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THE TRUMP PHENOMENON IS REAL: How the Counterculture Inspired Trumpism

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The Great U S of A

“If democracy is someday to regain control of capitalism, it must start by recognising that the concrete institutions in which democracy and capitalism are embodied need to be reinvented again and again.” (Piketty 2014: 570).

During the run-up to the US elections in November, a number of my African colleagues and friends told me that Trump would win the presidency. Several even opined that something good would come out of it in the end. Experience has taught me to treat such counterintuitive observations with a degree of cautious respect. But this particular appraisal was a tricky proposition.

Trump ran more on outrage with the status quo, homespun economic nationalism, and anti-Hillary sentiment than workable policies for reversing the domestic malaise framing his rude political rhetoric. The Tea Party crowd flocked to Trump’s campaign, presenting Trump with the kind of political stage suited to his unconventional and often reptilian behaviour. The national media feasted on Trump’s antics and divisive positions, but the condescending coverage of the campaign of a candidate who started out as an outlier also camouflaged the more clinical aspects of his strategy to defeat Hillary Clinton.

The poll numbers and sophisticated data analyses dismissed the likelihood of a Trump victory. But then the same electorate who twice elected Obama by sizeable majorities propelled his polar opposite into the White House.

For the many millions of Americans and others around the world distressed by the Trump campaign, the implications of his electoral-college victory was like waking up to a collective nightmare. Most of my friends, family and colleagues were stunned. Anger and agitation quickly replaced the shock. Obama’s bleak reaction, “Well, it’s not the Apocalypse,” offered little comfort.

This added up to a lot to think about as I made my way back to the US for the first time since 2004, arriving in the country two days after Trump’s inauguration. I was told to expect massive changes. My destination was Salt Lake City, the capital of Utah, socially the most conservative of the red states of the American West.

Exposure to racist theology like that of the Church of Latter Day Saints was a primary motivator for the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. Tommy Smith won the 200 metres in world record time followed by John Carlos in third place. The medallists mounted the podium barefoot, to symbolise the poverty of their African-American community, and raised black-gloved fists in defiance during the raising of the American flag. The protest triggered an explosion of institutional indignation and recriminations portraying Smith and Carlos as Nazis and traitors

For decades, many Americans considered the Mormon-dominated state to be a quasi-theocratic no-go zone with a unique past that set Utah apart from other ultra-conservative Western states like Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and the Dakotas.

During my two previous trips I had found a large and variegated landscape of rangeland, desert, and mountains, with a large inland sea thrown in to boot. I found many similarities between Utah and Marsabit and the Lake Turkana region, including its traditional spatial and social separation from the rest of the country.

Mormons fleeing religious persecution in the East settled in Utah at a time when almost everyone else was heading to California. The Territory of Utah was officially recognised in 1851. It was the only Western state to allow slavery, and attempted to secede from the Union shortly afterwards. Washington was compelled to send in the army. Brigham Young, who had succeeded the religion’s founder, Joseph Smith, capitulated, but with the promise that the government would grant the Mormons autonomy to live according to their religion. The Church of Latter Day Saints has dominated the state’s economy and government ever since.

The Book of Mormon stated that the indigenous peoples the white settlers found in their new home originally came from the Middle East, but had divided into two antagonistic groups. The “Lamanites” were idolaters revealed to have extinguished a population of “Nephrite” Hebrews who had migrated to the New World several hundred years before the coming of Christ. Mormon scripture saw dark skin as a curse from God for wickedness, but otherwise taught that peoples of colour who converted and abandoned their culture would become white over time.

Exposure to this racist theology was a primary motivator for the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. Tommy Smith won the 200 metres in world record time followed by John Carlos in third place. The medallists mounted the podium barefoot, to symbolise the poverty of their African-American community, and raised black-gloved fists in defiance during the raising of the American flag. The protest triggered an explosion of institutional indignation and recriminations portraying Smith and Carlos as Nazis and traitors. The firestorm also curtailed the running career of the Australian silver medallist who in solidarity wore the same human rights badge pinned to the Americans’ jerseys.

It was a radicalising moment: I compiled a comprehensive report of the protest and the conditions leading up to it for a high school project. The racism of the church of Latter Day Saints added to my impressions of the state based on the gruesome fate of the Westward-bound Donner party caravan and the numerous massacres of the local Amerindian communities during the early days of the territory. Many of us growing up at that time saw Utah as the American equivalent of Albania or North Korea.

The Civil Rights movement had already done most of the heavy lifting. This in turn provided a platform for the anti-war movement. Before long, what began as a political movement for peace and racial inclusion coalesced into a much broader social upheaval

Utah has evolved during the intervening decades. The US government has resettled refugees of diverse backgrounds in the state. Salt Lake City’s industry-friendly environment also attracted the tech companies relocating from California, bringing the formerly isolated state into the American mainstream over the past two decades. Readily available jobs, a reasonable cost of living, and a network of Kenyan friends and family already established in the former no-go zone attracted several of my kids to Salt Lake City.

The growing cultural diversity has not altered the state’s bedrock conservatism. Mitt Romney and George Bush Jr still received a phenomenal 72 per cent of Utah’s vote in 2012 and 2008. Although Donald Trump’s tally did not reach these heights in 2016, the sum of these factors designated this most red of states an appropriate re-entry point for my tour of Trump’s America.

Steve Bannon, the Breitbart News executive who became one of the key architects of the Trump campaign, declared that if you want to change politics you have to change culture first. There was the angst on the surface and uncertainty lurking underneath, but was the Republican clean sweep of White House, the Senate, and House of representatives really a marker of far-reaching culture change?

THE COUNTERCULTURAL ROOTS OF THE TRUMP PRESIDENCY

Bannon clearly arrived at his change-the-culture thesis by observing the counterculture that emerged while my generation came of age, a phenomenon that reshaped American society and politics along the way.

The post-World War II period was an era of unprecedented prosperity, middle-class growth and technological progress for the USA. Politics was something that our parents followed as it came around in four-year cycles. America was a truly great place to grow up, as long as you could keep the fear of nuclear Armageddon, and other industrial-scale threats, at a safe distance.

For the young Americans growing up in customisable bubbles coloured by the scientific advances underpinning the futuristic orientation of American society, that was harder to do as the 1960s wore on. The raised fists in Mexico City — along with other radicalising events like the Vietnam war, the violent suppression of the Yippie protests at the Chicago Democratic Convention, and the river in Cleveland that actually caught fire and burnt for 17 days — confirmed my own doubts about how wonderful everything was or was supposed to be.

The Civil Rights movement had already done most of the heavy lifting. This in turn provided a platform for the anti-war movement. Before long, what began as a political movement for peace and racial inclusion coalesced into a much broader social upheaval. The country entered a state of agitation sustained by an expanding range of worthy causes from the conditions of migrant farm workers to rampant industrial pollution. Much of the conflict was generational, and reflected a polarising explosion of new memes, pheromones, and mind-altering visions.

As the awakening and the activism of the Vietnam era ran its course, American conservatives felt increasingly isolated. Not only had their values been shunted aside, the country’s conservative hard core saw the reforms and new liberalism as a direct threat to the sources of their wealth. Conservative partisans like Steve Bannon may have missed the party, but they were taking notes

The sentiment at the time was that only a far-reaching cultural reorientation could triumph against the entrenched political order and the military-industrial complex controlling it. The mix of hot politics and cool culture was always more about challenging the conventional assumptions underpinning American exceptionalism than the political revolution advocated by the far-left fringe.

Waves of new music, innovative lifestyles, radical role models, and more mundane concerns like promoting healthy dietary choices rocked the national status quo. People started searching for alternatives to the mindless consumption of the planet’s limited resources. Tabs, buttons, and mushrooms opened up new internal vistas that encouraged interest in ancient cultures and their spiritual religious traditions. We probed the mystical symbols adorning the dollar bill and investigated the esoteric philosophies guiding the new nation’s founding fathers.

