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SEE NO EVIL: How international election observers lost credibility during the August elections

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The peeping game
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The August 8, 2017 Kenyan presidential election, which was invalidated and nullified by the Supreme Court of Kenya on September 1, 2017, not only led to a flurry of hastily cobbled up contrite statements by international observer missions and some Western-based media houses, but also opened up a Pandora’s box that critically questioned the role of international observer missions.

The election, which pitted for the second-time President Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta against Raila Amolo Odinga, was declared “null and void” by Chief Justice David Maraga on account of electronic and technological malpractices. A fresh election is slated for October 17, 2017.

Just two days after the voting had ended, the international observer missions that had come to monitor the elections had already written their preliminary reports certifying the general election as largely free, fair and peaceful. About 400 international observers had been deployed to watch the polls.

The missions included, among others, the African Union (AU), led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki, the Carter Center, whose chief election observer was John Kerry, the former US secretary of state who lost the 2004 US presidential election to George W. Bush, and the European Commission (EU), under the leadership of the Dutch politician Marietje Schaake.

While the EU observer mission, in its preliminary report, did cite problems to do with the lack of preparedness within the electoral process, the lack of applicable campaign finance legislation and unreliable transmission, it was only after the Supreme Court ruling that the EU and other missions realised that they had completely missed the mark – they were forced to concede that there were massive electoral malpractices in the electronic transmission of the results.

Kerry, who had certified the elections as “free, fair and credible” despite “little aberrations here and there”, even felt the need to expiate his “sins of omission” in a New York Times op-ed article on September 14, 2017. The long and short of his opinion was to shift the blame to the media – local and international – by subtly accusing them of misquoting what the international observers had meant by “free, fair and credible elections.”

Schaake, the EU’s chief election observer was later quoted saying: “At times, expectations of us observers are greater than our mandate allows us to do. Kenya’s electoral process relied heavily on technology and observers did not have access to the backend of the system.”

Caught completely unaware by the Supreme Court judgement, Schaake beat a hasty retreat by justifying and mitigating the ineptitude of the international observers. So did the Carter Center, which said that it would reevaluate its observer mission to Kenya and find out from Kerry exactly what had transpired within the team that he had led.

Characteristically, the AU mission has kept a studious silence: It has not said anything about the nullification of the presidential election, nor has it explained the rationale behind the mission’s certification of the election as successful.

It used to be said that the precursor to the AU, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), was a presidents’ club, where one of the unwritten rules was never to interfere with the “internal affairs” of a brother president’s country. It seems to me that that rule has never been done away with, even after the OAU was baptised the AU, insofar as election observation by the AU is concerned.

Removing “egg on the face”

After more soul-searching and hoping to erase “egg on the face”, on September 14, 2017 Schaake seemingly talked tough and called for “thorough investigations of alleged electoral offences in order to promote representations where warranted, including of IEBC [Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission] staff. There have to date not been any investigations against senior public officers who have reportedly breached the law.”

Harping on the theme of accountability and thorough investigations, Schaake said that “fast, comprehensive and effective investigations are needed so that there is individual accountability for actions taken.” Seemingly striking an impartial balance, she mildly criticised both the Jubilee and Nasa coalitions for their “apparent insubordination” of the IEBC and the Judiciary after the Supreme Court ruling. “Since the elections, Nasa and Jubilee have at times been undermining the IEBC and the Judiciary respectively.”

After the Supreme Court judgement, the New York Times was forced to reconsider its earlier position. An editorial published on September 3, 2017 stated: “The ruling was a rebuke to international monitors and diplomats – and this page – who were too quick to dismiss charges of irregularities, largely out of relief that the August 8 voting had been mainly peaceful and in the hope that disappointment with the results would not lead to the sort of violence that had erupted after the disputed 2007 election, in which hundreds of people were killed.”

Kerry, who had certified the elections as “free, fair and credible” despite “little aberrations here and there”, even felt the need to expiate his “sins of omission” in a New York Times op-ed article on September 14, 2017. The long and short of his opinion was to shift the blame to the media – local and international – by subtly accusing them of misquoting what the international observers had meant by “free, fair and credible elections.”

“Multiple media reports suggested inaccurately that we and other international observers had declared the election free and fair,” wrote Kerry. “Although our observers had noted isolated instances of procedural irregularities in voting and counting, these did not appear to affect the integrity of those processes which had functioned smoothly.”

Kerry, like every politician, had no qualms about speaking from both sides of his mouth. He shifted blame and made sure he was not “caught with his pants down”. So he unabashedly wrote, “The court ruling didn’t contradict the reports of the Carter Center, whose team we led, or those of other observer missions, including the European Union and the African Union, whose findings were broadly similar.”

Not to be left out during confession time was the United States embassy in Nairobi. US ambassador Robert F. Godec and the heads of other diplomatic missions issued a statement on September 7, 2017 clarifying their unconsidered judgement on the August 8, 2017 elections. “The court’s decision was a strong call to everyone, including the international community, to reflect on how to make each election better than the last,” said Godec. “As partners, we are doing so and we are ready to assist again.” Sounding somewhat apologetic, Godec, on behalf of other Western countries’ diplomats accredited to Nairobi, hoped to justify their hasty verdict on the election by saying, “Some of our missions have been the subject of fake stories and false attacks in this election period.”

Godec made the point that “our electoral assistance was requested by the government of Kenya and conformed at all times with the Kenyan law.” The US ambassador issued the statement on behalf of 12 diplomatic missions: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The New York Times, one of the most influential newspapers in the world, equally reconsidered its earlier endorsement of Uhuru Kenyatta as the winner of the election after the Supreme Court ordered a fresh presidential poll. In an editorial praising the 8 August election, the New York Times had stated: “Raila Odinga, a perennial loser, began crying foul long before the election commission declared that President Uhuru Kenyatta was elected with 54 percent of the vote to Mr. Odinga’s 45. International monitors from the African Union, the United States and Europe said they witnessed no foul play; former United States secretary of state John Kerry, co-leader of the Carter Center’s mission of election observers, praised Kenya’s election commission for its transparency and diligence.”

After the Supreme Court judgement, the New York Times was forced to reconsider its earlier position. An editorial published on September 3, 2017 stated: “The ruling was a rebuke to international monitors and diplomats – and this page – who were too quick to dismiss charges of irregularities, largely out of relief that the August 8 voting had been mainly peaceful and in the hope that disappointment with the results would not lead to the sort of violence that had erupted after the disputed 2007 election, in which hundreds of people were killed.”

Journalist Sarah Jerving, writing on September 8, 2017 for Devex.Com argued, “The perceived mismatch between the court ruling and international observers’ initial observations has sparked a debate about how such missions operate and what role they play in codifying elections. In Kenya, that discussion is complicated by a history of election violence linked to irregularities.”

The newspaper, realising the folly of its earlier hasty editorial endorsing the electoral process, added, “The fears were real, but the rush to judgment overlooked, among other things, that the supervisor of a new electronic voting system, Christopher Chege Msando, had been murdered and apparently tortured days before the election.”

The Financial Times, like the New York Times, seized the moment to comment on the Supreme Court’s unprecedented judgement, proclaiming the ruling as “the first of its kind in Africa.” Moralising on African dictatorial regimes, the paper declared on September 3, 2017: “The many regimes across the continent who exploit incumbency to perpetuate their rule through patronage, oppression and manipulation of the vote have been put on notice. So too have those international election observers whose formulaic rubber stamping of the results has become increasingly insidious – notably in undermining their own credibility, but also spreading cynicism among the electorate.”

Revisiting the violence that visited Kenya after the bungled election of December 2007, the Financial Times called out the international election observers who seem to be more obsessed with “peace” and “stability” rather than accountability and credibility. “Since 2007, when Kenya went to the brink of civil war in the wake of polls marred by fraud, there has been a tendency among such observers to brush aside all manner of irregularities in the interest of preserving peace.”

