Connect with us

Politics

REVENGE OF THE NERDS: Big data and the millennials’ digital dilemma

Published

on

REVENGE OF THE NERDS: Big data and the millennials’ digital dilemma
Download PDFPrint Article

The planet is getting smarter. Inanimate objects from phones to houses are becoming intelligent. The vehicle of the information technology revolution has been hardware but information is the real prize. Advances in processing power facilitate the reorganisation of the data around us with previously unimaginable results. The amount of data we generate is increasing exponentially. The future belongs to those who can tap its potential. In 2016 the world produced as much data as in the entire history of humankind through 2015.

Data has several special attributes. It doesn’t wear out. Increase and reuse raises its value, and unlike blending silver with tin, the combination of previously incompatible data sets generates new insights and uses. Sheer volume negates problems of inaccuracies, anomalies, and outliers. Even “exhausted” data can be reclaimed and repurposed. Google got ahead by finding secondary uses for other companies’ binned information.

Technology firms are parlaying access to data into solutions for problems and innovative technologies not imaginable a decade ago. The great majority of these databased applications will generate material benefits and efficiencies revolutionising how we live and work. Others will be used to exploit our private information, manipulate our emotions, control our minds, and redirect the choices we make.

The data revolution has only just begun but the art of mind control is not new. Shamans and wizards did it by tapping forces in the unseen world. Prophets and priests used the afterlife to strike fear into our souls. Psychologists developed social control techniques based on the study of the mind. The Nazis sought world domination by weaponising the occult and black magic. And now mental manipulation has become a science that has been used to accomplish previously unthinkable things, like electing Donald Trump and triggering a Brexit.

The data revolution has only just begun but the art of mind control is not new. Shamans and wizards did it by tapping forces in the unseen world. Prophets and priests used the afterlife to strike fear into our souls. Psychologists developed social control techniques based on the study of the mind.

Or so Alexander Nix, the former CEO of Cambridge Analytica, claimed in his controversial interview with Channel 4. “We operate in the shadows,” he said. He also claimed that after they came on board, Cambridge Analytica reconfigured the content and strategy of Jubilee’s successful 2017 election campaign in Kenya. Although the sales pitch to fictitious clients from Sri Lanka reopened some of the wounds that the Uhuru Kenyatta-Raila Odinga handshake was meant to heal, it is actually a case of mambo baado.

The grand masters of big data

The rise of big data is the product of new techniques that amalgamate large and disparate databases scattered in distant locations. Collecting data is an ancient practice, but combined with recent advances in processing power, data collection now allows analysts to sort through billions of data points with new methods for identifying patterns and probabilities. This is shifting the quest to understand the world from theory-based methods to correlation-generating algorithms.

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier, the authors of one popular book on the subject, Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think, note that all of this has been going on for a long time, but the payoff enabled by the combination of data and algorithms is just beginning. They begin their transformational thesis by citing an epidemiological example of mass data’s predictive power.

In 2009 Google boiled down data from 50 million search topics to 45 terms that, when fed into a mathematical model, predicted the spread of a lethal new flu virus in real time. The case of Farecost (the first application for predicting changes in airline flight prices that crunched 200 billion airline records to show that booking early does not always insure lower fares) was pioneered by Oren Etzioni in 1992. The authors use a diverse sample of more recent applications to further illustrate how the power of correlation is replacing the whys and hows of conventional analyses.

The big data value chain is bringing scalable efficiencies to equipment maintenance, transport systems, commodity supply chains, medical diagnosis, the insurance industry, educational methodologies, energy grids, and myriad other applications. Rolls Royce now earns more from its data services than the sale of the jet engines it manufactures, and the authors of Big Data provide many other proofs illuminating the mantra of the new data professionals: “We don’t need to understand why but only to know what.”

They repeatedly return to the point that these breakthroughs were not about the technologically enabled analysis of data, but rather a shift in the mindset about how data can be used. “Data,” they observe, “can reveal secrets to those with the humility, the willingness, and the tools to listen.”

Such language triggers a sense of unease among those of us who are concerned with the persuasive technologies built into social media and other mind-negating apps. For the nerds, economy Silicon Valley is spawning dreams of personal fulfillment, like the one articulated in this young engineer’s testimonial: “I wanted to pave a path that is unique to me, and I’m doing exactly that. I’m only a couple years into it, and the future feels unlimited.”

Big data is operating at the intersection of such visionary epiphanies and the capacity to capture real-world information that is playing an increasingly direct role in determining our social and economic realities. For the big data contractors and collectors, the fourth revolution is determining the future of work and the workplace itself.

According to a Google Vice President, data occupations are the “sexiest jobs in the world”. The only problem is that it is only a matter of time before the advance of machine learning will eventually make many of the human-computer scientists, like the one cited above, and their supporting cast of database managers and statisticians redundant.

Data miners claim that 15 Facebook data points can reveal an individual’s likes and dislikes, circle of friends and political leaning—and that 150 points can extend this profile to anticipating a given individual’s decision-making behaviour better than the individual can himself.

According to a Google Vice President, data occupations are the “sexiest jobs in the world”. The only problem is that it is only a matter of time before the advance of machine learning will eventually make many of the human-computer scientists, like the one cited above, and their supporting cast of database managers and statisticians redundant.

The accuracy of this oft-cited yardstick may not be absolute, but then again, big data science compensates for the messy nature of most data sets by using accumulating layers of cross-indexed information to compensate for errors.

Data processed in this manner can be applied to non-controversial areas, from beating chess grand masters at their own game to evidence-based policy formulation. One of the ostensibly more benign applications of this power is nudging, or the use of data-driven applications to direct people to make better decisions about their personal health and actions affecting the environment.

Few will reject this kind of social engineering even if we have reservations about the methods. The more serious problem is that the pace of technological change continues to outstrip the ability of governments and society alike to respond to the ethical concerns and economic consequences.

This is another reason we should probably thank Alexander Nix for directing our attention to data-centric issues of a higher order. As one commentator stated after news of Cambridge Analytica’s manipulation of elections in foreign countries broke, it is better to live in a world full of snake-oil merchants like Cambridge Analytica who eventually get caught out than a world of vast corporate monopolies, such as Amazon and Facebook, who seek to gradually take on the functions of government by stealth.

Artificial intelligence and the robot revolution

An algorithm is a set of rules or instructions used to solve a problem. Unlike computer programmes that are repetitive by design, algorithms are less precise and their problem-solving function requires that they need to terminate to be valid. This open-ended design of algorithms allows them to incorporate feedback. They use the information they gather to construct an internal model that can be tested against additional data. Each cycle of iteration improves the model, and the combination of big data and computational power now allows for near endless cycles.

Science fiction and bestselling books like as Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock and George Orwell’s 1984 anticipated these developments. The concept of The Singularity gained traction during the 1950s. Singularity refers to the point when a variable becomes infinite. The concept was adopted to define the point when artificial intelligence would surpass human brainpower. During the 1960s, scientists reinforced these ideas with predictions that machines would begin replacing human functions within the next twenty years. However, the robot revolution did not happen within the time frame they envisioned.