The combination of protests, new cultural orientations, and developments in the war zones of Southeast Asia shifted public opinion. Withdrawal from Vietnam accompanied progress on other fronts from race relations to female liberation. New legislation addressed discrimination based on colour, creed, and gender, reined in the CIA, and created the Environmental Protection Agency to control serial polluters.

The ship had been righted, the course of the nation redirected, and use of the term “politically correct” offered backhanded acknowledgement of the nation’s cultural makeover in politics. In the end, many of the political attitudes engendered by the counterculture followed long hair, frayed jeans, and recreational marijuana use into mainstream America.

The changes, affected over a relatively short period, had made America even more exceptional in our eyes. But some observers disagreed. The eminent anthropologist Marvin Harris opined that the main impact of the counterculture was selling a lot of records. Iconoclastic musician Frank Zappa said that rock music’s potential revolutionary impact had been felt mostly in the textile industry. Cultural revolution did little to change the nation’s political structures and economy.

As the awakening and the activism of the Vietnam era ran its course, American conservatives felt increasingly isolated. Their champion, the embattled president Nixon, resigned office in disgrace. Not only had their values been shunted aside, the country’s conservative hard core saw the reforms and new liberalism as a direct threat to the sources of their wealth. They were still wealthy, but had become dinosaurs inhabiting a political landscape dominated by progressive ideas and proponents of activist government. Conservative partisans like Steve Bannon may have missed the party, but they were taking notes.

IT’S NOT REALLY ABOUT TRUMP

The Koch brothers are ferociously independent heirs to one of the largest private corporations in the United States. Like the Bush family and their cronies, their father, Fred Koch, built up his fortune during the 1930s, training Bolshevik engineers and selling his advanced oil refining technology and refineries to Stalin and Hitler’s Germany. His children’s nanny was a Hitler sympathiser, and after the war Fred Koch became a strong supporter of the rabidly anti-Communist John Birch Society to assuage his guilt over aiding the USSR. He transferred his extreme libertarian values to his sons, and after his death in 1967, Charles and David Koch bought out their two more liberal minded siblings.

In Dark Money, a book first released in 2016, Jane Mayer tells the story of how the Koch Brothers assembled a network of 400 über-wealthy industrialists. Mayer’s documentation of their activities reads like a virtual symphony of corporate crime in the form of fraud, tax avoidance, violations of workplace safety and employee welfare, foreign bribery, and environmental violations

Under the brothers, Koch Industries became the country’s second wealthiest private corporation, and they parlayed their financial muscle into the single most influential political machine in the country. Their first venture, David Koch’s run for the presidency on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1980, failed miserably. Plan B was based on a totally different approach. It began with annual summits attended by a handpicked list of like-minded individuals opposed to most forms of government regulation and taxation.

In Dark Money, a book first released in 2016, Jane Mayer tells the story of how the Koch Brothers assembled a network of 400 über-wealthy industrialists who leveraged their money and influence to penetrate the American political system for their personal financial benefit. The brothers are the sixth and seventh wealthiest Americans and their combined wealth makes them number one. Most of those they recruited belong to the top .01% of the country’s wealthiest billionaires and are known as the “invisible rich” because they operate private companies that shield them from public scrutiny and government rules for fiscal disclosure.

Mayer’s documentation of their activities reads like a virtual symphony of corporate crime in the form of fraud, tax avoidance, violations of workplace safety and employee welfare, foreign bribery, and environmental violations. Over several decades, this network, or the Kochtopus as it was dubbed by one analyst, spent billions of dollars funnelled through tax-free foundations and charities exempted from public oversight to promote their objectives.

The Koch summits provided the institutional foundation and financial support for a long-term strategy based on three overlapping components: The reformulation of libertarian ideology in terms of ideas and concepts enabling its propagation within mainstream society; the creation of institutions for translating this free-market ideology into policy positions and legislation; and building political vehicles on the ground for placing politicians aligned with their ideas and policies into public office.

Most of the Koch-networked and -funded institutions and political action committees, like Americans for Prosperity, flew underneath the radar. At the same time, an array of media personalities, talk show hosts, and academic celebrities duplicated the role that rock musicians, intellectuals and artists, political activists, and outspoken athletes like Mohammed Ali played in energising the masses several decades before. They elevated the role of divisive social issues like abortion rights in the political arena, fuelling the culture wars that influenced otherwise politically moderate citizens.

The Koch network funded think tanks based in respected universities to reinforce their anti-government ideology and critiques of public spending. Covertly funded political action committees were used to gain control of executive offices and legislative bodies. Over a period of 40 years, the Koch Brothers and their clique of archconservative supporters patiently cultivated a right-wing movement, often with more power to block and obstruct than to legislate their own agenda.

An array of media personalities, talk show hosts, and academic celebrities duplicated the role that rock musicians, intellectuals and artists, political activists, and outspoken athletes like Mohammed Ali played in energising the masses several decades before. They elevated the role of divisive social issues like abortion rights in the political arena

But despite the inroads and influence generated by their free-flowing money, the Koch network still lacked a nation-wide vehicle for mobilising grassroots supporters.

ENTER BARACK OBAMA, PURSUED BY MAD HATTERS

Help came from an unexpected source.

The election of Barrack Obama in 2008 triggered the formation of the anti-government Tea Party movement. Its emergence enabled the Koch network to dedicate their annual summit in 2009 to organise an all-out assault on the Democrats during the 2010 mid-term elections. Tea Party candidates defeated Democrat and mainstream Republican incumbents as the GOP regained control of the House and Senate. The trend continued in 2012, even though Obama retained the White House with a 5.5 million-vote margin of victory.

Despite their growing clout within the federal and state governments, the Koch-Tea Party coalition could not field a viable presidential candidate of their own creation, as demonstrated by the succession of inchoate candidates like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, Michelle Bachmann, and the pizza king Herman Cain.

The problem was about to repeat itself in 2016, until along came the Donald. Trump blitzed the field, reducing both establishment candidates like Jeb Bush and Tea Party aspirants to props in his carnival-style campaign. He proceeded to tweet himself into the White House, portraying himself as a new and independent force in American politics.

That he was. “I even did without a guitar and piano,” he quipped, a jibe referring to the star power Hillary Clinton trundled out at the end of her self-satisfied campaign.

Actually, the Trump team had something much better. Cambridge Analytica is a company dedicated to “the use of data to change behaviour,” or in the case of the 2016 election, using emotional manipulation based on psychological profiling to induce people to vote against their own socioeconomic interest. Electoral analysts confirm that CA helped sway the vote in key swing states like Florida, North Carolina, and Michigan, but their advanced analytics arguably required the distortionary prism cultivated by the alt-right players like Breitbart News and Steve Bannon to be effective.

THE REAL HOMELAND INSECURITY

It is easy to denigrate Trump the person. But Trump the politician scored some important points on my political scorecard. I had witnessed the beginning of the decline overtaking rural areas in the American South, and now even communities and people in America’s heartland who did everything by the book to adapt to the industrial decline still couldn’t win. The economic nationalism agenda clearly spoke to their concerns, even if it was short on viable solutions.

Despite their growing clout within the federal and state governments, the Koch-Tea Party coalition could not field a viable presidential candidate of their own creation, as demonstrated by the succession of inchoate candidates like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, Michelle Bachmann, and the pizza king Herman Cain. The problem was about to repeat itself in 2016, until along came the Donald

A Trump versus Bernie Sanders contest focusing debate on the overlapping issues at the core of both candidates’ campaigns would have been much better for the country and the eventual winner. That did not happen thanks to the Democratic National Committee’s pro-Hillary machinations. Instead, we got a noisy post-truth spectacle that made one candidate look like a sleazy demagogue while the other came across as an opportunistic mannikin compromised by special interests.

