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THE NEW LUNATIC EXPRESS: Lessons not learned from the East African Railway

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THE NEW LUNATIC EXPRESS: Lessons not learned from the East African Railway
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“The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
-Frederick Douglass

The building of standard gauge (SGR) railways in both Uganda and Kenya and the predictable sagas that have ensued are reminiscent of the controversies surrounding the building of the Uganda and Rhodesian Railways in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Both present a framework within which it is possible finally to understand the limited achievements in development in all sectors (and frankly, underdevelopment in many) and regression in Uganda’s primary education, copper mining and agricultural sectors. Both SGR projects are tainted with suspicion of shady procurement which, if taken together with the track records of the implementers, points to corruption. It would be irresponsible to say otherwise.

The route, design, level of service and all other decisions of the Uganda Railway of 1990 were dictated by potential profits for foreign investors (both public and private) and their local agents, and not by notions of public service and the common good of those who would bear the ultimate cost. Return on investment is not a bad thing but the Imperial government also claimed to be acting in the interests of the indigenous populations.

The difference now is that there is no pretence about whether the railways are serving the interests of the general population. The different financial implications presented by the procurement process itself, the selection of routes and the relative cost of engineering in the different terrains, plus the cost of compensating displaced landowners, provide scope for long-running, energy-depleting corruption scandals. From the outset, there has been a lack of confidence that procurement processes for the necessary services would prioritise the interests of the public over the interests of the contractor and would actively exclude the personal interests of the public servants commissioning the works. This is what is triggering the anxiety surrounding the SGRs.

The different financial implications presented by the procurement process itself, the selection of routes and the relative cost of engineering in the different terrains, plus the cost of compensating displaced landowners, provide scope for long-running, energy-depleting corruption scandals.

Moreover, the choice over whether to upgrade the old railway or to start afresh was not adequately debated publicly. Ditto the options on financing. For the Kenyan SGR, the most costly of the potential routes were reportedly selectively chosen. Several cheaper routes on land allegedly already in possession of the government are said to have been rejected.

There are also questions surrounding passenger service. Do the railways only serve trade or are passengers entitled to this alternative to dangerous road transport? In areas where passengers and not commodities, who will be the primary user of the railway?

Uganda owns one half of the old East African Railway. Together with the Kenyan leg, it was put under a 25-year management contract. The new owners renamed their new toy Rift Valley Railways (RVR). In 2017, after only twelve years, the governments cancelled the contracts in a move the RVR called an illegal takeover. On the Ugandan end, there were allegations of asset-stripping by previous European concessionaires as well as unpaid concession fees and massive salary arrears caused by RVR. If RVR were to successfully sue the government for cancellation of the contract, their compensation would be the first budget overrun.

The government of Uganda then signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2014 with the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), which had submitted a study. It abandoned those negotiations in favour of a second Chinese entity, the China Harbour Engineering Company. In justifying its action, the government questioned the quality of the CCECC’s study, which it said was cut and pasted from pre-existing feasibility studies (something that could have been avoided by following proper procurement procedures). CCECC insists it was a pre-feasibility study requiring less detail than a full-blown feasibility study. Whatever the case, if CCECC had followed through with its suit for US$8 million in compensation, which would have been another massive blow to the budget at inception. Whatever compensation they have agreed to has not been made public but as matters stand, the budget for the eastern leg of the SGR has gone up from CCECC’s proposed US$4.2 billion to CHEC’s US$6.7 billion.

What stands out – apart from the incompetence, squabbling and eventual compensation claims that accompany nearly every major Ugandan development project – is that the President of the Republic is front and centre in the flouting of procurement procedures by issuing personal invitations to foreign firms and individuals to participate in projects. He has done the same with investors from the United Arab Emirates who have been promised land. The results are often disastrous: the country is in debt to the Kenya-based Bidco company after it fell short of 10,000 hectares of land it had promised the company for a vegetable oil project. As a result, Bidco received tax waivers worth US$3.1 million in 2016 alone, according to the Auditor General.

The last top-level contact with a foreign investor whose details are known resulted in the arrest in New York of Patrick Chi Ping Ho in late 2017 on charges of paying bribes to the Ugandan president and the foreign minister through an American bank. The Ho-Kutesa bribery case casts more shade on the procurement arrangements for the SGR. Without a satisfactory resolution of the matter and with the same people still in situ, citizens would be foolhardy to expect value for money from the SGR.

By the beginning of 2018, owing to cash flow difficulties, less than half of the land required for the 273-kilometre eastern section of the SGR had been acquired. Not surprisingly, as Uganda slithers into insolvency, the government has resorted to domestic and foreign borrowing to fund ordinary recurrent expenditure like payroll. Commodity prices are significantly lower and the shilling worth much less than when the SGR was first contemplated. So bad is the situation that the police force announced that police work in 2018 is to be carried out on a rotational basis among the regions as there are insufficient funds to enforce the law across the whole country at once.

The Uganda Railway, 1900

The Uganda Railway initially ran from Mombasa to the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria, where the journey was completed by steamer to Port Bell in Kampala. The main purpose of the railway was to make Uganda colonisable.

Under the hinterland principle introduced by the Treaty of Berlin of 1885, colonial powers had the first option on the ownership of the hinterland abutting on their coastal possessions. To claim possession of the hinterland, a power had to show that it had effectively occupied the coast.

Having secured the Kenyan coast, Britain was not required to effectively occupy the East African hinterland – Uganda – but was determined to do so, fronting the objective of stopping the slave trade under the Brussels Anti–Slavery Act of 1890, which also required it to “improve the moral and material conditions of existence of the native races”. The argument ran as follows: To stop the slave trade, the region had to be governed by Britain and to govern, soldiers, ammunition, civil servants and their supplies had to be transported to the region, for which a railway was essential.

Only after the annexation of Uganda did references to the slave trade fade out as the overriding objective and the need to grow cotton to feed Britain’s textile industry and reduce unemployment came in to sharper focus.

Having secured the Kenyan coast, Britain was not required to effectively occupy the East African hinterland – Uganda – but was determined to do so, fronting the objective of stopping the slave trade under the Brussels Anti–Slavery Act of 1890, which also required it to “improve the moral and material conditions of existence of the native races”.

There was competition for the hinterland from the western coast of Africa, whose Congolese hinterland Belgium owned. Belgium was interested in north-western Uganda. In the north, the French had had a military confrontation with the British in Fashoda over supremacy in the Sudan. Time was, therefore, of the essence and the proposal was tabled in Parliament without a thorough survey.

We have had a large sum of money voted, but I observe that in recent documents the survey has disappeared and it has become a ‘reconnaissance survey’. We want to know whether we are making an estimate of the cost of a railway upon a reconnaissance survey. Major Macdonald was at the head of that survey, and when he arrived at the mountains he did not survey any further but put upon his survey ‘mountains’, and so there was practically no survey” (Henry Labouchère, MP, Uganda Railway debate, April 1900)

 The expenditure necessary was minimised in presentations to Parliament,

The estimates of cost have been falsified from the very commencement. They began with an estimate of £1,700,000; then it jumped up to £3,000,000, and year after year when the vote for Uganda came on for discussion, we were told that that would not be exceeded. And now the right hon. Gentleman comes here and, pluming himself on having carried out his own estimates, asks us to vote almost two million additional; and he shows us in no sort of way that the last estimate of £5,000,000 is based on solid ground any more than the £3,000,000 estimate, or the £1,700,000 estimate […] We ought not to vote any more money until we have had a full practical businesslike survey. (Labouchère 1900)

Also distorted were facts about the purpose of the railway. The benefit to the British cotton industry, one of the country’s leading employers, was minimised while advantages to the inhabitants of British East Africa were magnified to overshadow any criticisms of the railway’s implementation. One argument was that Britain would eliminate the high cost of the squadron needed as a barrier to slave ships off the East African coast by transporting soldiers overland to quash the last remaining slave caravans.

Labouchère questioned the government in 1900 as to whether the partially complete railway had had any impact on the size of the British squadron. The answer was no, it hadn’t. In fact, as he noted “it has not prevented one single slave being carried away”. Apart from anything else, slavery was tolerated in Zanzibar and Zanzibari slaves were being used as porters by British officials even in 1900.

“Sir G. Portal’s expedition [sent to effectively occupy Buganda] was one which had numerous slaves in its ranks. The whole territory of the East Africa Company now was swarming with slaves. What hypocrisy would be charged against this country, if their real motive being financial greed and territorial aggrandisement, they put forward the sacred cause of slave emancipation, while at the same time their own territories were swarming with slaves, and were actually impressing these poor creatures in large numbers to carry Sir G. Portal himself on this expedition. (Robert Reid, Uganda debate, March 1893).

(This is the same G. Portal who was sent by the Crown to implement the treaty extracted from Kabaka Mwanga and who exceeded its boundaries by marching through Buganda, setting up a fort in the Kingdom of Toro from where the Kingdom of Bunyoro was annexed.)

In the interests of speed and economy, a non-standard gauge was used. This partially explains why in the 21st century Kenya and Uganda are embarking on their first SGRs rather than extending existing lines. Apologists for incompetence should take note: there will be railways but whether they are the most cost-effective, robust (extensible) option is another matter.

In their rush, the Foreign Office formed a Works Committee to build the railway, which wound up costing significantly more per mile than comparable railways in India. It was referred to as a light or small-gauge railway. The cost of two comparable light railways in India was £6,500 and £6,400 per mile, respectively. The Kenya-Uganda light railway was being built in 1900 at £8,500 per mile. (Ugandans may recall that the price tag for the new thirty-mile Kampala-Entebbe Highway was double that of a comparable highway in Ethiopia.)

Railway finance

Contrary to popular belief, railways were not a gift to the colonies; they were financed by loans paid from tax revenues collected by the local colonial administrations and, therefore, any waste and losses in the construction were borne by the taxpayers in the colonies. Even where the Imperial government made the initial expenditure, ultimately it was the citizens of the colonies who paid.

For example, Palestine was charged £1 million for a railway built to facilitate the movement of British troops during the First World War (Palestine and East Africa Loans Act 1926). The retroactive payment was engineered by guaranteeing a loan taken by Palestine the proceeds of which then went to the British treasury while Palestine (then under British administration) made the repayments. For an idea of the magnitude of a million pounds in those days, the exact same amount was provided three years later in total development grants for the entire empire, then numbering over 40 territories.

Contrary to popular belief, railways were not a gift to the colonies; they were financed by loans paid from tax revenues collected by the local colonial administrations and, therefore, any waste and losses in the construction were borne by the taxpayers in the colonies. Even where the Imperial government made the initial expenditure, ultimately it was the citizens of the colonies who paid.

The £1 million provided in 1929 would not have covered Uganda’s total budget for one year. Even without a full set of Protectorate accounts, it is still possible to see that Uganda’s budget balanced at approximately £2 million between 1931 and 1935. In those years there was an excess of assets over liabilities of between £700,000 and £1 million. The Uganda Protectorate was even able to maintain the reserve fund required by the Imperial government. It stood at over £400,000 in the 1930s.