The conceptual approaches and techniques now driving the development of machine learning and deep neural networks were tried and abandoned around the same time. Symbolic artificial intelligence, based on a more inductive approach to teaching computers, replaced it. But in 2012 a researcher based in Toronto demonstrated that computers using algorithms based on using large data sets could solve problems without being specifically programmed to do so. The science of artificial intelligence changed overnight.

The exponential growth of artificial intelligence (AI) development is now based on “deep” machine learning utilising multiple layers of algorithms where the information generated by one layer informs the processes undertaken on the layer above it. It requires constant streams of data to inform and refresh the process.

Initiatives like Google’s plan to bridge the digital divide in developing regions by using base stations affixed to mobile helium balloons and Facebook’s plan to use drones to do the same may appear altruistic, but they are not. Smartphones that can track your eyes’ movements are sold as a consumer-driven enhancement, but are really just a new trick for pick-pocketing the information in your brain.

Deep machine learning is now making the progress of earlier technological revolutions and the predictions of mid-century scientists alike appear glacial in comparison. Within a decade, machines will be able to recognise faces and other images better than humans. The same applies to machines’ mastery of natural language, which is why the digital assistant just unveiled by Google triggered a backlash—people cannot identify the voice on the other end of the phone line as computer-generated.

Initiatives like Google’s plan to bridge the digital divide in developing regions by using base stations affixed to mobile helium balloons and Facebook’s plan to use drones to do the same may appear altruistic, but they are not. Smartphones that can track your eyes’ movements are sold as a consumer-driven enhancement, but are really just a new trick for pick-pocketing the information in your brain.

AI industry analysts report that the pace of change now exceeds the calculations of even relatively recent predictions. They acknowledge that the AI technology behind the robot calling you to remind you of your late mortgage payment may replace half the jobs employing humans in developed countries by 2040. AI will be embedded within our buildings, roads, homes, clothing and even our bodies: the development of neural laces is making biodigital interfaces a rapidly approaching reality. Workers in the knowledge economy of the future may have to accept electrodes that can “upload and download thoughts” in their brains to remain competitive.

The empirical facts supporting these predictions suggest that the citizens of Western democracies will find it difficult to resist these changes. Resisting in monolithic states like China will not be an option; their new Citizen Index will make even discussing the problem trigger a social credit debit. The significance of these developments for Africa is harder to assess.

Future shocks

The decades of sci-fi books and movies that initially moulded our concept of robots and artificial intelligence conveyed a mixed message about the future. For the most part, the cyborgs remained machines and even the advanced supersmart computer brains were humanised versions of gigantic databases that could imitate and reason but not replicate humans’ unique, if imperfect, capacity to think.

This genre was part of a larger line of critique that questioned the presumed neutrality of technology. It began as a logical response to the detonation of the atomic bomb. Criticism of the dehumanising impact of technological capitalism subsequently fueled the environmental movement and the search for alternative lifestyles that emerged during the political ferment of the late 1960s. E. F. Schumacher’s appropriate technology gospel and Steward Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogue offered a middle way for the counter-cultural proponents of humanistic technology.

Then personal computers and the Internet came along. Technology was no longer neutral; it was cool. Rejecting the neutrality thesis at this juncture would have entailed disowning history and many of our new toys. Technology could liberate as well as destroy. Apple’s 1997 “Think Different” ad campaign exploited the new liberation theology predicated on easy access to the expanding digital universe. This simple but effective campaign created a new cultural meme by pairing the Think Different slogan (and Apple logo) with full-page portraits of some of the world’s most iconic personalities: e.g. Mahatma Gandhi, Einstein, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, George Harrison, Mohammed Ali, and Thomas Edison. Apple’s revenues tripled during the year following the campaign even though no new products were launched.

The unique cultural milieu of the Bay area contributed to the emergence of the new tech industry. San Francisco was for generations the epicentre of a free zone that fostered an adaptive mix of eccentricity, culture and arts, high-end engineering and experimental lifestyles. According to the creative director of the agency that designed the pitch, the ads were inspired by the counter-culture maxim that one has to be a bit crazy to survive. Think Different was the catalyst behind Apple’s swift transition from laughing stock to “the stock you dream of owning”.

The campaign, as it turned out, was one of the artifacts of a fading era, a swan song for a generation that saw technological innovation as an extension of the human spirit. Over time the meme gave way to the Think Profits mindset: Tim Cook’s Apple—the world’s wealthiest company—now rips us off by charging extra for the dongles needed to make their new Mac laptops functional.

Corporatism is turning Silicon Valley from the unique enclave of creativity to a high-pressure rat race where the odds for success are increasingly hit or miss. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak was the tech-savvy brain behind the first personal computer. The same mentality that made him head for the hills at an early stage is now prompting predictions that much of the action in the diversifying tech sector will take place in other hubs and in other parts of the world. Sometimes Kenya’s “Silicon Savanna” is cited in these conversations.

Silicon uncertainty and the millennials’ dilemma

The revival of Apple coincided with the first phase of mobile telephony in East Africa. The mobile phone has proved to be the most successful technology in Africa since motorised transport. In Kenya it was hoped that the new system would attract 90,000 subscribers; there were over 300,000 within a year and one million after year two. Rapid uptake enabled the expansion of cellular infrastructure to the remotest areas of the country.

Before these developments, there were times when I had to make the eight-hour round trip to Nairobi for the simple reason that I could not connect with colleagues through a landline. The same problem often magnified the consequences of being late for an appointment. Mobile phones quickly flipped everything. When I visited the United States in 2001, I discovered that Kenyans were sending text messages before the Americans even knew that SMS existed. Techies were so impressed with my Nokia 6310i handset that I received several offers doubling the amount I had paid for it.

The success of mobile telephony in Kenya is also reflected in the hugely successful mobile money service Mpesa, which became the world’s first money transfer system after its 2007 launch accelerated the penetration of cell phones to its current level of 80 per cent. Mobile connectivity translates into a correspondingly high level of Internet access, and it is also a major reason why Kenya now tops the world in financial inclusion rankings. It also put Kenya on the high tech map.

It is estimated that access to mobile money can increase household income from between 5 and 30 per cent. Mpesa agents have added more than 100,000 small businesses to the economy and the platform contributes to the efficiency of countless other large and small enterprises. Most of us would choose a dumb phone with an Mpesa account over a high-end smartphone without.

The downside of the new connectivity in a country like Kenya is the high cost of data and poor network speeds across the landscape outside of Nairobi and Mombasa. In addition, the digital economy seems to have become more of a cash cow for the corporations at the top than a vehicle for creative problem-solving.

The only outsiders to prosper in this environment are online bookmakers who have fueled a gambling epidemic among the sports crazy youth and money-lending digital shylocks that have reportedly ensnared some 6.5 million Kenyan borrowers. Many of them don’t even know the interest rates being charged. The owners of these parasitical apps have attracted some 5 billion Kenya shillings in venture capital since 2015.

This is not the kind of crazy that will help young Kenyans survive, much less prosper. The phenomenal growth of the mobile phone sector is slowing now, and it is otherwise difficult to assess if Kenya’s Silicon Savanna will prove to be more than a source of labour for the world’s elite high tech capitalists.