The country emerged from the polls more polarised than ever, and the acrimony of the aftermath offered little hope for improvement. The fact that Trump was not part of the Kochtopus and the Koch brothers did not support his campaign offered some hope: Maybe the guy would revert to the former Democrat who was cool with Dennis Rodman on The Celebrity Apprentice. But then again, Vice President Michael Pence was a Koch-funded poodle; Trump promptly loaded his Cabinet with Koch partisans like Betsy DeVoss and Ben Carson.

It was not easy to see where my friend’s “something good will come out this” would come from with these people in charge.

A few days after I arrived in Utah, Trump announced his Muslim travel ban. A wave of spontaneous protests erupted as airport authorities detained several hundred arrivals from abroad including a former Middle Eastern head of state. The mainstream media went into overdrive and anti-Trump posts proliferated on social media, many of them creative, incisive, and entertaining. This and the breaking news about Russia drove a former State Department official to lament that the US has become a “Banana Republic.”

Although a federal judge declared the ban unconstitutional on the first working day following the executive order, a Utah-based friend from Lamu, spooked by the ban, still felt it necessary to travel back to Kenya to escort his wife, who had just received her long-awaited US visa, past airport immigration and security. More significantly, three days later, the LDS church issued a statement opposing the ban.

I argued that the election was the best thing that happened for progressive forces in decades. It woke people up, and saved the world from a hawkish and dissembling Hillary. At least the decades of drift culminating in the aristocratic takeover of party and state by the Clinton dynasty were over

This was unexpected news, as was a University of Utah study that reported most Muslim immigrants found the state more welcoming and adjusting to the US easier in Utah’s family oriented and no-alcohol Mormon culture. I also discovered that the religion’s founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, was actually an abolitionist, and that the Utah territory granted women the right to vote in 1870, 50 years before the federal government legislated universal suffrage by passing the 19th Amendment (Congress responded by disenfranchising Utah women with the Edmunds–Tucker Act, which was designed to weaken the Mormons politically and punish them for polygamy).

Red America is not as monolithic as it may appear in media political narratives. I spent Super Bowl Sunday in Salt Lake City with a houseful of Mexican relatives. More of them were more upset with the New England Patriot’s last minute Trump-style victory than worried about Trump’s wall.

I visited blue America. We convened a large family gathering in Los Angeles, and spent time with friends in San Francisco. There were a lot of Teslas and other electric cars, and a few self-driving vehicles on the freeways, their passengers contently working on phones and tablets.

THE COMING SECESSION OF HOTEL CALIFORNIA?

California is the high-tech future. But it is also the land of a new long-tail market peasantry. Internet-savvy entrepreneurs were surviving by reselling appliances and other recycled items. Co-operatives in the form of Internet-based groups were pooling their knowledge to utilise the online economy.

I have in-laws in LA who subsist by swapping coupons and minimising household costs through scientific shopping for bargains and stocking their freezer with food reduced for clearance.

Despite their struggle to keep body and soul intact, every month they host poetry readings and other cultural events in their home that are attended by dozens of friends and associates more concerned with the fate of the country than their own declining incomes.

The two coasts had emerged as the centre of anti-Trump activism, and some of the protests, like the student protests in Berkeley that forced the administration to cancel an appearance by the Breitbart editor, Milo Yiannopoulos, crossed the line, violating basic constitutional and democratic principles. When I mentioned the retrogressive nature of some of these developments, my friends in California ranted about the new regime and talked about secession in terms that recalled my conversations with the Mombasa Republican Council’s leadership.

I responded by arguing that the election was the best thing that happened for progressive forces in decades. It woke people up, and saved the world from a hawkish and dissembling Hillary. Contributions to the American Civil Liberties Union were spiking; at least the decades of drift culminating in the aristocratic takeover of party and state by the Clinton dynasty were over.

Other developments of the past several months painted a much more nuanced picture of the state of the nation. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick revisited the spirit of the Mexico Olympic protest by refusing to stand for the national anthem. In pro-Trump Louisiana, the city of New Orleans took down the statue of Robert E. Lee — the state’s last remaining symbol of the Confederacy. John McCain penned an incisive op-ed in the New York Times underscoring the importance of human rights in foreign policy as an extension of domestic American values. Bob Dylan, the first poet of the counterculture, became a Nobel laureate.

The United States is a highly dualistic nation held together by a strong political centre. The nation’s political trajectory has consistently zigzagged between right and left of centre over the course of my lifetime. The transition from Obama to Trump was consistent with this dialectic

After the election, the website for the largest Tea Party PAC crowed that it took the anti-war movement 25 years to elect one of their own to the White House while they had done the same over the course of two electoral cycles. In reality, the success rate of Tea Party candidates peaked in 2012. Now minority politicians with names like Chokwe Lumumba and Khalid Kamau were winning seats in local government. Unheralded candidates recently won by-elections for seats in New Hampshire and New Jersey districts that had never elected a Democrat.

In his book What’s Wrong With Kansas, Thomas Frank describes how conservatives used religion and the culture wars to flip the formerly progressive state into a Republican stronghold. A decade later, the economy is tanking, while the state’s model education system deteriorates due to the spending cuts instituted by the Koch-supported Governor. Back in another flyover state, there are helped wanted signs everywhere and the Utah economy is booming. The difference is not accidental.

After I returned to Kenya, Bloomberg News published an article entitled How Utah is Keeping the American Dream Alive. The writer begins by confessing, “There’s no getting around it: For a girl raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Salt Lake City is a very weird place.” She then proceeds to detail how the state government is collaborating with Latter Day Saints agencies to provide social protection for the poor while providing job training addressing local demand for skilled and semi-skilled labour. The formula is generating Scandinavian levels of social mobility in a state with a small but committed civil service and the country’s lowest per capita expenditure on education.

FACING AN UNEXCEPTIONAL FUTURE?

In 2017, I found a country not so different from the one I left on the brink of electing Barack Obama. Communication was efficient and uncomplicated; people were without exception polite, helpful, and friendly. The malls were filled with new versions of the usual stuff, and if you shopped smart most of it was much cheaper than it would cost in Kenya. Smoking reefer was laissez faire or just legal. The junk food was healthier, and the country was awash with innovative ideas and creative content. East Africa has changed so much more during the interim. But appearances can be deceptive.

Truth will make a comeback, and there is a world of well-informed and innovative solutions out there to get things going. Once again, it’s looking like my African friends got it right

The United States is a highly dualistic nation held together by a strong political centre. The nation’s political trajectory has consistently zigzagged between right and left of centre over the course of my lifetime. This makes for a lot of contradictions, but also for a more purple Republic over the long run. The transition from Obama to Trump was consistent with this dialectic, which is also a source of American democracy’s distinctive pattern of continuous change and incremental reform. President Trump is the latest exhibit in this tradition, but there are caveats.

The problem is not that Trump’s diagnoses of the nation’s problems were not on target. His vision for making America Great Again, in contrast, is informed by nostalgia, special interests, and backward-looking solutions. Trump’s proposed budget and tax cuts will injure the less educated and economically insecure voters who flocked to his rallies. The jobs at the Carrier factory Trump “saved” from being outsourced to Mexico are to be automated. Many elements of the economic nationalism he showcased on the stump are already in remission, and he is retreating from the foreign policy positions he used to whip up the crowds. He turned the government’s Middle East foreign policy over to the Saudis in exchange for a large order of weapons.

The future of the middle class is uncertain. The accelerating pace of machine learning and artificial intelligence may bring about the economic singularity within a generation. The country I grew up in was about exploration, problem solving, and optimising potential as we moved forward. Now I sense that for many Americans, the future is as murky as the Great Salt Lake on a cloudy winter day.

EVIL WINNERS WHO INVESTED IN PSEUDO-CHARITIES

The Koch Brothers and their friends tried to manufacture a new political culture based on libertarian values, but are really perpetuating the same financial industrial royalty presidents from Jefferson to Eisenhower warned us about. The likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are following the tradition of other American philanthropists guided by noblesse oblige; the super wealthy populating the alt-right are evil winners who invested in pseudo-charities dedicated to advancing their own narrow interests.

