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People Power: Museveni’s New Headache That Just Won’t Go Away

9 min read.

Bobi Wine’s celebrity status, his street cred and his articulation of youth grievances through music, have made him a potent threat to Yoweri Museveni’s administration. By ISAAC IMAKA



PEOPLE POWER: Museveni’s new headache that just won’t go away
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After 33 years in power, President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni finds himself in the unflattering position of engaging in running street battles with a man 38 years his junior.

Used to sparring with fellow bush war veteran Dr Kizza Besigye, a man he has accused of everything from being a rapist to having HIV/Aids, Mr Museveni finds himself in a situation where he has to accuse Mr Robert Ssentamu Kyagulanyi, a.k.a Bobi Wine, a man younger than his last-born daughter, of stoning his car.

For that, Bobi Wine is facing treason charges together with 32 others.

How did it get to this?

Just after the 2016 general elections and the clampdown and mistreatment of opposition leaders that followed, Bobi Wine released the song “Situka“, which challenges Ugandans to do something about corruption and injustice in their country. It opens with the lines: “When the going gets tough, the tough must get going, especially when our leaders become misleaders and mentors become tormentors. When freedom of expression becomes a target of suppression, opposition becomes our position.”

Later that month, he visited opposition leader Dr Kizza Besigye at his home where the latter was being kept under “preventive arrest”. He went with his guitar and strummed a few notes of his new song for him. He would then appear alongside him at a rally all suited up, his dreadlocks reduced to a low fade box cut. He had joined politics! Social media lit up.

A couple of months later, there was a vacant seat in Kyadondo East Constituency. He won but the social media fuss that came with it was brushed aside as city noise. Many thought he was just another celebrity trying to have a piece of the national pie.

The House had already attracted the country’s leading gospel artist Judith Babirye. Kato Lubwama, a leading comedian, had also ditched stage garb and got suited up.

These two celebrities had, however, buckled on the political stage. Two years in, Judith Babirye was yet to make her maiden speech on the floor—she was busy organising a “charity” gospel music concert for the political A-class at $100 a pop. He had made his intentions clear on national TV: “Buli omu afungane wafungana” (Let the kite perch and let the eagle perch too). He was not going to antagonise anyone.

People looked at Bobi Wine’s dreadlocked hair, his ghetto ruggedness, his sagging jeans and his ghetto swagger and judged him: “He is just excited. He is not politician enough. He should drop the ghetto look. Will he even manage to sustain a debate in the house?” many wondered.

“Come on, the excitement won’t last a month,” a former legislator, now a Permanent Secretary in one of the top ministries, said as we read the tea leaves on Bobi Wine’s coming to Parliament.

People looked at Bobi Wine’s dreadlocked hair, his ghetto ruggedness, his sagging jeans and his ghetto swagger and judged him: “He is just excited. He is not politician enough. He should drop the ghetto look. Will he even manage to sustain a debate in the house?” many wondered.

“The social media noise is from his city fans but Parliament is not a music stage. Reality will hit him and he will retire to his studios to only pick paychecks from Parliament.”

The President too was not that bothered. The National Resistance Movement (NRM) had lost a by-election but so what? It was in a city constituency and the winner was a celebrity.

“We shall do better in other coming by-elections. In any case, they are mostly in NRM strongholds,” Justine Lumumba, the party Secretary General told the press.

However, they forgot to interrogate one thing about this musician-cum-politican: his music.

Born outside Kampala but raised in the squalid slum of Kamwokya, Bobi, as he is fondly called by his crew, knocked his hustle doing all manner of odd jobs, from car washing all the way to starting a ghetto music production house, the Fire Base Crew, composed mainly of his ghetto boys-to-men, from where he spoke truth to power to the struggling youth through music.

He would later attend Makerere University where he got a diploma in Music Dance and Drama – not a minor achievement for a ghetto kid. He bestowed unto himself the title of Ghetto President and the slum dwellers approved.

Bobi bore witness to government inabilities and iniquities toward the wretched of the earth and hit by hit, especially in the two years leading to his joining politics, the Ghetto President articulately and fearlessly stood on the side of the disadvantaged. He rallied young people to believe in themselves and change what they believed was wrong around them.

In Tugambireku Jennifer (Please talk to Jennifer), he tells the story of the plight of hawkers in the city and says they have sent him to plead with the Kampala Capital City Authority boss, Jennifer Musisi, to reduce the bitterness and brutality with which the city council was getting hawkers off the street.

