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.
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:
- Evictions should be carried out when appropriate procedural protection are in place
- These protections are identified by the UN Commission as Economic and Social and Cultural Rights
- An opportunity for genuine consultation with those affected
- Adequate and reasonable notice for affected people prior to the eviction
- Information on the proposed evictions must be fully provided
- Government officials and/or representatives to be present during the evictions
- Evictions are not to take place in adverse weather or at night.
- Government to ensure that no one is rendered homeless or vulnerable to the violation of other human rights as a consequence of evictions
- 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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John Magufuli: The Death of a Denier-in-Chief
Late president John Magafuli never was the anti-corruption saviour international media claimed.
Tanzania, a country that produced Julius Nyerere, is a country tottering on the precipice of a pandemic catastrophe. The philosopher-president ruled for 23 years and put the nation on the international map as a frontline state that stood up to Apartheid South Africa and helped liberate modern Uganda by ridding it of Idi Amin.
With the abrupt death of its populist president John Magufuli on March 17, 2021, ostensibly from a COVID-19 related ailment, Tanzania finds itself at a crossroads, insofar as tackling the devasting disease is concerned. Magufuli who was the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, became the denier-in-chief of COVID-19. The disease has decimated scores of Tanzanians, including top government officials.
Magufuli was hailed as a tough anti-corruption crusader, as he entered state house in 2015. Ordinary Tanzanians initially saw him as their saviour in the fight against institutionalised state corruption. The international media also saw him as a man keen on tackling state corruption, “but Magufuli was all about optics,” said a Tanzanian journalist. “He wasn’t fighting state corruption pers se, what he was doing was to get rid of Jakaya Kikwete’s (immediate former president) networks in the government and replace with his own. So, it was just a matter of time before Tanzanians and the world realised Magufuli was just interested in musical chairs.”
Magufuli was re-elected on October 28, 2020 in one of the most controversial post-Nyerere’s Tanzania elections with a whopping 84 percent. His “true colours” revealed themselves after Benjamin Mkapa’s death in July 2020. After mourning the ex-president, Magufuli turned his attention to the business of crippling the opposition.
Magufuli was a protégé of Mkapa who served as president between 1995–2005. It was Mkapa, who in 2015, prevailed on the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM, ‘Party of the Revolution’) national executive council (NEC) to pick newcomer Magufuli as its flagbearer for what was to be a hotly contested general election in October 2015. Magufuli was then primed to run against Edward Lowassa, a CCM stalwart, who had bolted to Chama Cha Democrasia na Maendeleo (CHADEMA), after not clinching the CCM ticket, in which he was touted as one of the hot favourites.
The “true colours” was the ruthlessness with which Magufuli pursued the opposition in the lead-up to the presidential elections. That massive victory came in the backdrop of President Magufuli’s continuous campaigns since being inaugurated as the fifth president in 2015. “Magufuli never stopped campaigning,” said a Tanzanian journalist: “He rode on the wave of populism – dishing out money and favours to select supporters and well-choreographed individuals wherever he went.”
The 2020 Magufuli campaigns were a mirror-image of his mentor’s similar campaigns in 2000. Just like Mkapa’s mission was to presumably pulverize the nascent opposition, Magufuli’s mission 20 years later was similarly to ensure that the “irritating” opposition is no more and is, literary ran out of town. Mkapa in the October 2000 elections unleashed so much violence on the opposition that many of its supporters sought exile in neighbouring Kenya, after the elections.
Mkapa’s use of unmitigated force by Jeshi la Polisi (Tanzania has a police force, as opposed to a police service) and Field Force Unit (FFU), a paramilitary outfit much like Kenya’s dreaded General Service Unit (GSU) was unprecedented in Tanzanian politics. Just like Magufuli, it seems Mkapa’s “true colours” were revealed only after his mentor’s death the previous year on October 14, 1999. Mkapa was a protégé of the founding father Julius Kambarage Nyerere.
It was Nyerere who held Mkapa’s hand in 1995, after influencing his nomination by CCM, and single-handedly campaigned for him throughout the country. Tanzania held its first multiparty general elections in 1995, pitting CCM against a disparate opposition for the first time since its formation in 1977.
He dished out money and favours to select supporters.
Revisiting this unparalleled violence orchestrated on fellow Tanzanians, Mkapa, the former journalist-turned-diplomat-turned-president in his memoirs: My Life, My Purpose – A Tanzanian President Remembers published in January 2019, regretted the 2000 election ordeal. To some Tanzanian journalists and political analysts, Mkapa and Magufuli are today referred to as the chief advocates and perpetrators of state violence in post-independent Tanzania.
Both the presidential elections of 2000 and 2020 happened under a cloud of America’s own election problems: In 2000, it was the “Florida fiasco.” Florida was then governed by the Republican’s presidential candidate, George Bush’s brother, Jeb Bush. Bush was running against the Democratic Party’s Al Gore. Jeb was allegedly accused of rigging on behalf of his elder brother.
Like the Americans say, the electoral college vote was too close to call: the vote was not only going to determine who was going to be the winner of the states’s 25 votes, but the next president after Bill Clinton. A recount was called by the Democrats and for a brief moment, the democrats believed they had taken it, only for the Republicans to also ask for their own recount. Bush won with a razor thin win vote. The democrats were not persuaded. To cut a long story short, the sunshine state’s case found itself in the supreme court, where the republican-led court declared George Bush the eventual winner.