Things were humming along until an outsider crashed the party.

Now the Trump presidency is unravelling in the face of problems largely of his own making. Our institutions are engaged, and my only hope is Trump & Co stay in office long enough to take down the whole prevaricating, alternative fact, toxic waste emitting and hate-mongering circus. We have seen worse, and I don’t begrudge the sincere citizens who played their trump card on the Donald having their day in the sun. But now it’s time to sort out the unprecedented crisis of inequality facing capitalism everywhere. Truth will make a comeback, and there is a world of well-informed and innovative solutions out there to get things going.

Once again, it’s looking like my African friends got it right.

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Chief Black Hawk went down in flames over Somalia in the early 1990s. This is a missive from beyond the grave, exclusive to The Elephant.

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THE 21st CENTURY ECONOMY: In God We Trust, Everyone Else Bring Data

Blockchain technology has the necessary framework to address the challenge of accounting for human capital and allowing for democracy and the creation of knowledge in order to grow the economy. Argues BETTY WAITHERERO

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THE 21st CENTURY ECONOMY: In God We Trust, Everyone Else Bring Data

In a well-written article, economist David Ndii finally went on record with a counter-proposal to the Jubilee economic platform: “If knowledge and human capital are the engines of economic growth, what is the role of the foreign investment and infrastructure edifices that our governments are obsessed with?” he asked.

Dr. Ndii proposes a more realistic approach for a developing nation such as Kenya: Grow the economy by investing in both knowledge and human capital, rather than by mimicking growth seen in already developed nations that focus investments on infrastructure.

In developing countries like Kenya, the returns on government investments in infrastructure and inventory to create capital will always lag behind the initial amount invested i.e. there will be diminishing returns to scale. Ultimately, it will take Kenya a long time to recoup its investment in the standard gauge railway (SGR), for instance. As we can see currently with this particular infrastructural investment, the level of profits or benefits gained through the building of the SGR is significantly lower than the amount of money invested and will remain so for a long time. This is unhealthy growth, but expedient in the short term, in that it is convenient for the government to make such investments even when it is not necessarily wise or morally right to do so.

However, forming capital in an economy by investing in innovation and acquiring human capital – getting people to be productive and to work – will always lead or be at par in proportion to the initial amount of money or resources invested, creating constant returns to scale. Basically, an increase in investments in knowledge and human capital will cause an increase in economic productivity. This is healthy growth because knowledge is wealth, economic growth is learning, and the individual in conditions of economic and political liberty is the resource. These are uncomfortable notions that governments and people must accept before investing in knowledge; democracy must become an enabling means to ones’ productivity and livelihood, going beyond mere politics and electoral cycles.

Dr. Ndii’s explanatory narrative of how both Robert Lucas’s and Paul Romer’s models work together to generate endogenous growth allows us to understand that economic growth, for developing nations especially, is rooted in being able to account for human capital and innovation. In a nutshell, Paul Romer’s endogenous growth theory holds that it is the creation and investment in knowledge, human capital and innovation that is the more substantial contributor to economic growth.

Investing in people

For emerging economies like Kenya, endogenous growth theory and its possible application allows us to correct nearly 150 years of chasing the consequences of other nations’ economic decisions and interests. Put simply, Kenya, just like many other previously colonised African nations, has an economy that is designed to primarily serve the interests of its former coloniser. And despite the intentions of successive governments, a lack of human capital accounting (identifying, reporting and measuring the value of human resources in a country) has ensured that this economic model works to the detriment of the majority of the population.

Of all the devices created by human beings, the government is the most formidable and consequential. The government is responsible for all the best and all the worst happenings in humanity’s history, as well as for everything in between. This device has evolved over generations, taking on different forms and purposes consistent with the prevailing paradigms and needs of its wielders.

The aspirations of the Jubilee government, as expressed in its Big 4 agenda, are to spur and ignite Kenya’s economic growth by ensuring food security and universal healthcare, building affordable housing and increasing manufacturing. However, motivating an entire nation of more than 40 million people to achieve these goals demands a paradigm shift. Investing in human potential, knowledge, skills and creativity ought to be the drivers of economic growth, rather than the seemingly strict investment in state and capital assets, as is the current government’s approach.

Investing in people is not restricted to education; it includes funding for research and innovation, and also investing in information platforms, healthcare and provision of sustenance. In other words, if indeed the Jubilee government wishes to create one million jobs every year, it ought to invest in the people who will do these jobs.

The aspirations of the Jubilee government, as expressed in its Big 4 agenda, are to spur and ignite Kenya’s economic growth by ensuring food security and universal healthcare, building affordable housing and increasing manufacturing. However, motivating an entire nation of more than 40 million people to achieve these goals demands a paradigm shift.

Automation and the productivity gap

The reality is that technology and automation are putting people out of jobs already. In August this year, the Daily Nation reported that 2,792 banking staff had been laid off due to increasing automation and declining profitability – the effect of unintended consequences of the move to mobile financial applications to reach the unbanked, eliminating the need for intermediaries in the banking hall, coupled with the effects of government policies seeking to cap interest rates. This is an ironic outcome given the government’s goal of financial inclusion and greater employment.

Automation in other economies is creating a productivity gap. Increasingly, jobs that were previously done by people are being taken over by more efficient and more accurate machines and robots. This cuts across industries ranging from manufacturing to food production, leaving behind a population of people who do not have the requisite skills for jobs outside their industries. These people fall through the gaps, and remain unemployable for months or even years.

In an article published in Fortune,This is the Future of Artificial Intelligence”,

the wealthy entrepreneur and Xerion CEO, Daniel Arbess, highlighted the profound manner in which Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms are eating up human jobs. “Our political leaders don’t seem up to the policy challenges of job displacement — at least not yet, but the application of Big Data software algorithms is elevating decision-making precision to a whole new level, creating efficiencies, saving costs or delivering new solutions to important problems.” he wrote. “The Bank of England estimates that 48% of human workers will eventually be replaced by robotics and software automation.”

Kenya’s unemployment rate is estimated to be 11.4 per cent. This unemployment rate translates to a further 30 per cent of the population living in extreme poverty. There are many harmful social and psychological effects of short- and long-term unemployment, including alcoholism, homelessness, and rising crime, especially crimes that target more vulnerable people such as women and children.

The situation is compounded by nearly three decades of missed growth opportunities brought about by the fact that there was a lack of human capital accounting. Even at its most prosperous, Kenya’s economic policies simply assumed that jobs would be created via investment in infrastructure rather than in people. Consequently, we have a debt culture that affects the entire nation.

Furthermore, having nearly 83 per cent of the working population in the informal sector means that capital is not accessible through tax revenues – a situation that the government opted to address through new taxation aimed at mobile transactions and data. Emerging economies like Kenya need small business to thrive, but work is not forthcoming. Business opportunities are declining, incomes are diminishing and purchasing power is diminishing.

The situation is compounded by nearly three decades of missed growth opportunities brought about by the fact that there was a lack of human capital accounting. Even at its most prosperous, Kenya’s economic policies simply assumed that jobs would be created via investment in infrastructure rather than in people. Consequently, we have a debt culture that affects the entire nation.

And because the government is hoarding tenders (in July, Uhuru Kenyatta ordered a freeze on new government projects), business is hoarding opportunities and banks are hoarding finance. As productivity is constrained, banks and non-bank financial institutions (NBFIs) are distributing through debt the purchasing power that businesses are not distributing through salaries.

China is doing the same on an international scale by distributing purchasing power through debt as a substitute for national economic growth. It is building infrastructure, such as highways and railways, using loans that are then spent on Chinese companies that serve China’s interests, even though the infrastructure will, hopefully, eventually benefit the debtor nation.

