice was struck down on account of unconstitutionality.

When Dr Mutunga wanted to retire, the President declined to meet him, and the Speaker of the National Assembly refused to respond to his request to address Parliament. By the time interviews for Dr Mutunga’s replacement began in September 2016, the Executive was disoriented and unable to muscle its substantial vote strength in the JSC for a single candidate.

Although the presidency nominates two non-lawyers as members of the JSC in addition to the Attorney General and a nominee of the Public Service Commission, thus controlling 36 per cent of the vote, the Judiciary has five members – the Chief Justice as chair and one representative each for the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, the High Court and the magistrates – and has 45 per cent voice. The Law Society of Kenya’s two representatives – 18 per cent – provide an important swing vote for the Executive or the Judiciary whenever there is no consensus.

Justice Maraga of the Court of Appeal emerged as the dark horse in the three-month search for the Chief Justice on the strength of his electoral law jurisprudence. Earlier attempts to name Supreme Court judge Jackton Ojwang as acting Chief Justice were abandoned. Justice Ojwang trailed fellow Supreme Court judge Smokin Wanjala, Kenyan-American law professor Makau Mutua, and constitutional law expert Nzamba Kitonga.

When Dr Mutunga wanted to retire, the President declined to meet him, and the Speaker of the National Assembly refused to respond to his request to address Parliament.

The Supreme Court’s annulment of the presidential election in September 2017 produced voluble complaints from President Kenyatta, who threatened unspecified action against the Judiciary. The independence of the Judiciary, represented in the person of the Chief Justice, has clearly rankled President Kenyatta and his supporters. He subsequently began a systematic reorganisation of the Executive’s representatives to the JSC by picking a judiciary insider, Court of Appeal president, Kihara Kariuki, to replace Attorney General Githu Muigai. Even before the terms of public representatives Winnie Guchu and Kipng’etich Bett were midway, he recalled them and replaced them with Prof Olive Mugenda and Felix Koskey. And then he declined to gazette the re-election of Mohammed Warsame as Court of Appeal representative to the JSC. Judge Warsame was finally seated without re-taking oath courtesy of a court decision that obviated the need for his election to be gazetted. He joined the judiciary column led by the Chief Justice, Deputy Chief Justice Philomena Mwilu, who had been elected to represent the Supreme Court, and Justice David Majanja, who represents the High Court.

Fears have been rife that the election of the magistrates’ representative to replace Chief Magistrate Emily Ominde in December and the replacement of LSK woman representative Mercy Deche could provide an opportunity for the Executive to support pliant candidates, in addition to Macharia Njeru.

It is likely that urgent attempts to start the Chief Justice’s recruitment could exclude the two representatives of the magistrates and the LSK, thus denying the panel two critical voices. Voting strength in the JSC could also be significantly altered if some of the commissioners apply for the Chief Justice’s position. For one, it is not clear if the 62-year-old Deputy Chief Justice Philomena Mwilu, who already represents the Supreme Court in the JSC, will act as chairperson of the commission once Justice Maraga leaves.

Although voting is an important factor in choosing the next Chief Justice, qualification is probably more important. And the public scrutiny candidates are subjected to, complete with court oversight when required, means that a naked attempt to install a puppet would backfire.

Political horse-trading with Parliament is a necessity for nominees to the position of Chief Justice and Deputy Chief Justice to be confirmed during vetting. Often, politicians view the Chief Justice’s position as one of the spoils to be traded during ethno-regional deal-making. So far, the Chief Justice’s position has been occupied by a kaleidoscope of Kenyans – including many ethnic and religious colourations.

The law only provides for the Deputy Chief Justice to act as Chief Justice “[i]n the event of the removal, resignation or death” and only for a period not exceeding six months pending the appointment of a new one. It remains to be seen if legal experts will argue that retirement is not equivalent to removal, resignation or death. Should Justice Mwilu also throw her hat in the ring for the top job, she would not be able to cast a vote as a JSC member.

Another JSC member who has to weigh between voting and chasing the job is 66-year-old Justice Kihara Kariuki, believed to be a front-runner to succeed Chief Justice Evan Gicheru in 2011 but has bided his time, rising to President of the Court of Appeal before accepting to serve as Attorney General. Meanwhile, Justice Mwilu has been embroiled in petitions seeking her removal from office since the Supreme Court annulled the presidential election. Two years ago, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Director of Criminal Investigations launched a highly publicised effort to arrest and charge her with corruption before the High Court discharged her and advised that complaints against her be first have been processed through the JSC. Justice Mwilu has since tied the JSC in legal knots over the involvement of the Attorney General and one other member in hearing the complaint against her, claiming that they have shown bias.