In 2020, with both the Tanzania and US elections being held days apart, America once again came under the world spotlight after the “Pennsylvania problem”, in which President Donald Trump claimed his votes had been tampered with and paid for a recount. The MAGA Republican Party candidate was defending his seat against “sleepy Joe” a derogatory tag given by Trump to Joe Biden.
The citing of both examples here is to emphasise that America in 2000 and 2020 could not claim a moral compass to the Tanzania government’s excesses in its elections. Covering the 2000 elections, I remember in Dar es Salaam, a CCM top official telling us journalists that America could not lecture Tanzania on matters election – “they should first deal with their own election rigging in Florida, before accusing us of unleashing violence and rigging the islands’ results.”
Nyerere had always been opposed to the twin islands of Pemba and Zanzibar’s divorce with the mainland Tanganyika – a sticking sore thump between the mainland and the islands, since the republic turned to plural politics. But he never advocated state violence, instead, he sued for dialogue and persuasion.
Magufuli was determined to put the opposition in its place this time round: In a parliament of 261 members, the opposition only won seven. “By the time I’m through with Tanzania, there’ll be no opposition in the country,” said the deceased in one of his campaign rallies.
There is not a doubt that he loathed the opposition, so much so that he warned the regional commissioners and election officials, “I don’t pay you so that you can allow opposition to win.” Tume la Uchaguzi (National Election Commission) flatly refused any presidential debates and told the opposition it could debate among itself if it so wished.
“In Tanzania, CCM ni tasisi,” a local journalist reiterated to me. Literary it means the ruling party CCM is an institution. Figuratively it means, CCM is Tanzania and Tanzania is CCM. Anybody going against the “wishes of the party” would be crushed. The CCM’s propaganda machinery against the leading opposition figure Tundu Lissu of CHADEMA was geared to pulverize all his efforts of running a successful campaign. “He was being hunted down like a wild animal,” said the journalist.
Magufuli claimed Lissu was a supporter of LGBTQ and that he was a tool of the West being used to campaign for mashoga, homosexuals’ rights. Several African presidents during their re-election campaigns have turned the hot-button issue of LGBTQ, their favourite bogeyman: In the terribly conservative African societies, nothing evokes emotions of antipathy like suggesting gay-ism could be mainstreamed. Yoweri Museveni has done it, John Magufuli did it, just like Robert Mugabe did it before him.
CCM being Tanzania and Tanzania being CCM, not even the bravest of private media would dare report on the opposition or against Magufuli and CCM. “There was total blackout on the opposition by the media. All what Tanzanians could read and listen to, on politics, was on the ‘indefatigable Magu’ and his infrastructural developments,” said my Tanzanian journalist friend. Hence, Tanzania media did not report on politics – it reported on Magufuli, the person.
By the time I’m through with Tanzania, there’ll be no opposition in the country
Being heavy users of social media, Tanzanians turned to VPN – virtual private network. Found as an app in many smart phones, it protects one’s communication from snoopers like government agencies and hackers. What VPN does when activated is to bypass the conventional internet service providers (ISP) when connecting to the internet. In the case of Tanzania’s government shutting down its ISP, tech savvy Tanzanians resorted to VPN to access facebook and especially Twitter, to fend off the states’s eavesdropping.
This is the reason why Magufuli ordered all social media outlets shut, said the journalist. All what the Tanzania Communication Authority needed was a nod from Magufuli. A consumer of foreign news outlets, Tanzanians also resorted to BBC, Deutsche Welle (Sauti ya Ujerumani) and VOA, to stay informed on their country’s politics. “This is how many of them were informed and kept tabs on Lissu’s campaigns,” said the journalist.
Even after being sworn-in for the second term, President Magufuli pursued the browbeaten opposition. Chief opposition figure Lissu had to escape the country a second time. “Run or be run over, these people are not joking,” Lissu was ostensibly warned by his intelligence team. In September 2017, Lissu had survived an assassination attempt in Dodoma, that saw his vehicle sprayed with bullets by “unknown” assailants, as he left parliament for his house for lunch. On November 7, 10 days after the elections were over, he hid at the German embassy, then onwards to Brussels, where he had been recuperating for three years after treatment in Nairobi.
The former MP for Arusha Urban Godbless Lema also skipped the country and sought refuge in Kenya after claiming government people were after him. Lema, with his family was granted asylum in Canada.
Nyerere’s CCM may have operated in the one-party era during the cold war, but many Tanzanians of the post-independent generation remember those days with nostalgia. “The party was more democratic and free, unlike today,” said a former CCM mkereketwa (party diehard).
Magufuli’s populism was laced with autocratic tendencies. He told fellow Tanzanians msinijaribu mimi ni jiwe (don’t try me, I’m as tough as a rock), meaning he prided himself in being tough-headed.
“Magufuli’s CCM in the era of multiparty brooks no dissent, is dictatorial and dangerous, while Nyerere’s CCM preferred a palaver type of democracy where party issues were discussed until it arrived at a consensus,” said a University of Dar es Salaam don.