“The Reserve Fund is really required for three purposes: (a) as a kind of insurance against a definite national emergency, such as a famine or locust invasion involving very exceptional expenditure; (b) to meet a possible deficit in case of an exceptional shortfall in revenue; and (c) to enable the normal programme of capital expenditure to be carried out from year to year unimpeded by fluctuations in revenue. It will thus be seen that a considerable sum should be kept available, and it is hoped that it will be possible to accumulate £l,000,000 in the course of time.” (A.E. Forrest, Acting Treasurer, Uganda Protectorate)

 The Imperial Loan, the earliest loan record available to this writer, was made in 1915. It was followed by development loans between 1921 and 1924 and then further loans in 1932 and 1933. Total unused balances on these loans ranged from between £3,300 and £95,727 in the years 1931 to 1935; £588 was paid towards the Kampala-Jinja Railway in 1933. Total loan servicing that year was £144,718 for the 1932 and 1933 loans. The only grant received during the same period was £841. (This is not a typo.)

Although the Imperial development grant budget was increased to £5 million in 1940 to cover an even larger number of colonies, the target could not be reached during the Second World War when funds were low. During the war, the colonies had to divert their resources to aid Britain’s war effort. Uganda and most other colonies each donated £100,000, the equivalent of Uganda’s entire development budget for 1939. Kenya raised approximately £17,000. Men from both countries volunteered to serve; there were 77,000 from Uganda and more from Kenya. (The British government finally sent pensions to Ugandan ex–servicemen in 2011 after a long, increasingly hoarse campaign. Over 2,000 British ex-servicemen and thousands of others were rewarded with land in Kenya and Rhodesia).

The people of Buganda gave an additional £10,000 and the Ankole gave £1,000 from taxes collected from their populations. Additionally, the Buganda Lukiiko and the Native Administrations of the Eastern and Western Provinces pledged to give £5,000, £7,000 and £5,000 a year, respectively, for the duration of the war and for one year after its end towards the expenditure of the Protectorate.

Gifts in kind included an airplane (from Mauritius), patrol boats (Singapore Harbour Authority), cocoa, coffee and foodstuffs of all kinds. Farmers’ savings in the cotton and coffee funds were diverted to feed and clothe Allied troops. Only the Oron tribe in Nigeria was spared – their gift of two hundred pounds was returned on the grounds of their financial standing.

Colonies also made interest-free loans to Britain: in 1940 the Kenya-Uganda Railway and Harbour Administration loaned His Majesty’s Government £100,000 for as long as the war lasted. In 1946, Uganda made an interest-free loan to His Majesty’s government of £650,000. Total loans from the colonies amounted to £1,156,983 (See: Accounts of the Uganda Protectorate, 1946 Statement of Balances, Statement XIV, at 31st December, 1946).

It is incredible that in spite of the evidence, Ugandans and other ex-colonials continue to believe that they are being “helped” first by Britain, then by the World Bank and the Chinese. It is this misreading of the facts that prevents any meaningful negotiations for better terms of development cooperation. It is the capacity to negotiate that today’s bribe-taking leaders sell for their thirty pieces of silver.

Secondly, railways transported cotton belonging to the British Cotton Growing Association (a voluntary body comprising Lancashire growers, mill owners, textile workers, shippers and workers in ancillary trades such as dyers) for free in Sierra Leone, Lagos, and Southern Nigeria in return for seeds and professional advice (Secretary of State for the Colonies, Cotton Supply debate, 1905.) Third, once built, railways were used to leverage further loans. The East African Railways and Harbours Authority, being a viable operation, was used to guarantee loans taken out by the East African High Commission (the colonial administration).

By 1961 Uganda’s indebtedness had soared. The public debt was £16,933,000 and was being reliably serviced. Guarantees of interest alone stood at £58 million and a further £3.5 million for interest on a loan from the World Bank (presumably for Nalubaale Hydro-electric Dam). (See: Statement of Contingent Liabilities of the Protectorate Government as at 30 June 1961, Statement 12)

Construction and labour management

Due to the need to build the railway as quickly as possible, “gigantic errors” were made. An attempt was made to cover up escalating costs by saying that the materials had to be upgraded from wood to steel until an examination of the original plans showed provision had been made for steel from the very beginning. Accounts were submitted late for audit.

We have to pay £2,000,000 extra as the result of putting the work into the hands of men who have no practical experience of the work they have undertaken. I, for one, decidedly protest against the reckless and careless way in which the management of the railway has been conducted up to the present time.” (Thomas Bayley, M.P., 1900)

The management of the labour makes it even clearer that the railway was not for the primary benefit of the inhabitants of the region. Much in the same way as Chinese contractors do in Uganda today, the British shipped in foreign manual labourers to carry out the work; 14,000 of the 16,000 labourers employed were expatriates from India. There was a famine in Kenya shortly after.

We ought in my opinion, instead of importing so many thousands of Indian[s], to have employed a good deal more African labour, because natives have been dying by thousands of starvation in the neighbourhood of this railway. It has been most distressing to see the natives dying in the ditches by the side of the railway, and when trains have gone up the line little starving and dying children have come and begged for food, for a little rice, or anything from those on the train. That is not the sort of thing that ought to occur where the British Government are building a railway, and they ought to have engaged labour to a much larger extent from the neighbourhood. (Robert Perks, M.P., Uganda Railway debate 1900)

Much in the same way as Chinese contractors do in Uganda today, the British shipped in foreign manual labourers to carry out the work; 14,000 of the 16,000 labourers employed were expatriates from India.

Those Africans that were employed were paid four pence a day while the Indian skilled labourers were paid 14 pence a day. (Indians had experience in building the Indian railways.)

“That seems to be pretty nearly the same thing as slave labour. I should like to know what would be said in this country if any man were induced by the Government to work for four pence a day. [Several HON. MEMBERS: Oh, oh!] Hon. Members say oh, oh! I know their views. Working men in England have votes, and working men in Africa have not.” (Labouchère, 1900).

But Labouchère himself gave the standard racist reason for the low wages, a sentiment he expressed in defence of his own arguments that investment in Uganda was a waste of time: “What about the Ugandese themselves? They are without exception the very laziest of that laziest race in the whole world, the African negro.”

John Dillon, the Irish nationalist, demonstrated an understanding of the difference between the then African way of life and the grubbing and jostling necessary in over-populated, capitalist European countries,

“[…] where African labourers were employed the earthworks cost 10d. per cubic yard, while with the Indian labourers at the higher wage they cost but 6d., so that by employing the Indian labourer at higher wages you reduced the cost of the work. […] Very often, particularly in railway work, it is much cheaper to employ a better class of men at higher wages than men who do not understand the work at lower wages.

“One argument is that the labourers being free men, with no rent to pay, and with gardens round their huts, are not compelled to labour for the [low] wages offered by contractors and mine-owners; they can ask their own terms. What settles the price of labour in this country is the fact that a man cannot retire to his garden and his house and wait until the employer must have him at his own price; he would starve; therefore he must make the best terms he can. But in Africa the labourer is comparatively a free man, unless you have forced labour, as is so often advocated. (John Dillon, 1900)

However, it was later revealed that in addition to racialist considerations, there was a profit to be made on importing labour. Greek contractors had been awarded contracts to import the Indian labour and their commissions inflated labour costs. The point was not exhaustively argued in Parliament but there were suggestions that Sir Clement Hill, a public servant, received between £10,000 and 70,000 in commissions on materials ordered.

It was argued in Parliament that the amount of money required for the Uganda Railway was sufficient to build a full network of the light railways required in Britain. If anything speaks to the necessity of transparency it is this. Less extravagant profits assured by the government to private investors, contractors and commission agents would have ensured more was available for the common good of ordinary people in both countries, and a measure of dignity for the workers.

In contrast, before building permanent churches, schools and clinics in Uganda, Catholic missionaries in Uganda established technical schools and other training facilities in order to train the craftsmen that would be required for the work. They took the necessary time to maximise skills transference. They specialised in brick-making, architecture, glass-making and other building crafts, as well as tailoring, teaching and nursing. These facilities are still in service today, run by Africans.

For their part, indigenous communities using their own traditional model for infrastructural development known as bulungi bwa nsi (the good of the nation). They continued to contribute most of the locally available material inputs and, of course, all of the land and labour for community infrastructural development.

The character of development changed when the Imperial government commandeered the education sector in 1921 in order to “re-organise” it. After that, records show, the administration was able to manipulate communities by promising schools and other amenities to those communities that agreed to plant cash crops and do other things required of them. Voluntary communal labour was transformed into compulsory labour and extracted through corporal punishment and the dreaded poll tax.

Contracts for technical assistance these days require hired expatriate consultants to transfer skills to the indigenous staff. However, the fact that certain positions remain “expatriate” positions speaks volumes. These days African labourers on foreign-managed project sites are treated no better than the colonialists treated labourers. Ugandans at foreign-owned building sites have made numerous complaints about underpayment, lack of access to safety gear, harassment, sexual exploitation and even violence. In Uganda and elsewhere, some have been served lunch on their shovels. In the 1990s, Ugandans were made to squat in a line, one man between the legs of another. The reason given was that they kept losing/stealing the plates provided.

Chinese abuse of African workers’ rights, importation of labour, disregard for Ugandan environmental preservation and disdain for the communities among which they work is a repetition of the first invasion of capital and demonstrates the extremes to which it goes when left unfettered.

Route and service politics

The original plan had been for the railway to serve farming areas. Tax revenues from the crops would cover the cost of the construction. Introducing cotton and providing a fast means of exporting it was supposed to lead to development. Once the settlers came to know the route, the influential among them lobbied to have the railway diverted to serve their plantations.

The question of whose interests the SGR serves, as raised by Rasna Warah in a recent article published in the eReview, was as valid in the 1890s as it is today. In Kenya, the lack of “native”-directed development meant that there were insufficient railway stations between Mombasa and Lake Victoria for African requirements. It goes without saying that the interests of indigenous populations were not included in the plan. As a result, indigenous farmers had to carry their cotton long distances to the tracks – often in five shifts of one 60-pound bag at a time – and had to spend one or a few nights along the track, sleeping in the open air while waiting for the train.

Because in the beginning there were insufficient carriages and the few available were segregated, the Africans travelled in wagons. They were locked in for the safety and comfort of the first class travellers. Often, as some members of Westminster’s parliament were scandalised to learn, African passengers were unable to alight on arrival at their intended destinations despite banging on the wagon doors and were carried all the way to the next stop or to the Coast.

It goes without saying that the interests of indigenous populations were not included in the plan. As a result, indigenous farmers had to carry their cotton long distances to the tracks – often in five shifts of one 60-pound bag at a time – and had to spend one or a few nights along the track, sleeping in the open air while waiting for the train.

