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DEBT AND TAXES: Kenya is living large on borrowed money

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DEBT AND TAXES: Kenya is living large on borrowed money
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Kenya’s fiscal policy – the means by which the government adjusts its spending levels, revenue generation and collection, and debt to monitor and influence the economy- has been a defining feature of the current administration. The three have been characterised by almost consistent features and trends.

Some background information is useful. Kenya has had an annual growth rate of about 5.46 percent from 2004 until 2016. Initially, the economy was slated to grow at around 6 percent in 2017 but this has since been revised to 5 percent. According to Genghis Capital, it will actually be between 4.25- 4.75 percent due to the drought-induced contraction in agriculture, the negative effects of the interest rate cap on the financial sector and the prolonged electioneering period. The Government thinks the economy will grow by over 6 percent next year though the World Bank projects a lower rebound to 5.8 percent in 2018 and 6.1 percent in 2019.

Kenya’s economy is primarily services driven and according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), under the Kenyatta administration, growth has largely been on the back of government spending on infrastructure projects such as the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), the expansion of the road network as well as electricity generation and transmission projects. Other significant contributors to growth include a resurgent tourism industry and growth in information and communication, real estate and transport and storage.

Over the past 6 years, government spending has grown at an average of 14.7 percent, yet revenue growth has only increased by 12.7 percent. Under the current administration, spending has gone up by two-thirds, from Sh1.6 trillion in 2013/14 to Sh2.64 trillion in 2017/18.

Back to fiscal policy, we will address each component separately: expenditure, revenue generation and collection, and borrowing.

EXPENDITURE

Over the past 6 years, government spending has grown at an average of 14.7 percent, yet revenue growth has only increased by 12.7 percent. Under the current administration, spending has gone up by two-thirds, from Sh1.6 trillion in 2013/14 to Sh2.64 trillion in 2017/18. While some of this can be explained by inflation reducing the value of money, there is a consistent trend of notable increases in government spending.

Public spending as a % of GDP

(Source: Institute of Economic Affairs)

 

A fundamental problem in analysing fiscal policy at both national and county levels is determining the intended recurrent vs development budgets and comparing these to the actual expenditure pattern. The image below from the Institute of Economic Affairs Kenya (IEA) details this for the National Government:

Share of Recurrent and Development Budgets in Total MDA Budget.
(Source: Institute of Economic Affairs)

Overall, two key trends are clear, the first of which is that the national budget is still geared towards recurrent spending. Indeed, as the Treasury itself has admitted in the past, recurrent expenditure is reaching unsustainable levels.

There are several factors behind this aggressive growth in expenditure, the first of which is devolution. In 2010 Kenyans enacted a new constitution, which established a bicameral Parliament and 47 county governments. At the beginning of the implementation of devolution, a parliamentary report indicated that it would cost at least Sh36 billion to set up. Prior to devolution, it cost Sh6.6 billion per year to run Parliament, but that figure is expected to rise to Sh14.3 billion. The Parliamentary Budget Office has also stated that it will cost Sh21.75 billion annually to run the 47 county assemblies. Thus, while welcome, the reality is that devolution is expensive.

At the beginning of the implementation of devolution, a parliamentary report indicated that it would cost at least Sh36 billion to set up. Prior to devolution it cost Sh6.6 billion per year to run Parliament, but that figure is expected to rise to Sh14.3 billion. The Parliamentary Budget Office has also stated that it will cost Sh21.75 billion annually to run the 47 county assemblies. Thus while welcome, the reality is that devolution is expensive.

Linked to the point above is the public wage bill which, according to the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC), has ballooned from Sh465 billion when the Kenyatta administration took over to Sh627 billion in the 2015/2016 financial year, an annual average growth of 9 per cent. SRC’s projections show that it will be Sh676 billion in 2016/2017. Earlier this year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) raised concerns, stating that Kenya is among countries that exhibit large increases in the wage bill, particularly in the run-up to elections. IMF is of the view that given Kenya’s rising debt levels (more on this later) the decision to increase spending on public sector wages is a concern as less funds are left over for economically productive development expenditure. The SRC pooh-poohed the IMF’s concerns, stating that wages were actually falling as a proportion of GDP: from 10.3 per cent in 2012/2013 to 9.5 per cent in 2015/2016.