South Africa: A New Politics From the Left?
Assuming today’s socioeconomic crisis benefits the Left is folly. That will only happen if we have the political vision to make class the fault line of social polarisation, and for that we need to face the challenge of constructing a new party.
Over the last decade, the Left in a number of Western countries has undergone a historic transition from “protest to politics,” to borrow the words of the late Canadian Marxist Leo Panitch and his frequent co-author Sam Gindin. From Podemos in Spain to Sanders in the United States, a new wave of parties and electoral coalitions have emerged and made rapid gains. Despite setbacks and defeats, Panitch and Gindin’s indispensable analysis of these events in The Socialist Challenge Today, casts them in an unambiguously positive light. None of the examples they study offer formulas for resolving the vexing dilemmas facing the socialist movement in our globalised present.
But in their determination to take state power seriously they constitute an unmistakable step forward, after decades in which the Left’s confinement to episodic instances of mobilisation left the electoral field wide open to the parties of business. Part of this “new new” Left’s success stems from a willingness to shake free of its own past. Building a viable socialism of the 21st century, they argue, requires dispensing with the outmoded parts of the Leninist model, like its wager on insurrection, while retaining that which still holds value, like its internationalist spirit.
These developments hold important lessons for us on the South African Left. Just under a decade ago it seemed that we were on the verge of effecting a similar transition “from protest to politics.” During the first decade and a half of democracy, a socialist opposition had found a locus in the so-called “new” social movements—like the Anti-Privatisation Forum—which grew in reaction to various parts of the ruling African National Congress’ neoliberal agenda.
These waged a number of important defensive struggles and scored a few key victories but fundamentally did nothing to loosen capital’s grip on policymaking. By the end of the 2000s most were a spent force. It became clear to a growing segment of the Left that lasting gains would not be achieved unless social agitation were more effectively linked with efforts to seise governing power. The ability to think these more ambitious terms received a major boost when the National Union of Metalworkers South Africa (NUMSA), the nation’s largest manufacturing union, appeared to redraw the political map of the country by breaking from the ANC, amidst a wave of working class militancy.
Of course for the “official” left which NUMSA represented there had never been any turn away from politics as such. But decades of compromise had bred a form of politics that had become completely unmoored from the guiding thread of class antagonism. NUMSA’s move thus constituted a kind of mirror image transition—from a back-room corporatism to a politics more grounded in the methods and spirit of “protest”. This is what imbued the “NUMSA moment” with such hope—it promised to re-connect the two sides of South Africa’s bifurcated Left, and supply the strategic elements that had been missing from each. By matching the militancy and class-independence of the social movement Left with structural and organisational might of the “official” Left, it seemed possible that a mass socialist movement could be rapidly brought into being.
That was not to be. From today’s vantage it’s impossible to regard the NUMSA moment as anything but an abject failure. The political party which eventually issued from it is the farthest cry from the unifying force that so many had hoped for. While the international left has been able to advance by breaking with its shibboleths, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) has fallen back on a slavish appropriation of Bolshevik ideology, almost comical in its extremes.
Despite enormous resources, a large part supplied by a US-based billionaire, the party ran a dismal general election campaign in 2019 where it failed to get even a tenth of NUMSA’s own membership to vote for it (it ultimately only amassed 25 000 votes nationally, below the threshold to obtain one seat in Parliament). It’s since never recovered, joining a host of other failed socialist parties on the margins of political life. Marginality seems in turn to have degraded the internal culture of the party, which now resembles closely the Stalinism of the ANC-aligned South African Communist Party in all its worst aspects.
The floundering of the NUMSA moment is a terrible blow. But the setback inflicted on us will far greater if we fail to draw the correct lessons from it. Perhaps the most worrying outcome is that it precipitates a slide back into movementism, and shuts the window that we’ve had to execute the transition from “protest to politics.” Party politics acquired a bad name during the era of “protest” in South Africa, and many on the Left already feel that the SRWP’s example vindicated their worst suspicions.
But what the SRWP actually reveals to us is are not flaws inherent in the party-form as such, so much as the limits of a certain kind of party, one founded on a hidebound Leninism. If the Left were to abandon party building altogether there would, quite simply, be no socialist future. All visions of radical change that eschew parties and an active takeover of the state suffer from a principal defect in that they misconceive the nature of class formation—the process by which individuals become aware of their class position and begin to articulate their politics through it. This is presented as a quasi-automatic effect of the capitalist class structure.
But history offers no support for such a view. Class is impactful because it frames the options we have over so many major decisions in our lives—but not so narrowly as to make resistance to one’s employer, or the system behind him, inevitable. Indeed, the extreme vulnerability of workers under capitalism means that individualised modes of coping tend to be more commonplace than collective action. That’s why socialist consciousness has been the exception rather than the norm in the global history of capitalism, and exceedingly rare in the absence of a well-organised party. As Panitch argued with the force of a life’s work—parties make classes as much as they are made by them.
Thankfully, an outright repudiation of the party-form is not really where we are at in South Africa. The variant of movementism which took hold here, and which has revived in the aftermath of the NUMSA moment, was not really this more extreme kind, which denies the ultimate need for a party. Rather what it advocates is a downgrading of the role of party building or its deferral to some indefinite future.