During the debate of the East Africa Commission Report in 1925, Henry Snell articulated the role of capital in distorting the higher development goals of bringing development to Africa,

“The land through which these railways pass [belonging to Settlers] should be taxed to help bear the cost that is involved. In the matter of transport it has been the case, unfortunately, that the Europeans have acquired the idea that railways should be built solely for their benefit, and that money granted as loans or in any other form should be entirely devoted to the white races. If by any chance a railway passes through native reserves, the cry is immediately raised that the land contiguous to the railway is too good for native use, and the native is therefore driven away, or it is urged that he should be removed to some less accessible position. It was on such a plea as that the Maasai were robbed of their country, and plots of land varying from 5,000 to 300,000 acres were given to Europeans for no other reason than that they were covetous of it and that it was in close touch with the railways.

“These extra facilities for transport can only be justified if at the same time the native interests are completely safeguarded. At the present time the difficulties are immense. The native has to raise from 10s. to 16s. per annum for hut tax, and he has to pay this almost entirely out of the material he is able to sell. That involves him in carrying a load of 60 lbs. for 40 miles. To pay this tax he may have to go as many as five journeys of 40 miles, with the 60 lb. load on his head, making for the return journey a distance of 400 miles. That is economic slavery of a most indefensible kind, and of a kind worse than was ever known in the Southern States of America. The roads are very frequently impassable because of bad weather.” (Henry Snell, M.P. East Africa Commission Debate, 1925)

Land grabbing and the Rhodesian Railway

Planning, finance, procurement, labour – what more could go wrong? Answer: speculation. The major and most lucrative railway scam was the use of the railway as a vehicle for displacement of populations and acquisition of their land by speculators. The land was acquired by those who had already been given free or cheap land by the Imperial government and were in a position to leave it idle.

“One syndicate got 500 square miles from the Foreign Office, over the head of the then Governor of Kenya. That is a fairly extensive slice of territory to be handed away. Then there was a grazing land syndicate, called the East African Syndicate, which applied for 320,000 acres, and Lord Delamere, a notorious figure in these parts, applied for 100,000 acres. If one syndicate gets 500 square miles, another gets 320,000 acres, and another applies for 100,000 acres, there is some prima facie evidence of speculators in Kenya.” (Thomas Johnston, Kenya debate, December 1926.)

In Rhodesia, as in Kenya, this resulted in large tracts of land being bought on either side of the proposed track by investors. In both territories the value shot up exponentially as the railway approached. Once the route for the Rhodesian railway was set out, a strip measuring twelve miles wide was carved out alongside taking in parts of Native Reserves. Meanwhile, the Msoro tribe of over 2,000 was displaced in favour of three settlers.

By 1920, Rhodesians had already been corralled in Native Reserves. The 48,000 white settlers had been allocated 48 million acres while the 800,000 Africans had the “right” to reside in (but not own any part of) reserves measuring 8 million acres. Most of the rest of the territory still belonged to the British South African Chartered Company (BSAC) that had deposed both the Mashona and Matabele kings and seized their territory.

After 1919, the British South African Company transferred what was left over from sales of this territory to the British Crown in return for a much disputed bail-out. The bail-out was controversial because under its agreement with the Crown, the BSAC was allowed to reimburse itself for work it did on behalf of the Crown by engaging in business. The Company had earned an income from the sale of millions of acres of land and mining concessions and had exported ivory and minerals, all under the protection of the British flag and therefore the British military. This was supposed to be their “compensation”. However, breaking the rules of the charter, the Company inter-mingled its own private accounts with those of the administration of the colony, making it difficult to separate the cost of government work and BSAC business. Just as with the British East African Company when it was leaving the area, the BSAC was further “compensated” with taxpayers’ money.

By 1920, Rhodesians had already been corralled in Native Reserves. The 48,000 white settlers had been allocated 48 million acres while the 800,000 Africans had the “right” to reside in (but not own any part of) reserves measuring 8 million acres. Most of the rest of the territory still belonged to the British South African Chartered Company (BSAC) that had deposed both the Mashona and Matabele kings and seized their territory.

During the controversy, a secret agreement between the BSAC and the British government came to light under which the government had agreed to reimburse the BSAC if it deposed King Lobengula. BSAC recruited European settlers, promising each a lease of a 6,000-acre farm at 30 shillings a year. They were also offered the option of buying the farm outright at the cost of 3 pounds sterling per 20 acres or 900 pounds for 6,000 acres.

After the successful campaign, the British government paid the lease and purchase costs for the recruits. Those not wishing to purchase were reimbursed for improvements they had made on the properties. In total, £7 million was demanded, half for the recruits and half for the shareholders. All opposition in Parliament was silenced by the Colonial Secretary, public eugenicist Lord Amery, when he revealed that a Commission of Inquiry had exonerated the BSAC and its recruits of any wrong-doing in massacring the Matabele and deposing their King. They eventually settled for £4 million pounds in 1922, a sum roughly equivalent to the Colonial Office’s budget for four years.

The need for public oversight

In his essay “Mexico proved that debt can be repudiated”, published on 24 March 2017, Eric Toussaint devotes a section on showing the links between commodity extraction, railways for transporting the commodities, and loans required to finance the extraction and transport of the commodities. He demonstrates the impact these had on land ownership, the displacement of peoples, the national debt, and a clique of investors.

It is interesting to note that in South America, as on the African continent, railways did not serve to connect communities and countries but rather led straight from the point of extraction of commodities to the point of export. The entire operation was eventually paid for from the indigenous public purse.

Like chartered companies, 21st century local agents for foreign investors enjoy political and military protection by the foreign countries they serve. This phenomenon was most evident in Mexico where various debt repudiations resulted in military invasions and threats of invasion by the United States, Britain and France. Most interestingly, Mexican citizens who had lent to their government were granted European nationality after which their new countries included them among those whose rights were being defended by the invasions. They came to be known as vende patrias – sellers of their country. Then, as now, bail-outs came from taxpayers’ money.

In modern times, attempts to repudiate illegitimate debt or to choose other paths that do not profit financiers still lead to regime change. Today they take the form of grants and NGO funding, which attempt to fill the holes left by diversion of national resources. What a bail-out means is that when an investor makes a profit, it all belongs to the investor. Where s/he makes a loss, it is spread among taxpayers. As Noam Chomsky famously stated, “A basic principle of modern state capitalism is that cost and risk are socialised, while profit is privatised.”

What a bail-out means is that when an investor makes a profit, it all belongs to the investor. Where s/he makes a loss, it is spread among taxpayers. As Noam Chomsky said, “A basic principle of modern state capitalism is that cost and risk are socialised, while profit is privatised.”

There can be no real progress until a critical mass of the electorate makes the connection between foreign capital, its local agents and underdevelopment. As Frederick Douglass put it, “If there is no struggle there is no progress[.…] Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

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Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan essayist, graduated in Law from King's College, London, and attained an Msc in Intelligent Management Systems from the Southbank. Her work in civil service reform in East Africa lead to an interest in the nature of public service in Africa and the political influences under which it is delivered.

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Kenya’s Supreme Court: Old Wine in New Bottles?

In this second part of a three-part series, we examine the intrigues within the Judiciary that led to David Maraga becoming Chief Justice and its subsequent effects to the Judiciary and the Nation.

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Kenya’s Supreme Court: Old Wine in New Bottles?
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As the six Supreme Court judges were adjudicating Kenya’s first presidential election petition in March 2013, Justice Kalpana Hasmukhrai Rawal was waiting for a new president to take office and the newly elected National Assembly to convene so that her nomination as Deputy Chief Justice could move forward. The Judicial Service Commission (JSC) had settled on her appointment after interviewing a shortlist of applicants in February 2013. The Judges and Magistrates Vetting Board had earlier found her to be suitable to continue serving as a Court of Appeal judge. Justice Rawal eventually joined the Supreme Court on 3 June 2013.

Two years later, Justice Rawal became the second Deputy Chief Justice (after Nancy Baraza, who resigned after she was heavily criticised for abusing her authority by threatening a security guard after the guard demanded to search her at a mall) to be embroiled in controversy. In 2015, Rawal challenged a notice that she retire at the age of 70. Around the same time, the then Chief Justice, Dr Willy Mutunga, would announce that he wanted to retire early so that the next Chief Justice would be appointed well ahead of the next election.

In May 2014, Justice Philip Kiptoo Tunoi and High Court judge David Onyancha challenged the JSC’s decision to retire them at the age of 70. They argued that they were entitled to serve until they reached the age of 74 because they had been first appointed judges as under the old constitution.

What seemed like a simple question about the retirement age of judges led to an unprecedented breakdown in the collegiate working atmosphere among the Supreme Court judges that had been maintained during the proceedings of the presidential election petition. During the two years it took the judiciary to address the question of whether judges should retire at 70, as decreed by the new constitution, or at 74, as was the case under the old constitution, three Supreme Court judges openly challenged the authority of the JSC in handling the age issue. When the matter reached the Supreme Court, the intrigues that emerged brought the country’s highest court to its lowest point in its short history.

In May 2014, Justice Philip Kiptoo Tunoi and High Court judge David Onyancha challenged the JSC’s decision to retire them at the age of 70. They argued that they were entitled to serve until they reached the age of 74 because they had been first appointed as judges under the old constitution. Justice Onyancha suddenly abandoned his cause and resigned quietly.

Justice Rawal filed a similar petition in September 2015 when the JSC issued her a notice of retirement. The following month, Dr Mutunga announced that he would retire before reaching the age of 70.

A letter sent to the JSC by Justices Jackton Boma Ojwang, Mohamed Khadar Ibrahim and Njoki Ndung’u on 24 September 2015 threatened a solidarity strike by the three if the commission continued to insist that judges retire at 70. The letter triggered a petition by the chief executive officer of the Law Society of Kenya (LSK), Mr Apollo Mboya, seeking the removal of the three judges from office for insubordination. A JSC committee investigated the allegations against the three judges and elected to reprimand them – but Justice Ndung’u contested the decision in court where it is pending determination.

On 11 December 2015, the High Court unanimously decided that Justices Rawal and Tunoi should retire at 70 – a judgment affirmed by a seven-judge bench of the Court of Appeal on 28 May 2016.

On the same day, Justice Rawal sent an application to the Supreme Court seeking suspension of the decision. She also asked the court to set a date for hearing her appeal. Justice Ndung’u, sitting alone, received the application and granted her requests. She set the hearing date for 24 June 2016, eight days after Dr Mutunga’s planned retirement as Chief Justice.

Dr Mutunga, who was meant to be abroad but had not travelled due to illness, called the file and brought the hearing date set by Justice Ndung’u forward since she had certified the matter as urgent.

On 14 June 2016, three judges recused themselves from hearing the appeal to avoid perceptions of bias. Dr Mutunga and Dr Smokin Wanjala said they did so because they were members of the JSC when the commission determined the retirement age for judges was 70. Justice Ibrahim apologised for his conduct in threatening a strike earlier and voted with the two. Prof Ojwang and Justice Ndung’u took the opposite view, arguing in their dissenting opinions that the different positions the judges had taken on the matter did not mean they would be biased when hearing the appeals. In the event, the Court of Appeal’s judgment on the matter became the final decision on the issue of the retirement age. Rawal and Tunoi retired. Dr Mutunga, too, retired as Chief Justice two days later, thus opening up three vacancies in the top court, but the rift in the Supreme Court would persist until the 2017 presidential election petition.

