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THE ROAD TO HELL: The Kibera evictions and what they portend for human rights and ‘development’

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The demolition of structures in Kibera to pave way for “development” has left in its wake shattered lives, broken dreams and a bitter distaste for Kenya’s politicians and institutions. By DAUTI KAHURA

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THE ROAD TO HELL: The Kibera evictions and what they portend for human rights and ‘development’
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A responsible government takes care of its poor people until they are strong. Mwalimu Julius Nyerere: 1922–1999.

On the fifth day after the surprise dawn evictions at the infamous Kibera slums that lay in the path of a new road that is being constructed, I visited the area to witness first-hand the scorched earth policy that the government had employed to rout out the hapless slum dwellers. It was a bright sunny mid-morning with a clear blue skyline above but the area was eerily silent: From the District Officer (DC)’s offices, one could look yonder, as far as the eye could see, where once upon a time, there were structures and those structures housed human beings and their pets – cats, dogs, chicken, doves and rabbits, but now, all one could see was flattened land. The only movement was that of the Caterpillar bulldozer rumbling along like a military tank detecting land mines.

Kibera shares a border with the Nairobi Royal Golf Club, which is near former President Daniel arap Moi’s home, Kabarnet Gardens, and runs all the way down towards the Langata area. I met three elderly women who were watching the earthmover as it levelled the land where once stood their structures.

“I have lived here since 1969, and in my close to 50 years, I’ve never seen such a brutal, cold and calculated demolition from such a cruel government,” Mary Gikunda, a landlady whose structures (she declined to say how many she had) were flattened in a matter of seconds. “Those structures were my income, as well as my financial support for my children,” reiterated Ms Gikunda, who told me that all her (many) children were born in Kibera. Now in her mid-60s, the landlady seethed with fury against politicians, against state bureaucrats, against the security apparatus, against journalists, against anybody associated with the Jubilee government.

“Why would the government do this to us? I woke up very early to vote for Uhuru Kenyatta, believing and trusting that he would not allow this kind of demolition to occur, but obviously we were duped; we are always duped by these politicians,” posed Ms Gikunda. “Trust me, I will never vote again, I’m done. I’ve ran the course of my voting life. These people should leave me alone now. A road is a good thing – nobody in his right senses would oppose such a development. But is a road worth the wanton destruction you’ve just witnessed? Is it more important than people’s lives?”

“Why would the government do this to us? I woke up very early to vote for Uhuru Kenyatta, believing and trusting that he would not allow this kind of demolition to occur, but obviously we were duped; we are always duped by these politicians”

She and the two women were eating dry githeri (boiled maize and beans). “I was born here in Kibera,” said Josephine Munee. “I’ve spent all my life in Kibera, I know no other home. In all of my 65 years, we grew up being threatened by demolitions and evictions, but we fought back and we survived. Somehow, the past governments would perhaps think twice and have mercy on us, but this Jubilee government is something else.” Ms Munee observed that as the “wretched of the earth”, slum dwellers anywhere in Nairobi city were not the “owners of the land”, and so, the powerful and the mighty could do whatever they deemed fit, “but at 65-years-old, where would they expect me to go?”, she wondered aloud.

Rhoda Muthei, 87, was the oldest among the women: Because of her advanced age, her colleagues had looked for a plastic chair for her to prop up her back and rest on. In her Kikamba mother tongue, she asked them who I was and what is it that I wanted.

“I’m not in a mood to speak to anyone,” she told them. Persuaded to talk to me because I was not a state officer, she came to life and said, she came to Kibera via Langata in 1963, settling in her current abode proper in 1972. But now, it was no more and she did not know what to do and where to go. “I witnessed Jomo Kenyatta (the first President of the Republic of Kenya and the father of the current and fourth President Uhuru Kenyatta) being sworn in as the country’s first black leader in Langata and we ululated throughout the night, ecstatic in the knowledge that we could now henceforth self-govern ourselves. In the sunset of my years, I have no place to call home because the government does not have time for poor, old and dying women like me.”