The obverse exception is the government’s perverse relationship with anti-democracy operatives like Cambridge Analytica and its extralegal use of data in the name of national security. Safaricom, Kenya’s leading mobile phone service provider, and Kenya’s other telecom providers are actively partnering with the government to conduct surveillance of the public in blatant disregard of constitutional and legal provisions protecting citizens’ privacy.

The government’s highly touted but flawed project to build a technology city outside Nairobi is a fading mirage, and the even more conflated tablet computer for primary school students initiative has been quietly mothballed. This is probably a good thing at this juncture. The shape of things to come is too unpredictable and dependent on forces beyond the control of government planners and tenderpreneurs.

The obverse exception is the government’s perverse relationship with anti-democracy operatives like Cambridge Analytica and its extralegal use of data in the name of national security. Safaricom, Kenya’s leading mobile phone service provider, and Kenya’s other telecom providers are actively partnering with the government to conduct surveillance of the public in blatant disregard of constitutional and legal provisions protecting citizens’ privacy.

The other good news is that issues like gambling and loan sharking are easily rectified through conventional policies, and that others like the abuse of data in the name of security generate system-changing feedback. A sober assessment of the situation on the ground and stakeholder participation, for example, have contributed to the National Counter Terrorism Centre’s more inclusive and participatory new policy framework.

The real challenges are of a higher order

Despite the retrogressive problems of countries like South Sudan, most of the larger Eastern Africa region is undergoing a fundamental socio-economic transition. In 1989 Kenya’s population growth rate levelled off at 4.1 per cent per annum—creating the largest demographic surge in known recorded history. The main driver of the transition process is demographic at this point. The technological variable is for the most part latent for the time being, but it will clearly play a decisive role further up the road.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, it looks like the nerds have won. Google’s Pentagon-size research budget exceeds that of many industrialised nations. Together with Intel, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, these west-coast tech firms represent half of the world’s top ten research and development spenders; Apple and IMB are close behind.

The directionality of change driven by these technological masters of the universe is generating contrasting projections. True believers, like Yuval Hariri, envision a prosperous but polarised society where data-driven AI replaces God.

In their book Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think, Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler assemble 300 pages of evidence supporting their thesis that technology is on the brink of delivering a post-scarcity society. The authors conclude their argument by stating, “If 150,000 years of evolution is anything to go by, it’s how we dream up the future.” Less optimistic observers are depicting the coming dystopia from almost every angle imaginable.

Conditions in this part of world will keep many of the forces driving the inevitable economic and technological singularities at a distance, at least for a while. The robots are coming, but they still can’t tie our shoe laces or make a good chapati.

We read about Africa’s new techno-entrepreneurs, but we have yet to see them mapping out ways to tap the region’s “unlimited possibilities”. In the meantime, it is encouraging that Kenya’s millennials are beginning to make some noise about the region’s short-sighted leaders. Numerically, they have much more skin than the rest of us in the game that will determine how the fourth technological revolution will play out in Africa.

In the meantime, it is encouraging that Kenya’s millennials are beginning to make some noise about the region’s short-sighted leaders. Numerically, they have much more skin than the rest of us in the game that will determine how the fourth technological revolution will play out in Africa.

Have the vultures stolen the younger generations’ dreams? Then again, while they justifiably complain about the poor hand dealt to them by their elders, our millennials appear too busy staring at their phones to develop a vision of their own.

Avatar
By

Dr. Goldsmith is an American researcher and writer who has lived in Kenya for over 40 years.

Politics

Hijacking Kenya’s Health Spending: Companies Linked to Powerful MP Received Suspicious Procurement Contracts

Two obscure companies linked to Kitui South MP Rachael Kaki Nyamai were paid at least KSh24.2 million to deliver medical supplies under single-source agreements at the time the MP was chair of the National Assembly’s Health Committee.

Published

on

Hijacking Kenya’s Health Spending: Companies Linked to Powerful MP Received Suspicious Procurement Contracts
Download PDFPrint Article

Two obscure companies linked to Kitui South MP Rachael Kaki Nyamai were paid at least KSh24.2 million to deliver medical supplies under single-source agreements at the time the MP was chair of the National Assembly’s Health Committee, an investigation by Africa Uncensored and The Elephant has uncovered.

One of the companies was also awarded a mysterious Ksh 4.3 billion agreement to supply 8 million bottles of hand sanitizer, according to the government’s procurement system.

The contracts were awarded in 2015 as authorities moved to contain the threat from the Ebola outbreak that was ravaging West Africa and threatening to spread across the continent as well as from flooding related to the El-Nino weather phenomenon.

The investigation found that between 2014 and 2016, the Ministry of Health handed out hundreds of questionable non-compete tenders related to impending disasters, with a total value of KSh176 billion including three no-bid contracts to two firms, Tira Southshore Holdings Limited and Ameken Minewest Company Limited, linked to Mrs Nyamai, whose committee oversaw the ministry’s funding – a clear conflict of interest.

Number of Suppliers Allocated BPAAlthough authorities have since scrutinized some of the suspicious contracts and misappropriated health funds, the investigation revealed a handful of contracts that were not made public, nor questioned by the health committee.

Mrs Nyamai declined to comment for the story.

Nyamai has been accused by fellow members of parliament of thwarting an investigation of a separate alleged fraud. In 2016, a leaked internal audit report accused the Ministry of Health — colloquially referred to for its location at Afya House — of misappropriating funds in excess of nearly $60 million during the 2015/2016 financial year. Media stories described unauthorized suppliers, fraudulent transactions, and duplicate payments, citing the leaked document.

Members of the National Assembly’s Health Committee threatened to investigate by bringing the suppliers in for questioning, and then accused Nyamai, the committee chairperson, of blocking their probe. Members of the committee signed a petition calling for the removal of Nyamai and her deputy, but the petition reportedly went missing. Nyamai now heads the National Assembly’s Committee on Lands.

Transactions for companies owned by Mrs Nyamai’s relatives were among 25,727 leaked procurement records reviewed by reporters from Africa Uncensored, Finance Uncovered, The Elephant, and OCCRP. The data includes transactions by eight government agencies between August 2014 and January 2018, and reveals both questionable contracts as well as problems that continue to plague the government’s accounting tool, IFMIS.

The Integrated Financial Management Information System was adopted to improve efficiency and accountability. Instead, it has been used to fast-track corruption.

Hand sanitizer was an important tool in fighting transmission of Ebola, according to a WHO health expert. In one transaction, the Ministry of Health paid Sh5.4 million for “the supply of Ebola reagents for hand sanitizer” to a company owned by a niece of the MP who chaired the parliamentary health committee. However, it’s unclear what Ebola reagents, which are meant for Ebola testing, have to do with hand sanitizer. Kenya’s Ministry of Health made 84 other transactions to various vendors during this period, earmarked specifically for Ebola-related spending. These included:

  • Public awareness campaigns and adverts paid to print, radio and tv media platforms, totalling at least KSh122 million.
  • Printed materials totalling at least KSh214 million for Ebola prevention and information posters, contact tracing forms, technical guideline and point-of-entry forms, brochures and decision charts, etc. Most of the payments were made to six obscure companies.
  • Ebola-related pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical supplies, including hand sanitizer
  • Ebola-related conferences, catering, and travel expenses
  • At least KSh15 millions paid to a single vendor for isolation beds

Hacking the System

Tira Southshore Holdings Limited and Ameken Minewest Company Limited, appear to have no history of dealing in hygiene or medical supplies. Yet they were awarded three blanket purchase agreements, which are usually reserved for trusted vendors who provide recurring supplies such as newspapers and tea, or services such as office cleaning.