A second factor behind the growth in expenditure, which the government has been eager to finger as the primary reason, has been the investment in infrastructure. According to the Capital Markets Authority (CMA), Kenya’s current estimated infrastructure funding gap is USD 2-3 billion per year over the next 10 years. To address this, government has allocated nearly a third of total budget expenditure to infrastructure between the 2016/17 and 2019/20 financial years.

The World Bank makes the point that the infrastructure investment drive in Kenya needs to be done in a way that is both efficient and sustainable. With such a robust commitment, key questions must be asked. For example, is Kenya investing in the right infrastructure? The Brookings Institution makes the point that a push for more infrastructure only raises economic growth and people’s well-being if the focus is on quality and impact, rather than quantity and volume. Has Kenya fallen short here? Has the government conducted an audit of infrastructure investment and the development it has engendered thus far? Has there been an audit of its quality? How efficient is our investment? Without an answer to these questions, the country risks wasting resources on aggressive infrastructure expenditure that generates no real benefits for its people.

Indeed, the link between infrastructure and economic growth is more tenuous than previously assumed. According to the London School of Economics, most recent studies on infrastructure’s contribution to growth tend to find smaller effects than those reported in earlier studies; this is linked to improvements in methodological approaches. Kenya, therefore, shouldn’t assume that infrastructure investment and development will automatically lead to significant improvements in economic growth. It is time for a fundamental rethink of the scale, nature and efficiency of the government’s spending on infrastructure.

Kenya, therefore, shouldn’t assume that infrastructure investment and development will automatically lead to significant improvements in economic growth. It is time for a fundamental rethink of the scale, nature and efficiency of the government’s spending on infrastructure.

The final issue regarding expenditure is linked to the mismanagement of public funds at both national and county levels. At the national level, allegations of corruption and financial mismanagement are legion and include: the National Youth Service (NYS) affair where the Auditor General stated a loss of Sh1.9 billion; Sh5.2 billion misappropriated at the Ministry of health according to an in-house audit report; mobile clinics valued at Sh1.4 million each being sold to the government at more than 7 times the price then abandoned in an NYS yard; inflated rig charges at the Geothermal Development Company (GDC) in which the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) found the tender committee culpable and six managers were sent on compulsory leave.

At county level, there are rising concerns with expenditure considering that the national government has sent to the counties more than Sh1 trillion since their establishment in 2013. Research by the International Budget Partnership Kenya (IBPK) reveals that county governments are not making available fiscal documents required by the Public Financial Management Act (PFMA). Only about 20 percent of key budget documents, including fiscal expenditure documents, meant to be online had been uploaded. Indeed, IBPK reports that in some cases, budget allocations are based on lists of projects drawn up by Members of County Assemblies (MCAs). There is no clarity on the criteria governing such allocations, and even less clarity on how county funds are actually spent. There is a distinct air of mischief informing this laxity. It is not a secret that the first iteration of devolution revealed how much autonomy county governments have in the planning and use of funds they receive and generate. This lack of transparency seems to be aimed at facilitating a culture of financial mismanagement and corruption at the county level in an environment where, frankly, no one is holding them accountable.

Further, county governments see themselves as expenditure units, not development units. This needs to change. Rather than concentrating on how much they have to spend, they ought to focus on the development dividends they are responsible for generating. Without this fundamental shift in thinking, county governments will continue to be like spoilt children, forever crying over what they are owed, but with nothing to show for the development they ought to deliver.

For example, 16 firms listed on the Nairobi Stock Exchange issued profit warnings in 2016, which meant less corporation tax could be collected. Additionally, the 7000 jobs lost to downsizing and shuttering of firms, mainly in the banking sector, reduced Pay As You Earn receipts.