What seems to be the common premise for this position is that party building can only succeed when perfectly timed to the right “objective conditions” —conditions which are only likely to form in the wake of a rupture moment defined by intensified street-level mobilisation. Only the transformation of mass consciousness brought about by such an episode of struggle can furnish the base for a party. Moreover, efforts to “impose” a party on the working class before this are liable to be rejected by its most conscious and active layers. Cut off from nourishing energy of grassroots movements, they are likely to grow in authoritarian directions. The task of socialists in the present, therefore, is devote ourselves to strengthening movements, and hope that a party may gestate from within them in some future context.
Related but distinguishable from this, is an ingrained hostility on the South African Left towards electoral politics. This view tends to draw a sharp line between the electoral arena and movements. While movements unlock popular power by sensitising their participants to their potential for collective action, elections offer no such platform for consciousness-raising. Instead, they tend to reproduce the atomisation of liberal democracy, and to fortify the myth that progress is possible within it. Moreover, movements which take the electoral road subject themselves to debilitating pressures. The logic of getting the vote tends to conflict with the logic of grassroot mobilisation, and all too often to overwhelm it.
Movementist positions contain many insights. It is wise, for example, to be attuned to the importance of ruptural breaks—the likelihood that we will ever get to a mass party simply through a molecular accretion of our ranks is slim. But the contention that movement building alone is the best way to prepare for such a rupture fails to take seriously the inherent weaknesses of social movements.
Of the numerous movements which sustained the first era of “protest” in post-Apartheid South Africa virtually none remain (barring one major exception). New ones have of course cropped up, and a tide of less organised community protests has continued unabated across the country. But these show equally little likelihood of autonomously cohering into anything bigger or more resilient.
It’s now very hard to avoid the conclusion that their failures resulted from internal rather than external factors. The model underpinning them rested on localised mobilisation around immediate demands, while actively eschewing efforts to politicise a leadership layer. Some of their more excitable proponents portrayed them as crucibles of anti-capitalism, in which the mere experience of collective decision making offered a form of political education beyond what traditional forms of Left organisation could hope to match.
But in doing so they exhibited the same fallacious thinking about class formation that informs all ventures aimed at “changing the world without taking power.” Much less a break with capitalism, it’s not clear that social movements even succeeded in getting most of their members to question their loyalty to the ANC. That left them prone to demobilisation and disorganisation when circumstances changed, when defeats where incurred or when key individuals drifted off or were co-opted.
One strategic upshot of this critique is that the trade-off between movement and party building posited by movementists is a false one. It’s likely that there is no winning formula for transforming single issue mobilisations into lasting, mass organisations without NGOifying them. But what we can do is to ensure that the small advances made by movements each time they arise are not dissipated. After all—the notion that struggle develops consciousness is not a false, what movementists get wrong is overstating the extent to which it does so organically. Virtually every movement throws up militant leaders, who stand to become tribunes for socialist politics if they can be identified, recruited and supported appropriately. This is work that a party is best suited to undertake.
But facing up to the limits of social movements should lead us to even stronger conclusions than this. It should lead us to question the overwhelming strategic significance that they have been accorded in the politics of the “independent left.” If movements are tough to sustain and to politicise, they may not be the vehicles best suited to bringing about a political rupture or ensuring that it outcome favors the Left.
Of course this was a strategic orientation that was largely foisted on us by circumstance. The stranglehold that the Tripartite Alliance (whose third member is the Congress of South African Trade Unions) exercised on organised labour and mass politics generally left little room for an alternative. But the situation has changed. The factionalisation of the ANC, the split in COSATU and the emergence of its rival, the South African Federation of Trade Unions, have created an opening for a more militant socialism to regain a foothold in organised labour. This ought to be the clear priority of socialists.
For all its infirmities, the union movement still presents a much more promising site for grounding socialist politics in a mass base. Although this may not hold for much longer, unions remain mass membership organisations with considerable resources. Most importantly, and most differently from social movements, they have access to structural power (i.e, the power to withdraw labour and shut down the economy). Here is one insight of Leninism which time has not invalidated– that our project will most likely fail unless that structural power is at its center.
If organised labour is once again to become our strategic focal point, this strengthens the case for not consigning the party to an intangible future. The synergies between party-building and organisation building are arguably stronger in the case of unions than social movements. At a fairly abstract level, one reason for this is that union building (or revitalisation) typically relies on a few individuals being prepared to take bold action out of moral conviction. Marxists have often argued something very different—that shopfloors collectivise as soon as workers wake up to their material interests. But narrow self-interest is unlikely to ever motivate someone to take the first steps towards organising their co-workers, since doing so incurs enormous risks but yields no extra benefit—the essence of the “free-rider” problem.
Thus, it’s not a coincidence that so often in history, socialists of various stripes have been significantly overrepresented among the “militant minority.” The values that draw people to the banner of socialism are often the same as those that move them to action against workplace injustices. It’s also not a coincidence that a militant minority is more likely to take shape when socialist ideas are more prominent in the public realm.
Arresting the decline of South African unions, and returning them to their proud history of worker control and grassroots democracy will require a herculean organising effort. At the simplest level this is why we need an organisational vehicle that at least broadly resembles a party. Without one we have no real means of translating strategic debates into action—of coordinating our energies towards the tasks most likely to yield long-term gains.