Human capital accounting

A lack of accounting for human capital exacerbates the situation. An economic model that seeks great investment in infrastructure in order to boost the economy but does not account for people engaging in economic activity will result in a mismatch, most graphically seen in an absence of skilled and qualified professionals adept at doing the new jobs that are created. So, without the necessary skills, the locals fall through the employment gaps, and unfortunately, foreigners, with the requisite skills, are hired.

Governments advance the welfare of citizens by establishing and executing public policy for net positive outcomes. This is conventionally done through the creation of rules and regulations, and enforcing their compliance. If viewed in technology terms, the government can be described as a protocol stack (a set of rules) that responds to any input in a prescribed manner consistent with underlying statutes. Indeed, failures in government can be spectacularly linked to the ignoring, circumvention or subversion of the procedures set forth to guide healthy operability among various constituencies and concerns among the citizenry.

Smart-law is the idea that a legal statute can be implemented as a digital computational protocol to which users can connect, execute and return results exactly according to the purpose and design of the underlying legal architecture. There are benefits to a smart-law paradigm, including the fact that it can be censorship-resistant, in that transactions cannot be altered and anyone, without restriction, can enter into those transactions; it is trustless, meaning that trust (knowing and trusting the other party to fulfil their obligations) is not necessary or required, and it does not discriminate in the manner or order of its operations.

The Kenyan government has taken action to advance citizen-centred public service delivery through a variety of channels, including deploying digital technology and establishing citizen service centres across the country. Smart-laws that can provide compliant, straightforward and predictable interactions between citizens and the bureaucracy would have a big and important role to play in this endeavour.

The world in the 21st century is one of advancement through technology. Everything has made a leap forward in one way or another through the impact of technology. It is also true that among all entities, the government remains the most obstinately slow in embracing technology and innovation.

The Kenyan government has taken action to advance citizen-centred public service delivery through a variety of channels, including deploying digital technology and establishing citizen service centres across the country. Smart-laws that can provide compliant, straightforward and predictable interactions between citizens and the bureaucracy would have a big and important role to play in this endeavour.

The time is right for the government to undergo a technology-driven transformation that it so yearns and that will bring it up to par with the industries and sectors it intends to effect. By doing so, it can unleash the potential of the 21st-century citizen.

Blockchain technology

Kenya’s recognition of blockchain technology via its Blockchain Task Force headed by Dr. Bitange Ndemo allows for a little optimism. I will provide a simple explanation for this technology. Blockchain is very often conflated with bitcoin and cryptocurrency trading. However, blockchain is an incorruptible digital ledger where transactions are recorded and cannot be altered. In securing these transactions, computer processors complete complex mathematical equations which when solved are rewarded with a token. The token can bitcoin, or ethereum, all depending on which blockchain platform is being utilised.

The trading and investing of these coins by laypeople in Kenya (sometimes leading to loss of funds) is what leads both Dr. Patrick Njoroge and Dr. David Ndii to call cryptocurrency a scam. I am inclined to agree with them on the matter of how the trading is conducted in Kenya – some traders entice investors with a multi-level marketing or Ponzi-style scheme. But I disagree with a blanket declaration writing off this technology and its potential utilisation in governance and its products, the cryptocurrencies. I recently had a robust discussion with Dr. Ndii on twitter on the same matter.

It is my firm belief that blockchain technology has the necessary framework to address the challenge of accounting for human capital and allowing for democracy and the creation of knowledge in order to grow the economy.

Together with two of my colleagues, Andrew Amadi, who is a sustainable energy engineer, and Chris Daniels, who is an economist and programmer, we created the Freework Society in 2017 with the aim of achieving this particular goal through a programmable economic model built on ethereum blockchain. (Ethereum is an open-source, public, blockchain-based and distributed computing platform and operating system featuring smart contract functionality.)

It is my firm belief that blockchain technology has the necessary framework to address the challenge of accounting for human capital and allowing for democracy and the creation of knowledge in order to grow the economy.

In developing a public computing infrastructure that can implement smart-laws, and which can also account for anyone’s work and effort, and can allow for investment in innovation, we were compelled to improve the very platform we would utilise by creating a standard. This standard is called an Ethereum Improvement Proposal (EIP), which describes core protocol specifications, client application programming interface (API) and contract standards. In a nutshell, an EIP describes how the platform will function if the proposal is implemented.

In developing countries like Kenya, the returns on government investments in infrastructure and inventory to create capital will always lag behind the initial amount invested i.e. there will be diminishing returns to scale.

Our proposal is to utilise the opportunities presented on ethereum blockchain technology by creating a human capital accounting framework that provides a merit-based system of indexing human resources, knowledge and talent, and subsequently reducing market search costs and challenges to price discovery and increasing the desirability to share value, work, and assets within the economy. This proposal has been accepted and assigned Ethereum Improvement Proposal EIP1491.

EIP1491 is a proposal that intends to contribute to the development of a human capital accounting standard on blockchain. EIP1491 allows for the implementation of standard APIs for human cost accounting tokens within smart contracts. This standard provides basic functionality to discover, track and transfer the motivational hierarchy of human resources.

Whereas blockchain architecture has succeeded in the financialising of integrity by way of transparency, correspondingly real-world outcomes will be proportional to the degree of individualisation of capital by way of knowledge.

What this means in an entrepreneurial economy is that where you have employers and workers looking to exchange value (work for money) there is now a proposed standard of how to go about this, and these standard assigns unit value to the labour/work that is done, and creates a meritocracy for those who will do the work i.e. a standard unit of labour with a coefficient that assigns value via points to education, years of experience, talent, and interests.

Suppose there is an employer who wishes to have job X done by a university graduate with three years’ experience, for which he is willing to pay Y amount of money. Utilising our standard API, the employer is able to compute how many labour hours he will be required to pay for, and what exact merit the employee will have, meeting the challenge of price discovery. The employer will also reduce his market search cost because he is able to track and locate the right candidate for the job. Both employer and employee are happy with the work because both are correctly directed to the right smart contract.

For millions of people in emerging economies around the world, the potential of EIP1491 will allow for individualised agency, rather than that agency being rooted in government. As we can all agree, despite the best of intentions, governments cannot be trusted to act in the interest of citizens. The best example for this is the debt-based culture that currently runs economies.

This means that an individual’s human resource, talent, interest and work has a value that can be exchanged at will because the individual has control over his agency. He is able to turn his different trades into capital that can be exchanged directly for purchasing power.

The ability to factor in growth in a knowledge-based economy ultimately should mean that not only is unemployment impeded, but that with increased utilisation, time becomes money, waste is reduced and the incidences of unrealised potential and missed opportunities are eliminated. Total factor productivity can be achieved in a shared agency ecosystem where millions engage willingly in exchanging value propositions using their own human capital.

We invite robust engagement and discussion on this standard and its applicability, and comments on the same.

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DEPOLITICISING DEVELOPMENT: Jubilee and the Politics of Spin

The tissue that connects the depoliticisation of development, the blind deployment of technology, and the professionalisation of the cabinet is Jubilee’s shamelessness. No political party is without faults and foibles, but in Jubileeland, shamelessness has taken an insidious form. By ABDULLAHI BORU HALAKHE

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DEPOLITICISING DEVELOPMENT: Jubilee and the Politics of Spin

In the Jubilee universe, it is almost an article of faith that politics is “bad” and development is “good”. It’s not uncommon to hear President Uhuru Kenyatta, Deputy President William Ruto, and high-level administration officials and their supporters’ constant put-downs directed at their opponents: “We don’t have time for politics, we are only interested in development.” They believe that the depoliticisation of development is necessary in order for them to deliver on their campaign promises.

While such a rhetorical sleight of hand is occasionally designed to silence opponents – who are supposedly opposed to development – in practice, it also reveals the Jubilee government’s limited understanding of politics. For them development is a cold, apolitical, technical exercise that is not only immune to politics, but transcends it.

More broadly, Jubilee’s politics-development dichotomy is an insidious attempt at redefining politics as criticising Jubilee, whether fairly or unfairly, and development as praising the administration, whether they are delivering or not. The net aim is to induce self-censorship among critical voices.