Although the Constitution allows a Chief Justice to serve for a maximum of 10 years, the practice so far has been to choose individuals who are close to the retirement age, with the effect that those chosen preside over only presidential petitions from one election cycle before they reach the retirement age of 70. If appointments continue to be short-term to limit the pain individuals can inflict on the institution, candidates in their mid-60s appear to be chosen to navigate the 2022 election and leave before the 2027 one.

Although voting is an important factor in choosing the next Chief Justice, qualification is probably more important. And the public scrutiny candidates are subjected to, complete with court oversight when required, means that a naked attempt to install a puppet would backfire.

Although the Supreme Court’s Justice Smokin Wanjala gave a good showing at the 2016 interviews and was ranked second, his age – 60 – means that if appointed, he would hold the job for 10 years. Law scholar Makau Mutua, 62, who was ranked third in the 2016 interviews for Chief Justice, could also give the job another try, as would former Attorney General Githu Muigai, who would similarly be hampered by fears of serving out the 10 years in the post.

The Executive’s frustration with the Judiciary has been expressed as blame for the slow pace of corruption cases, where the courts are criticised for not pulling their weight to deliver quick convictions. The most evident sign of frustration has been the President’s refusal to appoint 41 individuals nominated by the JSC as Court of Appeal and High Court judges. The law does not permit the JSC to reconsider its nominees after the names have been submitted to the President, except in the case of death, incapacity or withdrawal of a nominee. Last week, judge designate Harrison Okeche died after a road traffic accident before he could be sworn in because the President has not published the names as expected. It remains to be seen how the JSC responds.

Chief Justices chair the Judicial Service Commission, and preside over the Supreme Court, which decides the presidential election petitions. Besides the very constrained and collegial power in these two sites, the Chief Justice also exercises administrative power in empanelling High Court benches for constitutional references, and posts judges – powers shared with the President of the Court of Appeal and the Presiding Judge of the High Court.

A Chief Justice cannot direct judicial officers – from the lowliest magistrate to the Supreme Court judge – on how to decide a matter. Much of the power she or he wields is moral and symbolic. The emotional energy invested in controlling the recruitment of the next Chief Justice could turn out to be a source of great frustration when administrative fiat and bench-fixing do not deliver the anticipated results for those seeking a puppet Chief Justice.

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African Continent a Milking Cow for Google and Facebook

‘Sandwich’ helps tech giants avoid tax in Africa via the Netherlands and Ireland.

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Algorithmic Colonisation of Africa
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Google’s office at the airport residential area in Accra, Ghana, sits inside a plain white and blue two-storey building that could do with a coat of paint. Google, which made more than US$ 160 billion in global revenue in 2019, of which an estimated US$ eighteen billion in ‘Africa and the Middle East’, pays no tax in Ghana, nor does it do so in most of the countries on the African continent.

Google Street View of the building registered as Google's office in Accra

Google Street View of the building registered as Google’s office in Accra

It is able to escape tax duties because of an old regulation that says that an individual or entity must have a ‘physical presence’ in the country in order to owe tax.  And Google’s Accra office clearly defines itself as ‘not a physical presence.’ When asked, a front desk employee at the building says it is perfectly alright for Google not to display its logo on the door outside. ‘It is our right to choose if we do that or not’. A visitor to the building, who said she was there for a different company, said she had no idea Google was based inside.

Facebook is even less visible. Even though practically all 250 million smartphone owners in Africa use Facebook, it only has an office in South Africa, making that country the only one on the continent where it pays tax.

Brick and mortar

The physical presence rule in African tax laws is ‘remnant of a situation before the digital economy, where a company could only act in a country if it had a “brick and mortar” building’, says an official of the Nigerian Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), who wants to remain anonymous. ‘Many countries did not foresee the digital economy and its ability to generate income without a physical presence. This is why tax laws didn’t cover them’.