A last-ditch effort was proposed to save the two judges. It entailed waiting until Dr Mutunga had left office to have President Uhuru Kenyatta name Justice Ojwang as Chief Justice in an acting capacity, according to Platform publisher Gitobu Imanyara. With Justice Ojwang at the helm of the Supreme Court, albeit temporarily, it was expected that Justices Rawal and Tunoi would apply for a review of the recusal decision. A full bench was subsequently expected to hear the case, reverse the Court of Appeal judgment, and allow judges appointed before the adoption of the new constitution to serve until the age of 74.

Competing interests had already begun to play out in the race to replace the Chief Justice and the departing Supreme Court justices. The departures would significantly change the composition of the court, and with it, its posture and prudence.

It was Kenyatta (reportedly fearing the embarrassment of having another of his decisions struck down by the court) who declined to go along with the plan to appoint an acting Chief Justice. When the matter formally came up at the JSC, introduced by acting chair Prof Margaret Kobia, there was uproar. It is against this background that the JSC began its search for a new Chief Justice and two Supreme Court judges.

Competing interests had already begun to play out in the race to replace the Chief Justice and the departing Supreme Court justices. The departures would significantly change the composition of the court, and with it, its posture and prudence. It was no longer in doubt that the pitched battles around the departure of the two judges had demolished any pretence at collegiality in the Supreme Court, with judges openly differing with each other.

A safe choice

David Maraga would emerge as the dark horse in the Chief Justice’s succession race ahead of law professor Makau Mutua and Supreme Court judge Smokin Wanjala. With a combined 13 years as High Court and Court of Appeal judge, Maraga’s public posture was that of a deeply religious and conscientious man – an elder of the Seventh Day Adventists Church who would not work on the Sabbath before sunset. During his vetting as a previously serving judge, he offered to swear on the Bible that he had never taken a bribe.  He also famously said during his interview that he would never work on the Sabbath even if an election petition were in progress.

Justice Maraga had served as an inaugural member of the Judicial Working Committee on Elections Preparations (JWCEP) before taking over as chairman. He is regarded as one of the foremost authorities on electoral law, not just because he has written on the subject, but more so because his decisions have never been overturned on appeal. He beat a field of nine finalists to be nominated Chief Justice as a compromise between institutional insiders who wanted stability and the executive, which wanted a pliable person.

In contrast to his predecessor, Justice Maraga appeared to be a safe choice for the establishment. He was as a conservative, unlike Dr Mutunga. He had not been involved in politics and was a judicial insider. The new Chief Justice would also have the 2013 precedent of the Supreme Court to rely on. So safe was he considered to be that Uhuru Kenyatta, while giving a campaign stump speech, deigned to mention Justice Maraga’s appointment as one of the political favours extended to the Kisii community, drawing the Chief Justice’s rebuke.

Just like Dr Mutunga before him, Justice Maraga had no hand in selecting the six judges he was going to lead as President of the Supreme Court. Three were already in place (appointed in 2011) therefore outranking him in experience in the court, and the two new ones were appointed at the same time as he was.

The filing of the August 2017 petition guaranteed Justice Maraga the one case he was certain would be his legacy as a jurist. Regardless of how he was going to rule, the opportunity and chance to do it was a moment that conferred great personal prestige.

60 Days of Independence: Kenya’s Judiciary Through Three Presidential Election Petitions

Read also: 60 Days of Independence: Kenya’s Judiciary Through Three Presidential Election Petitions

Chosen as Deputy Chief Justice was Philomena Mbete Mwilu. She had 32 years of experience in law, serving as a member of the Electricity Regulatory Board and the Energy Tribunal before her appointment as a judge of the High Court and the Court of Appeal. She had also spent considerable time as a legal officer at Jubilee Insurance Company.

Justice Mwilu was notably one of the three High Court judges who had declined to declare the composition of the 2011 Supreme Court unconstitutional for not meeting the requirement that no one gender should constitute more than one-third of any electoral or appointive body.

The third was the slightly graying Isaac Lenaola, whose solid 13 years experience in the High Court, and as Deputy President of the East African Court of Justice enabled him to leapfrog his seniors in the Court of Appeal to the apex court as its youngest member. At the High Court, the judge had distinguished himself as a hardworking head of the Constitutional and Human Rights Division, renowned for its landmark decisions.

Lenaola had also served on the 28-member Constitution of Kenya Review Commission, which collected public views and produced a draft in September 2002, which formed the basis for the new constitution adopted in August 2010. He had been instrumental in negotiating the adoption of vetting of judges and magistrates as a lustration measure to usher in the new constitutional changes in 2010, and had served as the High Court’s first representative to the JSC until 2014. Before joining the bench, he had worked in civil society promoting minority rights.

Conservatives back in the saddle

While Kenyatta’s team was working to change the court’s composition, his rival, Raila Odinga, had forced a negotiation of the electoral law in Parliament. Through legislation and subsequent litigation, the landscape in which elections would be held was significantly altered. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) was disbanded and reconstituted and the electoral law was amended and set out in greater detail. Litigation also settled questions around the audit of the voters’ roll, the printing and procurement of election materials, and the transmission of results.

A case filed by human rights advocate Maina Kiai produced decisions at the High Court and the Court of Appeal that made the polling station central in determining election results. Lawyer Ahmednasir Abdullahi, who would later sign up as one of Kenyatta’s advocates during the hearing of the 2017 petitions, remarked that election-related litigation had been conducted on “an industrial scale”. He had boisterously defended the chairman of the IEBC during the 2013 petition, when he pejoratively referred to the Supreme Court as a young court that was “still crawling”.

“It is good, especially for a young court – which is crawling – it is good for it to show judicial restraint. You will find opportunities later in life where you can express yourself more,” he said, to the roar of laughter in the courtroom.

Ahmednasir’s words carried great weight at the time, considering that he was not only a senior counsel and former chairman of the Law Society of Kenya, but he had also been chairman of the Kenya Anti-Corruption Authority (the precursor to the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission) and had played a starring role in forcing a Court of Appeal judge to resign over corruption allegations by providing closed-circuit television evidence of the judge receiving a bribe in a city hotel parking lot. His anti-corruption credentials saw the LSK elect him as their representative to the new JSC that would interview and nominate judges in 2011, including the Chief Justice and the Deputy Chief Justice. His abrasive questioning of applicants won him admirers and foes in equal measure, but it also implanted in the public psyche the possibility that he had an unhealthy stranglehold on the inaugural Supreme Court.

However, the spell he had over the judges during the 2013 election petitions was definitely broken in 2017. Although he had lost the election to continue representing the LSK on the JSC, he was still treated with great deference. When he rose to speak as Kenyatta’s lawyer in the August 2017 petition, his full crop of hair was greying in the middle, and he did not seem to have the same leeway he had enjoyed four years earlier.

After the 2013 Supreme Court disappointment, three-time presidential contender Odinga had publicly declared in the run-up to the 2017 election that he would not petition the courts if his fourth run did not succeed.

Justice Maraga found a Supreme Court that did not wig and only robed in green gowns. However, as the seven justices made their appearance in August 2017 in red robes, white bibs and wigs, it was clear that the conservatives were back in the saddle.

When, however, the opposition decided to head to court after Uhuru Kenyatta was declared winner of the presidential election, it found a prepared bench. On Saturday, 26 August, when the sun had gone down and the Sabbath observed by Seventh Day Adventists had formally ended, the court convened its pre-trial conference to accommodate the Chief Justice’s religious practice.

Justice Maraga found a Supreme Court that did not wig and only robed in green gowns. However, as the seven justices made their appearance in August 2017 in red robes, white bibs and wigs, it was clear that the conservatives were back in the saddle. Where Justice Mutunga – the cool earing-wearing CJ – presided over the court with an iPad and enjoyed meeting young people, his successor was reticent and retiring. Maraga was an old school judge who placed great premium on rules and traditions. Or was he?

Greater vigilance

The Supreme Court had to decide the petition before the expiry of the constitutionally prescribed 14-day deadline, which fell on another Sabbath – the following Saturday. Before the hearing began, the Supreme Court gave the petitioners access to the IEBC servers to verify the results transmitted from the polling stations to the national tallying centre. It also granted the application for a court-supervised scrutiny of the forms used to collate the presidential votes.

The petitioners assembled a veritable team of veteran lawyers, among them Senators James Orengo, Okong’o Omogeni, former Attorney General Amos Wako, Member of Parliament Otiende Amollo, law professors Mutakha Kangu and Ben Sihanya, veteran litigator Pheroze Nowrojee and 28 others.

In 2013, the court had been totally unprepared for the management of electoral disputes, which undermined its ability to interrogate the IEBC’s ICT and voter register failures. Its naivety also exposed it to deception by its own administrative staff.

Kenyatta’s team was led by Fred Ngatia, Ahmednasir Abdullahi, and PLO Lumumba. The IEBC relied on senior counsel Paul Muite, Lucy Kambuni, Paul Nyamodi and Tom Macharia. A good number of the judges – Justices Ojwang, Wanjala, Ibrahim and Ndung’u – had done their pupilage at Waruhiu, Muite and Company Advocates, Paul Muite’s firm.

Just as had been the case during the 2013 petition, the proceedings were broadcast on live television.

Meanwhile, the Judiciary Working Committee on Election Preparations had become a permanent fixture and in 2015 had been renamed the Judiciary Committee on Elections (JCE) and a chief executive had been appointed for it along with research staff. Its mandate was to build on the experience judges had gained in arbitrating the electoral disputes of 2013 and preparing the institution for the next election. The framework for handling electoral disputes was now in place.

In 2013, the court had been totally unprepared for the management of electoral disputes, which undermined its ability to interrogate the IEBC’s ICT and voter register failures. Its naivety also exposed it to deception by its own administrative staff. Perhaps it was the new Chief Justice’s four years at the helm of the JCE that encouraged him towards greater vigilance. The court had even organised a retreat in Mombasa to undergo training in the ICT systems used by the IEBC to enable it to make better decisions.

Additionally, although Odinga was not optimistic about a favourable court decision, his legal team was much better prepared in 2017 than it had been in 2013. He had approached the court, offering it an opportunity to “redeem itself” from its 2013 decision, but was also ready to delegitimise it. Unlike in 2013, his lawyers were conscientious, diligent and fully involved in the scrutiny and document review. The IEBC, on the other hand, was cavalier and would prove to have been poorly prepared compared to the case in 2013.

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After the Vote: What to Watch and Hope for in Buhari’s Second Term

Buhari has an opportunity in his next four years to lead the country as a nationalist, as the leader of a Nigeria for all Nigerians. Such national appeal is necessary in order to assuage credible fears about the marginalisation of any region or any ethnic, religious or linguistic group; if he fails to allay these fears, the fault lines of identity will only deepen.