The greatest concern beyond the moral question of the financial mismanagement of the public funds of a poor African country, is the issue of how corruption affects spending efficiency. As will be explained later, Kenya is getting into significant debt, particularly to finance development expenditure. If such debt is not being used as efficiently as possible and instead funds are stolen or dubiously spent, the country will be saddled with onerous debt without he means – the improvements in economic performance that were to come from debt financed development projects – to pay it.

Given the factors detailed above, there are several broad changes that ought to be made. At national level, the first recommendation is for government to commit more money to development expenditure and put more effort into actually absorbing the allocations given to the docket.

Secondly, the national government ought to be more consistent in the manner in which it presents data and should make it easier to track planned versus actual expenditure, particularly across the recurrent and development dockets.

Thirdly, large allocations to infrastructure projects need to be audited and a determination made on the effectiveness of the allocations, how funds can be better spent and recommendations on how to improve efficiency.

Finally, national government has to clamp down on financial mismanagement and prosecute and punish culpable officials. Without this, the government’s commitment to ending corruption will be seen as insincere and ineffective.

At county level, there are several issues that ought to be addressed the first of which is that there needs to be a very clear hierarchy of accountability for county expenditure. Governors and the County Ministers of Finance must be held accountable for their spending and individuals need to be punished if found guilty of corruption.

Secondly, counties must comply with the PFMA and provide breakdowns of their expenditure which includes a delineation between recurrent and development expenditure.

Thirdly, the principle of fiscal discipline should carry considerable weight when national government makes county allocations such that responsible use of resources is rewarded and poor performers are punished.

Finally, a citizen-led effort to create a ranking of county governments according to fiscal transparency with a focus on expenditure would likely create pressure on county governments to adhere to their legal obligations. Included in the ranking should be how well they comply with PFMA stipulations, with the top and bottom performers widely publicised.

REVENUE GENERATION AND COLLECTION

Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) has been falling short of its revenue targets for some time. For example, in 2016/17 total collection stood at Sh1.365 trillion representing a performance rate of 95.4 percent, and a shortfall of Sh66.64 billion- a significant number. In the first four months of this fiscal year, KRA has already fallen behind by Sh40 billion. There are questions as to why revenue collection consistently underperforms. I am of the view that KRA is given unrealistic targets, more informed by aggressive increases in government expenditure and oblivious to the serious constraints that mute tax collection.

Without this fundamental shift in thinking, county governments will continue to be like spoilt children, forever crying over what they are owed, but with nothing to show for the development they ought to deliver.

Revenue generation targets tend to be revised upwards over the course of the year. KRA’s original revenue target for the 2016/17 was Sh1.415 trillion which was later revised to Sh1.431 trillion, an increase of KES 16.24 billion. This is a concern because motivations behind the increases in targets are not clear. Do they perhaps stem from a realisation in Treasury that it cannot raise as much as anticipated in borrowing?

The second constraint is that the macroeconomic environment informs the extent to which revenues deviate from targets. For example, it is estimated that a 1 percent reduction in GDP growth reduces revenue by Sh13.4 billion and as noted earlier, this has been something of a tough year. A similar increase in inflation also requires that revenue targets be raised by Sh13 billion.

This is linked to sectoral issues which can affect the ability of KRA to collect tax. For example, 16 firms listed on the Nairobi Stock Exchange issued profit warnings in 2016 –a rising trend since 2013– which meant less corporation tax could be collected. Additionally, the 7000 jobs lost to downsizing and shuttering of firms, mainly in the banking sector, reduced Pay As You Earn receipts.

Third, government policy decisions, particularly those related to tax policy, affect the ability to generate revenue. For example, the non-implementation of changes to specific excise rates in 2016/17 reduced revenues by nearly Sh5 billion. Additionally, the duty-free importation of essential foods (maize, milk, sugar) led to a revenue loss of over Sh4 billion in the fourth quarter of the same financial year. Indeed, it is estimated that government policy decisions cost it Sh13 billion in lost revenue that entire year. The government tends to shoot itself in the foot in other ways too. For example, delays in remitting income tax from public institutions costs it Sh823 million.