Tax administrations globally have initiated changes to allow for the taxing of digital entities since at least 2017. African countries still lag behind, which is why the continent continues to provide lucrative gains for the tech giants. A 2018 PriceWaterhouseCoopers report noted that Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, has seen an average of a thirty percent year-on-year growth in internet advertising in the last five years, and that the same sector in that country is projected, in 2020, to amount to US$ 125 million in the entertainment and media industry alone.

‘Their revenue comes from me’.

William Ansah, Ghana-based CEO of leading West African advertising company Origin 8, pays a significant amount of his budget to online services. He says he is aware that tax on his payments to Facebook and Google escapes his country through what is commonly referred to as ‘transfer pricing’ and feels bad about it. ‘These companies should pay tax here, in Ghana, because their revenue comes from me’, he says, showing us a receipt from Google Ireland for his payments. During this investigation we were also shown an advert receipt from a Nigerian Facebook ad that listed ‘Ireland’ as the destination of the payment.

Like Google, Facebook does not provide country-by-country reports of its revenue from Africa or even from the African continent as a whole, but the tech giant reported general revenue of US$ sixty billion as a whole from ‘Rest of the world’, which is the world minus the USA, Canada, Europe and Asia.

Facebook revenue by user geography

Facebook revenue by user geography

Irish Double

The specific transfer pricing construction Google and other tech giants such as Facebook use to channel income away from tax obligations is called an ‘Irish Double’ or ‘Dutch Sandwich’, since both countries are used in the scheme. In the construction, the income is declared in Ireland, then routed to the Netherlands, then transferred to Bermuda, where Google Ireland is officially located. Bermuda is a country with no corporation tax. According to documents filed at the Dutch Chamber of Commerce in December 2018, Google moved US$ 22,7 billion through a Dutch shell company to Bermuda in 2017.

Moustapha Cisse, Africa team lead at Google AI

Moustapha Cisse, Africa team lead at Google AI

An ongoing court case in Ghana — albeit on a different issue — recently highlighted attempts by Google to justify its tax-avoiding practices in that country. The case against Google Ghana and Google Inc, now called Google LLC in the USA, was started by lawyer George Agyemang Sarpong, who held that both entities were responsible for defamatory material against him that had been posted on the Ghana platform. Responding to the charge, Google Ghana contended in court documents that it was not the ‘owner of the search engine www.google.com.gh’; that it did not ‘operate or control the search engine’ and that ‘its business (was) different from Google Inc’.

Google Ghana is an ‘artificial intelligence research facility’.

Google Ghana describes itself in company papers as an ‘Artificial Intelligence research facility’. It says that its business is to ‘provide sales and operational support for services provided by other legal entities’, a construction whereby these other legal entities — in this case Google Inc — are responsible for any material on the platform. Google Ghana emphasised during the court case that Ghana’s advertising money was also correctly paid to Google Ireland Ltd, because this company is formally a part of Google Inc.

Rowland Kissi, law lecturer at the University of Professional Studies in Accra describes Google’s defence in the Sarpong court case as a ‘clever attempt’ by the business to shirk all ‘future liability of the platform’. Kissi is cautiously optimistic about the outcome, though: while the case is ongoing, the court has already asserted that ‘the distinction regarding who is responsible for material appearing on www.google.com.gh, is not so clear as to absolve the first defendant (Google Ghana) from blame before trial’. According to leading tax lawyer and expert Abdallah Ali-Nakyea, if the ‘government can establish that Google Ghana is an agent of Google Inc, the state could compel it to pay all relevant taxes including income taxes and withholding taxes’.

Cash-strapped countries

Like most countries, especially in Africa, Nigeria and Ghana have become more cash-strapped than usual as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic. While lockdowns enforced by governments to stop the spread of the virus have caused sharp contractions of the economy worldwide, ‘much worse than during the 2008–09 financial crisis’, according to the International Monetary Fund, Africa has experienced unprecedented shrinking, with sectors such as aviation, tourism and hospitality hardest hit. (Ironically, in the same period, tech giants like Google and Facebook have emerged from the pandemic stronger, due to, among others, the new reality that people work from home.)

With much needed tax income still absent, many countries have become even more dependent on charitable handouts. Nigeria recently sent out a tweet to ask international tech personality and philanthropist, Elon Musk, for a donation of ventilators to help weather the COVID 19 pandemic: ‘Dear @elonmusk @Tesla, Federal Government of Nigeria needs support with 100-500 ventilators to assist with #Covid19 cases arising every day in Nigeria’, it said. After Nigerians on Twitter accused the government of historically not investing adequately in public health, pointing at neglect leading to a situation where a government ministry was now begging for help on social media, the tweet was deleted. A government spokesperson later commented that the tweet had been ‘unauthorised’.