There’s therefore a case for not delaying in building a fighting organisation, that tries to cohere leading militants from workplace and community struggles around a socialist program. But such an organisation should do more. As soon as it has the numbers needed, it should seek to involve itself in elections. In all likelihood it would have to start at the local level, and logic would dictate that it seeks out community and social movement partners in doing so. But as quickly as possible is should seek to graduate to the national stage. South Africa’s unusually proportional representation electoral system (which was in fact designed to provide space for smaller parties), makes this a reasonable short-term goal.
Arresting the decline of South African unions, and returning them to their proud history of worker control and grassroots democracy will require a herculean organising effort. At the simplest level this is why we need an organisational vehicle that at least broadly resembles a party.
The first thing that sceptics of this strategy tend to get wrong is that they overstate, or misunderstand, the legitimacy problem facing formal political institutions. The SRWP seems to think that any worker with lingering attachments to electoral politics is suffering from “false consciousness.” But in our current circumstances, there is nothing the least bit irrational about remaining invested in the electoral arena, even while recognising the severity of its class bias. The simple reason for that, is that there is no existing social force capable of challenging state power while remaining entirely outside its institutions, nor does one show any prospect of coming into being in any foreseeable horison. Worker organisations in SA are locked a desperate defensive struggle—not preparing to set up a parallel state.
It’s not a failure of dialectical imagination that causes people to conflate politics with elections, but an appraisal of our situation that is more accurate than the one provided by the apostles of imminent revolution.
It’s thus not surprising that despite the tremendous alienation produced by decades of neoliberalism, electoral movements in the West have been able to engineer a political realignment that was much deeper than what post-2008 movements were able to achieve on their own. Their location within the domain of mainstream politics provided both visibility but also a kind of credibility—they promised to take over the institutions in front of us, rather than replace them with ones we can’t see and can’t yet imagine. Several of these examples stood the movementist model on its head. Rather than an electoral breakthrough growing out of a period of intensified movement activity, it was the electoral arena itself that has delivered the rupture moment, the energy from which can then be filtered down to social and labour struggles.
In the process they challenged another fallacy of movementism—that the electoral arena is entirely inimical to a politics of struggle. Sanders, Corbyn, and others imbued their campaigns with a spirit of insurgency that succeeded in appealing to many otherwise turned off by politics, particularly among younger generations. Rather than sucking energy from the streets, these examples provided a renewed model of “class struggle elections” —not their own invention but one that had faded from the Left’s repertoire during the era of movementism.
Class struggle elections seek to deliberately leverage electoral campaigns, and political office itself, to bolster movements. They use every platform available to raise awareness of, and encourage solidarity with, labour and social struggles. In doing so they try to inculcate the understanding that radical policies can only be won with an inside-outside strategy, in which legislators are supported and pushed forward by powerful movements. At the same time they use campaigns as tools of organisation building.
They recruit and deploy a mass of activist to spread a socialist message, and simultaneously try to develop those activists by building political education into their activities. Done properly, this can bridge the gaps that supposedly separate movement from electoral organising, infusing the latter with a powerful sense of collectivity. That’s why so many thousands of young Americans (to pick a recent example), were politically activated through their involvement in the Sanders campaign, which became a gateway to organising in their workplaces, campuses and communities.
Note that this is completely different to the SRWP’s narrowly propagandistic approach to elections which didn’t promote social struggles so much as fantasies of revolution, whilst denouncing ‘bourgeois democracy’ as a sham and doing nothing to actually win. After a predictably disastrous outcome, the party chose to compound the embarrassment, and feed into a profoundly dangerous trend by denouncing South Africa’s independent election management body and claiming the result was rigged.
It’s not a failure of dialectical imagination that causes people to conflate politics with elections, but an appraisal of our situation that is more accurate than the one provided by the apostles of imminent revolution.
Contrast its subsequent marginalisation with the early trajectory with the Economic Freedom Fighters (now South Africa’s third-largest party), which leveraged the electoral know-how of its ex-ANCYL cadre and Malema’s media savvy to run an enormously successful first campaign. It then built on the success, steadily expanding its vote share each cycle, while using parliamentary office to bolster its national profile. Sadly it drifted off the orbit of the Left along the way. But the two diverging cases provide an obvious lesson: if elections are to be useful to us, we have to show that we are capable of succeeding in them. If we can’t, how on earth will we convince anyone that we’re capable of transforming society from its roots up?
None of this is to suggest that the concerns movementists raise about electoral politics are meritless. Its unquestionably true that electoral competition imposes its own logic, which can be ruinous if it totally subsumes the party’s strategic purview. We can trace the decline of many a worker’s party, at least proximately, to misguided efforts to capture middle-class votes by abandoning a politics of class antagonism. But all socialist strategising in our dismal conjuncture is the consideration of perilous alternatives. Far better for us to confront the dangers of succumbing to a narrow electoralism than the near certitude of permanent marginalisation should we choose to abstain from mainstream politics altogether.