His campaign song, Bikwase Kyagulanyi (Entrust your affairs to Kyagulanyi) was a rags-to-riches testimony targeting the ghetto youth who he referred to as the super youth. He uses himself as an example of a poor ghetto kid who made it to the top without forgetting his roots.

“We work hard not to leave the ghetto but to make the ghetto a better place to live in,” he sings, before asking the youth to go forth and spread the message of hard work and success. “And if anyone does not believe you, use me as the example.”

Bringing the ghetto to Parliament

After being sworn in as MP, Bobi stood on the steps of Parliament and told journalists: “I have brought the ghetto to Parliament”.

“We work hard not to leave the ghetto but to make the ghetto a better place to live in,” he sings, before asking the youth to go forth and spread the message of hard work and success. “And if anyone does not believe you, use me as the example.”

With his unshaded spirit of a hustler and the bounce of a college kid, he was to represent not only Kyadondo East, but the youth who make up more than 75 per cent of Uganda’s population— aggressive about what they want and restless about the future; aware and disapproving of the societal issues like unemployment, the broken health system; and detached from NRM’s post- bush war rhetoric of peace and security that had made the Museveni generation too scared of change for fear that the country would slip back to turmoil.

Uganda’s Parliament is largely youthful, but the majority of the legislators are pro-government and largely silent, toeing the usually unpopular party line.

The opposition in Parliament had become predictably toothless. Divided and outnumbered, they always buckled under NRM’s numerical strength when faced with a controversial subject on the floor. The Majority of the youth had therefore given up on Parliament and taken their political frustrations to social media.

The age limit stage

Having come in at the height of the Presidential Age Limit amendment debate, Bobi Wine brought in the raw energy of the youth. He mobilised fellow anti-amendment legislators and they rolled up their sleeves and literally fought physically in Parliament against the Bill. Just like in ghetto street fights, where fist fights are lost by the outnumbered, Bobi Wine and his group of MPs were out-fought by the security men who bundled them straight to police cells.

They were applauded on social media. At least they went down fighting, many said.

Students of Makerere University immediately invited him to be on a panel to discuss the Mandela legacy. President Museveni was the keynote speaker. To high-pitched clapping and foot stamping from the students gathered in the university’s main hall, Bobi Wine, looking straight in the President’s eye, drew the line that showed that his was a generational cause.

“In their times, the youthful Museveni and all the other revolutionaries did not fold their hands when things were bad. They looked injustice straight in the eye and registered some achievements. I wonder what our President Museveni would be thinking if he were young today,” he said adding a quote from Mandela that “it is up to a generation to be great”.

“I want the young people of this generation to know that every generation has had its challenges. For the Mandelas it was apartheid. For the Musevenis and his comrades it was bad politics and instability. For us it is about unemployment and exclusion and it’s what we have to fight.

“In their times, the youthful Museveni and all the other revolutionaries did not fold their hands when things were bad. They looked injustice straight in the eye and registered some achievements. I wonder what our President Museveni would be thinking if he were young today,” he said adding a quote from Mandela that “it is up to a generation to be great”.

“Mandela spent 27 years in jail but didn’t have a sense of entitlement. He accepted that it was not about himself. He gave chance to the young to take charge of their country as the elderly gave guidance,” Bobi reminded the audience.

After the lecture, the President took to Facebook and accused Bobi Wine of hijacking his audience in Makerere and described him as a liar spreading blackmail after benefiting from the government’s music service development.

The Kyagulanyi People Power effect

As the anti-age limit wave picked up, so did Bobi Wine. He went to Firebase Music Studio and recorded Freedom.

In the song, he breaks down the justification for his stand against the removal of the age limit clause from the constitution. He questioned President Museveni’s pledge in 1986 to bring about fundamental change and said that he now preaches “no change”.

When the opposition set out on a nation-wide campaign against the amendment, the song was picked as their anthem, with the slogan “People Power”.

Bobi Wine’s celebrity status, his definitive message against President Museveni’s government through music, his identification with the youth, and his street twang made him a darling. He became a crowd puller and even though he is in Parliament as an independent, every opposition politician wanted him at their rally. He obliged until more by-elections came about; he then decided to only support independent candidates.

Bobi Wine has never said he is going to contest against President Museveni but in three consecutive parliamentary by-elections, every candidate Bobi supported won. FDC, the erstwhile strong challenger to NRM, came a distant third. The trick, independent candidates knew, was to bring Bobi Wine to their rallies.

The President and the NRM machinery responded by attacking Bobi Wine’s ghetto upbringing. “He is violent. His group is rigging votes. They are using violence to scare NRM voters from voting,” the explanation from NRM went.