However, even in the worst of adversity, people can have something to smile and live for. I walked 20 metres from where the three women were, navigating huge boulders to where Rachel Kerubo was, and found her preparing lunch on an open makeshift three-stone hearth. Charming and welcoming, she heartily invited me to lunch: ugali and omena (sardines) with kunde (indigenous bittersweet greens leaves). A delicious and nutritious dish, eaten mostly in low-income households, the meal is a mouth-watering combination that fills the stomach and is very pocket-friendly.

“I came to Kibera a decade ago after I was displaced by the 2007/2008 post-election violence in the Rift Valley,” said Kerubo. “There’s no respite for the poor and the weak in this country. Now it looks like I’m on the run again.” Her house in Kibera had been flattened, but she counted herself lucky: She was just in time to rescue her wooden chicken coop, part of her income-generating project when she came to Kibera. Her three-week-old chicks were scrounging the rubble for food with the help of the mother hen. In her mid-50s, Kerubo is as enterprising as they come.

Besides rearing chicken, she grew tomatoes on a 20X10 plot that she had rented next to where she lived. The tomato plants too had been flattened. With a group of other seven residents – five women and two men – Kerubo and her group had fund-raised to buy 10,000- and 5,000-litre plastic water tanks, where they stored water which they would sell to their fellow slum dwellers for a marginal profit. She also used part of the water to grow her tomatoes. “We were given two alternatives – we pour all the water and therefore save our tanks – or the bulldozers crush them,” Kerubo narrated to me. I found the water tanks lying on their belly on their raised wooden support, proof indeed that their contents had been rendered to the ground.

Across the field, on the other side of the wall, about 60 metres away, I found Halima Burhan cleaning dishes. Her ageing great aunty and daughter sat close by on the ground crossed-legged, their backs leaning on a semi-demolished mud wall. Tall and ebony black, Halima, at 63-years-old, is as energetic and as active as ever. Looking a little rugged, perhaps because of the vicissitudes of slum life, she still retains a trace of the impossible beauty that Nubian women are known for. “The Monday [July 23, 2018] morning demolition took us by complete surprise,” said Halima in proper Kiswahili sanifu (formal Kiswahili language).

“On July 16, government officials [these were Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) personnel] descended on our homes, marked them with a red X sign, and told us that all the people who would be affected by the impending evictions would be paid a consolidated three-month payment to move away,” said Halima. “We asked them when the eviction notice was due, but they dodged the matter. They assured us nothing untoward would be done without our prior knowledge. Little did we know they had come for a last reconnaissance tour to confirm that all the intended houses and buildings to be demolished were clearly marked, as they duped us that nothing sinister was in the offing.” In hindsight, said Halima, it was the calm before the storm.

On July 16, government officials [these were Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) personnel] descended on our homes, marked them with a red X sign, and told us that all the people who would be affected by the impending evictions would be paid a consolidated three-month payment to move away,” said Halima. “We asked them when the eviction notice was due, but they dodged the matter.”

The KURA officials had gone down to the three affected villages of Kichinjio, Mashimoni and Lindi that would be razed down on Monday to pave way for the link road between Langata Police Station and Karanja Road in Kibera, ostensibly to enumerate and take the slum dwellers’ particulars for what the dwellers were made to believe would result in restitution. Four days later, KURA sent out a WhatsApp message and copied both Amnesty Kenya and the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR). The message read as follows: “A multi agency team has successfully completed the Kibera enumeration process on 20th July 2018. The team is now analysing the data collected and once the process is complete, the Resettlement Action Plan (RAP) report will be availed to the public.”