Amidst the international election observers “falling over each other” to quickly correct the impression that they had declared the August 8, 2017 elections as credible, one local observer organisation has stood its ground – insisting that the general election was “free and fair”, the Supreme Court’s ruling notwithstanding. The Elections Observation Group (ELOG) has maintained that Uhuru Kenyatta won the election fair and square. On September 4, 2017, Regina Opondo, the chairperson of ELOG’s steering committee (which includes Bishop Alfred Rotich of the Catholic Church) reiterated that Uhuru had won the presidential vote even though Supreme Court had found the process wanting. She said that the observer mission had deployed about 1,700 monitors and more than 5,000 (stationary) observers whose major responsibility was to focus on the results transmission. Her point of departure was that different observer missions had different methodologies which they used to ascertain whether the election had been conducted properly or not.

Journalist Sarah Jerving, writing on September 8, 2017 for Devex.Com, argued, “The perceived mismatch between the court ruling and international observers’ initial observations has sparked a debate about how such missions operate and what role they play in codifying elections. In Kenya, that discussion is complicated by a history of election violence linked to irregularities.” She particularly noted, “Clashes erupted after international observers highlighted irregularities in the 2007 elections, leaving more than 1,300 people dead and 600,000 displaced. Yet, the question now is whether observers have swung too far in the other direction, holding the bar for election too low, examining the wrong components on the side of caution to avoid unrest.”

Jerving poses the question of “whether election monitoring needs a rethink worldwide, particularly as electoral processes digitise, adding that “international observers focused too heavily on the voting process, overlooking critical next steps such as the transmission of the results, which in Kenya’s case was done digitally and with little transparency.”

A short history of election observer missions in Kenya

Election observer missions first became a major feature in Kenyan elections in 1992 after the country returned to multiparty politics in 1991, when former President Daniel arap Moi reluctantly repealed section 2A of the old Lancaster House Constitution. Western countries, led by the United States, spearheaded the multiparty wave in Africa and were particularly keen to witness political change in Kenya.

When Moi called the elections on December 29, 1992, they instantly flew in about 200 international observers These poll watchers were augmented by between 7,000 and 10,000 local monitors who organised themselves under the auspices of the National Election Monitoring Unit (NEMU). NEMU consisted of, among others, the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA-Kenya), Professional Committee for Democratic Change (PCDC), the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ-Kenya), the National Ecumenical Civic Education Programme (NECEP), the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK) and the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC).

With the prospect of facing a sustained serious opposition for the first time, President Moi’s Kanu ancien regime provoked ethnic clashes in the vast Rift Valley Province, especially in the North Rift, where many migrant Kikuyus had lived for many years. These clashes, ostensibly instigated by Kalenjin Kanu party mandarins, led to the death of 1,500 Kenyans and the displacement of 300,000 others, many of whom were Kikuyus living in the Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia districts.

Nobert Braakhuis, a political scientist way back in 1997 would write that oftentimes election observation is usually confined to elections themselves and perhaps a few days just before elections. In his essay “International Election Observation During the 1997 Kenya Elections” published in Out for the Count: The 1997 General Elections and the Prospects for Democracy in Kenya, and edited by Marcel Rutten, Alamin Mazrui and Francois Grignon, Braakhuis noted that “election observation ignores the broader political context and long-term process of which elections form part.”

The international observers accredited to monitor the 1992 general elections, according to Braakhuis, “came on the eve of the elections and once the election was over flew out the same day.” These international monitors were largely drawn from the Commonwealth, the Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI), Denmark, Egypt, Germany, Japan and Switzerland.

Out of the 7,000 polling stations, the international observers visited only a few stations, and because they came on the eve of polling day, they could not capture any of the irregularities that obviously biased the election results. NEMU, which was funded by Western donor agencies, including the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the Royal Netherlands Embassy, may have captured many of these irregularities, but did not have the international gravitas to broadcast Moi’s underhand tactics.

The then electoral malpractices included Moi’s regime ordering the police to disrupt opposition rallies and meetings, which made it extremely difficult for opposition politicians to register as candidates. Other malpractices included the use of state instruments of violence, namely, the police, the paramilitary General Service Unit (GSU) and even organised militia, to brutalise opposition figures.

Moi had a whole load of tricks up his sleeve, which ensured that the fledgling opposition was disorganised and scattered. He exclusively “zoned off” certain areas that he claimed were Kanu areas, and the opposition was refused access to these areas. In short, the opposition went to the 1992 general election on a very uneven field.

With the prospect of facing a sustained serious opposition for the first time, President Moi’s Kanu ancien regime provoked ethnic clashes in the vast Rift Valley Province, especially in the North Rift, where many migrant Kikuyus had lived for many years. These clashes, ostensibly instigated by Kalenjin Kanu party mandarins, led to the death of 1,500 Kenyans and the displacement of 300,000 others, many of whom were Kikuyus living in the Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia districts.

Apart from these “tribal clashes”, Moi’s government also harassed the media so much that news organisations were afraid of reporting Kanu’s political excesses. In the lead-up to the 1992 elections, there was only one national radio broadcasting station, the state-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), which could not broadcast news about the opposition’, let alone reports about the orchestrated killings of one ethnic community in the Rift Valley.

With all these disadvantages poised against a fragile and nascent opposition, “national and international observers, embassies and the like, were simply not prepared to oppose the salami tactics that increasingly reduced the chances of the opposition to win the elections by introducing uneven electoral conditions,” wrote Braakhuis.

Many keen observers of the 1992 multiparty general election noted that the international observers had been to Kenya on “election tourism”, suggesting that they were in the country to have a good time rather than to monitor an election. The “election tourism” tag also alluded to the fact that the various international observer missions’ reports were done in haste and without collating the different missions’ assessments.

Given the way that local and international observers had handled the elections – ignoring talk about the clashes and Moi’s gagging of the press – “the international observers came in for serious criticism,” said Braakhuis. The result of this “see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil” attitude of the international observers was aptly captured by Africa Confidential magazine in 1993 when it wrote: “Neither the foreign nor the local observer groups had the capacity and resources to comprehensively investigate rigging allegations. Consequently, they reported the most blatant and easily verifiable irregularities.”

Many keen observers of the 1992 multiparty general election noted that the international observers had been to Kenya on “election tourism”, suggesting that they were in the country to have a good time rather than to monitor an election. The “election tourism” tag also alluded to the fact that the various international observer missions’ reports were done in haste and without collating the different missions’ assessments.

When the post-election evaluation was done, it was evident that the international observation had been an exercise in futility and that the observer missions had lost their credibility. The missions had totally failed to capture electoral malpractices. This fiasco put the Western world on the spotlight. So, by early 1997, during the second cycle of the multiparty elections, they were already thinking of crafting a new model.

The new model that the international observers envisaged was one that would allow for a comprehensive and in-depth observation of the electoral process that was not limited to a one-day affair. The new model would also enable the observers to stay in the country a while longer, gaining experience and long-term perspective. This would equally allow them to understand the political terrain, including identifying possible tricky manipulations of the electoral process.

Western countries, through their respective embassies, formed the Donor for Development and Democracy Group (DDDG) in 1997 (which was re-named the Democracy Development Group (DDG) the following year). One of the first things DDDG did was to form the Election Observation Centre (EOC), whose members were drawn from diplomatic missions and international experts recommended by DDDG.

The DDDG consisted of 22 diplomatic missions with representation at the European Commission. They were: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom and the United States.

The EOC was composed of four coordinators – Dr Judith Geist, (USAID), Prof. Palle Svensson (Denmark – Aarhus University), Dr. David Throup (British Foreign Office) and Dr. Marcel Rutten (The Netherlands).Nonetheless, there was a caveat as to what precisely the EOU would engage in. The EOU was supposed to refrain from making public or press statements and from having any external contacts, except through its president. Canada was in charge of the presidency.