“A blanket agreement is something which should be exceptional, in my view,” says former Auditor-General, Edward Ouko.

But the leaked data show more than 2,000 such agreements, marked as approved by the heads of procurement in various ministries. About KSh176 billion (about $1.7 billion) was committed under such contracts over 42 months.

“Any other method of procurement, there must be competition. And in this one there is no competition,” explained a procurement officer, who spoke generally about blanket purchase agreements on background. “You have avoided sourcing.”

The Ministry of Health did not respond to detailed questions, while Mrs Nyamai declined to comment on the contracts in question.

Procurement experts say blanket purchase agreements are used in Kenya to short-circuit the competitive process. A ministry’s head of procurement can request authority from the National Treasury to create blanket agreements for certain vendors. Those companies can then be asked by procurement employees to deliver supplies and services without competing for a tender.

Once in the system, these single-source contracts are prone to corruption, as orders and payments can simply be made without the detailed documentation required under standard procurements. With limited time and resources, government auditors say they struggle especially with reconciling purchases made under blanket agreements.

The agreements were almost always followed by standard purchase orders that indicated the same vendor and the same amount which is unusual and raises fears of duplication. Some of these transactions were generated days or weeks after the blanket agreements, many with missing or mismatched explanations. It’s unclear whether any of these actually constituted duplicate payments.

For example, the leaked data show two transactions for Ameken Minewest for Sh6.9 million each — a blanket purchase order for El Nino mitigation supplies and a standard order for the supply of chlorine tablets eight days later. Tira Southshore also had two transactions of Sh12 million each — a blanket purchase for the “supply of lab reagents for cholera,” and six days later a standard order for the supply of chlorine powder.

Auditors say both the amounts and the timing of such payments are suspicious because blanket agreements should be paid in installments.

“It could well be a duplicate, using the same information, to get through the process. Because you make a blanket [agreement], then the intention is to do duplicates, so that it can pass through the cash payee phase several times without delivering more,” said Ouko upon reviewing some of the transactions for Tira Southshore. This weakness makes the IFMIS system prone to abuse, he added.

In addition, a KSh4 billion contract for hand sanitizer between the Health Ministry’s Preventive and Promotive Health Department and Tira Southshore was approved as a blanket purchase agreement in April 2015. The following month, a standard purchase order was generated for the same amount but without a description of services — this transaction is marked in the system as incomplete. A third transaction — this one for 0 shillings — was generated 10 days later by the same procurement employee, using the original order description: “please supply hand sanitizers 5oomls as per contract Moh/dpphs/dsru/008/14-15-MTC/17/14-15(min.no.6).

Reporters were unable to confirm whether KSh4 billion was paid by the ministry. The leaked data doesn’t include payment disbursement details, and the MOH has not responded to requests for information.

“I can assure you there’s no 4 billion, not even 1 billion. Not even 10 million that I have ever done, that has ever gone through Tira’s account, through that bank account,” said the co-owner of the company, Abigael Mukeli. She insisted that Tira Southshore never had a contract to deliver hand sanitizer, but declined to answer specific questions. It is unclear how a company without a contract would appear as a vendor in IFMIS, alongside contract details.

It is possible that payments could end up in bank accounts other than the ones associated with the supplier. That is because IFMIS also allowed for the creation of duplicate suppliers, according to a 2016 audit of the procurement system. That audit found almost 50 cases of duplication of the same vendor.

“Presence of active duplicate supplier master records increases the possibility of potential duplicate payments, misuse of bank account information, [and] reconciliation issues,” the auditors warned.

They also found such blatant security vulnerabilities as ghost and duplicate login IDs, deactivated requirements for password resets, and remote access for some procurement employees.

Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP

Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP

IFMIS was promoted as a solution for a faster procurement process and more transparent management of public funds. But the way the system was installed and used in Kenya compromised its extolled safeguards, according to auditors.

“There is a human element in the system,” said Ouko. “So if the human element is also not working as expected then the system cannot be perfect.”

The former head of the internal audit unit at the health ministry, Bernard Muchere, confirmed in an interview that IFMIS can be manipulated.

Masking the Setup

Ms Mukeli, the co-owner of Tira Southshore and Ameken Minewest, is the niece of Mrs Nyamai, according to local sources and social media investigation, although she denied the relationship to reporters. According to her LinkedIn profile, Ms Mukeli works at Kenya Medical Supplies Agency, a medical logistics agency under the Ministry of Health, now embroiled in a COVID procurement scandal.

Ms Mukeli’s mother, who is the MP’s elder sister, co-owns Icpher Consultants Company Ltd., which shares a post office box with Tira Southshore and Mematira Holdings Limited, which was opened in 2018, is co-owned by Mrs Nyamai’s husband and daughter, and is currently the majority shareholder of Ameken Minewest. Documents also show that a company called Icpher Consultants was originally registered to the MP, who was listed as the beneficial owner.

Co-owner of Tira Southshore Holdings Limited, Abigael Mukeli, described the company to reporters as a health consulting firm. However Tira Southshore also holds an active exploration license for the industrial mining in a 27-square-kilometer area in Kitui County, including in the restricted South Kitui National Reserve. According to government records, the application for mining limestone in Mutomo sub-county — Nyamai’s hometown — was initiated in 2015 and granted in 2018.

Mukeli is also a minority owner of Ameken Minewest Company Limited, which also holds an active mining license in Mutomo sub-county of Kitui, in an area covering 135.5 square kilometers. Government records show that the application for the mining of limestone, magnesite, and manganese was initiated in 2015 and granted in 2018. Two weeks after the license was granted, Mematira Holdings Limited was incorporated, with Nyamai’s husband and daughter as directors. Today, Mematira Holdings is the majority shareholder of Ameken Minewest, which is now in the process of obtaining another mining license in Kitui County.

According to public documents, Ameken also dabbles in road works and the transport of liquefied petroleum gas. And it’s been named by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations in a fuel fraud scheme.

Yet another company, Wet Blue Proprietors Logistics Ltd., shares a phone number with Tira Southshore and another post office box with Icpher Consultants Company Ltd., according to a Kenya National Highway Authority list of pre-qualified vendors.

Family LinksMrs Nyamai and her husband co-own Wet Blue. The consulting company was opened in 2010, the same year that the lawmaker completed her PhD work in HIV/AIDS education in Denmark.

Wet Blue was licenced in 2014 as a dam contractor and supplier of water, sewerage, irrigation and electromechanical works. It’s also listed by KENHA as a vetted consultant for HIV/AIDS mitigation services, together with Icpher Consultants.

It is unclear why these companies are qualified to deliver all these services simultaneously.

“Shell companies receiving contracts in the public sector in Kenya have enabled corruption, fraud and tax evasion in the country. They are literally special purpose vehicles to conduct ‘heists’ and with no track record to deliver the public goods, works or services procured,” said Sheila Masinde, executive director of Transparency International-Kenya.