Yet, perhaps, unlike many of her slum mates, Halima should have been aware of the demolitions, “if only I had not brushed away my grandchild’s naggings.” On Sunday [July 22] evening, her grandson Masud Talib was playing football near the DC’s offices, when he saw the bulldozers being parked at the compound. Eleven-year-old Masud, acting on a child’s instincts, ran back home and called out his grandma: “Bibi, bibi, tutavunjiwa, nimeziona matrekta zikipaki pale kwa DC. Nimewasikia wakisema watabomoa manyumba.” (Grandma, grandma, they will demolish, I’ve just seen the bulldozers being parked at the DC’s compound and I overheard them saying they will demolish our houses. “We Masud nawe acha hayo,” (Please Masud stop that) Halima responded. There was nothing usual about the presence of bulldozers at the DC’s place – the road (Karanja Rd) connecting to Ngong Road was still under construction.

About 12 hours later, at around 6.00am, Halima was woken up by earth tremors beneath her house and wondered what possibly that could be. The demolitions had began and people were scampering from their houses. Because her house is 500 metres from the DC’s offices, the bulldozers’ earthshaking movements were audible from far, and her house was among the first ones to fall under the hammer. “Alhamudillahi my grandson is alive,” said Halima in supplication. Inside her house was her 90-year-old great aunty, grandson Masud and her daughter and her 12-week-old newborn baby. “Since demolitions, we have been sleeping outside, Allahu Akbar [God is great], the elements have so far not affected the baby.”

“I was raised on my paternal grandfather’s land – this land that they have just evicted me from,” recalled Halima. She had now stopped doing the dishes and we were standing next to the ramshackle ruins – a crude reminder of what she once called home for more than half a century. Her grandfather, Marjan Sakar, a soldier of the British army, was among the first Nubians to be settled at Kibera.

Nubian origins

Kibera, which for the longest time has been synonymous with the Luo people, owes its existence to Nubians’ bravery and diction. Kibera is a corruption of Kibra, Ki-Nubi for forest or a bushy area. The Nubians came from Sudan, around the Nuba Mountains. They were identified first by the Egyptian ruler Emin Pasha and later by the British imperial government as brave soldiers. At different times, they were enlisted by both Pasha and the British to wage wars on their behalf.

Modern Nubian history records them as having been settled in Kibera around 1897, just before Kenya become a British protectorate. Those that were settled in Kibera were part of the 3rd Battalion of the King’s African Rifles who formed the bulk of the soldiers who had been deployed to fight for the British Empire. By 1900, Kibera was already a military reserve. This designated area, next to the railway, was surveyed in 1917 and was gazetted the following year. The land was estimated to be 4197.9 acres. From 1912 to 1928, Kibera was administered as a military area under the direct control of the army authorities. Anybody who wanted to settle in the area needed a special pass and one of the requirements was to have served in the army for at least 12 years.

In 1933, the colonial government appointed The Carter Land Commission to study and report on the land problems in Kenya. In reference to Kibera, the commission wrote: “It appears that this area was assigned to the King’s African Rifles in 1904, although not gazetted until many years later. There is nothing in the gazette to show for what reasons so large an area was required, but it is common knowledge that one of the objectives was to provide home for the Sudanese ex-askaris.”

In 1963, Kibera was fully incorporated into the city boundaries of Nairobi. By 1970, the original area of 4197.9 acres had been reduced to just 500 acres. Today that land is just under 300 acres. Large portions of Kibera were swallowed by middle-class estates, like Ayany, Jamhuri, Langata and Ngei, along Ngong Road, leaving the Nubians to be concentrated at Lindi, Kambi Aluru, Kambi-Lendu, Kambi Muru and Makina and along Karanja Road. In the fullness of time other ethnic communities, such as the Kikuyu, Kamba, Kisii, Luo and Luhya, settled in Kibera.

In 1933, the colonial government appointed The Carter Land Commission to study and report on the land problems in Kenya. In reference to Kibera, the commission wrote: “It appears that this area was assigned to the King’s African Rifles in 1904, although not gazetted until many years later. There is nothing in the Gazette to show for what reasons so large an area was required, but it is common knowledge that one of the objectives was to provide home for the Sudanese ex-askaris.”