The EOU’s mandate was basically divided into six clear-cut operations:

  1. Registration of voters (which was conducted between May 19 and June 30, 1997)
  2. Designation of candidates within the political parties’ nominations (which took place between late November and early December, 1997)
  3. Official nominations (presidential: December 2–3, councillors and parliamentary: December 8–9, 1997)
  4. Campaign period
  5. Election day, including vote counting (December 29)
  6. Election aftermath

To be better prepared this time, DDDG began having its own meetings as early as May 1997. The move was certainly encouraged by the hastily convened Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG) reforms, which somewhat hoped to level the playing field as the country geared towards the December elections. IPPG had been necessitated by the events of the Saba Saba Day (July 7, 1997) and Nane Nane Day (August 8, 1997), during which the police had unleashed unmitigated violence on opposition supporters. With the support of Western countries, they too had pressurised the Kanu government to implement minimalist reforms.

The local observer group for 1997 elections included the Institute for Education in Democracy (IED), Catholic, Justice and Peace Commission (CJPC) and the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK). Together, they deployed about 27,000 poll watchers. This meant that there were at least two observers per polling station.

Two weeks prior to the election, the EOU got into top gear and distributed the Diplomatic Election Observers Field Guide – a self-prepared documentation containing guidelines for observers. Still, the ever cunning and unpredictable Moi jolted the EOU’s preparedness by suddenly transferring the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK)’s chairman Justice Zacchaeus Chesoni to the High Court. This move alone caught the international observers unawares; they did not know what the move portended.

There were glaring irregularities during the 1997 elections that the international observers took note of. “The opening and closing hours of the polling stations varied erratically with voting extending in some places to more than 48 hours,” wrote Braakhuis. “The counting process was equally erratic, sometimes taking a whole week.” There were also many irregularities in the ballot distribution. All these irregularities seemingly happening at the same time confused the observers. In fact, many of the international observers left even before all the voting had been concluded.

The international observers had to deal with a crafty Kanu party machinery that intimidated its opponents using brutal force, stuffing ballot boxes, spoiling ballot papers, introducing unsealed ballot boxes, kidnapping returning officers and handling ballot papers improperly. Yet, with all these irregularities, “the election of Daniel arap Moi as president was accepted,” observed Braakhuis.

According to Kenya’s Hobbled Democracy Revisited: The 1997 General Elections in Retrospect and Prospect by Arne Tostensen, Bard-Anders Andreassen and Kjetil Tronvoll, as far as election observation was concerned, the international element was smaller in 1997 than in 1992. “The international observers under the auspices of the Donors’ Democratic Development Group (DDDG) also assumed a more reticent attitude with respect to passing a judgement over the conduct of the election.”

“The technical limitations are exacerbated by political realities. Clearly, the idea that international observers are a neutral, independent force is a myth. In reality, they are every bit as subject to political pressure as the parties they observe.”

On the third cycle of multiparty elections that took place on December 27, 2002, the international observers would remark that “the 2002 elections mark(ed) an important step forward in the process of democratic development in Kenya.” In particular, the EU Election Observation Mission (EOM), which had been in the country from November 19, 2002 till January 17, 2003, stated that “the overall conduct of the elections constituted an example for other countries in the region, also because the electoral process resulted in the first transfer of power from one political group to another since independence.” The EU EOM waxed lyrical that the transfer of power from the Kanu regime to Mwai Kibaki’s government showed that Kenya had “truly become a multiparty democracy.”

The EU EOM also noted that “the level of violence and intimidation during the pre-election period was significantly below that predicted and below the level of the 1992 and 1997 elections.” In summary, the EU EOM said it was “impressed by the conduct of the 2002 elections.”

What exactly is the role of international observer missions?

What is it that gets an international observer team to get impressed about an election? And what exactly is the primary role of an election observer mission team?

In an article they wrote for Foreign Policy in April 2016, Gabrielle Lynch, Justus Willis and Nic Cheeseman argued that “international election observation missions – when small teams of foreign nationals are sent to watch over elections under the auspices of groups, such as the European Union, the African Union and the Carter Center – are intended to deter foul play and ensure free and fair polls. The trio noted that, “across Africa, international observers have frequently refused to give elections the evaluations they deserve for fear of offending incumbent governments and triggering political instability – and, also, it would seem because they apply lower standards on the continent.”

Are these the “lower standards” that the Financial Times alluded to as “the soft bigotry of low expectations” insofar as elections’ monitoring in Africa by international observers are concerned? The newspaper, in reference to Kerry’s praising of the IEBC beforehand for a “job well done”, said that the former US secretary of state “appeared guilty of the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’, to borrow from a phrase coined by his own nemesis George W. Bush.”

“The challenges facing election monitors are both political and technical,” stated the Foreign Policy article. “The technical limitations are exacerbated by political realities. Clearly, the idea that international observers are a neutral, independent force is a myth. In reality, they are every bit as subject to political pressure as the parties they observe.” Citing Kenya specifically, the three writers of the article, who have been observing the political situation in the country for some time, noted that “in the 1990s, observers turned a blind eye to deeply flawed elections in Kenya because they were worried that speaking out would trigger civil war and regional instability.”

But it is Judith Kelly of Duke University in the United States who seems to have captured the true essence of international election observers: “[International] monitors are more likely to endorse elections in countries that are major foreign aid recipients. Kenya, one of the US’s closest allies on the [African] continent received more than $500 million in USAID funding last year.”

As if to bolster Kelly’s argument, on September 18, 2017, the US government’s Bureau of African Affairs made it publicly clear that they were keenly monitoring the trajectory leading to the fresh presidential elections slated for October, 17, 2017. “We [the US government] are not going to take our eyes way from Kenya: Kenya matters. If our largest embassy is in Nairobi, Kenya, that means we have a stake in that country, and Africa has a stake, and this government is looking at where the trend will go after October 17,” said the Bureau’s principal deputy assistant secretary Donald Yamamoto.

This sentiment is echoed by Emma Gordon, a senior East African risk analyst based in London, who observes that “for several years, election observers’ main audience has been the international community rather that the population whose election they monitor.”

However, by looking the other way as electoral malpractices are perpetrated by various governments, the international election observers have become, “complicit in the attempts of a brutal authoritarian regime to hold onto power and [in the process] undermined their own reputation.”

The August election in Kenya was a classic case of how international election observers undermined their reputations and credibility by whitewashing or ignoring electoral malpractices in the name of stability and to protect their own national interests.

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

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John Magufuli: The Death of a Denier-in-Chief

Late president John Magafuli never was the anti-corruption saviour international media claimed.

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John Magufuli: The Death of a Denier-in-Chief
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Tanzania, a country that produced Julius Nyerere, is a country tottering on the precipice of a pandemic catastrophe. The philosopher-president ruled for 23 years and put the nation on the international map as a frontline state that stood up to Apartheid South Africa and helped liberate modern Uganda by ridding it of Idi Amin.

With the abrupt death of its populist president John Magufuli on March 17, 2021, ostensibly from a COVID-19 related ailment, Tanzania finds itself at a crossroads, insofar as tackling the devasting disease is concerned. Magufuli who was the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, became the denier-in-chief of COVID-19. The disease has decimated scores of Tanzanians, including top government officials.

Magufuli was hailed as a tough anti-corruption crusader, as he entered state house in 2015. Ordinary Tanzanians initially saw him as their saviour in the fight against institutionalised state corruption. The international media also saw him as a man keen on tackling state corruption, “but Magufuli was all about optics,” said a Tanzanian journalist. “He wasn’t fighting state corruption pers se, what he was doing was to get rid of Jakaya Kikwete’s (immediate former president) networks in the government and replace with his own. So, it was just a matter of time before Tanzanians and the world realised Magufuli was just interested in musical chairs.”

Magufuli was re-elected on October 28, 2020 in one of the most controversial post-Nyerere’s Tanzania elections with a whopping 84 percent. His “true colours” revealed themselves after Benjamin Mkapa’s death in July 2020. After mourning the ex-president, Magufuli turned his attention to the business of crippling the opposition.