Both MOH and Ms Mukeli refused to confirm whether the ordered supplies were delivered.

Mrs Nyamai also co-owns Ameken Petroleum Limited together with Alfred Agoi Masadia and Allan Sila Kithome.

Mr Agoi is an ANC Party MP for Sabatia Constituency in Vihiga County, and was on the same Health Committee as Mrs Nyamai, a Jubilee Party legislator. Mr Sila is a philanthropist who is campaigning for the Kitui County senate seat in the 2022 election.

Juliet Atellah at The Elephant and Finance Uncovered in the UK contributed reporting.

Continue Reading

Politics

Speak of Me as I Am: Reflections on Aid and Regime Change in Ethiopia

We can call the kind of intrusive donor clientelism that Cheeseman is recommending Good Governance 2.0. His advocacy for strengthening patron-client relations between western donors and African governments, and his urging that donors use crises as a way of forcing regime change and policy conditionalities, is ahistorical, counterproductive and morally indefensible.

Published

on

Speak of Me as I Am: Reflections on Aid and Regime Change in Ethiopia
Download PDFPrint Article

In a piece, published on 22 December 2020, that he describes as the most important thing he wrote in 2020, Nick Cheeseman penned a strong criticism of what he calls the ‘model of authoritarian development’ in Africa. This phrase refers specifically to Ethiopia and Rwanda, the only two countries that fit the model, which is otherwise not generalisable to the rest of the continent. His argument, in a nutshell, is that donors have been increasingly enamoured with these two countries because they are seen as producing results. Yet the recent conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia shows that this argument needs to be questioned and discarded. He calls for supporting democracy in Africa, which he claims performs better in the long run than authoritarian regimes, especially in light of the conflicts and repression that inevitably emerge under authoritarianism. His argument could also be read as an implicit call for regime change, stoking donors to intensify political conditionalities on these countries before things get even worse.

Cheeseman’s argument rests on a number of misleading empirical assertions which have important implications for the conclusions that he draws. In clarifying these, our point is not to defend authoritarianism. Instead, we hope to inject a measure of interpretative caution and to guard against opportunistically using crises to fan the disciplinary zeal of donors, particularly in a context of increasingly militarised aid regimes that have been associated with disastrous ventures into regime change.

We make two points. First, his story of aid dynamics in Ethiopia is not supported by the data he cites, which instead reflect the rise of economic ‘reform’ programmes pushed by the World Bank and IMF. The country’s current economic difficulties also need to be placed in the context of the systemic financial crisis currently slamming the continent, in which both authoritarian and (nominally) democratic regimes are faring poorly.

Second, we reflect on Cheeseman’s vision of aid as a lever of regime change. Within already stringent economic adjustment programmes, his call for intensifying political conditionalities amounts to a Good Governance Agenda 2.0. It ignores the legacy of the structural adjustment programmes in subverting deliberative governance on the continent during the 1980s and 1990s.

Misleading aid narratives distract from rebranded structural adjustment 

On the first point, Cheeseman establishes his argument early on by stating ‘that international donors have become increasingly willing to fund authoritarian regimes in Africa on the basis that they deliver on development’. In support of this assertion, he cites a table from the World Bank that shows net Official Development Assistance (ODA) received by Ethiopia surging to USD 4.93 billion in 2018, up from just over USD 4 billion in 2016 and 2017, and from a plateau oscillating around USD 3.5 billion from 2008 to 2015.

Cheeseman’s argument rests on a number of misleading empirical assertions which have important implications for the conclusions that he draws. In clarifying these, our point is not to defend authoritarianism. Instead, we hope to inject a measure of interpretative caution and to guard against opportunistically using crises to fan the disciplinary zeal of donors, particularly in a context of increasingly militarised aid regimes that have been associated with disastrous ventures into regime change.

These aggregated data are misleading because ODA received by Ethiopia from western bilateral donors in fact fell in 2018 (and probably continued falling in 2019 and 2020). The World Bank data that he cites are actually from the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) statistics, which refer to all official donors (but not including countries such as China). If we restrict donor assistance to DAC countries – which is relevant given that Cheeseman only refers to the US, the UK and the EU in his piece – disbursed ODA to Ethiopia fell from USD 2.26 billion in 2017 to USD 2.06 billion in 2018 (see the red line in the figure below).

 

Figure: ODA to Ethiopia (millions USD), 2000-2019

Figure: ODA to Ethiopia (millions USD), 2000-2019Source: OECD.stat, last accessed 30 December 2020.

There was a brief moderate increase in DAC country ODA starting in 2015 and peaking in 2017. Cheeseman might have been referring to this. However, contrary to his argument, it was likely that the reason for this increase in aid was primarily humanitarian, responding to the refugee influx from South Sudan that began in 2015 and to the severe drought and famine risk in 2016-17. It was also probably related to attempts to induce incipient political reform following the major protests in Oromia in 2014, which Cheeseman would presumably condone given that conventional measures of democracy and freedom improved in 2018. Indeed, it is notable that committed ODA from DAC donor countries fell even more sharply than disbursed aid in 2018, from USD 2.49 billion in 2017 to USD 2.07 billion, reflecting the context in which these countries were negotiating hard with the Ethiopian government at the time.

Instead, the sharp increase in ODA in 2018 came entirely from the International Development Association (IDA) of the World Bank Group, which increased its mixture of grants and loans to the country from USD 1.1 billion in 2017 to USD 2.1 billion in 2018. This subsequently fell to USD 1.8 billion in 2019 (the dashed green line in the figure).

Such ODA has been explicitly tied to the World Bank’s long-standing goal of liberalising, privatising and deregulating the Ethiopian economy, thereby ‘reforming’ (or disassembling) many of the attributes that have allowed the Ethiopian state to act in a developmentalist manner. These attributes include state-owned enterprises, state control over the financial sector, and relatively closed capital accounts, in strong distinction to most other countries in Africa (including Rwanda).

For instance, in October 2018 it approved USD 1.2 billion from the IDA in support of ‘a range of economic reforms designed to revitalize the economy by expanding the role of the private sector… to gradually open up the economy and introduce competition to and liberalize sectors that have been dominated by key state-owned enterprises (SOEs)’. The support aimed to promote public-private partnerships in key state-owned sectors such as telecoms, power and trade logistics as key mechanisms to restructure these sectors, as well as broader deregulation and financial liberalisation. It is also notable that the World Bank prefaced this justification by emphasising the political reforms that had already been embarked upon, and the promotion of ‘citizen engagement social accountability’ in Ethiopia.

In other words, contra the idea that western donors have been increasing their support for an authoritarian development model, they have been gradually withdrawing aid since 2017. The World Bank pulled up the slack in 2018, and in December 2019 both the World Bank and IMF promised more funding in support of ongoing economic reforms. The economic liberalisation has in turn undermined political liberalisation and has been a key source of political destabilization.