“In 2016, Nubian elders took the government to court,” Halima told me. “They were seeking to stop the road passing through our land and the intended demolitions and evictions.” On August 5, 2016, the “Abdulmajid Ramadhan & 3 Others V Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) & 4 Others” case was filed at the Environment and Land Court in Nairobi (Petition N0.974).

The court ruling

On April 28, 2017, Justice S. Okong’o ruled on the matter and directed KURA as follows: “In the interest of justice and in order to avoid human suffering, I order that the petitioners herein be included in the Langata/Kibera Roads Committee and be actively involved in the Relocation Action Plan (RAP) for the Project of the Affected Persons (PAP). I order further that the 1st, 2nd, and 5th respondents shall not evict or demolish the houses belonging to the petitioners until the agreed resettlement plan for the persons affected by the road project in question is put in place.”

In essence, what Justice Okong’o had done in his ruling was to order the Attorney-General, KURA and the road contractors, H.YOUNG, to enter into a preparation of the relocation action plan. From the time of the ruling in April 2017 to July 16, 2018, when KURA showed up with the eviction notice, they did not do anything to obey the court orders: they did not involve the Nubian elders or its committee; they did not come up with a discernable relocation action plan; and, in truth, they did nothing to show that they respected the law of the land.

Then, suddenly, KURA got caught up in a flurry of activities: On July 13, 2018, it requested a meeting with Nubian elders, KNCHR and the Mohammad Swazuri-led National Lands Commission (NLC) at its offices located at the Ministry of Roads offices ostensibly to convince these bodies to come up with the relocation action plan as per Justice Okong’o ruling. An official who attended that meeting told me, “The July 16 enumerations was a way of showing that KURA was keen on honouring the court’s ruling with the ‘false’ promise of giving something small to the people as compensation.”

The official told me that it was very odd that KURA would summon, among others, an independent body such as KNCHR to its offices and “KNCHR, unashamedly would troop to another body’s offices to scheme on how to bend and obstruct the constitution, while disobeying a court’s ruling. I had along chat with KNCHR commission members and I did not mince my words,” the official said to me.

“In respect to the brutal evictions in Kibera, the commission punched below its weight. The 2010 Constitution and the KNCHR Act of 2011 grant the commission immense powers to summon state officers, the power to sue for injunction, through the courts, for such violations of human rights, and the power to investigate and prescribe remedies. So far the commission has deployed only a fraction of these powers,” added the official. The official explained to me how KNCHR is entrusted with quasi-judicial powers to summon the minister in charge of roads to explain eviction notices. He said the commission can equally go to court to secure an injunction on behalf of an aggrieved party and exercise powers to collect data, and even enforce corrective action.

Forced evictions: A violation of human rights

On my second day in Kibera, I met up with 61-year-old Joseph Omondi. Born and bred in Kibera’s Katwekera village, he is tall and sturdy and is always up and about and laughter is his second nature. When elated, he breaks into uproarious laughter and can crack your ribs with his practical jokes. “But on the day they demolished Kichinjio, Mashimoni and Lindi, I broke down and wept,” said a reflective Omondi. We were at the backyard of Kabarnet Gardens. At the Administration Police (AP) camp inside the stately home, there is a makeshift food kiosk, where food affordable to the security officers and their retinue is sold.

“In respect to the brutal evictions in Kibera, the commission punched below its weight. The 2010 Constitution and the KNCHR Act of 2011 grant the commission immense powers to summon state officers, the power to sue for injunction, through the courts, for such violations of human rights, and the power to investigate and prescribe remedies. So far the commission has deployed only a fraction of these powers,” added the official.

In between a meal of ugali and matumbo (fried intestines), Omondi told me he had witnessed forced slum demolitions over time in Nairobi – in Soweto (next to Spring Valley suburbs), in Kibagare (next to posh Loresho), in Muoroto (that used to be next to Country Bus Station) and in Mathare 4A. However, according to him, “This Kibera one ranks among the most horrendous, perhaps only to be rivalled by the brutal Muoroto slum eviction which took place at 3.00am and which resulted in some people losing their lives. How can a government be so brutal, merciless and conniving against its own people like this? In a post 2010 new constitution?”