Magufuli was a protégé of Mkapa who served as president between 1995–2005. It was Mkapa, who in 2015, prevailed on the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM, ‘Party of the Revolution’) national executive council (NEC) to pick newcomer Magufuli as its flagbearer for what was to be a hotly contested general election in October 2015. Magufuli was then primed to run against Edward Lowassa, a CCM stalwart, who had bolted to Chama Cha Democrasia na Maendeleo (CHADEMA), after not clinching the CCM ticket, in which he was touted as one of the hot favourites.

The “true colours” was the ruthlessness with which Magufuli pursued the opposition in the lead-up to the presidential elections. That massive victory came in the backdrop of President Magufuli’s continuous campaigns since being inaugurated as the fifth president in 2015. “Magufuli never stopped campaigning,” said a Tanzanian journalist: “He rode on the wave of populism – dishing out money and favours to select supporters and well-choreographed individuals wherever he went.”

The 2020 Magufuli campaigns were a mirror-image of his mentor’s similar campaigns in 2000. Just like Mkapa’s mission was to presumably pulverize the nascent opposition, Magufuli’s mission 20 years later was similarly to ensure that the “irritating” opposition is no more and is, literary ran out of town. Mkapa in the October 2000 elections unleashed so much violence on the opposition that many of its supporters sought exile in neighbouring Kenya, after the elections.

Mkapa’s use of unmitigated force by Jeshi la Polisi (Tanzania has a police force, as opposed to a police service) and Field Force Unit (FFU), a paramilitary outfit much like Kenya’s dreaded General Service Unit (GSU) was unprecedented in Tanzanian politics. Just like Magufuli, it seems Mkapa’s “true colours” were revealed only after his mentor’s death the previous year on October 14, 1999. Mkapa was a protégé of the founding father Julius Kambarage Nyerere.

It was Nyerere who held Mkapa’s hand in 1995, after influencing his nomination by CCM, and single-handedly campaigned for him throughout the country. Tanzania held its first multiparty general elections in 1995, pitting CCM against a disparate opposition for the first time since its formation in 1977.

He dished out money and favours to select supporters.

Revisiting this unparalleled violence orchestrated on fellow Tanzanians, Mkapa, the former journalist-turned-diplomat-turned-president in his memoirs: My Life, My Purpose – A Tanzanian President Remembers published in January 2019, regretted the 2000 election ordeal. To some Tanzanian journalists and political analysts, Mkapa and Magufuli are today referred to as the chief advocates and perpetrators of state violence in post-independent Tanzania.

Both the presidential elections of 2000 and 2020 happened under a cloud of America’s own election problems: In 2000, it was the “Florida fiasco.” Florida was then governed by the Republican’s presidential candidate, George Bush’s brother, Jeb Bush. Bush was running against the Democratic Party’s Al Gore. Jeb was allegedly accused of rigging on behalf of his elder brother.

Like the Americans say, the electoral college vote was too close to call: the vote was not only going to determine who was going to be the winner of the states’s 25 votes, but the next president after Bill Clinton. A recount was called by the Democrats and for a brief moment, the democrats believed they had taken it, only for the Republicans to also ask for their own recount. Bush won with a razor thin win vote. The democrats were not persuaded. To cut a long story short, the sunshine state’s case found itself in the supreme court, where the republican-led court declared George Bush the eventual winner.

In 2020, with both the Tanzania and US elections being held days apart, America once again came under the world spotlight after the “Pennsylvania problem”, in which President Donald Trump claimed his votes had been tampered with and paid for a recount. The MAGA Republican Party candidate was defending his seat against “sleepy Joe” a derogatory tag given by Trump to Joe Biden.

The citing of both examples here is to emphasise that America in 2000 and 2020 could not claim a moral compass to the Tanzania government’s excesses in its elections. Covering the 2000 elections, I remember in Dar es Salaam, a CCM top official telling us journalists that America could not lecture Tanzania on matters election – “they should first deal with their own election rigging in Florida, before accusing us of unleashing violence and rigging the islands’ results.”

Nyerere had always been opposed to the twin islands of Pemba and Zanzibar’s divorce with the mainland Tanganyika – a sticking sore thump between the mainland and the islands, since the republic turned to plural politics. But he never advocated state violence, instead, he sued for dialogue and persuasion.

Magufuli was determined to put the opposition in its place this time round: In a parliament of 261 members, the opposition only won seven. “By the time I’m through with Tanzania, there’ll be no opposition in the country,” said the deceased in one of his campaign rallies.

There is not a doubt that he loathed the opposition, so much so that he warned the regional commissioners and election officials, “I don’t pay you so that you can allow opposition to win.” Tume la Uchaguzi (National Election Commission) flatly refused any presidential debates and told the opposition it could debate among itself if it so wished.

In Tanzania, CCM ni tasisi,” a local journalist reiterated to me. Literary it means the ruling party CCM is an institution. Figuratively it means, CCM is Tanzania and Tanzania is CCM. Anybody going against the “wishes of the party” would be crushed. The CCM’s propaganda machinery against the leading opposition figure Tundu Lissu of CHADEMA was geared to pulverize all his efforts of running a successful campaign. “He was being hunted down like a wild animal,” said the journalist.

Magufuli claimed Lissu was a supporter of LGBTQ and that he was a tool of the West being used to campaign for mashoga, homosexuals’ rights. Several African presidents during their re-election campaigns have turned the hot-button issue of LGBTQ, their favourite bogeyman: In the terribly conservative African societies, nothing evokes emotions of antipathy like suggesting gay-ism could be mainstreamed. Yoweri Museveni has done it, John Magufuli did it, just like Robert Mugabe did it before him.

CCM being Tanzania and Tanzania being CCM, not even the bravest of private media would dare report on the opposition or against Magufuli and CCM. “There was total blackout on the opposition by the media. All what Tanzanians could read and listen to, on politics, was on the ‘indefatigable Magu’ and his infrastructural developments,” said my Tanzanian journalist friend. Hence, Tanzania media did not report on politics – it reported on Magufuli, the person.

By the time I’m through with Tanzania, there’ll be no opposition in the country

Being heavy users of social media, Tanzanians turned to VPN – virtual private network. Found as an app in many smart phones, it protects one’s communication from snoopers like government agencies and hackers. What VPN does when activated is to bypass the conventional internet service providers (ISP) when connecting to the internet. In the case of Tanzania’s government shutting down its ISP, tech savvy Tanzanians resorted to VPN to access facebook and especially Twitter, to fend off the states’s eavesdropping.

This is the reason why Magufuli ordered all social media outlets shut, said the journalist. All what the Tanzania Communication Authority needed was a nod from Magufuli. A consumer of foreign news outlets, Tanzanians also resorted to BBC, Deutsche Welle (Sauti ya Ujerumani) and VOA, to stay informed on their country’s politics. “This is how many of them were informed and kept tabs on Lissu’s campaigns,” said the journalist.

Even after being sworn-in for the second term, President Magufuli pursued the browbeaten opposition. Chief opposition figure Lissu had to escape the country a second time. “Run or be run over, these people are not joking,” Lissu was ostensibly warned by his intelligence team. In September 2017, Lissu had survived an assassination attempt in Dodoma, that saw his vehicle sprayed with bullets by “unknown” assailants, as he left parliament for his house for lunch. On November 7, 10 days after the elections were over, he hid at the German embassy, then onwards to Brussels, where he had been recuperating for three years after treatment in Nairobi.

The former MP for Arusha Urban Godbless Lema also skipped the country and sought refuge in Kenya after claiming government people were after him. Lema, with his family was granted asylum in Canada.

Nyerere’s CCM may have operated in the one-party era during the cold war, but many Tanzanians of the post-independent generation remember those days with nostalgia. “The party was more democratic and free, unlike today,” said a former CCM mkereketwa (party diehard).