The bargaining hand of these donors has been reinforced by the economic difficulties faced by the Ethiopian economy – in particular, a hard tightening of external foreign-exchange constraints. Balance of payments statistics reveal that the government had effectively stopped external borrowing after 2015, a policy that it was advised to adopt in its Article IV consultations with the IMF in 2016 and 2017 as its external debt distress levels were rising. As a result, the government became excessively reliant on donor grant money as a principal source of foreign financing. Yet the country continued to run deep trade deficits, in large part because its development strategies, as elsewhere in Africa, have been very import and foreign-exchange intensive (e.g. think of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, requiring more than USD 4.6 billion to build, the bulk in foreign exchange). Significant capital flight appears to have taken place as well; for example, errors and omissions reported on the balance of payments were -USD 2.14 billion in 2018. In order to keep the ship afloat, the central bank burnt through over USD 1 billion of its reserves in 2018 alone.

Contra the idea that western donors have been increasing their support for an authoritarian development model, they have been gradually withdrawing aid since 2017

This severe tightening of foreign-exchange constraints needs to be understood as a critical structural factor in causing the development strategy to stall. Along with non-economic factors, this in turn put considerable strain on the government’s ability to stabilise political factions through the deployment of scarce resources, of which foreign exchange remains among the most important, especially in the current setting. Again, the point is not to apologise for authoritarianism, but rather to emphasise that the current situation is rooted deeper within a conjuncture of systemic crises that go far beyond any particular form of political administration.

Indeed, Cheeseman commits a similar oversight in ignoring the previous systemic crisis that the present is in many ways repeating. Later in his piece, he asserts: ‘The vast majority of African states were authoritarian in the 1970s and 1980s, and almost all had poor economic growth.’ This is an ahistorical misrepresentation of the profound global crisis that crippled Africa from the late 1970s for about two decades and which was the source of the poor growth he mentions. Then, as now, economic crisis was triggered throughout the continent by the severe tightening of external constraints, which neoliberal structural adjustment programmes exacerbated in a pro-cyclical manner despite being justified in the name of growth. The combination crippled developmentalist strategies across the continent regardless of political variations and despite the fact that many countries were performing quite well before the onset of the crisis. Such historical contextualisation is crucial for a correct assessment of the present.

Along with non-economic factors, this in turn put considerable strain on the government’s ability to stabilise political factions through the deployment of scarce resources, of which foreign exchange remains among the most important, especially in the current setting.

In this respect, there is a danger of putting the cart before the horse. Most countries that descend into deep protracted crises (economic or political) generally stop being nominally democratic, and yet this result becomes attributed as a cause, as if authoritarianism results in crisis or poor performance. Cheeseman cherry-picks two papers (one a working paper) on democracy and development performance in Africa (which like all cross-country regressions, are highly sensitive to model specification and open to interpretation). However, drawing any causality from such studies is problematic given that states tended to become more authoritarian after the global economic crisis and subsequent structural adjustments of the late 1970s and 1980s, not the other way around. For instance, 16 countries were under military rule in 1972, compared with 21 countries in 1989 during the height of adjustment. Faced with crippled capacity under the weight of severe austerity and dwindling legitimacy as living standards collapsed, many states responded to mass protests against the harsh conditionalities of adjustment with increasing force. As such, economic crisis and adjustment plausibly contributed to the rise of political instability and increasingly authoritarian regimes. Other factors include the Cold War destabilisation, which western countries fuelled and profited from. In other words, the political malaise across Africa at the time was driven by as much by external as internal factors.

Aid as a lever of regime change

This leads us to our second point concerning Cheeseman’s vision of aid as a lever of regime change. Cheeseman is at pains to emphasise that rigged elections and repression of opponents have contributed to the recent emergence of conflict in the Tigray region. While these are important features, Ethiopian intellectuals have also emphasised that conflicts in contemporary Ethiopia have taken place against a history of imperial state formation, slavery and debates about the ‘national question’, or what has sometimes been called ‘internal colonialism’. These conflicts are shaped by the system of ethnic federalism, in which ethnically defined states control their own revenues, social provisioning and security forces. They have been affected by foreign agricultural land grabs, which interact with older histories of semi-feudal land dispossession. Most recently, there have been concerns that regional tensions over the Renaissance Dam and agricultural land may help draw neighbouring countries into the conflict.

In the face of this highly complex and rapidly changing context, no one person can identify the optimal response. It plausibly requires regular collective deliberation by people who are deeply embedded in the context. In particular, the brief political liberalisation of 2018 was followed by a sharp uptick of political violence on all sides, rooted in fundamental tensions between different visions of statehood. Such situations cannot be solved simply by ‘adding democracy and stirring’; they require deliberative governance.

Yet, Cheeseman’s piece seeks a reimposition of the very political conditionalities that were a primary factor in subverting deliberative governance on the continent during the first wave of structural adjustment and its attendant Good Governance agendas. Such conditionalities work by constraining the open contestation of ideas and the process of informed consensus-building. They undermine the sovereignty of key institutions of the polity and the economy. And by doing so they degrade the historical meaning of development as a project of reclaiming social and economic sovereignty after colonialism.

Indeed, as Thandika Mkandawire has argued, the previous wave of political conditionalities and democratisation reduced democracies to formal structures of elections and, by wedding and subordinating them to the orthodox economic policy frameworks established under structural adjustment, led to what he called ‘choiceless democracies’. Such ‘disempowered new democracies’ are incapable of responding to the substantive macroeconomic demands of voters and thereby undermining substantive democracy, deliberative governance and policy sovereignty.

In particular, the idea of a democratic developmental state is meaningless in the absence of policy sovereignty. The institutional monocropping and monotasking of the type that Mkandawire wrote about does not merely prevent key institutions, such as central banks, from using broader policy instruments to support the developmental project. It also involves the deliberate creation of unaccountable policy vehicles, such as Monetary Policy Committees (MPCs), which operate outside of democratic oversight, but have considerable hold on the levers of economic policy. MPCs are in turn wedded to neoliberal monetarism. The message to such disempowered new democracies is that ‘you can elect any leader of your choice as long as s/he does not tamper with the economic policy that we choose for you.’ Or as Mkandawire wrote in 1994, ‘two or three IMF experts sitting in a country’s reserve bank have more to say than the national association of economists about the direction of national policy.’

As Thandika Mkandawire has argued, the previous wave of political conditionalities and democratisation reduced democracies to formal structures of elections and, by wedding and subordinating them to the orthodox economic policy frameworks established under structural adjustment, led to what he called ‘choiceless democracies’

In such contexts, the prospect of a democratic developmental state is severely diminished. Ensuring significant improvements in people’s wellbeing is important for the legitimacy of democracies. Yet the subversion of policy sovereignty significantly constrains the ability of new democracies to do so, setting them up for a crisis of legitimacy.

If democracy is to be meaningful it should involve the active engagement of citizens in a system of deliberative governance. Civil society organisations, in this context, are meaningful when they are autonomous institutions of social groupings that actively engage in boisterous debate and public policymaking in articulating the interest of their members. Yet, donor clientelism in Africa has wrought civil society and advocacy organisations that are manufactured and funded by, and accountable to, donors, not the citizens. This is a substantive subversion of democracy as a system of deliberative governance.