“The state had come prepared to mow down the people in case they resisted or became violent,” pointed out Omondi. “But on this day the people did not resist. They watched, dazed, as their structures went down with their earthy belongings, with no time to salvage anything. With a 1000-strong force of regular police, AP, the brutal and inhuman paramilitary GSU (General Service Unit), it was going to be a futile resistance. So the people stood aside, the earthmovers roaring, flattening anything and everything on site, much like a military operation.”

I found Oscar Indula and David Lwili, both in their late-20, seated on a bench and pensively looking over the horizon beyond the site that they had once called home as residents of Kichinjio slum. “The state had come fully armed and it was a stealth operation. They had taken us by surprise, there was no time to mobilise. They came at dawn and many people were just waking up. Confused by the attendant commotion and seeing the encroaching excavators, the people panicked. Then, they became lost and bewildered. But even if we could have mobilised, we would have been completely pulverised. It was a full army battalion, we stood no chance. We were gazing down at a massacre.”

Omondi told me he could only liken the Kibera evictions to the brutal demolitions that had razed down people’s homes and businesses in Zimbabwean cities and towns a dozen years ago. On May 19, 2005, the then Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF government security forces rolled down on the capital city Harare’s informal settlements and flattened homes and businesses. It was a violent affair, overseen by the police and army, and soon spread to other major cities and towns.

Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Restore Order) was dubbed “Operation Tsunami” because of the speed and ferociousness with which it attacked the settlements. According to the “Report of the Fact-Finding Mission to Zimbabwe to assess the Scope and Impact of Operation Murambatsvina by the UN Special Envoy on Human Settlements Issues in Zimbabwe”, an assessment carried out by Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka between June 26 and July 8, 2005, about 700,000 people across cities in Zimbabwe lost homes, sources of income and sometimes both.

“The Kibera demolition affected between 30,000 and 35,000 families in the three villages,” George Odhiambo told me. “The exact figures are not known, but for those talking about 30,000, they should know that that is a very conservative estimate.”

Odhiambo is the founder of Adventure Pride Centre, a school that catered for pupils from pre-school to Class VIII and which was located in Kichinjio village. He took me to the precise place where the school had stood. It is difficult to believe that a stone building with a cemented floor once stood erect at Kibera’s ground zero. The only sign that learning used to take place here were the scattered text books and some completely new and unused exercise books. Nothing was spared in the wake of the demolitions.

“Adventure, alongside two other schools – Egesa Children’s Centre and Makina Self-Help Primary School – rested on Nairobi Royal Golf Club’s private land, contrary to the popular belief that everything that was demolished was on government land,” said Odhiambo. “The management of the Club had had an understanding with the schools’ owners to operate on its land, as long as they used the premises as learning institutions.”

I asked Odhiambo what would happen to the Class VIII pupils who will be sitting for the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) this year. “The pupils are very confused, distraught, disturbed and will need counselling,” observed Odhiambo. “Currently, all the pupils are at home, as we think of what to do next. For the Class VIII, we have to quickly find alternative centres where they will sit for their exam. Already, as it is, they learn under some of the harshest conditions that one can possibly imagine and yet have to compete in the same exams, with kids going to exquisite schools, laden with textbooks, learning materials and whose teacher-student ratio is at most 1:15 and where teachers are always present.” In total, there were eight schools in the three villages that were brought down: Adventure Pride Centre, Egesa Children’s Centre, Love Africa Primary School, Mashimoni Primary School, which had been there since the 1970s, Makina Self-Help, Mashimoni Squatters, Mashimoni SDA and Saviour King School.