Magufuli’s populism was laced with autocratic tendencies. He told fellow Tanzanians msinijaribu mimi ni jiwe (don’t try me, I’m as tough as a rock), meaning he prided himself in being tough-headed.

“Magufuli’s CCM in the era of multiparty brooks no dissent, is dictatorial and dangerous, while Nyerere’s CCM preferred a palaver type of democracy where party issues were discussed until it arrived at a consensus,” said a University of Dar es Salaam don.

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South Africa: A New Politics From the Left?

Assuming today’s socioeconomic crisis benefits the Left is folly. That will only happen if we have the political vision to make class the fault line of social polarisation, and for that we need to face the challenge of constructing a new party.

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South Africa: A New Politics From the Left?
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Over the last decade, the Left in a number of Western countries has undergone a historic transition from “protest to politics,” to borrow the words of the late Canadian Marxist Leo Panitch and his frequent co-author Sam Gindin. From Podemos in Spain to Sanders in the United States, a new wave of parties and electoral coalitions have emerged and made rapid gains. Despite setbacks and defeats, Panitch and Gindin’s indispensable analysis of these events in The Socialist Challenge Today, casts them in an unambiguously positive light. None of the examples they study offer formulas for resolving the vexing dilemmas facing the socialist movement in our globalised present.

But in their determination to take state power seriously they constitute an unmistakable step forward, after decades in which the Left’s confinement to episodic instances of mobilisation left the electoral field wide open to the parties of business. Part of this “new new” Left’s success stems from a willingness to shake free of its own past. Building a viable socialism of the 21st century, they argue, requires dispensing with the outmoded parts of the Leninist model, like its wager on insurrection, while retaining that which still holds value, like its internationalist spirit.

These developments hold important lessons for us on the South African Left. Just under a decade ago it seemed that we were on the verge of effecting a similar transition “from protest to politics.” During the first decade and a half of democracy, a socialist opposition had found a locus in the so-called “new” social movements—like the Anti-Privatisation Forum—which grew in reaction to various parts of the ruling African National Congress’ neoliberal agenda.

These waged a number of important defensive struggles and scored a few key victories but fundamentally did nothing to loosen capital’s grip on policymaking. By the end of the 2000s most were a spent force. It became clear to a growing segment of the Left that lasting gains would not be achieved unless social agitation were more effectively linked with efforts to seise governing power. The ability to think these more ambitious terms received a major boost when the National Union of Metalworkers South Africa (NUMSA), the nation’s largest manufacturing union, appeared to redraw the political map of the country by breaking from the ANC, amidst a wave of working class militancy.

Of course for the “official” left which NUMSA represented there had never been any turn away from politics as such. But decades of compromise had bred a form of politics that had become completely unmoored from the guiding thread of class antagonism. NUMSA’s move thus constituted a kind of mirror image transition—from a back-room corporatism to a politics more grounded in the methods and spirit of “protest”. This is what imbued the “NUMSA moment” with such hope—it promised to re-connect the two sides of South Africa’s bifurcated Left, and supply the strategic elements that had been missing from each. By matching the militancy and class-independence of the social movement Left with structural and organisational might of the “official” Left, it seemed possible that a mass socialist movement could be rapidly brought into being.

That was not to be. From today’s vantage it’s impossible to regard the NUMSA moment as anything but an abject failure. The political party which eventually issued from it is the farthest cry from the unifying force that so many had hoped for. While the international left has been able to advance by breaking with its shibboleths, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) has fallen back on a slavish appropriation of Bolshevik ideology, almost comical in its extremes.

Despite enormous resources, a large part supplied by a US-based billionaire, the party ran a dismal general election campaign in 2019 where it failed to get even a tenth of NUMSA’s own membership to vote for it (it ultimately only amassed 25 000 votes nationally, below the threshold to obtain one seat in Parliament). It’s since never recovered, joining a host of other failed socialist parties on the margins of political life. Marginality seems in turn to have degraded the internal culture of the party, which now resembles closely the Stalinism of the ANC-aligned South African Communist Party in all its worst aspects.

The floundering of the NUMSA moment is a terrible blow. But the setback inflicted on us will far greater if we fail to draw the correct lessons from it. Perhaps the most worrying outcome is that it precipitates a slide back into movementism, and shuts the window that we’ve had to execute the transition from “protest to politics.” Party politics acquired a bad name during the era of “protest” in South Africa, and many on the Left already feel that the SRWP’s example vindicated their worst suspicions.

But what the SRWP actually reveals to us is are not flaws inherent in the party-form as such, so much as the limits of a certain kind of party, one founded on a hidebound Leninism. If the Left were to abandon party building altogether there would, quite simply, be no socialist future. All visions of radical change that eschew parties and an active takeover of the state suffer from a principal defect in that they misconceive the nature of class formation—the process by which individuals become aware of their class position and begin to articulate their politics through it. This is presented as a quasi-automatic effect of the capitalist class structure.

But history offers no support for such a view. Class is impactful because it frames the options we have over so many major decisions in our lives—but not so narrowly as to make resistance to one’s employer, or the system behind him, inevitable. Indeed, the extreme vulnerability of workers under capitalism means that individualised modes of coping tend to be more commonplace than collective action. That’s why socialist consciousness has been the exception rather than the norm in the global history of capitalism, and exceedingly rare in the absence of a well-organised party. As Panitch argued with the force of a life’s work—parties make classes as much as they are made by them.

Thankfully, an outright repudiation of the party-form is not really where we are at in South Africa. The variant of movementism which took hold here, and which has revived in the aftermath of the NUMSA moment, was not really this more extreme kind, which denies the ultimate need for a party. Rather what it advocates is a downgrading of the role of party building or its deferral to some indefinite future.

What seems to be the common premise for this position is that party building can only succeed when perfectly timed to the right “objective conditions” —conditions which are only likely to form in the wake of a rupture moment defined by intensified street-level mobilisation. Only the transformation of mass consciousness brought about by such an episode of struggle can furnish the base for a party. Moreover, efforts to “impose” a party on the working class before this are liable to be rejected by its most conscious and active layers. Cut off from nourishing energy of grassroots movements, they are likely to grow in authoritarian directions. The task of socialists in the present, therefore, is devote ourselves to strengthening movements, and hope that a party may gestate from within them in some future context.

Related but distinguishable from this, is an ingrained hostility on the South African Left towards electoral politics. This view tends to draw a sharp line between the electoral arena and movements. While movements unlock popular power by sensitising their participants to their potential for collective action, elections offer no such platform for consciousness-raising. Instead, they tend to reproduce the atomisation of liberal democracy, and to fortify the myth that progress is possible within it. Moreover, movements which take the electoral road subject themselves to debilitating pressures. The logic of getting the vote tends to conflict with the logic of grassroot mobilisation, and all too often to overwhelm it.

Movementist positions contain many insights. It is wise, for example, to be attuned to the importance of ruptural breaks—the likelihood that we will ever get to a mass party simply through a molecular accretion of our ranks is slim. But the contention that movement building alone is the best way to prepare for such a rupture fails to take seriously the inherent weaknesses of social movements.

Of the numerous movements which sustained the first era of “protest” in post-Apartheid South Africa virtually none remain (barring one major exception). New ones have of course cropped up, and a tide of less organised community protests has continued unabated across the country. But these show equally little likelihood of autonomously cohering into anything bigger or more resilient.

It’s now very hard to avoid the conclusion that their failures resulted from internal rather than external factors. The model underpinning them rested on localised mobilisation around immediate demands, while actively eschewing efforts to politicise a leadership layer. Some of their more excitable proponents portrayed them as crucibles of anti-capitalism, in which the mere experience of collective decision making offered a form of political education beyond what traditional forms of Left organisation could hope to match.