Techno-fallacy

Building a rhetorical firewall between development and politics is not a new idea; President Daniel arap Moi’s favourite retort when placed under pressure was “Siasa mbaya, maisha mbaya” (bad politics, bad life), never mind that under him, Kenya was firmly in mbaya zone. Maisha was so mbaya under Moi that economy growth was a mere 0.6 per cent when his successor Mwai Kibaki took over in 2002. Dissent was penalised and the country felt like a band that was dedicated to singing his praises. It is rather ironic that Jubilee, which would like to be remembered for good economic stewardship, would look to Moi for inspiration.

Building a rhetorical firewall between development and politics is not a new idea; President Daniel arap Moi’s favourite retort when placed under pressure was “Siasa mbaya, maisha mbaya”

The Jubilee government has also coupled the depoliticisation of development with a similar rhetoric on technology, in the process completely eviscerating nuances, complexities or grey areas when discussing public policy. You are either part of the cult of technology or you are not interested in progress.

In his book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, Evgeny Morozov captures Jubilee’s approach to development: “Recasting all complex social situations either as neat problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimised — if only the right algorithms are in place! — this quest is likely to have unexpected consequences that could eventually cause more damage than the problems they seek to address.”

For instance, one of Jubilee’s bright ideas of fixing the education system is to provide every child with a laptop, in line with their emphasis on learning science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as opposed to the humanities, which they see as not “marketable”. Never mind that only slightly over half of Kenya has access to electricity, that the teachers have not yet been trained or hired for the switch to using laptops, and most schools do not have computer labs. Jubilee is, after all, led by the dynamic digital duo that needs everyone to be wired.

Along with a blind faith in technology, Jubilee also regards corporate experience as a most prized asset in public appointments – as exemplified by the Harvard-educated former Barclays CEO, Adan Mohamed, who is the Cabinet Secretary for Industrialisation. For Kenyatta and his ilk, corporate experience, when coupled with technology, will fix pesky inefficiency and sloth in the public service.

This is not new; under pressure domestically from opposition groups, and externally from the Bretton Woods institutions, Moi appointed a “Dream Team” to key public offices. The officials were drawn from the private sector, international finance and development organisations. The group was led by Richard Leakey (the famous paleoanthropologist and former head of the Kenya Wildlife Service who had even formed a political party to oppose Moi in 1990s), who was appointed as the Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of the Civil Service. Martin Oduor-Otieno, a former director of finance and planning at Barclays Bank, was appointed as the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Finance and Planning and Mwangazi Mwachofi, the resident representative of the South Africa-based International Finance Corporation, became the Finance Secretary.

Along with a blind faith in technology, Jubilee also regards corporate experience as a most prized asset in public appointments – as exemplified by the Harvard-educated former Barclays CEO, Adan Mohamed, who is the Cabinet Secretary for Industrialisation. For Kenyatta and his ilk, corporate experience, when coupled with technology, will fix pesky inefficiency and sloth in the public service.

While Moi was boxed into a corner and had no option but to cater to donors’ wishes, Jubilee’s appointment of well-credentialed public officials from the private sector is an attempt to demonstrate that the government is using corporate best practice principles to manage the public sector. However, the appointment of individuals with private sector or international expertise is rooted in a lack of appreciation for received bureaucratic wisdom; it is a system of faceless, unelected officials keeping the state’s institutions humming along and ensuring continuity from one administration to another.

For Jubilee, bureaucracy is a dirty word. Both under Moi and under Jubilee, the credentialed senior public officials failed to deliver, although on balance, Moi’s cabinet, which had more court poets than individuals with diplomas from good schools abroad, did better.

Grievances and greed

Jubilee’s weaponisation of optics and breathless spin was honed when Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto – the two principals in the Jubilee coalition – were indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for their alleged role in 2007-2008 violence.

Ruto and Kenyatta make an unlikely political team. The latter is a prince of Kenya’s politics and the former is a self-declared “hustler”. Even when considering Kenya’s shape-shifting political landscape and allegiances, the two couldn’t be more different.

But they were brought together by grievance and greed. They regarded their prosecution at the International Criminal Court as a witch-hunt; they argued that the two top presidential candidates during the 2007 election that led to violence and displacement were former President Mwai Kibaki and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

During the course of their indictments, the duo skillfully used social media and established themselves as bona fide underdogs. As a result, they refined their enduring ability to generate sometimes pugnacious, if not altogether needless, spin, which had tremendous traction with their base. Ruto and Kenyatta cast the ICC as an imperial project bent on getting them, effectively framing themselves – not those killed, maimed or displaced – as the victims of the post-election violence. Their spin was so effective that even some of the victims of the violence held “prayer rallies” for them.

In fairness, some of the reputational damage experienced by the ICC was self-inflicted. When I visited a IDP camp in Nakuru in 2011, one of the IDPs told me that the ICC’s Chief Prosecutor, Moreno Ocampo, had no time to visit them, and was busy doing safaris in Nairobi National Park.

During the course of their indictments, the duo skillfully used social media and established themselves as bona fide underdogs. As a result, they refined their enduring ability to generate sometimes pugnacious, if not altogether needless, spin, which had tremendous traction with their base. Ruto and Kenyatta cast the ICC as an imperial project bent on getting them, effectively framing themselves – not those killed, maimed or displaced – as the victims of the post-election violence.

The ICC was not the only victim of Jubilee’s rage; Raila Odinga, the cottage industry of upstart politicians, felt the full weight of Jubilee’s relentless propaganda blitzkrieg, part of it also emanating from his support for the ICC process, which Ruto, his lieutenant in 2007, interpreted as throwing him under the bus. (Ruto was a leading member of Odinga’s team during the 2007 election.)

After claiming some big domestic and foreign scalps, Jubilee started believing is own hype. While many dismissed Jubilee’s breathless social media campaigns during the elections as a passing fad once the cold reality of governing sets in, for Jubilee social media was the system. Beyond the hype, any critical assessment of Jubilee’s grand ideas, such as a 24-hour economy, 9 international standard stadia, and 21st century public transport, would show that they are all sizzle and no steak. The large-scale infrastructure projects were mostly designed as a gravy train, as the Standard Gauge Railway amply demonstrated.

Politics of shamelessness

The tissue that connects the depoliticisation of development, the blind deployment of technology, and the professionalisation of the cabinet is Jubilee’s shamelessness. No political party is without faults and foibles, but in Jubileeland, shamelessness has taken an insidious form. The shamelessness here is not the kind citizens have come to almost expect from the politicians; in Jubilee’s case, it is its modus operandi, a blunt object to hit opponents with. The lack of shame has not only been adopted by Kenyatta and Ruto, but also by their close lieutenants.

When the presidential results were announced two days after the annulled August 8, 2017 election, demonstrators and the police engaged in a running a battle in the Mathare slum in Nairobi. Police used live bullets and killed both demonstrators and bystanders. I spoke to some of the families of the victims and corroborated their stories with medical records and family witnesses.

The tissue that connects the depoliticisation of development, the blind deployment of technology, and the professionalisation of the cabinet is Jubilee’s shamelessness. No political party is without faults and foibles, but in Jubileeland, shamelessness has taken an insidious form.

But on August 12, at a press conference, the then Acting Internal Affairs Cabinet Secretary, Fred Matiangi’ denied that police had shot and killed people. He stated, “I am not aware of anyone who has been killed by live bullets in this country. Those are rumours. People who loot, break into people’s homes, burn buses are not peaceful protesters.” Yet it is not that Matiangi’ did not have access to the details of the people killed, some of whose deaths have been recorded in government hospitals and by the media and human rights groups.

Jubilee learnt some of this shameless spin from Moi’s Kanu party. In 2000, when drought was ravaging parts of Northern Kenya, the then government minister, Shariff Nassir, denied there was drought when pressed in Parliament by one of the area MPs. A few days later, the government declared a famine in Kenya.