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After the Vote: What to Watch and Hope for in Buhari’s Second Term
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On May 29, 76-year-old Muhammadu Buhari will be inaugurated for a second, four-year term as president of Nigeria.  Despite a modest first-term record, economic stagnation and ongoing insecurity throughout wide swathes of the country, and continuing uncertainty over his health, Buhari defeated his principal rival Atiku Abubaker of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and a field of 71 others to win a substantial 55.6 per cent of the vote, a margin of nearly 4 million votes over Abubaker.  Although Buhari’s victory is being disputed in court by Abubaker and others, it seems unlikely that any irregularities will be deemed severe enough for the judiciary to overturn the outcome of the vote.

Buhari’s health notwithstanding – the president just returned from a ‘private visit’ to the United Kingdom, where he previously received lengthy medical treatment in 2017 – some commentators argued before the February vote that the president’s re-election was in doubt.  Many thought the election would be more competitive than it turned out to be.  The low participation of Nigerians – particularly in the southern states – argues otherwise.  Although Nigeria’s voter rolls hit a record 84 million registrants (albeit more than 11 million voter cards went uncollected), at least by the measure of voter participation, Nigeria can no longer claim to be Africa’s largest democracy.

Buhari, a retired general and former military head of state in the 1980s, was an immensely popular figure, with the credibility to confront the country’s security challenges, notably the Boko Haram insurgency that had by then proliferated throughout northern Nigeria. Jonathan’s defeat, in part, was a result of his perceived failure to marshal the security agencies to effectively respond to this threat.

Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has yet to publish the number of votes cast in the gubernatorial and state legislative elections, but turnout for these polls may well have been lower than for the presidential elections. Though Ethiopia, with around 100 million people, is still dwarfed by Nigeria’s population, and some Ethiopian vote counts might have been artificially inflated by the regime of the day, leaving lingering questions about irregularities in those polls, the point of comparison remains: Nigeria’s vote demonstrated widespread political apathy in the continent’s most populous country. While there was much relief that the elections passed without significant outbreaks of violence, twenty years after the restoration of multiparty democracy, it seems that Nigerians have contracted a democratic malaise.

Why is this? What challenges lie ahead in Buhari’s second term? And what can be done?

A frustrating first term

Buhari came to power at a moment of optimism in Nigeria. In 2015, defeated incumbent Goodluck Jonathan handed over power without conditions, despite some in his camp urging him not to concede. A smooth transition was far from inevitable. Sixteen years of PDP rule had been broken by a new opposition alliance, the All Progressives Congress (APC), which promised to sweep corruption out of Nigeria, and bring real change to the country.

Buhari, a retired general and former military head of state in the 1980s, was an immensely popular figure, with the credibility to confront the country’s security challenges, notably the Boko Haram insurgency that had by then proliferated throughout northern Nigeria. Jonathan’s defeat, in part, was a result of his perceived failure to marshal the security agencies to effectively respond to this threat. Buhari offered a mantra of change anchored on the philosophy of security.

However, the Buhari government, while upbeat about its ability to improve the security environment, underestimated the reality of the security challenges, and concentrated on tactics, rather than strategy. Recent years have seen a series of poorly executed attempts to close the barn door after the proverbial horse – or perhaps, to be more transportationally accurate, the pilfered Land Cruiser of the militant – has long since bolted. Ultimately, Boko Haram might now be degraded, but it is certainly not eradicated. And even as government forces achieved some successes, military losses were heavy, and army morale was always in doubt.

Even though Boko Haram has receded in its lethality, other security problems have mounted over Buhari’s term in office, notably the so-called farmer versus pastoralist conflicts, which occur throughout the northern and middle belt states of Nigeria. While these clashes are largely described in similar terms – as a reckoning between two fundamentally different forms of primary economic production – there are, in reality, different modalities of conflict within the rubric, which, when conflated, are oversimplified. Some disputes are genuinely environmentally-motivated, as pastoralists and farmers effectively compete for the same scarce resources. Some are motivated by retribution for past inter-communal wrongs, real or perceived.

But many others are not “clashes” as this word might first connote: there is rarely a battle between two well-defined armed forces. Instead, organised militarised groups have acted to displace others from their lands, who are usually unarmed. Perceptions abound that this is either politically orchestrated and/or politically instrumentalised, although evidence is hard to come by.

Irrespective of their motivations, some argue that such violence has continued because of ineffective responses by the state and a reluctance to deal with their root causes. Overall, Buhari’s administration is widely felt to have lost the ability to contain, mitigate, or prevent such violence. Coupled with organised banditry, a rapid rise in the sophistication of kidnapping gangs (who, despite the headlines, more frequently target Nigerians than foreigners for ransom) and continued insecurity in the oil-producing areas of the Niger Delta, insecurity for many Nigerian citizens is a daily, and sadly-accepted, fact of life.

In some respects, expectations of Buhari’s assumption of power were little different from those that have characterised each of Nigeria’s political transitions since the return of democratic rule in 1999. A repeated promise to review the nature of the country’s federalism – which in such a vast and varied country raises implications far beyond the brand of constitutionalism of the state – returns to questions about what the state is for, and the distribution, and redistribution, of economic resources and political power.

To be fair to Buhari, many of the challenges Nigeria faces are not new, nor of his making. In less than five years, Nigeria’s currency has devalued from about 200 naira to the U.S. dollar to 360, with the predictable inflationary effect, even as the personal economy of many Nigerians stagnated. In addition, Nigeria is still overly reliant on earnings from petroleum, despite the vast majority of the labour force not being employed by the oil sector.

After Buhari’s first term, the situation remains much the same: the central determinants of the nature and character of governance and inter-group relations are still unchanged, with those for whom the federation does not work – and the millions of Nigerians for whom the state does next to nothing – still waiting for more. Beyond the comical scandals and the embarrassments that have so far characterised Buhari’s time in office, these more profound frustrations and limitations remain.

Beyond personalities: Structural economic challenges

To be fair to Buhari, many of the challenges Nigeria faces are not new, nor of his making. In less than five years, Nigeria’s currency has devalued from about 200 naira to the U.S. dollar to 360, with the predictable inflationary effect, even as the personal economy of many Nigerians stagnated. In addition, Nigeria is still overly reliant on earnings from petroleum, despite the vast majority of the labour force not being employed by the oil sector. For those at the bottom of the income pyramid, the opportunity of social mobility is all too distant. While technically Nigeria exited economic recession in 2017, even as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) observed that it was “the recent rise in oil prices [that] is supporting the recovery.” Regardless of the IMF’s prognostication, or the recent reassurances of the Central Bank in response to the prediction of some at the Nigeria Governors’ Forum that another recession was looming, popular sentiment remains pessimistic.

Can Nigeria provide economic opportunity for its people beyond the sticky black gold? A surging population both demands and requires that attention. While insecurity – whether caused by Boko Haram, inter-communal conflicts, banditry, farmer-pastoralist conflicts, violence in the Delta, the secessionist movement of the Independent People of Biafra (IPOB) in the south east, or simmering grievances caused by the prolonged, detention of Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, the leader of the Shia Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) – is a real and contemporary issue, Nigeria, more so than any other African country, is brimming with young people who want jobs, education, and a chance to better their lives. More than a million young Nigerians join the labour force every year. Conventional politics and politicians have yet to offer an answer for many of these Nigerians, who may well be condemned to a near-permanent class of unemployment or underemployment.

Before and after the election

Survey data from Afrobarometer, which polled Nigerians before the 2019 elections, showed that only 35 per cent of Nigerians trust the INEC “somewhat” or “a lot.” It’s hard to know whether INEC’s 2019 performance has dramatically affected these numbers, but the general aura of competence and professionalism that the current iteration of INEC hoped to enjoy was first damaged by INEC’s poor communication with the public leading up to the vote. Moreover, the middle of the night postponement – almost literally, as well as figurately, at the last minute – of the presidential and national assembly elections, originally due to be held on 16 February, conjured a thick cloud of doubt over INEC, from which the current commissioners’ reputations may not recover.

Though INEC was able to conduct the elections on the rescheduled dates a week later, its claims of competence and preparedness were inevitably undermined, and its image severely tainted. The goodwill extended to INEC, conditional and partial though it may have been, the legacy it received from its credible administration of the 2015 polls, largely dissipated. Had the election results been closer, and had the commission’s role been more scrutinised, the situation could have been very bad indeed. If there was a silver lining to the cloud of delay, it was that in the aftermath of the postponement of the presidential election, INEC offered a concrete communication strategy, and a much-needed daily public briefing on its activities and plans. But such a basic public relations effort could easily have been instituted at a much earlier stage.

And, as feared, security actors, and particularly in the southern state of Rivers, the military militarised the electoral process. Despite INEC’s assurances that the police would be the lead agency on electoral security, this was not the case. In states where election-related violence occurred, including Kano, Rivers and Lagos, a lack of neutrality and professionalism on the part of some security personnel that were deployed to provide security during the elections was a contributing factor. The army has since established a committee to probe allegations of misconduct; Nigerians await the findings of these investigations and the extent to which the army high command will discipline those found responsible.

One of the biggest challenges facing the Buhari government is exclusion – he must ensure social cohesion and must manage diversity by prioritising a religious and ethno-regional balance in public appointments, accompanied by a fair and equitable distribution of the country’s resources

Yet, as with Buhari, Nigeria’s electoral woes transcend any single election commissioner or army officer. The prophecy of institutional poor performance is all too often self-fulfilling. The existing widespread Nigerian scepticism of government and state institutions is only exacerbated by every failure, while the pattern of ethno-regional and religious alliances that underpin the national electoral process seems to provide an enduring and recurring basis for political instability and state capture.

The challenges ahead are not insurmountable

In the past, the opportunities for addressing some of Nigeria’s core challenges have been mostly wasted. The protracted debate about the management of the country’s national diversity remains protracted and unresolved. One of the biggest challenges facing the Buhari government is exclusion – he must ensure social cohesion and must manage diversity by prioritising a religious and ethno-regional balance in public appointments, accompanied by a fair and equitable distribution of the country’s resources. It is vital that the number of votes Buhari garnered from a particular region or perceived to gain from particular groups is not the basis for the administration of the nation.

Buhari has an opportunity in his next four years to lead the country as a nationalist, as the leader of a Nigeria for all Nigerians. Such a national appeal is necessary in order to assuage credible fears about the marginalisation of any region or any ethnic, religious or linguistic group; if he fails to allay these fears, the fault lines of identity will only deepen.

Further, a fundamental overhaul of the country’s security architecture is desperately needed. While there is no single reform that will address the myriad forms of insecurity, the government’s approach to the country’s security challenge needs a fresh and a deep reform of the military command’s hierarchy to allow for fresh ideas and strategies to emerge.

Finally, beyond assenting to a bill to introduce a minimum wage, the government needs to devise creative approaches to genuinely address national economic development and diversification. Nigeria’s boat cannot only be floated by the world’s oil price. The patience of many young Nigerians is not infinite: at some point, in the not too distant future, the logic of the state may no longer be sustainable.