Finally, revenue generation and collection in Kenya like the rest of Africa is negatively affected by illicit financial flows from the country. According to the UN, Africa loses more than US$50 billion through illicit financial outflows per year. Companies evade and avoid tax by shifting profits to low tax locations, claiming large allowable deductions, carrying losses forward indefinitely, and using transfer pricing.

The main reason why consistent subpar revenue collection is worrying is because the national treasury continues to construct budgets based on the unrealistic targets. For example, revenue generated was meant to play a bigger role in the current budget, financing 60.7 percent of the overall deficit and 58.7 percent of the development expenditure. Since it appears as though targets will again not be met, government will have to borrow more than anticipated.

 

There ought to be fundamental rethink of revenue generation and collection in order to effect a sustained increase. There are several factors to address, the first of which is improvements in the business environment that increase profits and thus taxable revenue. A key component that is often ignored here is the environment for the informal economy. Current assessments largely ignore the sector in which 90 percent of employed Kenyans earn a living. More ought to be done to make informal businesses more profitable.

At the same time, the government ought to seek to expand the revenue base by encouraging the formalisation of these businesses. Concerted efforts must be undertaken to pilot schemes that remove barriers to – and create incentives for – formalisation, particularly of larger businesses that easily evade tax yet are robust enough to consistently pay.

As recommended by the Africa Progress Report 2013, alongside demanding the highest standards of propriety and disclosure from their government, Kenyans should push citizens of the developed world to demand similar standards from their governments and companies.

Finally, Kenya needs to work on curbing illicit financial outflows. The UN makes the point that G8 leaders have committed to the 2013 Lough Erne Declaration, a 10-point statement calling for an overhaul of corporate transparency rules. Among other things, the declaration urges tax authorities to automatically share information to fight evasion. It states that poor countries should have the information and capacity to collect the taxes owed to them. Kenya should join other African countries in lobbying rich countries to enact stricter laws against tax evasion. As recommended by the Africa Progress Report 2013, alongside demanding the highest standards of propriety and disclosure from their government, Kenyans should push citizens of the developed world to demand similar standards from their governments and companies.

BORROWING AND DEBT

In 2013, the Jubilee administration inherited a debt of Sh1.7 trillion after a decade of the Kibaki government. Less than 5 years later, that has ballooned by nearly 250 percent to Sh4.4 trillion. This year’s borrowing has been particularly aggressive. The Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) says that the government is borrowing an average of Sh86 billion per month, the highest level since the bank started listing public debt in 1999, and over Sh30 billion more than the monthly averages of 2015 and 2016.

Despite this, it seems the government’s debt appetite won’t wane any time soon. The Treasury recently announced that it is seeking to issue another Eurobond, which could be used to repay the outstanding US$750 million syndicated loan the government raised in 2015 and which came due in October. What seems to be clear is that given expanding expenditure and subpar revenue collection, borrowing from both foreign and domestic sources will continue to grow. Further, as a Bloomberg analyst points out, Kenya has among the highest debt levels in sub-Saharan Africa, partly a result of having neither the commodity revenue sources of Nigeria and Angola nor the budget support from donor countries enjoyed by neighbouring Tanzania and Uganda.

Before looking at the specific features of Kenya’s debt, it is important to state that debt itself is not necessarily a problem. If used wisely, it can fund investment into activities and projects that catalyse economic development, GDP growth and growth in per capita incomes. Concerns only start being raised when the pattern of debt accrual and servicing seems headed in an unsustainable direction. If expenditure is growing in the context of muted revenue generation, that creates momentum for more debt than cannot be sustainably serviced. Further, if debt is not used efficiently and linked to increases in productivity and GDP growth, it also saddles countries with burdensome repayments. At the moment, Kenya is on the cusp where the government can either take decisive action to put the country on a better debt path, or continue with current trends that are edging the country closer to an unsustainable position.