President Kenyatta says that fighting corruption will be a key pillar of his legacy. The Auditor General’s Office has done more than any other state organ to reveal the level of corruption in government agencies through audit reports. In an ideal world, you’d think that the president would consider the Auditor General’s Office as a key ally. But the president scoffed at the Auditor General’s plan to investigate the activities of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in relation to the alleged misuse of $2 billion Eurobond cash that Kenya raised in 2014. The president was quoted telling the Auditor General, “When you say that the Eurobond money was stolen and stashed in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, are you telling me that the Kenyan government and United States have colluded?” The president then insinuated that the Auditor General, Edward Ouko, was stupid. Never mind that the president’s remarks came during a State House anti-corruption summit. It is also likely that the story of the missing Eurobond money will be the story of Jubilee’s corruption.

Lack of shame is dangerous when it comes from a place of entitlement – the #Mtado? phenomenon. Which naturally breads impunity.

David Ndii wrote, “Jomo Kenyatta’s regime was corrupt, illiberal and competent. Moi’s was corrupt, illiberal and mediocre. Kibaki’s was corrupt, liberal and competent. So, Moi scores zero out of three. Jomo scores one out of three. Kibaki scores two out of three.”

The original sin after 2010 constitution was promulgated was when a court ruled that Kenyatta and Ruto could contest the 2013 elections despite being indicted by the ICC. This officially killed Chapter Six on leadership and integrity of the Katiba, which effectively set Kenya down the path of “anything goes”.

Lack of shame is dangerous when it comes from a place of entitlement – the #Mtado? phenomenon. Which naturally breads impunity.

Kanu and Jubilee have ruled Kenya longer than any other party, and in the process have created the Kenyatta and Moi family and business dynasties. When under pressure, it is not uncommon to see Kenyatta and Jubilee seek Moi’s eternal wisdom. The visits to Moi’s home are done at the exclusion of William Ruto, which sets up 2022 neatly as the battle between the princes and the hustler.

Raila was a key player in the 2002 elections, and in 2013, Ruto was a key player in defeating Raila. In 2022, Ruto could face Raila’s fate. While Ruto’s defeat could delight many, the techno-dignified political opportunism that is Jubilee, which is illiberal, incompetent and corrupt, will endure.

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TERRORISM: Officialdom’s baffling silence in the wake of Sylvia Romano’s abduction

The potential significance of the abduction of Ms Sylvia Romano has already been pushed into the background but will this be yet another wake-up call to be ignored by the Government of Kenya. By ANDREW FRANKLIN

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TERRORISM: Officialdom’s baffling silence in the wake of Sylvia Romano’s abduction

Ms Sylvia Constanca Romano, a twenty-three year-old Italian NGO worker, was abducted on Tuesday, November 20, 2018 at 8 pm from her lodging in the remote trading centre of Chakama, located 80 km west of the Kenyan Indian Ocean resort town of Malindi in Kilifi County. Ms Romano was managing a children’s home for the Italian NGO, African Milele Onlus, and the armed men who took her were identified as being of Somali origin.

Weeks later, this Italian woman is still missing and while not immediately dismissing the involvement of Al Shabaab, the Government of Kenya is still resisting suggestions that the kidnappers were terrorists rather than ordinary thugs carrying AK-47s. Although initial reports in the Italian media were quick to blame Al Shabaab, the Italian Government just as rapidly asserted that the kidnappers were “armed herders” although, as quoted in the local media, fears were expressed that Ms Romano might have been sold on to Al Shabaab elements inside Somalia.

Italy was the preeminent colonial power in the Horn of Africa, especially in what is today effectively the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) territory, which is currently being contested by jihadists. Italy contributes paramilitary police advisors to the nine-nation European Union Mission to FGS and has trained the Somalia Government police at its base in Djibouti; Italian Navy elements have participated in anti-piracy patrols off Somalia since 2008.

In October 2018, Al Shabaab in Mogadishu targeted a convoy of Italian security personnel returning to their base with a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (IED). Although there were no Italian casualties, this attack on foreigners is not Shabaab’s modus operandi; the main targets of the terrorist organisation’s operations within Somalia have mainly been Somalis, although neighbouring Kenya has been a target since Operation Linda Nchi – the Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF) incursion into Somalia in October 2011. Some of the most deadly Al Shabaab attacks on Kenyan soil include the Westgate mall attack in Nairobi in September 2013 in which 67 people lost their lives and the Garissa University College massacre in April 2015, in which 147 students were brutally gunned down.

Elsewhere in the region, the Kenya Police recently took delivery of four Italian-made utility helicopters for use in its operations domestically against terrorists. Italy’s continuing role in the war on terror within the region remains low key and its government prefers to keep it that way.

It has been confirmed that at least three of the attackers had arrived in Chakama several days earlier and had rented lodgings and apparently observed village routines, including Ms Romano’s activities. Initial reports were that five heavily armed assailants had shot wildly during the Tuesday evening attack, wounding five Kenyans before seizing the Italian; there has yet to be an explanation for the origin of AK-47s or when they were smuggled into the trading centre. According to the police, the attackers fled with their hostage using two subsequently abandoned motorbikes before crossing a major river and disappearing into a rather thick bush.

It has been confirmed that at least three of the attackers had arrived in Chakama several days earlier and had rented lodgings and apparently observed village routines, including Ms Romano’s activities. Initial reports were that five heavily armed assailants had shot wildly during the Tuesday evening attack, wounding five Kenyans before seizing the Italian…

There is no permanent police presence in Chakama, which is located in a remote area of Kilifi County. It seems that there was no organised security forces’ response during the first 24 hours following the abduction. The security forces’ operating capabilities during the hours of darkness cannot be evaluated except for certain elite units (i.e. General Service Unit [GSU] Recon and KDF Rangers and Special Forces). Regular police and Administration Police (AP) units, regardless of designation, are not trained, organised or equipped for extensive patrolling. Although police helicopters were deployed to the area, it’s unlikely that the hastily cobbled together rescue force, comprising Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Game Rangers, KDF troops, GSU, APs and regular police, had the ability to coordinate ground forces with air support.

In fact, in the event that this was an Al Shabaab operation, the seeming reticence on the part of the security forces is understandable as it would be expected that Al Shabaab would plant IEDs and organise ambushes to slow down pursuit and inflict maximum damage on the rescuers. This is standard procedure and characteristic of all guerrillas fighting road-bound conventional forces; since 2016 Al Shabaab has been regularly ambushing KDF and/or police patrols across all five frontline counties in Kenya. Another foreseeable risk is that Al Shabaab will attempt to shoot down a police helicopter, as was reported on 2 September in the vicinity of Boni Forest in Lamu County.

Although remaining somewhat tight-lipped about the actual affiliation of the attackers, the expansion of search activities outside Kilifi County into neighbouring Lamu, specifically into Boni Forest, which straddles the Kenya-Somalia border, and the issuance of “WANTED” posters for three men of ethnic Somali origin – albeit without specific background details – point to officials believing this to have been an Al Shabaab terrorist operation. Since the kidnapping, the Kenya Police have taken more than twenty civilians in and around Chakamba into custody for questioning; the wife and brother-in-law of one of the three named suspects were arrested in Garsen in Tana River County when a telephone call was intercepted and traced back. As with the previously noted lack of explanation regarding the presence of AK-47s in Chakamba, there was no information provided as to whether the security forces were able to trace the GPS signatures of the suspects; Al Shabaab operatives would no doubt discard their phones to avoid detection. Perhaps these men are part-time insurgents or even freelancers?

Although remaining somewhat tight-lipped about the actual affiliation of the attackers, the expansion of search activities outside Kilifi County into neighbouring Lamu, specifically into Boni Forest, which straddles the Kenya-Somalia border, and the issuance of “WANTED” posters for three men of ethnic Somali origin – albeit without specific background details – point to officials believing this to have been an Al Shabaab terrorist operation.