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A Spring in the Horn: Unpacking the Mass Protests and Transitions in Sudan and Ethiopia

The Horn is at strategic crossroads. There is immense hope but also great fear. How Ethiopia and Sudan manage their fraught transitions and the prospects for success and reversal remain unknown. What is not in doubt is that a botched transition in both nations will crush the dreams of millions and their quest for liberty and a better quality of life. It will also embolden autocratic regimes and vindicate their ideology of stability.

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A Spring in the Horn: Unpacking the Mass Protests and Transitions in Sudan and Ethiopia
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Two mass protest movements have, in quick succession, forced regime changes in Sudan and Ethiopia, two of the Horn of Africa’s quintessential “hard” states. A deep-seated disillusion with the security and developmental states drives the new “revolutionary” mood. What is less clear is where all the ferment and the popular demand for a new dispensation will lead.

In Sudan, the ouster of Omar al-Bashir has been followed by a partial retreat of the security state. In Ethiopia, the election of a reformist Prime Minister and a year of sweeping reforms have extensively eroded the power of the security deep state.

Yet, neither Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali’s extensive cull nor the Sudanese military council’s modest targeted purge constitute a fundamental dismantling of the structures of the security state. More importantly, the transitions underway in the two countries, were, in the initial phases, at least, top-down attempts by the security state to engineer a soft landing with minimal disruptions.

Prime Minister Abiy’s singular act of genius lay in the way he deftly subverted a strategy of piecemeal reform assigned to him by the ruling party and began almost single-handedly to unravel old Ethiopia at breakneck speed.

The retreat of the authoritarian order in both Ethiopia and Sudan opens up huge possibilities: a generational opportunity for meaningful and positive change but also great risks.

In Ethiopia, a year of “deep” reforms under the youthful reformist Prime Minister has put the transition on a rocky but relatively steady positive trajectory. Overall prospects for good governance, civil liberties and human rights continue to improve.

In Sudan, the situation is less hopeful and remains, so far, uncertain. The hopes and expectations raised by the resignation of Omar al-Bashir after 30 years in power now grates against the reality of a potentially messy and protracted transition following a controversial intervention by the army. The Transition Military Council (TMC), made up of al-Bashir’s allies, is struggling against mounting popular discontent to manage an interregnum.

The Horn is at strategic crossroads. There is immense hope but also great fear. How Ethiopia and Sudan manage their fraught transitions and the prospects for success and reversal remain unknown. What is not in doubt is that a botched transition in both nations will crush the dreams of millions and their quest for liberty and a better quality of life. It will also embolden autocratic regimes and vindicate their ideology of stability.

The unprecedented upheaval and ferment in the two Horn of Africa states provide an extraordinary window into the complex, diverse, and obscure changes and currents shaking up society and traditional politics. These contextual dynamics must not be overlooked in the analyses of Ethiopia and Sudan.

Sudan’s turbulent interregnum

Sudan and Ethiopia offer two fraught transition “models”: atypical, unstable and potentially reversible. While dissimilar in some key aspects, both are attempts at a top-down fix, reliant on continued goodwill and support of the military/security services and dominant parties. More importantly, the two transitions are not outcomes of political and constitutional settlements, and are likely to remain contested and unsettled for some time.

Sudan’s transition is in its infancy and is dogged by a host of challenges. Of the two countries, it is the one with the greatest potential for a short-term crisis, but, if successful, one that opens enormous possibilities for improved governance and stability.

Formal, direct talks between Sudan’s protest movement and the military began on 27 April but quickly hit a snag barely two days later. The key sticking points: the length of the transition (the military wants two years while the protest movement favours four years on the basis that more time is needed to undo the damage of 30 years of misrule); composition of the proposed Sovereign Transition Council (STC); and who should lead it.

On 30 April, the TMC issued a series of controversial and unilateral decisions that escalated the stalemate into a crisis. The council said the STC would be headed by the military and that 7 out 10 posts would be allocated to the military (contrary to the Sudanese Professional Association [SPA]’s demand for a 15-member council, the bulk of whose members should be civilian). It further called on the SPA to dismantle barricades at the Army Command in Khartoum and to get protesters off the streets.

The generals had been angling for a longer pre-transition period from the start. This was largely based on the assumption that they stood to gain more from the tactical point of view; the SPA had more to lose. But there are other pressing calculations. First, more time allows the TMC to sort out internal divisions. Second, it gives it the leg room to craft and fine-tune its negotiation strategy. Third, it provides the TMC with the opportunity to drag out the process and wear down the pro-democracy movement – the so-called “attrition option” that has served the military well in the past.

At the heart of Sudan’s chaotic and bitter transition contest – indeed, the crisis of legitimacy/credibility – is the self-appointed TMC. It is made up of senior generals, all beneficiaries of the army purges in the last one decade by al-Bashir that elevated loyalists to key posts.

The decision by the African Union to extend the TMC’s life by three months, is, therefore, a major victory for the military. It now has up to the end of July 2019 to set up an authority to oversee the transition and to agree to a roadmap with the opposition. A viable transition roadmap in Sudan depends on consensus between the five distinct actors/constituencies: street protesters; the leadership of the protest movement; traditional parties; the TMC; and regional actors. This will not be easy; it is almost certain that divergent aims, interests and calculations could prove a major impediment.

The Military Council: A reluctant reformer          

At the heart of Sudan’s chaotic and bitter transition contest – indeed, the crisis of legitimacy/credibility – is the self-appointed TMC. It is made up of senior generals, all beneficiaries of the army purges in the last one decade by al-Bashir that elevated loyalists to key posts. They eased al-Bashir out and made a number of significant concessions. However, they controversially, stonewalled when it came to the speedy transfer of power to a civilian administration. Significantly, they have so far resisted popular calls for the dismantling of the so-called Dawlah-al-Amiqah or deep state – widely perceived as a covert power centre whose members include senior generals, securocrats and politicians who exercise extra-constitutional influence on the state.

What the TMC’s true aims are and what its interests and links with the deep state and foreign powers are, are all a matter for debate and conjecture. Far less speculative and hazardous, perhaps, is what it isn’t.

The council is essentially a product of a deep crisis within the state – a hastily created crisis-response tool to reassert military influence and manage a fluid political situation. It pulled back from imposing a state of emergency and allowed the protests to continue. It quickly shed unpopular senior ex-regime figures (such as the intelligence chief, Salah Gosh). It released some (but not all) political prisoners and reached out to protest leaders. These were all positive and encouraging steps that demonstrate that the TMC has significant agency, is pragmatic and is amenable to a political settlement.

Yet, the clumsy nature of the coup, the confusion in the first 48 hours, as well as the incoherent pronouncements and policy flip flops since then point to deep internal frictions. Tactically, this could be an advantage for the coalition leading the protests, potentially giving them greater room to nudge the TMC towards reform and to influence the agenda. It could also pose serious challenges in the coming weeks and months, especially if, as some fear, the council becomes opportunistic and capricious and its cohesions become more frayed.

But there must be no mistake about the TMC’s politics. Its primary goal is to maintain national “stability”. It views retention of military power, influence and privilege as necessary to achieve that “noble” goal. There is no evidence that it shares the democratic aspirations of the majority of the Sudanese people. It is instinctively suspicious of civilians and resistant to the idea of civilian oversight, and, even much less, civilian rule.

Sudan’s military for three decades waged not just war but also engaged in multiple peace processes and political negotiations at the local and national levels, involving armed and non-armed civilian opponents. Under al-Bashir, talks were conducted in the same manner as war was waged. Invariably, three distinct tactics, with roots in war strategy, were deployed to outflank and eviscerate the civilian opposition: accommodation, co-option and containment.

The official discourse and rhetoric surrounding the series of “national dialogues” in train for nearly two decades offers a fascinating glimpse into the appropriation of martial metaphors – a progressive “militarisation” of politics. Domestic politics was officially referred to as “jabhat al-daakhiliyah (internal front); political parties were reminded of the value of national cohesion and called upon to help “unify the ranks” (tawhid al-saf); dissidents were “cat’s paw” (mikhlab qit) of foreign enemies.

Sudan’s protest movement will be negotiating with a military that has set ways of dealing with civilian adversaries. Expectations that the military is willing to make a strategic and irreversible retreat from politics seems over-optimistic. The TMC’s 30th April pronouncements and the subsequent hardening of language certainly sowed doubts about the prospect of that happening any time soon. The unilateral and escalatory nature of the council’s statement goes against the letter and spirit of the negotiations. It may be a hint of an intense internal power struggle. It could also signal an attempt by hardline factions to assert greater control – a hypothesis lent some credence by the fact it was the TMC’s second-in-command, General Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo aka Hemedti, who was personally involved.

Hemedti, the commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF – Quwaat al-Da’m al-Sari’), has in recent weeks emerged as the real power within the TMC, playing court to visiting dignitaries and diplomats. His swift maneuvers to consolidate power within the military and security services are anything but coincidental. He was, for example, “elevated” to a “member” of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS). (An official SUNA news agency dispatch said that he was now “uzw” – a “member” of NISS – a vague term that is both odd and inexplicable.)

The RSF itself is affiliated to the NISS since it was established in 2013 from the rump of the Janjaweed militia. The original force of roughly 7,000 was drawn mainly from Hemedti’s own Rizaygat tribe in Darfur (an important factor in itself that partly explains its strong internal cohesion and loyalty to Hemedti). It has a complicated dual command chain, answerable to both the NISS Director-General and the regular Army General Command. Al-Bashir increasingly relied on the RSF and the Popular Police Forces in recent years to quell social unrest and low-level armed insurrections. The bulk of the RSF is now fighting in Yemen alongside Emirati troops, a decision based on RSF’s perceived counterinsurgency competence and adaptability to the Yemeni battlefield conditions.

Hemedti is young, ambitious and has powerful Gulf friends who are keen to see him play an influential role in the transition. He has a fearsome reputation, and is deemed both an able battle field commander and a skillful political operator. His rise to prominence since al-Bashir’s ouster and high visibility within the TMC suggest a resurgence of hardline elements keen not to cede too much ground to the protest movement.

Old parties and the protest movement

Sudan’s bewildering array of political parties, which are weak and deeply fragmented, were caught off-guard by the protests. However, they seem keen to be included in the transition talks. The TMC initially seemed to prefer a broad-based dialogue, in part because that could have neutralised the weight of the protest movement. It has since walked back and proposed a format that significantly shortened the list of participants, not least because of the risks of an unwieldy and fractious dialogue process that is impossible to conclude within the short timeframe it now has (three months).

Two distinct but complementary historical trends converged in the Horn protests: a massive demographic shift that progressively moved the youth to the centre of politics; and a technological revolution that provided them with the tools to effectively resist and organise. The sheer demographic weight and the volatility and restless energy unleashed by these changes cannot be ignored.