The NUMSA moment may have come and gone. But the many elements of the broader conjuncture which produced it, and which seemed to augur a new direction for socialist politics, persist. The Alliance coalition is in the doldrums. Expecting its inevitable demise is of course a pastime of which we “independent leftists” should now be wary. But the material facts this time really are different. The state faces a fiscal crisis that President Cyril Ramaphosa has neither the wherewithal nor the institutional tools to escape from. His factional opponents preach a “radical economic transformation” that offers nothing whatsoever to workers.
Social strains look set to keep accumulating. But assuming that any crisis they produce will automatically redound to the Left’s benefit would be folly. That will only happen if we have the political vision and the organisational capacity to ensure that class becomes the fault line of social polarisation. And for that we need to face up to the challenge of constructing a new party.
Is a Plutocratic America in Terminal Decline?
We may not be aware of it yet, because of the hold the nation has on global media, but America’s decline appears to be terminal.
As President Joe Biden begins to get comfortable in the White House, there are those who might say that America, under a democratic system of government, has once again allowed the voice of her people to be heard, and that they have elected a new leader into office. Some might go so far as to say that the world’s most affluent democracy has once again proved that government of the people, by the people, for the people is alive and well.
But just below the surface, there are questions deserving of a deeper examination. One is how narrow the margins of victory were. For while it is true that President Biden won the highest number of votes in American electoral history, it is also true that President Trump won the second-highest number of votes in American electoral history; 10 million more people voted for President Trump in 2020 than did so in 2016. Mr Biden’s margin of victory in Georgia was 0.48 per cent, while that in Arizona was 0.63 per cent. Further, even as the Democrats belatedly won a majority in the Senate, again by the finest of margins, the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives actually narrowed. Why, if the choice was so clear, were margins so narrow?
The regrettable truth is that the US is not a democracy – not merely because true democracy has never existed, but because even that imperfect form of democracy that characterises modern politics long perished in America. The United States today is in fact a corporatocracy; mega-corporations rule the country, a polite way of saying that that nation is now a plutocracy. This development is not really new – wealth has always, eventually, determined leadership, in America and elsewhere.
This article attempts – colossally log-in-eye, and at a distance of thousands of miles, admittedly – to furnish proof of the existence of this plutocracy; to demonstrate the effects of this plutocracy on American life and politics; and to establish whether there is any way out of the present morass.
That America is a plutocracy
A total of US$14 billion (KSh1.4 trillion) was spent on campaigns in the US this year, twice as much as in 2016. Where is this money coming from?
In 2010, the US Supreme Court handed down a decision called Citizens United that allowed unions, corporations and associations to spend unlimited amounts in elections provided they would not coordinate their efforts with a candidate. As a result, political action committees (or PACs – private organisations established to raise money in support of a candidate or an issue) morphed into Super PACs that could receive unlimited amounts of money for campaign purposes. The effect was immediate: in 2012 non-party outside spending tripled 2008’s total and topped US$1 billion for the first time. Of that amount, Super PACs spent more than US$840 million.
The regrettable truth is that the US is not a democracy.
Yet the amounts spent in 2012 pale in comparison with spending during the 2020 campaign; in October 2020 alone, outside spending by super PACs and other big-money groups totalled nearly US$1.2 billion. President Joe Biden alone raised US$1.6 billion. President Trump raised US$596 million, itself a significant haul. Given the closely fought nature of the presidential election, it would not be wrong to conclude that money helped tip the scales in favour of the new president. Nor was this true only of the presidential race; it was true across the ballot. Eighty-nine per cent of House races and 71 per cent of Senate races were won by the better financed candidate. The conclusion is clear: money – corporate money – wins American elections.
The effects of the plutocracy on American life
It is all very well and good to conclude that corporate money runs and wins American elections. The issue is what the effect of all this money is on American life. If corporate hegemony is harmless – even beneficial – arguments can be made that it should be left alone. If it is not, however, then that fact should be exposed, and reform commenced.
The American mega-corporation has achieved a number of victories (from a corporate standpoint) that have constituted assaults on the wellbeing of the American people and populace. For example, these corporations have been allowed to outsource American manufacturing jobs to China and other nations. The iPhone, signature product of America’s second largest company by market valuation (Apple), is assembled in Shenzhen. Nike began outsourcing manufacturing in the 1970s; today it has plants in Vietnam and South Korea as well as China. IBM now has more workers in India than in the US. As of April 2012, Walmart’s supply chain included some 30,000 Chinese factories, producing an estimated 70 per cent of all of the goods it sells. This trend has gone on so long that there now exists a portion of the northeastern US, formerly known as the Manufacturing/Steel/Factory Belt, that is now known as the Rust Belt, owing to industrial and economic decline occasioned by outsourcing and the automation of jobs.
Meanwhile, for those jobs that have escaped being shipped overseas, the average wage has been stagnant for 40 years. A generation has now arisen in America that will be the first in modern American history to end up poorer than their parents. To make up for stagnant incomes, American citizens are drowning in private debt (US$14 trillion worth) including mortgages (US$9.44 trillion) and student loans (US$1.5 trillion). Indeed, absolute US household debt was higher in November 2019 than prior to/during the great recession, although the debt-to-income levels during the great recession were higher than the 2019 levels (83 per cent to 73 per cent). High house prices, supported as they are by mortgage lending, coupled with student loans, together mean that new graduates are experiencing “failure to launch”, i.e. the inability to leave one’s parents’ home and start one’s own family.