Operation Linda Nchi and its after-effects

Operation Linda Nchi, a cross-border punitive expedition by 1,800 KDF troops, was launched on 15 October 2011 ostensibly in retaliation for alleged Al Shabaab kidnappings of Spanish MSF workers from the Dadaab refugee camp and tourists from Manda Island in Lamu, The latter attacks were eventually found to be the work of common criminals based in Ras Kamboni where pro-FGS forces hold sway. Al Shabaab’s involvement in the kidnapping of the Spanish volunteers was neither confirmed nor denied. Anecdotal evidence, however, indicates that the kidnappings within Somalia of locals has been used to raise funds not only by criminals but also by Al Shabaab, which has long made money from participating in transnational organised criminal activities, including charcoal smuggling, arms dealing, human trafficking and trade in illicit narcotics.

Al Shabaab attacks have taken place fairly regularly across the five Kenyan counties bordering Somalia, whose populations are overwhelmingly Muslim and predominately of ethnic Somali origin. Although Al Shabaab has eschewed headline-grabbing terror attacks, such as that on the Westgate mall in September 2013, its fighters regularly target police and KDF patrols, permanent security force bases, mobile telephone masts and power stations. Occasionally they also take control of villages and harangue inhabitants at night with little or no government interference. In June 2016, for instance, Al Shabaab took control of the villages of Mpeketoni and Poromoko in Lamu County and killed 60 men. The security response to this attack was dismal; there were stories of police stations in Mpeketoni being abandoned prior to the attack and villagers being left to their own devices to deal with the terrorists.

Since 2016, most professional security analysts agree that the Al Shabaab attacks have derailed devolution in the frontline counties of Mandera, Wajir, Garissa, Lamu and Tana River by severing the people from administrative functions. The attacks have throttled formal economic activities and disrupted delivery of education and social and health services. Civil servants, teachers, traders and students from outside these counties fear returning there after an attack. Most of the students who survived the Garissa University College attack, for example, were relocated to campuses in other parts of the country. Many teachers have also refused to be sent to these counties for fear of being attacked by Al Shabaab. These attacks have effectively normalised a state of endemic insecurity within which police elements and KDF units are alienated from the local citizens, many of whom are not convinced that they are truly citizens of the Republic of Kenya as their regions have been systematically marginalised and neglected since independence in 1963.

Despite attempts by all parties in Nairobi to portray events in Garissa, Tana River, Mandera, Wajir and Lamu counties as merely episodic terrorism that can happen anywhere in the world, the reality is that Al Shabaab insurgents are conducting a reasonably successful, low-intensity conflict that complements its operations to defeat the Western-backed FGS based in Mogadishu. In fact, the KDF invasion of Somalia and its subsequent incorporation into the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) inadvertently provided Al Shabaab opportunities to subvert the Kenyan government’s influences across the restive predominantly ethnic Somali counties, to expand recruitment, to increase revenue from transnational crime and to undermine the morale of a major troop-contributing country. Kenya, out of all the states adjacent to Somalia or involved in AMISOM, has been shown to have the most fragile domestic security architecture amidst a fractious political environment in which little or no attention is paid to matters of national insecurity.

Despite attempts by all parties in Nairobi to portray events in Garissa, Tana River, Mandera, Wajir and Lamu counties as merely episodic terrorism that can happen anywhere in the world, the reality is that Al Shabaab insurgents are conducting a reasonably successful, low-intensity conflict that complements its operations to defeat the Western-backed FGS based in Mogadishu.

The abduction of an Italian NGO worker from a remote market centre in Kilifi County, which is outside of Al Shabaab’s normal area of operations, had to have been well-researched and carefully planned. Nearly all Western states have prohibited their officials from working within the five frontline counties and tourists have been actively discouraged from visiting even popular resorts on Lamu Island. Travel advisories issued since 2012 have crippled Kenya’s tourism sectors, especially along the Coast in Malindi, Watamu, Kilifi and the beaches north of Mombasa; however foreigners like Sylvia Romano would not really have been warned off by their governments and are now the best targets available to Al Shabaab and/or disparate armed groups, including livestock raiders and poachers.

Western governments have pretty much placed most of the five frontline counties off limits to their employees and strongly discouraged their citizens from visiting them for any purposes. Al Shabaab has been very active in mainland Lamu County, which resulted in foreigners being discouraged from visiting popular locations on Lamu Island and adjoining islands. Although the UK lifted its travel advisory in May 2017, the position of the US Government and others remains oddly ambiguous.

However, Al Shabaab is considered one of the most dangerous of Al Qaeda’s global franchises; Al Qaeda cells blew up US Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on 7 August 1998 and the terrorist organisation launched a suicide bomber against the Israeli owned Paradise Hotel in Kikambala in 2002. Simultaneously, Al Qaeda operatives unsuccessfully attempted to shoot down an El Al charter flight taking off from Mombasa. Al Qaeda has never backed away from threats to retaliate against citizens of enemy nations wherever they are located and it seems likely that Al Shabaab will expand activities wherever targets can be found.

The Italian connection

There are nearly 15,000 Italian citizens living in Malindi, Watamu and elsewhere on the Kenyan coast. The Italian government operates an official satellite tracking/space research facility just north of Malindi. During the pending festive season, hundreds more Italians will descend on an otherwise depressed holiday destination. In my view, Al Shabaab is implicitly threatening the safety of these people in order to leverage the Italian government to reduce its footprint in Mogadishu.

As with the kidnappings of foreigners in 2011, whether Al Shabaab fails to take responsibility or is ultimately found not to be culpable is less important than popular perception. The longer Sylvia Constanca Romano remains unfound, the greater the possibility that media attention, particularly in Italy, will speculate on whether Al Shabaab is involved and whether there is a link between the Italian government’s counterterrorism activities against Al Qaeda/Al Shabaab and her abduction.

Although the Chakamba market centre is several kilometres away from major Indian Ocean tourist towns, it is located in an area traversed by foreigners visiting Kenya for luxury safaris – the very same bush into which the Italian woman’s abductors fled. Whether this incident is the start of a high season offensive intended by Al Shabaab to further undermine the economy of Kilifi County cannot be ruled out. Doing so would further undermine support by the Kenyan public, especially at the coast, for KDF’s continued deployment to AMISOM, particularly if Italian security assistance to FGS is seen to falter.

So far, Nairobi’s Western allies have not extended stringent travel advisories outside of the five frontline counties but it can be expected that an unhappy outcome of yet another botched Government of Kenya anti-terrorist operation will impact negatively on economies of already shell-shocked coastal counties where there are strong undercurrents of opinion favouring self-determination and even secession.

Regardless of how this unfortunate incident plays out, the fact of its occurrence indicates that expert advice concerning best practices to respond to cross-border and even domestic attacks of this type have been ignored for more than seven years. The initial reaction to the news of the kidnapping followed the same old script in which personnel from different security forces were thrown together without appropriate training and organisation to track a small gang through unfamiliar terrain during the hours of darkness. Reports that police were detaining witnesses may mask employment by security personnel of heavy-handed and counterproductive methods, which have been the trademark of government forces since before independence in 1963.

It is notable, however, that the Kenyan government has successfully controlled the flow of information although it has to date set the narrative by avoiding any narrative. In this, the authorities have been aided by a seemingly disinterested and largely uninformed domestic media. Kenya’s mainstream press has avoided anything suggesting that the government’s war on terror, whether at home or in the near abroad, is less than a reasonable success under the circumstances. Local and international media have excluded security professionals who can document how officialdom has perversely ignored practical, common sense solutions to the myriad security issues that have evolved into a comprehensive existential threat to national security.

It is notable, however, that the Kenyan government has successfully controlled the flow of information although it has to date set the narrative by avoiding any narrative. In this the authorities have been aided by a seemingly disinterested and largely uninformed domestic media.

The potential significance of this kidnapping has already been pushed into the background; will this be yet another wake-up call to be ignored?

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