Bobi Wine has never said he is going to contest against President Museveni but in three consecutive parliamentary by-elections, every candidate Bobi supported won. FDC, the erstwhile strong challenger to NRM, came a distant third. The trick, independent candidates knew, was to bring Bobi Wine to their rallies.

In Arua, Bobi charged the largely young crowd, telling them he had gone there to liberate the district from NRM and Museveni the same way he had done it in Jinja, Bugiri and Rukungiri districts.

“We find themselves in a situation where they have been postponing a problem hoping it can solve itself. Until a time has come when we must come and we do what we must do.

“The war we have is between the oppressor and the oppressed. A small group of people led by Museveni as the majority of Ugandans being oppressed. I come because we must win this war here in Arua. If we lose, NRM will continue misrepresenting you,” he said.

After the rally, he was picked up, badly beaten and thrown into a military cell. His candidate and 31 others were also locked up and missed the voting. Yet he still won the election.

In jail, Bobi was isolated from the 31 other detainees and moved to a military facility. However, his supporters took to social media with the hashtag #FreeBobiWine that spread the Bobi Wine effect far and wide.

Ugandans in Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom joined the fray and asked Museveni to free Bobi Wine.

Kenyans joined in and marched to the Uganda High Commission. An opposition party in Tanzania wrote to the Uganda government and demanded that he be freed. The Kenyan Young Parliamentarians Association threatened to fly to Kampala and lead a demonstration.

The more the government refused to release a picture of Bobi Wine in detention, the more his lawyers fed the world with updates of how badly he was beaten and how he required urgent medical attention or else he would die.

Young people in major towns across the country took to the streets and lit old car tyres, chanting people power slogans and demanding the release of Bobi Wine. International law and human rights lawyers from America offered pro bono services.

In just a year after joining Parliament, and after attending four parliamentary by-election rallies, Bobi had already caught national and international attention.

But is he a threat to Museveni?

“He seems to inspire very young people that he can actually make them get what they want and he seems to give them an inspiration that it’s possible to come out of the ghetto and become something,” Makerere University Don Sabiiti Makara told NBS TV after the Mandela lecture at Makerere. “He is a factor now and he has become a factor in a very short time and you know the establishment doesn’t want anyone else to become a factor, especially amongst the youth who are the biggest number of voters.”

NRM Chief Whip, Ruth Nankabirwa, has acknowledged the power of Bobi Wine’s celebrity status and how he has used it to achieve his goals.

Stuck with an increasingly aggressive 36-year-old (a year younger than Museveni was when he went to the bush), President Museveni has taken to social media to personally justify the military’s use of excessive force in Arua where Bobi Wine’s driver was killed. Since the Arua chaos, he has put out four missives addressing the near cult-like social media reaction to Bobi Wine’s brutal arrest. In all four posts, he takes the priestly seat of a grandfather addressing his grandchildren and insists that Bobi Wine is an undisciplined grandson

“The problem in Arua was caused by Bobi Wine’s group together with KassianoWadri, who attacked me, a useless action because I am protected and I can defend myself,” he said in one group.

Many responded to his thread by telling him that his time was up and that they wanted him out.

It is hard to tell whether Bobi Wine will muster the courage to contest against President Museveni, but according to Dr Makara, it is clear that the President is yet to find the best way to respond to young Ugandans. “He had mastered how to deal with Besigye, now he doesn’t know how to deal with the Young Turks.”

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Isaac Imaka is a journalist based in Uganda.


Moving, or Changing?

The purpose of the mass and civilizational migrations of Western Europe was the same as now: not simply to move from one point to another, but also from one type of social status to another, to change one’s social standing in relation to the country of origin.



Moving, or Changing?
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Do we move to change, or do we move to stay the same?

That seems to depend on who we were, to begin with. In most cases, it seems we move in an attempt to become even more of whatever we think we are.

A good Kenyan friend of mine once (deliberately) caused great offense in a Nairobi nightspot encounter with a group of Ugandans he came across seated at a table. There were six or seven of them, all clearly not just from the same country, but from the same part of the country.

“It always amazes me,” he said looking over their Western Uganda features, “how people will travel separately for thousands of miles only to meet up so as to recreate their villages.

He moved along quickly.

“Most African Migration Remains Intraregional” is a headline on the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies website:

Most African migration remains on the continent, continuing a long-established pattern. Around 21 million documented Africans live in another African country, a figure that is likely an undercount given that many African countries do not track migration. Urban areas in Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt are the main destinations for this inter-African migration, reflecting the relative economic dynamism of these locales.