 

The IEA points out that as of June 2012, total public debt was composed of 52.9 percent domestic debt and 47.1 percent external debt. However, the share of external debt has been steadily growing and recent statistics show that today the situation is reversed, with external debt taking up more than half (52.3 percent) of total debt.

The National Treasury Report 2015 indicates that the external debt stock for Kenya is composed of multilateral debt (54.7 percent), bilateral debt (27.1 percent), export credits (1.5 percent), commercial banks (0.6 percent) and International Sovereign Bonds (16.1 percent). As the IEA points out, a large part of the external debt remains concessional (i.e. on terms substantially more generous than market loans) and mainly from multilateral creditors; however, the share of concessional loans has been falling over the last three years which means external debt is becoming ever more expensive for the country.

There are several factors affecting the composition of debt, the first of which is Treasury’s desire to reduce domestic borrowing in order to release domestic credit for the private sector. This was a major reason given for issuing the Eurobond. As shown by the statistics above, he government has stayed true to this intent in some ways. However, the cap on interest rates introduced last year, has perversely facilitated government’ ability to raise domestic debt as banks, reluctant to lend to the general public due to profit margin and risk concerns, have more aggressively pursued government securities. The attractiveness of government debt is thus pushing the domestic private sector out of the domestic debt market, which contradicts government’s original intent.

The Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) notes that the government is borrowing an average of Sh86 billion per month, the highest level since the bank started listing public debt in 1999, and over Sh30 billion more than the monthly averages of 2015 and 2016.

It is important to note that, as reported in The Standard, World Bank data indicates that the average grace period on repaying new external debt has shrunk by half in the last four years. On average, in 2013, the country was given 8.2 years before starting to repay loans. This had reduced to 4.6 years by 2016. Shorter grace periods reduce the government’s room for flexibility and could be an indicator of jittery lenders keen on getting their money back as soon as possible. Indeed, Bank of America Merrill Lynch notes that Kenyan debt underperforms its peers as evidenced by the fact that yield premiums over U.S. debt have not narrowed as much as those of other sub-Saharan debt. In short, Kenya is seen as riskier to lend to than other African countries.

Informed by the expansion in borrowing, Kenya’s fiscal deficit has also grown. Its ratio to GDP has widened significantly from 6.4 percent in 2013/14 to 10.4 percent in 2016/17. The IEA points out that the large increase in deficit partly reflected the financing of the first phase of Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) project.

Fiscal deficit as a percentage of GDP

Fiscal deficit as a percentage of GDP
(source: IEA)

The government is targeting a fiscal deficit of 5.9 percent of GDP, in the 2018/19 fiscal year, down from an estimated 7.3 percent this fiscal year. Others however do not expect this will be met. Genghis Capital thinks Kenya’s budget deficit for this fiscal year will likely reach 8 percent of GDP. Further, the government doesn’t always hit its fiscal deficit projections. Indeed, according to Cytonn Investments, in the 2016/2017 fiscal year, the government’s deficit actually widened to 8.3 percent of GDP, some way above its revised target of 6.9 percent. In any case, despite the efforts it may be making to reduce the deficit, current government targets and performance are still higher than its own preferred ceiling of 5 percent.

 

The IEA points out that as the amount of debt held increased, the cost of debt has also gone up with debt servicing increasing from about Sh19 billion in 1990 to Sh400 billion by the end of 2015. A larger component of debt servicing emanates from servicing of domestic debt, but since the proportion of domestic and external debt to GDP are almost at par, it may indicate that it is costlier to service the former.