(We should pause here to note, parenthetically, that the level of any nation’s private debt, and America’s in particular, is a very important metric. The level of private debt was the key indicator that enabled Professor Steve Keen, one of the Bezemer 12, to predict the North Atlantic financial crisis of 2007-8, a prediction mainstream/neoclassical economics, quite criminally, failed to make.)
The US$14 trillion of private debt that American citizens owe is owed to the very same mega-corporation class whose wage stagnation has necessitated the need for lending (since the early 1970s, the hourly inflation-adjusted wages received by the typical worker have barely risen, growing only 0.2 per cent per year). Most unfortunately, this wage stagnation is not uniform: the ratio of CEO-to-worker earnings has soared from 21-to-1 in 1965 to 320-to-1 in 2019.
A generation has now arisen in America that will be the first in modern American history to end up poorer than their parents.
Has the American mega-corporation been censured by the political class for these excesses? Hardly. In fact, the large American corporation, while using American infrastructure, using some degree of American labour and selling to Americans, is allowed to pretend that it operates outside America, by invoicing from nations with low tax rates, such as Ireland, thereby avoiding paying federal taxes on its income. From 2009-2018, for example, Amazon paid an effective federal tax rate of 3 per cent on profits totalling US$26.5 billion. In 2018 alone, the company received a tax relief of US$129 million dollars on profits of US$11.2 billion. Such is the scale of tax avoidance by American corporations that by 2016 a staggering US$2 trillion in untaxed corporate profits was stashed outside the US, according to the New York Times. (What makes this doubly lamentable is that the Internal Revenue Service tells the American citizen in unambiguous terms that “Your worldwide income is subject to U.S. income tax, regardless of where you reside.”)
Corporations, therefore, enjoy egregious advantages. It is in order to keep them that they are so willing to fund political campaigns. In other words, corporations will do everything to avoid paying the taxes that would improve American infrastructure and healthcare (to their own benefit) but spend billions on political campaigns to inoculate themselves from losing the unfair advantages they have carved out for themselves.
The effect of the plutocracy on American politics
The shock election of President Donald Trump in 2016 can be seen as a response to the deleterious effects of corporate hegemony on the American political and economic life. Candidate Trump campaigned as an outsider, promising to “drain the swamp”, even though, ironically, he was himself a self-styled billionaire who shipped jobs to China and paid very little in taxes. America was suffering economically. He claimed that the blame for this could be placed squarely on the shoulders of China and immigrants. In an illuminating two-part, three-and-a-half hour 2019 interview with PBS, key Trump campaign advisor Steve Bannon (who was arrested for fraud and then pardoned by President Trump on his last full day in office) stated that the cost of the 2008-09 bailout was loaded onto the American middle class, and that American gig economy millennials are nothing but 19th-century Russian serfs. Many may disagree with Mr Bannon’s political views, but his statement had its finger on the pulse of post-bank-bailout America. The genius of the Trump campaign was its ability to identify these pain points; to incorrectly but convincingly blame foreigners – locally (immigrants) and abroad (China) – for what were and continue to be the excesses of the plutocracy; to identify the existence of a swamp in Washington and characterise Hillary Clinton as the personification of these ills; and to ride that wave all the way to the White House. The lesson – a lesson seemingly yet unlearned by mainstream politics – is that it actually worked.
Candidates however, campaign in poetry; rulers, on the other hand, govern in prose. During Trump’s presidency Faustian bargains, in Steve Bannon’s words, were made; here again the power of the corporatocracy made itself felt. One of the early indicators of the direction and tenor a presidency will take is a president’s cabinet picks; Steven Mnuchin, yet another ex-Wall Street executive, was placed in charge of the Treasury. While President Trump did not drag the US into another war – in spite of the assassination of Iranian Major-General Qassim Soleimani – his presidency did not up-end Washington in ways meaningful to the nation’s citizenry. Readers may recall the US$2 trillion of untaxed corporate profits mentioned earlier; President Trump’s signature legislative achievement was to open new windows for tax rebates for major corporations, reducing taxes on the wealthy. This legislation resulted in the repatriation of US$777 billion in 2018, but the Federal Reserve noted that “the strongest effect of repatriation was on share buybacks” by corporate America. This particular episode is a textbook example of the plutocracy at work.
Trump does not greatly differ in this way from the way in which Candidate Obama contrasts with President Obama. Candidate Obama campaigned on Change We Can Believe In. Yet, once elected, he bailed out the banks (the abiding question on this, some wonder, is why citizens did not retain their houses if the banks’ losses were made good). Obamacare, a very significant advance in the fight for decent healthcare for Americans, did not include a public option although it could have. Nor did President Obama succeed in extricating himself from American warmongering abroad: in a particularly sad and tragic episode he helped end the Libya Gaddaffi had created. Libya under Gaddaffi was a nation that had free university education, free healthcare, no external debt and reserves of US$150 billion – all ideals that America, ironically, declares it wants but has yet to achieve despite its claim to being the richest nation in history. Allied “intervention” replaced that Libya with today’s bombed-out nation, in which incessant internecine strife went on for a decade. This in Africa, the land of Obama’s fathers. Only two years previously, at a location just two hours from Benghazi by air, the new President had given his “A New Beginning” speech in Cairo, which speech contributed to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize later that year.