Josiah Omotto, of the Umande Trust, an NGO that works in the water sector in Kibera, said that between 2008 and 2009, the ministry responsible for housing led a team of experts to scout for best practices on eviction guidelines. The team borrowed from the United Nations and best practices from visits to Brazil, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.” The result was the compilation of the government’s document: “Towards Fair and Justifiable Management of Evictions and Resettlement: Land Reform Transformation Unit (LRTU) secretariat.” Chief among its recommendations were:

  1. Evictions should be carried out when appropriate procedural protection are in place
  2. These protections are identified by the UN Commission as Economic and Social and Cultural Rights
  3. An opportunity for genuine consultation with those affected
  4. Adequate and reasonable notice for affected people prior to the eviction
  5. Information on the proposed evictions must be fully provided
  6. Government officials and/or representatives to be present during the evictions
  7. Evictions are not to take place in adverse weather or at night.
  8. Government to ensure that no one is rendered homeless or vulnerable to the violation of other human rights as a consequence of evictions
  9. Adequate alternative housing and compensation for all losses must be made available to those affected prior to eviction, regardless of whether they rent, own, occupy or lease the land in question.

“The saga of the Kibera-Langata link road is very puzzling. There are too many shortcuts, too many loose ends and illegalities,” observed Omotto. “And they are being let to pass, while in fact, we have a precedent to follow.” He reminded me of the Kwa Jomvu evictions in 2015 and how the Kenya National Highway Authority (KeNHA) redeemed itself by owning up to orchestrating forceful eviction of the Jomvu houses and business premises without following the due process of the laid out stipulations.

Josiah Omotto, of the Umande Trust, an NGO that works in the water sector in Kibera, said that between 2008 and 2009, the ministry responsible for housing led a team of experts to scout for best practices on eviction guidelines. The team borrowed from the United Nations and best practices from visits to Brazil, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.” The result was the compilation of the government’s document: “Towards Fair and Justifiable Management of Evictions and Resettlement: Land Reform Transformation Unit (LRTU) secretariat.”

On May 17, 2015, more than 100 inhabitants of the Kwa Jomvu informal settlement along the Mombasa-Mariakani Highway were woken up by a bulldozer trampling on their structures at night, between 11.00pm and past midnight. The bulldozer, escorted by armed police, flattened their houses and business premises. “Driven Out For Development: Forced Evictions in Mombasa”, a report by Amnesty International, says the people complained that they had not been consulted beyond being given a January 2015 eviction notice. They had not received any information on eviction process, resettlement, or compensation.

On August 13, 2015, KeNHA organised a public sensitization meeting and owned up to carrying out the forced demolitions. The roads authority asked the people to form a committee to tabulate their losses and present the same to KeNHA. It also educated the people about the Environment and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) and Resettlement Action Plan (RAP) for the project. In September 2015, KeNHA took responsibility for the evictions and agreed to pay compensation till the end of 2015.

Then last month, once again, one of the most famous slum colonies in Africa was in the international news: On the days I was there, the slum had attracted its usual voyeuristic suspects – local and international news corps, “development” workers and NGO crusaders, all hoping to share a piece of the slum’s soul.

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

No War, No Peace: Life and Death in Eritrea

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

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

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

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

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

Border dispute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace Agreement with Ethiopia and its aftermath

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

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

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

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

Ailing health sector

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

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

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

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

Poor COVID-19 response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Search for a Puppet Chief Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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African Continent a Milking Cow for Google and Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brick and mortar

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

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

‘Their revenue comes from me’.

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

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

Facebook revenue by user geography

Facebook revenue by user geography

Irish Double

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

Moustapha Cisse, Africa team lead at Google AI

Moustapha Cisse, Africa team lead at Google AI

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

Google Ghana is an ‘artificial intelligence research facility’.

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

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

Cash-strapped countries

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

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

Cost to public

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

‘A tax paying people is a questioning people’

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

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

Interior view of the Facebook office in Johannesburg, South Africa

Interior view of the Facebook office in Johannesburg, South Africa

Waiting for the Finance Minister

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

This article was first published by our partner ZAM Magazine.

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