Sudan’s protest movement and its leadership hold the initiative in the contest to shape the transition. The call for freedom, justice and peace (emblazoned on every placard) gelled a fragmented nation and triggered the Horn’s most powerful and unprecedented mass protest movements. The expectations are high and the road to achieving them daunting.

The risk of fragmentation within the protest movement is also high. It is now made up of two distinct groups: Quwaa I’laan al-Huriyyat wal Tagyiir (Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces-DFCF) and the Sudanese Professionals Association-SPA (Tajamm’u al-Mihniyiin al-Sudaniyin). They are now broadly aligned in their demands. However, TMC’s co-option strategies and the attrition of protracted negotiation are highly likely to sow division.

Ethiopia’s transition is the outcome of two severe crises that shook the regime to the core: over four years of relentless mass protests in Oromiya and Amhara regional states; and a sharp economic downturn. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) played a central role in the transition that engineered Abiy Ahmed’s rise.

The SPA and the DFCF have so far done a remarkable job in leading a cohesive, disciplined and non-violent mass protest movement. They must not sell themselves short in the delicate negotiations now underway. They must safeguard their cohesion, eschew personal ambition, remain vigilant against the familiar co-option “traps”, stay resilient and focused in the face of setbacks, and be hard-nosed at every phase of the negotiations.

Ethiopia’s unstable transition

Ethiopia’s transition is the outcome of two severe crises that shook the regime to the core: over four years of relentless mass protests in Oromiya and Amhara regional states; and a sharp economic downturn. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – the coalition of four ethno-regional parties that has dominated politics since the early 1990s – played a central role in the transition that engineered Abiy Ahmed’s rise.

It started off well in the early years, combining a reformist zeal with an accommodative approach to politics. Its fortunes for over two decades was tied to that of the charismatic and talented Meles Zenawi. It owes its structural and organisational resilience, and more importantly, its internal consensus-style ethos, to him. The aftermath of the controversial elections in 2005 and the massive crackdowns on protests ushered in a long period of repression, deflected the party from its democratic goals, and progressively strengthened the hegemony of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). But even in its weakened state, the EPRDF proved its dependability as an instrument of crisis management at critical junctures. It engineered a smooth transition of power after the death of Meles in 2012 and leaned on Hailemariam Desalegn to resign as Prime Minister in February 2018.

Abiy capitalised on the party’s internal institutional strength and exploited the antipathy to the TPLF to build the tactical alliances necessary to seal his victory at the EPRDF Congress in February 2018 Ironically, Abiy’s radical reforms, in particular, the planned swift transition to a conventional multiparty system, makes the future of the governing coalition perilous and uncertain. While the PM has orchestrated changes within the EPRDF and consolidated his grip over his own Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), many suspect the era of the dominant vanguard party may be coming to a close. Significantly, the Ethiopian Prime Minister has relied on a close-knit circle of politicians and inexperienced advisers to drive his fast-paced reforms, with minimal or no input from the EPRDF and other key institutions.

The benefits of a personalised elite-driven reform seem obvious. Abiy, arguably, needed the latitude and flexibility it provides to push through a raft of “deep reforms” and swiftly dismantle key pillars of TPLF’s power in the military, security services and economy.

The potential drawbacks of a highly personalised leadership style and an elite-driven reform process lacking sufficient institutional buy-in and support must be obvious. It is inherently risky and alienates the very agencies indispensable to implementation and long-term sustainability. Understood thus, the risks to reform in Ethiopia seem not so much bureaucratic inertia as bureaucratic recalcitrance. Rumblings of unease within the state and in the parastatals over key aspects of the reforms, from privatisation to the future of the ethnic-federalism system, reinforce these fears. The Prime Minister, rhetorically at least, is increasingly aware of this potential problem; he has stepped up meetings with key departments and pledged to deepen institutional engagement. However, his critics claim that the impromptu townhall-style meetings are cosmetic, and do not constitute structured policy dialogue.

Ethnic unrest

Identity politics may act as a catalyst for change, but its huge capacity to complicate transitions that foment new unrest must not be ignored. Ethiopia is an egregious example. Aggressive and adversarial strains of ethno-nationalisms, resurgent in recent years, pose grave conflict risks. Many ethnic conflicts are traditionally driven by contested borders and resource competition. Ethno-regionalism/nationalism aggravate these conflicts and make them intractable. Prime Minister Abiy’s stabilisation and consolidation efforts have had minimal impact in de-escalating the problem. Balancing multiple and contending ethnic interests proved far trickier than anticipated. His policy of accommodation to remedy historical injustices and allocate more government posts to marginalised communities and disadvantaged segments of the population won wider praise but either failed to mollify more militant and younger ethno-nationalist activists clamouring for deeper affirmative action, or reinforced resentment among other ethnicities.

This is particularly the case in Oromiya, where factions loyal to the Oromo Liberation Front that view the Prime Minister as a “traitor” to the Oromo cause, continue to stoke violence and undermine social cohesion. Several attempts to mediate an end to the ructions in Oromiya and reconcile the rival factions so far have produced shaky truces that failed to hold.

In Ethiopia, the economic crisis was largely induced by the frenetic pace of growth, skewed development, expensive infrastructure mega-projects and dependence on foreign (Chinese) loans. Abiy in early 2018 inherited a state that was virtually bankrupt, its foreign exchange reserve depleted and saddled with mounting and unsustainable debt-servicing obligations.

Meanwhile, the Abiy’s anti-corruption drive and political consolidation strategy, perceived targeted at curbing the influence exerted by the minority Tigrayan ethnic community on the country’s political and economic life, fomented serious backlash. The widely held perception that the premier’s new friendship with the Eritrean President, Isayas Afewerki, is partly motivated by a common desire to isolate the TPLF, served to further inflame sentiments in Tigray. The region is now effectively a mini-state, its relations with Addis Ababa deeply fraught and antagonistic. On-off dialogue between Addis and Mekele and a series of high-level meetings in 2018 failed to smooth relations or diminish the potentially dangerous siege mentality developing in Tigray. The region is where the country’s elite military units are garrisoned and where sophisticated heavy military hardware, including air combat assets, are kept (a legacy of the border conflict with Eritrea). An armed conflict – highly improbable but impossible to rule out – would be catastrophic.

Economic hardship

Economic hardships remain core drivers of social unrest in Sudan and Ethiopia. Conditions for the vast majority of their populations progressively worsened in the last five years. Sudan’s loss of oil revenues and subsequent deadlock over oil trans-shipment fees with South Sudan triggered the country’s severest economic crisis in decades. High inflation, currency turbulence and a series of austerity measures that saw subsidies lifted on bread and other commodities hit the lower classes hard and fomented the mass protests that quickly engulfed the whole country.

In Ethiopia, the economic crisis was largely induced by the frenetic pace of growth, skewed development, expensive infrastructure mega-projects and dependence on foreign (Chinese) loans. Abiy in early 2018 inherited a state that was virtually bankrupt, its foreign exchange reserve depleted and saddled with mounting and unsustainable debt-servicing obligations. An emergency deposit of 1 billion dollars into the treasury by the UAE helped to stabilise the volatile fiscal situation.

The short- to medium-term prospects look bleak, even though China’s decision to write off some of the debt in late April and signals of support from multilateral financial institutions and donors promise some relief.

In Sudan, the UAE similarly stepped in to shore up the currency by depositing money in the treasury. Donors have equally signaled readiness to help.

The gravity of the economic crisis in the two states and the improbability of a quick and dramatic improvement portend huge risks for the transition. Yet, the kind of tangible and irreversible progress in their delicate transitions necessary to unlock donor support and foreign investment hardly exists now and is bound to take years, by which time conditions would have deteriorated further.

In Ethiopia, the continued proliferation of ethnic unrest and violence in economically productive regions has triggered massive displacement – estimated at 3 million. The government’s inability to get on top of the situation is hugely destabilizsing in itself, but also certain to prove a major impediment to new foreign investment.

An emergency financial aid package for Sudan and long-term economic relief and stimulus package for Ethiopia seem the best options for the international community to shore up the transitions.

A youth revolt

The uprisings in Ethiopia and Sudan constitute the Horn’s first uniquely large-scale youth revolt; the first political coming-of-age of two youth generations embittered by economic hardship and the inequities of the “hard state”.

Ethiopia, with over 70% of the population (out of a total of 110 million) under the age 30, and Sudan with 60% of the population (42.5 million) under the age of 25, are examples of states where the demographic shift has been at its starkest, reflecting both the promise and destabilising potential of the so-called youth bulge.

Two distinct but complementary historical trends converged in the Horn protests: a massive demographic shift that progressively moved the youth to the centre of politics; and a technological revolution that provided them with the tools to effectively resist and organise. The sheer demographic weight and the volatility and restless energy unleashed by these changes cannot be ignored. The long-term viability and sustainability of the transitions hinge on how the disruptive impact of the youth bulge is managed.

The recurrent themes of the protests are familiar; they revolve around a set of socio-economic grievances that cut across the age-divide: jobs and better wages, economic growth, opportunities and autonomy, better services. Sudan’s unemployment rate is estimated to be around 21.4% or over 2 million of the productive labour force of 21 million. In Ethiopia youth unemployment stands at 19.5%

Social media and the diaspora

The protest movements in Ethiopia and Sudan are beneficiaries of the digital revolution, effectively harnessing the power of the smartphone and social media (Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp) to challenge the regimes in power. These tools allowed them to organise, to break the state’s monopoly over information, and to generate their own multimedia content.

In the contest for narrative space, the state was severely disadvantaged. Its power of monopoly over communication (and access to sophisticated cyber-spying software) was offset by the technical savvy and ingenuity of the protesters. Frequent communication shutdowns that targeted SMS and Internet access proved ineffective. Protesters used VPNs and encrypted messaging apps and relied on diaspora supporters to bypass state censorship. Diaspora support in both instances was crucial and went beyond amplifying social media messages. Activists in North America and Europe mobilised funds, organised pickets and petitions, highlighted rights abuses, and raised the profile of these protests at the international stage.

The Oromo diaspora in the US, a close-knit community with its own influential media outlets, played a particularly pivotal role – a role recognised by Prime Minister Abiy himself when he made a “thanksgiving” tour of the US in 2018. A number of high-profile exiled figures have since been given high-level posts in the Ethiopian government.

Diaspora influence and power have not been without controversy, especially in Ethiopia. There have been claims that hardline activists disseminated fake news and inflammatory messages to stoke ethnic hostility and division. In Sudan, there is speculation (probably fueled by the military) that the diaspora is inciting intransigence and radicalising the protest movement.

The transition in Ethiopia has brought to the fore the simmering tensions between political classes inside the country and those abroad. Growing intra-Oromo divisions partly reflect both the type of rivalries, political divergence and clash of ambitions that could complicate the transition. A fracturing of the protest movement’s core support base remains a potential risk in a delicate transition such as Ethiopia’s but also the one in Sudan. The Sudanese reform movement has, so far, stayed remarkably cohesive. That unity is almost certain to come under great strain, especially in the highly likely scenario of protracted and intensely contested transition. The Transition Military Council favours a fragmented and weak opposition. All the signs indicate that this is an outcome it is actively working to achieve.