In this respect, we can call the kind of intrusive donor clientelism that Cheeseman is recommending Good Governance 2.0. His advocacy for strengthening patron-client relations between western donors and African governments, and his urging that donors use crises as a way of forcing regime change and policy conditionalities, is ahistorical, counterproductive and morally indefensible. In particular, it does not take into account the destructive, anti-democratic role of western-backed regime change and policy conditionality across the Global South during the era of flag independence. Even recently, these donor countries have disastrous human rights records when pushing for regime change in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Their support for military dictatorships, such as in Egypt, has been a central pillar of foreign policy for decades. And several of these donor countries worked hard to uphold apartheid in South Africa. They have no moral high ground to push for regime change, and little record to ensure that they could do so without causing more harm than good.

Moreover, external actors attempting to enforce their narrow view of democratisation in contexts of deeply polarised and competing visions of statehood, and in the midst of economic instability reinforced by already burdensome economic conditionalities, austerity and reforms, could well be a recipe for disaster. As a collective of intellectuals from across the Horn has emphasised, the people of Ethiopia in particular and the Horn in general must be at the forefront of developing a lasting peace. This would likely require a developmental commitment to supporting state capacity and deliberative governance, not undermining it through external interference and conditionalities.

This article was first published in CODESRIA Bulletin Online, No. 2, January 2021 Page 1

Continue Reading

Politics

Mohamed Bouazizi and Tunisia: 10 Years On

Last year marked the 10th anniversary of the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, who on 17 December 2010 set himself alight at Sidi Bouzid in an act of self-immolation that made him the iconic martyr of the Tunisian revolution.

Published

on

Mohamed Bouazizi and Tunisia: 10 Years On
Download PDFPrint Article

Mohamed Bouazizi’s name is familiar to all; less so is his background, although the facts of his story are well known and documented. This article will explore the links between the different sequences of ‘protest’ processes in Tunisia, from the 2008 strikes in the minefields, to the most recent (2017-20) El Kamour protests in the country’s south-east. It will also consider the concept of socio-spatial class solidarity, both in turning an individual suicide into the spark for a major uprising, and in facilitating collective resistance and its role in long revolutionary processes.

Two key questions arise: what in Bouazizi’s profile, life and circumstances was of such significance that his suicide sparked a huge popular uprising whose impact, direct and indirect, was felt worldwide. And what can he teach us about the origin, scale and longevity of the Tunisian revolution?

We must therefore examine the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi within its familial and personal context, but also within the more general context of the political protests against the Ben Ali dictatorship, and especially against the processes of dispossession, impoverishment and exclusion. Sidi Bouzid was clearly a focus of the protests and resistance then spreading throughout Tunisia’s marginalised regions. The prolonged mining strikes of 2008 were a key stage in the actions.

Born into poverty, Mohamed Bouazizi was raised by his mother after he lost his father at the age of three. As the eldest son he grew up with a moral ‘obligation’ to support his mother, to the detriment of his education, and he left school without qualifications. Some time before his dramatic act, he acquired a barrow and scales and started selling vegetables but his informal business attracted endless administrative hassles and police harassment. Finally, on 17 December 2010, the police seized his meagre equipment to put a stop to his trading. Angry, frustrated and desperate, he turned to the only act of resistance that still appeared open to him and thereby unwittingly triggered the countdown to Ben Ali’s fall, scarcely one month later, on 14 January 2011.

‘Individual’ suicide and class solidarity

Between the prolonged mining strike of 2008 and the shows of solidarity unleashed by Bouazizi’s self-immolation, many social movements were active across Tunisia. Among them were the protests made in Sidi Bouzid in June and July 2010 by peasant farmers whose demands focused on a number of issues: access to natural resources such as agricultural land, and water for drinking and irrigation purposes, state aid, and the complex problem of indebtedness.

According to several witnesses interviewed in Sidi Bouzid, as well as two family members, Mohamed Bouazizi took an active part in these demonstrations. Whether or not this is so, I would identify a clear link between the peasant ‘protests’ of summer 2010 and those that followed Bouazizi’s desperate act – a link that explains why this particular case, in contrast to other suicides, sparked a popular uprising across the country. First to take to the streets after Bouazizi’s self-immolation were other peasant farmers’ children identifying with his fatal act of resistance and despair.

Here was a clear example of ‘class solidarity’ among local populations directly affected by the region’s multiple social and economic problems. Over the next few days that same class solidarity also found expression nationwide, moving from the ‘rural’ zones (including ‘rural towns’), to the popular quarters of larger towns, and finally to the big urban centres, including Tunis. The progress of the protests suggests the existence of a distinct class-consciousness embracing all the ‘popular’ classes, rural and urban.

Since the early 1980s, the governorate of Sidi Bouzid has been the site of a rapid, state-initiated intensification of farming, designed to create a modern, export-oriented agricultural hub based on exploiting deep underground water reserves and attracting private and public capital. Over the past four decades Sidi Bouzid has been transformed: from a semi-arid desert fringe with an extensive agriculture based on olives, almonds, pasture and winter cereals, it has become Tunisia’s leading agricultural region, producing over a quarter of the nation’s total output of fruit and vegetables.

But behind this undoubted technical success lies a real social and ecological failure. Socially Sidi Bouzid remains one of Tunisia’s four poorest regions (of 26 in total), while ecologically the level of the water table is plummeting, water for irrigation is increasingly saline, and soil damage is visible, even to non-specialist eyes.

Since the early 1980s, the governorate of Sidi Bouzid has been the site of a rapid, state-initiated intensification of farming, designed to create a modern, export-oriented agricultural hub based on exploiting deep underground water reserves and attracting private and public capital

Here investors – who are mostly outsiders, often called ‘settlers’ by the local population – accrue capital and profits; meanwhile peasant farmers accumulate losses, tragedies and suicides. Without this huge socio-spatial fault, which divides Tunisia between a dominant centre and dependant periphery, Mohamed Bouazizi’s death would scarcely have merited a mention. And that same divide also lies at the heart of several other shocks which will be discussed below.

After the Sidi Bouzid uprising ended with the fall of the Ben Ali dictatorship, several more protest movements arose, all forming part of the same resistance processes in the social and spatial periphery.

The Jemna oasis movement began in 2011 and concerned rights to land and resources, while the El Kamour movement (2017-20) also involves rights to local resources and in particular to ‘development’: two different struggles each of which constitutes a key moment/sequence in the same process of dissent.

At Jemna and El Kamour, as in other cases, the key to mass mobilisation lies in the processes and dynamics of socio-spatial class solidarity: ‘This is where I come from, I belong to this region and this social group, I am being deprived of resources materially and/or symbolically, so I support those who dare to say “no” and resist’. In summary, this is what you can hear in Kebili-Jemna, Tataouine-El Kamour and elsewhere; what you can read in the media reports of declarations made by local populations. And underlying it all, ‘driving’ resistance and ‘cementing’ solidarity, lie profound feelings of injustice and demands for dignity.

Jemna: rights versus law; a disruptive legitimacy

Following the Sidi Bouzid episode and the fall of the dictator, in 2011 an oasis was ‘discovered’ that was probably new to the majority of Tunisians. Situated in the desert, midway between Kebili and Douz, the Jemna oasis owed its sudden appearance on the map to a significant new collective action, stemming directly from specific elements of colonial history that resurfaced after the wall of silence placed around them had been breached.