But in doing so they exhibited the same fallacious thinking about class formation that informs all ventures aimed at “changing the world without taking power.” Much less a break with capitalism, it’s not clear that social movements even succeeded in getting most of their members to question their loyalty to the ANC. That left them prone to demobilisation and disorganisation when circumstances changed, when defeats where incurred or when key individuals drifted off or were co-opted.

One strategic upshot of this critique is that the trade-off between movement and party building posited by movementists is a false one. It’s likely that there is no winning formula for transforming single issue mobilisations into lasting, mass organisations without NGOifying them. But what we can do is to ensure that the small advances made by movements each time they arise are not dissipated. After all—the notion that struggle develops consciousness is not a false, what movementists get wrong is overstating the extent to which it does so organically. Virtually every movement throws up militant leaders, who stand to become tribunes for socialist politics if they can be identified, recruited and supported appropriately. This is work that a party is best suited to undertake.

But facing up to the limits of social movements should lead us to even stronger conclusions than this. It should lead us to question the overwhelming strategic significance that they have been accorded in the politics of the “independent left.” If movements are tough to sustain and to politicise, they may not be the vehicles best suited to bringing about a political rupture or ensuring that it outcome favors the Left.

Of course this was a strategic orientation that was largely foisted on us by circumstance. The stranglehold that the Tripartite Alliance (whose third member is the Congress of South African Trade Unions) exercised on organised labour and mass politics generally left little room for an alternative. But the situation has changed. The factionalisation of the ANC, the split in COSATU and the emergence of its rival, the South African Federation of Trade Unions, have created an opening for a more militant socialism to regain a foothold in organised labour. This ought to be the clear priority of socialists.

For all its infirmities, the union movement still presents a much more promising site for grounding socialist politics in a mass base. Although this may not hold for much longer, unions remain mass membership organisations with considerable resources. Most importantly, and most differently from social movements, they have access to structural power (i.e, the power to withdraw labour and shut down the economy). Here is one insight of Leninism which time has not invalidated– that our project will most likely fail unless that structural power is at its center.

If organised labour is once again to become our strategic focal point, this strengthens the case for not consigning the party to an intangible future. The synergies between party-building and organisation building are arguably stronger in the case of unions than social movements. At a fairly abstract level, one reason for this is that union building (or revitalisation) typically relies on a few individuals being prepared to take bold action out of moral conviction. Marxists have often argued something very different—that shopfloors collectivise as soon as workers wake up to their material interests. But narrow self-interest is unlikely to ever motivate someone to take the first steps towards organising their co-workers, since doing so incurs enormous risks but yields no extra benefit—the essence of the “free-rider” problem.

Thus, it’s not a coincidence that so often in history, socialists of various stripes have been significantly overrepresented among the “militant minority.” The values that draw people to the banner of socialism are often the same as those that move them to action against workplace injustices. It’s also not a coincidence that a militant minority is more likely to take shape when socialist ideas are more prominent in the public realm.

Arresting the decline of South African unions, and returning them to their proud history of worker control and grassroots democracy will require a herculean organising effort. At the simplest level this is why we need an organisational vehicle that at  least broadly resembles a party. Without one we have no real means of translating strategic debates into action—of coordinating our energies towards the tasks most likely to yield long-term gains.

There’s therefore a case for not delaying in building a fighting organisation, that tries to cohere leading militants from workplace and community struggles around a socialist program. But such an organisation should do more. As soon as it has the numbers needed, it should seek to involve itself in elections. In all likelihood it would have to start at the local level, and logic would dictate that it seeks out community and social movement partners in doing so. But as quickly as possible is should seek to graduate to the national stage. South Africa’s unusually proportional representation electoral system (which was in fact designed to provide space for smaller parties), makes this a reasonable short-term goal.

Arresting the decline of South African unions, and returning them to their proud history of worker control and grassroots democracy will require a herculean organising effort. At the simplest level this is why we need an organisational vehicle that at least broadly resembles a party.

The first thing that sceptics of this strategy tend to get wrong is that they overstate, or misunderstand, the legitimacy problem facing formal political institutions. The SRWP seems to think that any worker with lingering attachments to electoral politics is suffering from “false consciousness.” But in our current circumstances, there is nothing the least bit irrational about remaining invested in the electoral arena, even while recognising the severity of its class bias. The simple reason for that, is that there is no existing social force capable of challenging state power while remaining entirely outside its institutions, nor does one show any prospect of coming into being in any foreseeable horison. Worker organisations in SA are locked a desperate defensive struggle—not preparing to set up a parallel state.

It’s not a failure of dialectical imagination that causes people to conflate politics with elections, but an appraisal of our situation that is more accurate than the one provided by the apostles of imminent revolution.

It’s thus not surprising that despite the tremendous alienation produced by decades of neoliberalism, electoral movements in the West have been able to engineer a political realignment that was much deeper than what post-2008 movements were able to achieve on their own. Their location within the domain of mainstream politics provided both visibility but also a kind of credibility—they promised to take over the institutions in front of us, rather than replace them with ones we can’t see and can’t yet imagine. Several of these examples stood the movementist model on its head. Rather than an electoral breakthrough growing out of a period of intensified movement activity, it was the electoral arena itself that has delivered the rupture moment, the energy from which can then be filtered down to social and labour struggles.

In the process they challenged another fallacy of movementism—that the electoral arena is entirely inimical to a politics of struggle. Sanders, Corbyn, and others imbued their campaigns with a spirit of insurgency that succeeded in appealing to many otherwise turned off by politics, particularly among younger generations. Rather than sucking energy from the streets, these examples provided a renewed model of “class struggle elections” —not their own invention but one that had faded from the Left’s repertoire during the era of movementism.

Class struggle elections seek to deliberately leverage electoral campaigns, and political office itself, to bolster movements. They use every platform available to raise awareness of, and encourage solidarity with, labour and social struggles. In doing so they try to inculcate the understanding that radical policies can only be won with an inside-outside strategy, in which legislators are supported and pushed forward by powerful movements. At the same time they use campaigns as tools of organisation building.

They recruit and deploy a mass of activist to spread a socialist message, and simultaneously try to develop those activists by building political education into their activities. Done properly, this can bridge the gaps that supposedly separate movement from electoral organising, infusing the latter with a powerful sense of collectivity. That’s why so many thousands of young Americans (to pick a recent example), were politically activated through their involvement in the Sanders campaign, which became a gateway to organising in their workplaces, campuses and communities.

Note that this is completely different to the SRWP’s narrowly propagandistic approach to elections which didn’t promote social struggles so much as fantasies of revolution, whilst denouncing ‘bourgeois democracy’ as a sham and doing nothing to actually win. After a predictably disastrous outcome, the party chose to compound the embarrassment, and feed into a profoundly dangerous trend by denouncing South Africa’s independent election management body and claiming the result was rigged.

It’s not a failure of dialectical imagination that causes people to conflate politics with elections, but an appraisal of our situation that is more accurate than the one provided by the apostles of imminent revolution.

Contrast its subsequent marginalisation with the early trajectory with the Economic Freedom Fighters (now South Africa’s third-largest party), which leveraged the electoral know-how of its ex-ANCYL cadre and Malema’s media savvy to run an enormously successful first campaign. It then built on the success, steadily expanding its vote share each cycle, while using parliamentary office to bolster its national profile. Sadly it drifted off the orbit of the Left along the way. But the two diverging cases provide an obvious lesson: if elections are to be useful to us, we have to show that we are capable of succeeding in them. If we can’t, how on earth will we convince anyone that we’re capable of transforming society from its roots up?

None of this is to suggest that the concerns movementists raise about electoral politics are meritless. Its unquestionably true that electoral competition imposes its own logic, which can be ruinous if it totally subsumes the party’s strategic purview. We can trace the decline of many a worker’s party, at least proximately, to misguided efforts to capture middle-class votes by abandoning a politics of class antagonism. But all socialist strategising in our dismal conjuncture is the consideration of perilous alternatives. Far better for us to confront the dangers of succumbing to a narrow electoralism than the near certitude of permanent marginalisation should we choose to abstain from mainstream politics altogether.