Cost to public

The criticism that governments often mismanage their budgets and that much money is lost to corruption regularly features in public debates in many countries in Africa, including Nigeria. However, executive secretary Logan Wort of the African Tax Administration Forum ATAF has argued that this view should not be used to excuse tax avoidance. In a previous interview with ZAM Wort said that ‘African countries must develop their tax base. It is only in this way that we can become independent from handouts and resource exploitation. Then, if a government does not use the tax money in the way it should, it must be held accountable by the taxpayers. A tax paying people is a questioning people’.

‘A tax paying people is a questioning people’

Commenting on this investigation, Alex Ezenagu, Professor of Taxation and Commercial Law at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar, adds that in matters of tax avoidance by ‘popular multinationals such as Facebook and Google, it is important to understand the cost to the public. If (large) businesses don’t pay tax, the burden is shifted to either small businesses or low income earners because the revenue deficit would have to be met one way or another’. For example, a Nigerian revenue gap may cause the government to increase other taxes, Ezenagu says, such as value added tax, which increased from five to seven and a half percent in Nigeria in January. ‘When multinationals don’t pay tax, you are taxed more as a person’.

Nigeria has recently begun to tighten its tax laws, thereby following in the footsteps of Europe, that last year made it more difficult for the digital multinationals to use the ‘Irish Double’ to escape tax in their countries. South Africa, too, in 2019 tailored changes to its tax laws in order to close remaining legal loopholes used by the tech giants. These ‘could raise (tax income) up to US$ 290 million a year’ more from companies like Google and Facebook, a South African finance source said. With US$ 290 million, Ghana’s could fund its flagship free senior high school education; Nigeria could fully fund the annual budget (2016/2017 figures) of Oyo, a state in the south west of the country.

Interior view of the Facebook office in Johannesburg, South Africa

Interior view of the Facebook office in Johannesburg, South Africa

Waiting for the Finance Minister

Nigeria’s new Finance Act, signed into law in January 2020, has expanded provisions to shift the country’s focus from physical presence to ‘significant economic presence’. The new law leaves the question whether a prospective taxpayer has a ‘significant economic presence’ in Nigeria to the determination of the Finance Minister, whose action with regard to the tech giants is awaited.

In Ghana, digital taxation discussions are slowly gaining momentum among policy makers. The Deputy Commissioner of that country’s Large Taxpayer Office, Edward Gyamerah, said in a June 2019 presentation that current rules ‘must be revised to cover the digital economy and deal with companies that don’t have traditional brick-and-mortar office presences’. However, a top government official at Ghana’s Ministry of Finance who was not authorised to speak publicly stated that, ‘from the taxation policy point of view, the government has not paid a lot attention to digital taxation’.

He blamed the ‘complexity of developing robust infrastructure to assess e-commerce activity in the country’ as a major reason for the government’s inaction on this, but hoped that a broad digital tax policy would still be announced in 2020.” Until the authorities get around to this, he said he believed that, ‘Google and Facebook will (continue to) pay close to nothing in Ghana’.

Comment

Google Nigeria did not respond to several requests for interviews; Google Ghana did not respond to a request for comment on this investigation. Neither entities responded to a list of questions, which included queries as to what of their activities in the two countries might be liable for tax, and whether they could publish country by country revenues generated in Africa. When reached by phone, Google Nigeria’s Head of Communications, Taiwo Kola Ogunlade, said that he couldn’t speak on the company’s taxation status. Facebook spokesperson Kezia Anim-Addo said in an email: ‘Facebook pays all taxes required by law in the countries in which we operate (where we have offices), and we will continue to comply with our obligations’.

Note: The figure of eighteen billion US$ as revenue for Google in ‘Africa and the Middle East’ over 2019 was arrived at as follows. Google’s EMEA figures for 2019 indicate US$ 40 billion revenue for ‘Africa, Europe and the Middle East’ all together. According to this German publication, Google’s revenue in Europe was 22 billion in 2019This leaves US$ eighteen billion for Africa and the Middle East.

This article was first published by our partner ZAM Magazine.

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