Identity politics

Sudan and Ethiopia are similar in a variety of ways. They are the Horn’s most diverse states with a combined total of 99 major ethnic groups and over 200 languages and dialects. They still remain geographically vast and unwieldy, even after secessionist wars and peace settlements led to a partition that diminished their original size. Both share a long history of multiple armed conflicts and vast, ill-governed and severely underdeveloped peripheries – conditions that incubated volatile forms of identity politics, insurrections and social unrest.

Both countries also experimented with decentralisation models designed to foster self-rule and greater autonomy. However, neither Ethiopia’s radical ethnic federal system nor Sudan’s conventional one achieved the desired aims. Instead, they replicated the ills of the central state, bred their own inequities, inflamed ethno-regional nationalisms and reinforced core-periphery tensions.

Ethnic identity politics was a potent factor in the Ethiopian mass protests; it provided the glue and energy. What is fascinating is not just the complex ways in which group grievances intersect, feed off/bleed into wider discontent, but the subtle, somewhat counter-intuitive ways in which even hitherto antagonistic ethnicities, regions and religious groups managed to cooperate and transcend their differences.

Ethiopia’s mass protests never evolved into a single nationwide movement like Sudan’s. They were almost exclusively confined to Oromiya and Amhara regional states, which are dominated by two ethnic groups divided by a long history of mutual antipathy. Yet, activists in the two regions drew energy and succour from each other’s protests; they cross-fertilized and learnt effective protest tactics from one another. (For example, Amhara region’s ghost-town tactics that paralysed cities were replicated in Oromiya.) Gradually, a new sense of mutual empathy and solidarity developed between Oromo and Amhara protesters. The seminal moment was when protesters in the two regions chanted “Down Down Woyane” – proof that the two distinct ethnic discontents had coalesced into a single national demand.

In Sudan, the protest leadership quickly tapped into and harnessed the vast array of diverse grievances to weave a set of key national objectives. With a comparably freer civic space, well-organised trade union movement and professional associations with a proud tradition of political activism, Sudan’s mass revolt took on a national character much more quickly than Ethiopia’s.

What tipped the scales was not critical mass (though that was important) but the emergence of a proto-narrative that encapsulated shared national goals.

In Sudan, the protest leadership quickly tapped into and harnessed the vast array of diverse grievances to weave a set of key national objectives. With a comparably freer civic space, well-organised trade union movement and professional associations with a proud tradition of political activism, Sudan’s mass revolt took on a national character much more quickly than Ethiopia’s. The rallies in Khartoum reflected the diversity of the nation’s social fabric and remained characterised throughout by a convivial, ecumenical spirit, as remarkable as it is rare.

Identity, protest and culture

Sudan achieved in protest what eluded it for decades: a genuine moment of unity in diversity. The protest rallies in Khartoum were a microcosm of the nation, bringing together diverse ethnic and civil society groups drawn from all regions, social strata and professions. Darfuris, Kordofanis and Nubians, women and other distinct social groups, aggrieved workers and traders – all disenfranchised and rendered powerless and invisible by state policies – were catapulted onto the national stage. They all made common cause and rallied around a single political message.

But the mass uprisings in Sudan and Ethiopia were not just animated by political and economic grievances; activists in Sudan actually took slight at media characterisation of their protests as “bread riots”. They were also impelled by cultural discontent – a sense of humiliation and anger at the state’s perceived cultural homogenisation, discrimination and misogyny.

In Ethiopia, the Oromo unrest was fueled, in part, by long simmering grievances over the status of the Oromo language and state interferences in religious affairs, while in Sudan, state-driven Islamisation and Arabisation remained major sources of social frictions.

The act of protest was in itself psychologically and culturally transformative, providing an opportunity to assert cultural pride and reclaim self-confidence and autonomy. The Oromo pride movement in Ethiopia and the rise of women in Sudan exemplify the cultural forces shaping the politics of protests and transitions.

Prime Minister Abiy’s open embrace and appropriation of Oromo culture and his gender parity campaign are just two examples of the symbolic and practical policy impacts. Hopes are high that Sudan’s new breed of assertive female activists will capitalise on the national mood for change and harness their collective picketing power to influence the transition’s agenda.

No less important, the rallies served asa vehicle for collective catharsis and radical empathy; a space to affirm values of mutual interdependence, solidarity, and peaceful co-existence.

The slogan “kuluna Darfur” (we are all Darfur) at the rallies in Khartoum, hopefully, was not just a feel-good empathetic response, but marks a fundamental positive shift in the way communities relate to one another.

Religion and culture

Religion – as a powerful galvaniser and conduit for protest and a repository of moral and ethical values necessary for a just society – has a long history in the Horn. The protests in Sudan and Ethiopia provide contrasting lessons in the resilience of religion and its potency to inspire and channel protest. But far more interesting is how the debate over the relevance of religion in governance continues to evolve.

The Oromo mass insurrection in Ethiopia gestated for many years; it fed off diverse, small and localised communal grievances before it snowballed into a national crisis. The big triggers – high youth unemployment, state-driven land grabs, punitive taxation, repression and violent crackdowns – are well known. Less noted and examined are the obscure and overlapping cultural and religious roots of the discontent brewing for close to a decade.

The political rebellion owed much of its resilience and success to the cultural revivalist movement gaining in momentum and influence in recent years. It drew energy, inspiration and self-confidence from the potent message of ethnic pride preached by Oromo elders like Abba Gadda.

Oromo traditional Waqqeffana religion, practised by a small fraction of the community (roughly less than 5%), played an important complementary role as a central pillar of cultural expression. Regarded as the indigenous faith of the Oromo nation, its rituals and spiritual teachings progressively galvanised millions. The Irrecha annual festival of harvests, with roots in the Waqqeffana religion, drew tens of thousands, and became a visible symbol of political and cultural consciousness and a focal point for the protests.

A series of Muslim unrests in Oromiya in 2012 quickly spread to other regions and continued to simmer for over 18 months. Much of the unrest was initially triggered by alleged state interference in Muslim affairs, but quickly aggravated by mass arrests of clerics and community leaders and the suspension of Muslim publications (such as Ye’Muslimoch Guday). The Muslim protests – viewed across Oromiya as evidence of the state’s wider malign intent against the Oromo – thus triggered the first spark that lit the fire of large-scale rebellion in 2014.

The Oromo nation’s ability to harness its cultural heritage and multiple faith traditions and to foster internal mutual respect and tolerance is unique. So too is the tradition of syncretism that indigenised Islam and Christianity and reduced the heat and social frictions generally associated with puritanism and proselytism. This cultural adaptability and inherent resistance to exclusivist manifestations of faith may partly explain why Salafism found Oromiya a less ambient and sympathetic territory to put down roots in.

The bid to project this benign and positive face of Oromo culture on the national stage was thwarted by fragmentation and factionalism, as well as by the political clout exerted by militant factions widely perceived wedded to an exclusivist ethnic agenda.

Prime Minister Abiy, a practising Pentecostal with Muslim heritage, represents this hybrid, pluralistic and healthy attitude to religion. While his fervent faith and the occasional unnerving messianic tenor to his speeches raised some concerns, the Prime Minister so far has acted with great sensitivity on matters to do with faith. He released detained Muslim leaders and appointed a record number to key state posts and reached out to the Orthodox Church.

Abiy’s medemer philosophy – based on values of love, compassion and solidarity in the New Testament – does not signal intent to “Christianise” or change the strong secular character of the Ethiopian state. The primary motive is to create a unifying principle around which the nation can rally.

A striking feature of Sudan’s protest movement is the near-total absence of Islamist slogans and the emergence of more assertive youthful female activists keen to raise their visibility, to subvert the strict dress code and to claw back their “huquq al-mar’a al-maqsub” (usurped fundamental rights of women).

However, the rise of evangelical churches and their aggressive proselytisation remain a source of anxiety within the influential Orthodox Church. But the greatest threat to religious harmony stems from ethnic conflict. Inter-communal violence in troubled pockets of the country in the last one year exacerbated religious tensions and triggered attacks on mosques and churches.

Islam in transition in Sudan

The controversial intervention in Sudan’s transition in recent weeks by Gulf actors (principally UAE and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), ostensibly aimed at preventing the Muslim Brotherhood from staging a comeback, is both ill-advised and dangerous. First, there isn’t the kind of cohesive, highly-organised Islamist opposition able to single-handedly gain dominance. Second, the TMC cannot be a guarantor of long-term stability nor can it serve as an effective bulwark against Islamism. Third, and assuming they cared to look deeper at the uprising and the social-political trends, they would have realised the depth of disillusionment with Islamist politics and generally with all traditional politics and parties. Finally, the Saudi/Emirati axis’s meddling alienates huge segments of society and is counter-productive to their twin strategic goals: maintaining Sudanese troops in Yemen and isolating the Muslim Brotherhood.

A striking feature of Sudan’s protest movement is the near-total absence of Islamist slogans and the emergence of more assertive youthful female activists keen to raise their visibility, to subvert the strict dress code and to claw back their “huquq al-mar’a al-maqsub” (usurped fundamental rights of women). The language and tone of discourse is deliberately non-confessional. These two complementary dynamics lend a mildly secular character to the uprising. For the first time in three decades, Islam is no longer a contentious subject for Sudan’s youth. But we ought to be careful in not drawing hasty conclusions. More importantly, we must avoid using the binary secular-religious mindset as a prism to analyse events in Sudan.

That the battle over Sudan’s future is being waged over traditional secular issues – liberty, justice and “bread-and-butter” issues – is emblematic, not so much of a society that is becoming secular, but one deeply disillusioned with the brand of Islam advocated by Hassan al-Turabi and enforced by al-Bashir for three decades. Sudan’s youth are rejecting the politicised Islam that underpinned al-Bashir’s quasi-Islamic state and the stifling social conservatism fostered by its intrusive policies.

Put differently, what we are seeing in Sudan is the early sign of a society that is self-correcting – seeking both to restore “health” to Islam and return it to its traditional orbit/sphere.

It is not yet clear who the secularists are in Sudan’s transition. No group has so far articulated what one might call a clear secular agenda. It is conceivable that some in the protest movement, such as traditional left-leaning parties (that played a big role in the protests) and even elements in the TMC opposed to Islamism, may make common cause and lock out Islamists from the transition. Whether all these diverse anti-Islamist “stakeholders” can agree on a common strategy to address the issue of Islam and the state is hard to tell. An aggressive “enclavement” strategy that criminalises Islamism and locks out Islamists is certain to prove hugely destabilising. It risks driving Islamists underground and is bound to incubate the same toxic type of militancy and violence familiar in many parts of the Muslim world.

Sudan’s best hope to achieve a viable and sustainable transition lies in a policy of accommodation that is genuinely inclusive. Islamist parties are predominantly moderate, and including them in the tent has the potential to lock them into the broader reform process, to temper their politics and to progressively isolate the more militant groups.

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