Debt service 1980 – 2016, KES billions

Debt service 1980 – 2016, KES billions
(Source: IEA)

There are growing concerns as to how much revenue is being committed to servicing debt. In the first nine months of the 2015/16 financial year, the government spent four out of every 10 shillings it collected as tax to settle debts. In April, the IMF estimated Kenya’s debt-service to revenue-ratio at 34.7 percent against a threshold of 30 percent, and a report in the Business Daily pointed out that in the last fiscal year, the country spent more money to settle debt (Sh435.7 billion) than it did to finance development (Sh394.2 billion). If more and more revenue has to be locked into servicing debt, government will either have to ramp down spending on development (given the relatively fixed burden of recurrent expenditure) or borrow even more, none of which is good.

The IEA also notes that the ratio of debt to GDP rose from 40.7 percent in 2012 to 56.4 percent in June, which merited a ranking of 78 out of 138 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index.

Government Budget and Public Debt as % of GDP

Government Budget and Public Debt as % of GDP
(Source: IEA); GDP is for full year (FY) and measured in thousands; * Provisional estimates

As borrowing continues to grow aggressively, it will lead to higher imbalances that will raise concerns about sustainability.

Views differ on whether Kenya’s debt is sustainable. Some are of the view that given the massive gaps in key sectors such as energy and transport infrastructure, the country must continue to do everything possible to finance and address the gaps and that debt accrued now will pay off in the long term. Kenya remains below the World Bank’s debt-to-GDP ratio ceiling (or tipping point) of 64 percent. The IMF, in its review of Kenya a year ago, said Kenya’s risk of external debt distress remains low but notes there is need for reduction in the deficit over the medium term. While the IMF has raised concerns about Kenya’s public debt, it is below what they view as the applicable ceiling for Kenya – 74 percent of GDP.

The IEA points out that as the amount of debt held increased, the cost of debt has also gone up with debt servicing increasing from about Sh19 billion in 1990 to Sh400 billion by the end of 2015.

Others, however, are of the view that a debt-to-GDP ratio beyond 40 percent for developing and emerging economies is dangerous. The IMF itself envisages fiscal consolidation that targets a 3.7 percent of GDP deficit by 2018/19 (compared to the government’s own target of 5.9 percent) which it says is critical to maintaining a low risk of debt distress while preserving fiscal space for development priorities.

I disagree with the Treasury’s assertions that the national debt is manageable and that there is headroom for more. Kenya’s debt is only manageable if decisive action is taken to reduce expenditure, boost revenue collection and reduce borrowing. If this does not happen within the next three years, the country will start feeling the effects of debt distress.

The credit rating agency Moody’s has already raised concerns about the country’s accumulating debt. Indeed, the agency is currently assessing whether it needs to downgrade the country’s credit rating from the current B1 status on grounds of its weakening ability to repay debt. Moody argues that unless a decisive policy response is introduced, the upward trajectory in government debt will see the debt-to-GDP ratio surpass the 60 percent mark by June 2018, pushing financing costs for the private sector even higher. Its assessment points to the fact that in the latest fiscal year, the government spent 19 percent of its revenues on interest payments alone, up from 10.7 percent five years ago. It notes that persistent, large, primary deficits and high borrowing costs continue to drive government indebtedness ever higher. Further, government liquidity pressures risk, the danger that the government may not have enough readily available cash to settle its immediate and short-term obligations, is rising in the face of increasingly large financing needs.

Another credit rating agency, Fitch, has also indicated that it could downgrade Kenya’s rating due to its debt position. Fitch noted that the country was spending a larger proportion of its revenue on paying debt compared to its economic peers such as Uganda, Rwanda and Ghana.

Fitch gave Kenya a B+ rating, with a negative outlook. These credit ratings are important as a fall in rating will mean any new foreign debt taken on by the country will be more expensive.

 

There are several broad strategies Kenya can use to better manage its debt the first of which is to aggressively reduce expenditure. Government must implement austerity budgets and limit unnecessary expenditure. I also think here should be a fundamental downward review of salaries of those in government. While those of technocrats such as Cabinet and Permanent Secretaries as well as professionals such teachers and doctors should remain attractive, there are far too many people in elected office on overly generous terms, and the related wage bill is not sustainable for a relatively poor African country.