In these two presidencies, we see, microcosmically, the effects of the plutocracy at work: the lofty ideals of the campaigning candidate and the searing needs of the masses, once office is assumed, are replaced by a kind of neutered, ineffective pragmatism, as far as the wellbeing of American citizens is concerned, and a sly and insidious effectiveness where corporate welfare is concerned.
The 2020 campaign
Perhaps the defining characteristic of the 2020 campaign is that it took place against the backdrop of a global pandemic. The cost of this pandemic – in the gruesome currency of American lives – has been more than 500,000 dead Americans and counting, nearly 10 times the number of US soldiers who died in the Vietnam War, and more than the number of American lives lost in World War II.
Uniquely among developed nations, the structure of America’s healthcare system is such that very often one only has healthcare if one is employed. So that when 44 million Americans filed for unemployment during the pandemic, they lost their medical cover at precisely the time they most needed it. The pandemic therefore threw into sharp focus the critical importance of having a healthcare system that is not based upon employment.
(Nor is the state of health insurance all that is wrong with American healthcare – in several tragic articles it has been reported that American diabetics have been driving to Canada in caravans to buy insulin – some driving up to 5 hours one way. Price-gouging by pharmaceutical companies means that the drug is ten times cheaper in Canada than it is in America.)
The bipartisan response to the pandemic was to pass the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that – while it gave individuals with less than US$99,000 a year annual income a check of US$1,200 a month – also gave further tax cuts to the wealthy. According to the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, just 43,000 individual tax filers covered by one of the Act’s provisions would see their tax liability fall by a combined US$70.3 billion in 2020 (or about US$1.7 million each). This is the America that corporatism has created.
And yet, mid-pandemic, was healthcare on the national ballot? How, when pharmaceutical and health product industries have spent a total of US$4.7 billion on lobbying the federal government, US$877 million on state candidates and committees, and US$414 million in the 20 years to 2018? Indeed, by the time he won the nomination, Joe Biden had already said he would veto a Medicare for All bill if it landed on his desk (a colossal if, it must be said), proposing a public option instead.
So what was on the ballot? Democrats, choosing to characterise Trump’s presidency as the problem, instead of seeing it as the natural consequence of the decades of wage stagnation, high healthcare costs, inordinately high levels of private debt, etc., campaigned on the platform of “restoring the soul of America”. The president’s narrow margins of victory perhaps find an explanation here: the problems Americans face were not really on the ballot. And they were not on the ballot because the corporations that stump up the money to fund electoral campaigns benefit from providing privatised solutions to the problems Americans face.
Is there hope?
There is an American constituency that is in broad agreement on the issues raised above: a Fox News exit poll, for example, showed that 72 per cent of Americans were at least somewhat in favour of changing to a government-run healthcare plan. Florida, a state President Trump won, voted to increase the state’s minimum wage to US$15 an hour.
However, it is unlikely that this broad constituency will be allowed to unite under the current political system. The reality is that the US is a de facto one-party state. If that party were to be honestly named, it might be named the Megacorp Party, or, slightly more genteelly, the Corporatist/Establishment Party. It has two wings: a supposedly left-leaning Democratic wing and a supposedly conservative Republican wing. Under the framework of Citizens United these two wings will continue to swap power ad infinitum. Yet, even as the presidency bounces from party to party, a president from one party will bomb Iraq; the next president, from the other party, will campaign on the platform that he never voted to go to war in Iraq, only to subsequently bomb Libya. These tragic contradictions find their resolution in the fact that this war activity happens at the behest of the military-industrial complex.
Political consultants will keep finding new, misleading ways of “framing the political argument,” creating false choices and developing narratives such as restoring the soul of the nation. Meanwhile, the money that pays them will continue to fortify itself against the needs of the people; the rich will get richer, the poor will get poorer and power will remain with the wealthy.
As long as this continues, we can expect two outcomes. The first is that the issues that Americans need solved will not be solved. (We are now reading, for example, that the US$15 dollars/hour minimum wage President Biden promised (during a presidential debate), is unlikely be included in the US$1.9 trillion-dollar stimulus package President Biden intends to bring to Congress.) The second is that, as a result of the failure to resolve these issues, America will, in the words of Robert Reich, continue to produce candidatures like Donald Trump’s as far as the eye can see. The American political system does not contain within itself the mechanism to correct the current malaise. As a result, money will continue to win out: it will continue to select which issues are on the ballot, and it will continue to choose which candidates win. America’s long decline, therefore, is likely to continue.
The corporations that stump up the money to fund electoral campaigns benefit from providing privatised solutions to the problems Americans face.
We may not be aware of it yet, because of the hold the nation has on global media (the concentration of media ownership in America is yet another triumph of the plutocracy), but America’s decline appears to be terminal.
I return to the beginning – this article is written colossally log-in-eye. As a Kenyan I know we have major, pressing domestic issues to resolve. If or as we make a detour to examine the American political situation, let our contemplation resemble our use of a mirror, and let our aims be those of helping us to avoid the problems others have experienced, in order to more wisely and speedily resolve our own.
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