While most French colonists chose to settle in north or north-west Tunisia and created big cereal farms and/or stock-raising enterprises, and even vineyards and orchards, others preferred to head south and specialise in date farming – in particular the Degla variety, whose export market in France and Europe was virtually guaranteed. Among this latter group was one Maus De Rolley, who in 1937 created a new date-palm plantation around the core of the ancient Jemna oasis. The plantation today covers some 306 hectares, including 185 hectares planted with approximately 10,000 date palms.

Although local populations had held these lands as common and indivisible (tribal) property, they were dispossessed without compensation on the pretext that nomadic herding (pastoralism) was not a genuine productive activity, and that the land therefore was uncultivated. At independence, these populations – who had battled against the occupiers – held great expectations that the new authorities would return their stolen lands.

The Jemna oasis movement began in 2011 and concerned rights to land and resources, while the El Kamour movement (2017-20) also involves rights to local resources and in particular to ‘development’

When the colonial lands were nationalised in 1964, however, the government decided to place them under state control, confiding their management to the body that administered the state’s agricultural land, the Office des Terres Domaniales (OTD), which thereby became Tunisia’s biggest agricultural landowner. Bolstering this strategy was the collectivisation policy of the 1960s, which aimed to reorganise agricultural land and create state ‘socialist’ cooperatives.

Yet the real argument against the redistribution of the nationalised lands lay elsewhere: small peasant farmers were judged too ignorant and archaic, too lacking in the necessary financial and technical means, to develop a modern intensive agricultural sector – a stigmatisation that still recurs today whenever discussion returns to this subject and/or to questions of agricultural models and political choices related to farming and food.

Over the following decades, the heirs made some efforts to reclaim these lands, but it was not until early 2011 that the first organised occupations of OTD lands were launched by local populations describing themselves as the legitimate successors. Among them was Jemna’s local population, who occupied the former De Rolley plantation, claiming rights of property and of exploitation. The authorities demanded an end to the occupation, and the resulting impasse lasted for several years. The government argued that the occupation was illegal, while the occupiers countered that they held a legitimate right to resources and especially to community assets, including the indivisible and inalienable commons.

After a long period of tension a compromise was reached. By mutual agreement, the state ceded full management of the palm plantation to the local population while retaining ownership of the land. Might the latter have believed this negotiated settlement to be the only viable compromise?

Underlying the government position was the fear that any solution implying the grant of freehold to the legitimate heirs might create a legal precedent and set an example that would unleash a torrent of other land claims, all drawing on the same colonial and post-colonial past. But the occupation alone had set that example already, inciting other local populations to reclaim – with some attempts at occupation – the lands snatched from their grandparents during colonisation. Furthermore, I would argue that the Jemna case also served to fuel claims of a legitimate right to other local ‘natural’ resources such as water, minerals (for example, phosphates) and oil that mobilised populations in the Tatouine region.

El Kamour: the ‘will of the people’

Resistance entered another phase, not without success, at El Kamour – a locality situated in the barren steppes of south-eastern Tunisia, south of the town of Tatouine, on the tarmac road leading to the oil-fields in the extreme south of the country. The ‘dispossession pipeline’ carrying crude oil to the port of Skhira, 50 kilometres north of Gabes, runs through here, and this geographical position close to the pipeline is the immediate reason for El Kamour’s sudden appearance on political maps of Tunisia, as well as in the media.

Behind El Kamour, however, lies the governorate and town of Tataouine (Tataouine is the capital of the governorate of the same name), with over 180,000 inhabitants. Arid and barren, this region contains most of Tunisia’s oil reserves, producing 40 per cent of its petrol and 20 per cent of its gas. Yet Tataouine also records some of the nation’s highest levels of poverty: in 2017, for example, 28.7 per cent of its active population were unemployed (compared with a national average of 15.3 per cent), while for graduates the rate rose as high as 58 per cent.

Events in El-Kamour, 2017-2020: a brief chronology

The El Kamour movement began on 25 March 2017, with protests in various localities in the governorate, all converging on the town centre of Tataouine. The protesters were demanding a share of local resources, particularly oil, as well as greater employment opportunities and infrastructure development. Met by silence from the government, on 23 April they organised a sit-in at El Kamour. Tensions mounted on both sides, and an escalation became inevitable after the prime minister visited Tataouine and met the protesters. His plans to calm the situation with a few token promises came to naught and the discussions ended in deadlock. On 20 May the pumping station was occupied for two days before being cleared by the army, and tensions remained high.

Eventually, on 16 June 2017, an agreement was signed with the government through the mediation of the Union générale tunisienne du travail (UGTT), which acted to guarantee its implementation. The terms of the agreement promised the creation of 3,000 new jobs in the environmental sector by 2019, and 1,500 jobs in the oil industry by the end of 2017. A budget of 80 million dinars was also earmarked for regional development. But, to the frustration of the local population, the agreement was never implemented. The government simply bided its time, gambling that the militants would tire and the movement run out of steam.

‘This is where I come from, I belong to this region and this social group, I am being deprived of resources materially and/or symbolically, so I support those who dare to say “no” and resist’. In summary, this is what you can hear in Kebili-Jemna, Tataouine-El Kamour and elsewhere.

On 20 May 2020, however, the El Kamour activists resumed their protests and sit-ins in several places, piling on the pressure and blockading several routes to bar them to oil-industry vehicles. On 3 July they organised a new general strike throughout the public services and the oilfields, and on 16 July they closed the pumping station, blocking the pipelines carrying petroleum products north. But the El Kamour militants had to wait until 7 November 2020 before they could reach an agreement with the government’s representatives, in return for which petrol producers and other oil-sector enterprises were to resume operations immediately.

Signed by the head of government on 8 November 2020, the agreement contains a number of key points, including several that had previously featured in the 2017 accord but had not been implemented. These included, dedicated 80-million-dinar development and investment fund for the governorate of Tataouine; credit finance for 1,000 projects before the end of 2020; 215 jobs created in the oil industry in 2020, plus a further 70 in 2021; 2.6 million dinars for local municipalities and 1.2 million dinars for the Union Sportive de Tataouine.

The big social movements discussed above all have several points in common. Firstly, they are very largely located in southern, central, western and north-western Tunisia, the same marginalised and impoverished regions that between 17 December 2010 and early January 2011 saw huge protests in support of Bouazizi and against current social and economic policies. Secondly, while differing in detail, the principal demands of these movements all relate essentially to the right to resources, services and a decent income. None, or virtually none, are linked to ‘political’ demands (political rights, individual freedom). Thirdly, in their choice of language, and of several ‘spectacular’ actions, these social movements display a radicalism that marks a clear break with the political games played in and around the centres of power. Finally, almost all these movements are denounced and accused of regionalism and tribalism, sometimes even of separatism and treachery. Protesters are suspected of being manipulated, of being puppets in the hands of a political party or foreign power.

Yet these movements have enjoyed some, albeit relative, success – a success impossible without the class solidarity shown in the three examples discussed above, and the ties of domination and dependency that for decades have characterised the relationship between Tunisia’s centre of power (the east coast) and its deprived and impoverished periphery. Finay, these same examples, and other more recent cases, demonstrate that the ‘revolutionary’ processes launched in early 2008 are still active in Tunisia and will probably remain so for many years to come.

This article was first published in The Review of Africa Political Economy journal

Continue Reading

Trending