The NUMSA moment may have come and gone. But the many elements of the broader conjuncture which produced it, and which seemed to augur a new direction for socialist politics, persist. The Alliance coalition is in the doldrums. Expecting its inevitable demise is of course a pastime of which we “independent leftists” should now be wary. But the material facts this time really are different. The state faces a fiscal crisis that President Cyril Ramaphosa has neither the wherewithal nor the institutional tools to escape from. His factional opponents preach a “radical economic transformation” that offers nothing whatsoever to workers.

Social strains look set to keep accumulating. But assuming that any crisis they produce will automatically redound to the Left’s benefit would be folly. That will only happen if we have the political vision and the organisational capacity to ensure that class becomes the fault line of social polarisation. And for that we need to face up to the challenge of constructing a new party.

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Is a Plutocratic America in Terminal Decline?

We may not be aware of it yet, because of the hold the nation has on global media, but America’s decline appears to be terminal.

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As President Joe Biden begins to get comfortable in the White House, there are those who might say that America, under a democratic system of government, has once again allowed the voice of her people to be heard, and that they have elected a new leader into office. Some might go so far as to say that the world’s most affluent democracy has once again proved that government of the people, by the people, for the people is alive and well.

But just below the surface, there are questions deserving of a deeper examination. One is how narrow the margins of victory were. For while it is true that President Biden won the highest number of votes in American electoral history, it is also true that President Trump won the second-highest number of votes in American electoral history; 10 million more people voted for President Trump in 2020 than did so in 2016. Mr Biden’s margin of victory in Georgia was 0.48 per cent, while that in Arizona was 0.63 per cent. Further, even as the Democrats belatedly won a majority in the Senate, again by the finest of margins, the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives actually narrowed. Why, if the choice was so clear, were margins so narrow?

The regrettable truth is that the US is not a democracy – not merely because true democracy has never existed, but because even that imperfect form of democracy that characterises modern politics long perished in America. The United States today is in fact a corporatocracy; mega-corporations rule the country, a polite way of saying that that nation is now a plutocracy. This development is not really new – wealth has always, eventually, determined leadership, in America and elsewhere.

This article attempts – colossally log-in-eye, and at a distance of thousands of miles, admittedly – to furnish proof of the existence of this plutocracy; to demonstrate the effects of this plutocracy on American life and politics; and to establish whether there is any way out of the present morass.

That America is a plutocracy

A total of US$14 billion (KSh1.4 trillion) was spent on campaigns in the US this year, twice as much as in 2016. Where is this money coming from?

In 2010, the US Supreme Court handed down a decision called Citizens United that allowed unions, corporations and associations to spend unlimited amounts in elections provided they would not coordinate their efforts with a candidate. As a result, political action committees (or PACs – private organisations established to raise money in support of a candidate or an issue) morphed into Super PACs that could receive unlimited amounts of money for campaign purposes. The effect was immediate: in 2012 non-party outside spending tripled 2008’s total and topped US$1 billion for the first time. Of that amount, Super PACs spent more than US$840 million.

The regrettable truth is that the US is not a democracy.

Yet the amounts spent in 2012 pale in comparison with spending during the 2020 campaign; in October 2020 alone, outside spending by super PACs and other big-money groups totalled nearly US$1.2 billion. President Joe Biden alone raised US$1.6 billion. President Trump raised US$596 million, itself a significant haul. Given the closely fought nature of the presidential election, it would not be wrong to conclude that money helped tip the scales in favour of the new president. Nor was this true only of the presidential race; it was true across the ballot. Eighty-nine per cent of House races and 71 per cent of Senate races were won by the better financed candidate. The conclusion is clear: money – corporate money – wins American elections.

The effects of the plutocracy on American life

It is all very well and good to conclude that corporate money runs and wins American elections. The issue is what the effect of all this money is on American life. If corporate hegemony is harmless – even beneficial – arguments can be made that it should be left alone. If it is not, however, then that fact should be exposed, and reform commenced.

The American mega-corporation has achieved a number of victories (from a corporate standpoint) that have constituted assaults on the wellbeing of the American people and populace. For example, these corporations have been allowed to outsource American manufacturing jobs to China and other nations. The iPhone, signature product of America’s second largest company by market valuation (Apple), is assembled in Shenzhen. Nike began outsourcing manufacturing in the 1970s; today it has plants in Vietnam and South Korea as well as China. IBM now has more workers in India than in the US. As of April 2012, Walmart’s supply chain included some 30,000 Chinese factories, producing an estimated 70 per cent of all of the goods it sells. This trend has gone on so long that there now exists a portion of the northeastern US, formerly known as the Manufacturing/Steel/Factory Belt, that is now known as the Rust Belt, owing to industrial and economic decline occasioned by outsourcing and the automation of jobs.

Meanwhile, for those jobs that have escaped being shipped overseas, the average wage has been stagnant for 40 years. A generation has now arisen in America that will be the first in modern American history to end up poorer than their parents. To make up for stagnant incomes, American citizens are drowning in private debt (US$14 trillion worth) including mortgages (US$9.44 trillion) and student loans (US$1.5 trillion). Indeed, absolute US household debt was higher in November 2019 than prior to/during the great recession, although the debt-to-income levels during the great recession were higher than the 2019 levels (83 per cent to 73 per cent). High house prices, supported as they are by mortgage lending, coupled with student loans, together mean that new graduates are experiencing “failure to launch”, i.e. the inability to leave one’s parents’ home and start one’s own family.

(We should pause here to note, parenthetically, that the level of any nation’s private debt, and America’s in particular, is a very important metric. The level of private debt was the key indicator that enabled Professor Steve Keen, one of the Bezemer 12, to predict the North Atlantic financial crisis of 2007-8, a prediction mainstream/neoclassical economics, quite criminally, failed to make.)

The US$14 trillion of private debt that American citizens owe is owed to the very same mega-corporation class whose wage stagnation has necessitated the need for lending (since the early 1970s, the hourly inflation-adjusted wages received by the typical worker have barely risen, growing only 0.2 per cent per year). Most unfortunately, this wage stagnation is not uniform: the ratio of CEO-to-worker earnings has soared from 21-to-1 in 1965 to 320-to-1 in 2019.

A generation has now arisen in America that will be the first in modern American history to end up poorer than their parents.

Has the American mega-corporation been censured by the political class for these excesses? Hardly. In fact, the large American corporation, while using American infrastructure, using some degree of American labour and selling to Americans, is allowed to pretend that it operates outside America, by invoicing from nations with low tax rates, such as Ireland, thereby avoiding paying federal taxes on its income. From 2009-2018, for example, Amazon paid an effective federal tax rate of 3 per cent on profits totalling US$26.5 billion. In 2018 alone, the company received a tax relief of US$129 million dollars on profits of US$11.2 billion. Such is the scale of tax avoidance by American corporations that by 2016 a staggering US$2 trillion in untaxed corporate profits was stashed outside the US, according to the New York Times. (What makes this doubly lamentable is that the Internal Revenue Service tells the American citizen in unambiguous terms that “Your worldwide income is subject to U.S. income tax, regardless of where you reside.”)

Corporations, therefore, enjoy egregious advantages. It is in order to keep them that they are so willing to fund political campaigns. In other words, corporations will do everything to avoid paying the taxes that would improve American infrastructure and healthcare (to their own benefit) but spend billions on political campaigns to inoculate themselves from losing the unfair advantages they have carved out for themselves.