Secondly, government needs to improve its recurrent vs development expenditure allocations. As elucidated before, year after year, more money is allocated to recurrent expenditure which is not economically productive. A reduction in recurrent expenditure is crucial and this can be partially addressed by a downward review in wages as explained above. The IEA points out that although in relative terms the proportion of recurrent expenditure to GDP has slightly declined while that of development expenditure has nearly doubled from 5.7 percent of GDP in 2007/8 to 11.0 percent in 2016/17, recurrent expenditure still remains comparatively high.

In April this year, the IMF estimated Kenya’s debt-service to revenue-ratio at 34.7 percent against a threshold of 30 percent, and a report in the Business Daily pointed out that in the 2016/17 fiscal year, the country spent more money to settle debt (Sh435.7 billion) than it did to finance development (Sh394.2 billion).

Development expenditure should be prioritised by considering projects which bring immediate returns to the economy. More money must be committed to spurring the growth required to pay debts, if Kenya is to avoid a repayment crisis.

Thirdly, government has to create strategies to ensure more development expenditure is absorbed. A November 2017 report by Controller of Budget showed the use of development funds for the financial year ending in June was at 70 percent, the highest since 2013. While this is good news and higher than the 66 per cent rate recorded in the previous year, it is not good enough. Indeed, the organisation Development Initiatives notes that the 2017/18 fiscal year actually saw a decline in total allocations to development spending by 12.3 percent, as a result of lower absorption of development spending by ministries in 2016/17. The problem is at both national and county levels. As Price Waterhouse Coopers points out, if the entire amount allocated is not being absorbed, it defeats the purpose of the budget especially around development expenditure. Given that the country is getting into a great deal of debt for development expenditure, it is crucial that absorption rates in this docket increase in order to spur economic growth.

Fourthly, government needs to better track how the debt which is financing the development docket, is being used. Given concerns with financial mismanagement of public funds at both national and county levels, it is crucial that the debt spending is meticulously tracked. This is because financial mismanagement of debt funds poses the dangerous risk of pushing the country into debt unsustainability as money is pocketed rather spent to generate growth.

 

CONCLUSION

This article has elucidated Kenya’s fiscal policy and position in terms of expenditure, revenue generation and debt accrual. It is important that the country reduces expenditure, increases revenue generation and better manages debt spending to put the country on a more sustainable fiscal path. We are in a position where Kenya’s fiscal health can be dramatically improved by taking decisive action as per the recommendations herein. It is my hope that the government takes the required action to improve the country’s fiscal path so that fiscal policy plays the positive and important role it can in driving the country’s development.

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Anzetse Were is a Kenyan development economist, researcher, and analyst. She blogs at https://anzetsewere.wordpress.com

Politics

No War, No Peace: Life and Death in Eritrea

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

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Eritrea was an Italian colony from 1890 to 1941. Following the defeat of Italian forces by the Allied Forces during World War Two, Britain occupied Eritrea until its federation to Ethiopia in 1952. However, by 1962 Emperor Haile Selassie had annexed Eritrea, declaring that it was part of Ethiopia, and in this way ending the federation.

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

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

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

Border dispute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace Agreement with Ethiopia and its aftermath

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

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

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

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

Ailing health sector

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

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

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

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

Poor COVID-19 response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Search for a Puppet Chief Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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African Continent a Milking Cow for Google and Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brick and mortar

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

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

‘Their revenue comes from me’.

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

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

Facebook revenue by user geography

Facebook revenue by user geography

Irish Double

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

Moustapha Cisse, Africa team lead at Google AI

Moustapha Cisse, Africa team lead at Google AI

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

Google Ghana is an ‘artificial intelligence research facility’.

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

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

Cash-strapped countries

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

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

Cost to public

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

‘A tax paying people is a questioning people’

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

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

Interior view of the Facebook office in Johannesburg, South Africa

Interior view of the Facebook office in Johannesburg, South Africa

Waiting for the Finance Minister

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

This article was first published by our partner ZAM Magazine.

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