The effect of the plutocracy on American politics

The shock election of President Donald Trump in 2016 can be seen as a response to the deleterious effects of corporate hegemony on the American political and economic life. Candidate Trump campaigned as an outsider, promising to “drain the swamp”, even though, ironically, he was himself a self-styled billionaire who shipped jobs to China and paid very little in taxes. America was suffering economically. He claimed that the blame for this could be placed squarely on the shoulders of China and immigrants. In an illuminating two-part, three-and-a-half hour 2019 interview with PBS, key Trump campaign advisor Steve Bannon (who was arrested for fraud and then pardoned by President Trump on his last full day in office) stated that the cost of the 2008-09 bailout was loaded onto the American middle class, and that American gig economy millennials are nothing but 19th-century Russian serfs. Many may disagree with Mr Bannon’s political views, but his statement had its finger on the pulse of post-bank-bailout America. The genius of the Trump campaign was its ability to identify these pain points; to incorrectly but convincingly blame foreigners – locally (immigrants) and abroad (China) – for what were and continue to be the excesses of the plutocracy; to identify the existence of a swamp in Washington and characterise Hillary Clinton as the personification of these ills; and to ride that wave all the way to the White House. The lesson – a lesson seemingly yet unlearned by mainstream politics – is that it actually worked.

Candidates however, campaign in poetry; rulers, on the other hand, govern in prose. During Trump’s presidency Faustian bargains, in Steve Bannon’s words, were made; here again the power of the corporatocracy made itself felt. One of the early indicators of the direction and tenor a presidency will take is a president’s cabinet picks; Steven Mnuchin, yet another ex-Wall Street executive, was placed in charge of the Treasury. While President Trump did not drag the US into another war – in spite of the assassination of Iranian Major-General Qassim Soleimani – his presidency did not up-end Washington in ways meaningful to the nation’s citizenry. Readers may recall the US$2 trillion of untaxed corporate profits mentioned earlier; President Trump’s signature legislative achievement was to open new windows for tax rebates for major corporations, reducing taxes on the wealthy. This legislation resulted in the repatriation of US$777 billion in 2018, but the Federal Reserve noted that “the strongest effect of repatriation was on share buybacks” by corporate America. This particular episode is a textbook example of the plutocracy at work.

Trump does not greatly differ in this way from the way in which Candidate Obama contrasts with President Obama. Candidate Obama campaigned on Change We Can Believe In. Yet, once elected, he bailed out the banks (the abiding question on this, some wonder, is why citizens did not retain their houses if the banks’ losses were made good). Obamacare, a very significant advance in the fight for decent healthcare for Americans, did not include a public option although it could have. Nor did President Obama succeed in extricating himself from American warmongering abroad: in a particularly sad and tragic episode he helped end the Libya Gaddaffi had created. Libya under Gaddaffi was a nation that had free university education, free healthcare, no external debt and reserves of US$150 billion – all ideals that America, ironically, declares it wants but has yet to achieve despite its claim to being the richest nation in history. Allied “intervention” replaced that Libya with today’s bombed-out nation, in which incessant internecine strife went on for a decade. This in Africa, the land of Obama’s fathers. Only two years previously, at a location just two hours from Benghazi by air, the new President had given his “A New Beginning” speech in Cairo, which speech contributed to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize later that year.

In these two presidencies, we see, microcosmically, the effects of the plutocracy at work: the lofty ideals of the campaigning candidate and the searing needs of the masses, once office is assumed, are replaced by a kind of neutered, ineffective pragmatism, as far as the wellbeing of American citizens is concerned, and a sly and insidious effectiveness where corporate welfare is concerned.

The 2020 campaign

Perhaps the defining characteristic of the 2020 campaign is that it took place against the backdrop of a global pandemic. The cost of this pandemic – in the gruesome currency of American lives – has been more than 500,000 dead Americans and counting, nearly 10 times the number of US soldiers who died in the Vietnam War, and more than the number of American lives lost in World War II.

Uniquely among developed nations, the structure of America’s healthcare system is such that very often one only has healthcare if one is employed. So that when 44 million Americans filed for unemployment during the pandemic, they lost their medical cover at precisely the time they most needed it. The pandemic therefore threw into sharp focus the critical importance of having a healthcare system that is not based upon employment.

(Nor is the state of health insurance all that is wrong with American healthcare – in several tragic articles it has been reported that American diabetics have been driving to Canada in caravans to buy insulin – some driving up to 5 hours one way. Price-gouging by pharmaceutical companies means that the drug is ten times cheaper in Canada than it is in America.)

The bipartisan response to the pandemic was to pass the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that – while it gave individuals with less than US$99,000 a year annual income a check of US$1,200 a month – also gave further tax cuts to the wealthy. According to the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, just 43,000 individual tax filers covered by one of the Act’s provisions would see their tax liability fall by a combined US$70.3 billion in 2020 (or about US$1.7 million each). This is the America that corporatism has created.

And yet, mid-pandemic, was healthcare on the national ballot? How, when pharmaceutical and health product industries have spent a total of US$4.7 billion on lobbying the federal government, US$877 million on state candidates and committees, and US$414 million in the 20 years to 2018? Indeed, by the time he won the nomination, Joe Biden had already said he would veto a Medicare for All bill if it landed on his desk (a colossal if, it must be said), proposing a public option instead.

So what was on the ballot? Democrats, choosing to characterise Trump’s presidency as the problem, instead of seeing it as the natural consequence of the decades of wage stagnation, high healthcare costs, inordinately high levels of private debt, etc., campaigned on the platform of “restoring the soul of America”. The president’s narrow margins of victory perhaps find an explanation here: the problems Americans face were not really on the ballot. And they were not on the ballot because the corporations that stump up the money to fund electoral campaigns benefit from providing privatised solutions to the problems Americans face.

Is there hope?

There is an American constituency that is in broad agreement on the issues raised above: a Fox News exit poll, for example, showed that 72 per cent of Americans were at least somewhat in favour of changing to a government-run healthcare plan. Florida, a state President Trump won, voted to increase the state’s minimum wage to US$15 an hour.

However, it is unlikely that this broad constituency will be allowed to unite under the current political system. The reality is that the US is a de facto one-party state. If that party were to be honestly named, it might be named the Megacorp Party, or, slightly more genteelly, the Corporatist/Establishment Party. It has two wings: a supposedly left-leaning Democratic wing and a supposedly conservative Republican wing. Under the framework of Citizens United these two wings will continue to swap power ad infinitum. Yet, even as the presidency bounces from party to party, a president from one party will bomb Iraq; the next president, from the other party, will campaign on the platform that he never voted to go to war in Iraq, only to subsequently bomb Libya. These tragic contradictions find their resolution in the fact that this war activity happens at the behest of the military-industrial complex.

Political consultants will keep finding new, misleading ways of “framing the political argument,” creating false choices and developing narratives such as restoring the soul of the nation. Meanwhile, the money that pays them will continue to fortify itself against the needs of the people; the rich will get richer, the poor will get poorer and power will remain with the wealthy.

As long as this continues, we can expect two outcomes. The first is that the issues that Americans need solved will not be solved. (We are now reading, for example, that the US$15 dollars/hour minimum wage President Biden promised (during a presidential debate), is unlikely be included in the US$1.9 trillion-dollar stimulus package President Biden intends to bring to Congress.) The second is that, as a result of the failure to resolve these issues, America will, in the words of Robert Reich, continue to produce candidatures like Donald Trump’s as far as the eye can see. The American political system does not contain within itself the mechanism to correct the current malaise. As a result, money will continue to win out: it will continue to select which issues are on the ballot, and it will continue to choose which candidates win. America’s long decline, therefore, is likely to continue.

The corporations that stump up the money to fund electoral campaigns benefit from providing privatised solutions to the problems Americans face.

We may not be aware of it yet, because of the hold the nation has on global media (the concentration of media ownership in America is yet another triumph of the plutocracy), but America’s decline appears to be terminal.

I return to the beginning – this article is written colossally log-in-eye. As a Kenyan I know we have major, pressing domestic issues to resolve. If or as we make a detour to examine the American political situation, let our contemplation resemble our use of a mirror, and let our aims be those of helping us to avoid the problems others have experienced, in order to more wisely and speedily resolve our own.

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