Among African migrants who have moved off the continent, some 11 million live in Europe, almost 5 million in the Middle East, and more than 3 million in America.

More Africans may be on the move now than at any time since the end of enslavement, or perhaps the two large European wars. Even within the African continent itself. They navigate hostilities in the cause of movement—war, poverty and environmental collapse.

The last 500 years have seen the greatest expression of the idea of migration for the purpose of staying the same (or shall we say, becoming even more of what one is). The world has been transformed by the movement of European peoples, who have left a very visible cultural-linguistic stamp on virtually all corners of the earth. It is rarely properly understood as a form of migration.

It took place in three forms. The first was a search for riches by late feudal Western European states, in a bid to solve their huge public debts, and also enrich the nobility. This was the era of state-sponsored piracy and wars of aggression for plunder against indigenous peoples. The second form was the migration of indentured Europeans to newly conquered colonial spaces. The third was the arrival of refugees fleeing persecution borne of feudal and industrial poverty, which often took religious overtones.

Certainly, new spaces often create new opportunities, but only if the migrants concerned are allowed to explore the fullness of their humanity and creativity. The historical record shows that some humans have done this at the expense of other humans.

A key story of the world today seems to be the story of how those that gained from the mass and civilizational migrations of Western Europe outwards remain determined to keep the world organised in a way that enables them to hold on to those gains at the expense of the places to which they have migrated.

We can understand the invention and development of the modern passport—or at least its modern application—as an earlier expression of that. Originally, passports were akin to visas, issued by authorities at a traveler’s intended destination as permission to move through the territory. However, as described by Giulia Pines in National Geographic, established in 1920 by the League of Nations, “a Western-centric organization trying to get a handle on a post-war world”, the current passport regime “was almost destined to be an object of freedom for the advantaged, and a burden for others”. Today the dominant immigration models (certainly from Europe) seem based around the idea of a fortress designed to keep people out, while allowing those keeping the people out to go into other places at will, and with privilege, to take out what they want.

Certainly, new spaces often create new opportunities, but only if the migrants concerned are allowed to explore the fullness of their humanity and creativity.

For me, the greatest contemporary expression of “migration as continuity” has to be the Five Eyes partnership. This was an information-sharing project based on a series of satellites owned by the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Its original name was “Echelon”, and it has grown to function as a space-based listening system, spying on telecommunications on a global scale – basically, space-based phone tapping.

All the countries concerned are the direct products of the global migration and settlement of specifically ethnic English Europeans throughout the so-called New World, plus their country of origin. The method of their settlement are now well known: genocide and all that this implies. The Five Eyes project represents their banding together to protect the gains of their global ethnic settlement project.

In the United States, many families that have become prominent in public life have a history rooted, at least in part, in the stories of immigrants. The Kennedys, who produced first an Ambassador to the United Kingdom, and then through his sons and grandsons, a president, an attorney general, and a few senators, made their fortune as part of a gang of Irish immigrants to America involved in the smuggling of illicit alcohol in the period when the alcohol trade was illegal in the United States.

Recent United States president Donald Trump is descended from a German grandfather who, having arrived in 1880s America as a teenage barber, went on to make money as a land forger, casino operator and brothel keeper. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States was the paternal grandson of a trader named Warren, a descendant of Dutch settlers who made his fortune smuggling opium into China in the 1890s.

While it is true that the entire story of how Europeans came to be settled in all the Americas is technically a story of criminality, whether referred to as such or not, the essential point here is that many of the ancestors of these now prominent Americans would not have passed the very same visa application requirements that they impose on present-day applicants.

The purpose of migrations then was the same as it is now: not simply to move from one point to another, but also from one type of social status to another. It was about finding wealth, and through that, buying a respectability that had not been accessible in the country of origin. So, the point of migration was in a sense, not to migrate, but to change one’s social standing.

And once that new situation has been established, then all that is left is to build a defensive ring around that new status. So, previously criminal American families use the proceeds of their crime to build large mansions, and fill the rooms with antiques and heirlooms, and seek the respectability (not to mention business opportunities) of public office.

Many of the ancestors of these now prominent Americans would not have passed the very same visa application requirements that they put to present-day applicants.

European countries that became rich through the plunder of what they now call the “developing world”, build immigration measures designed to keep brown people out while allowing the money keep coming in. They build large cities, monuments and museums, and also rewrote their histories just as the formerly criminal families have done.

Thus the powers that created a world built on migration cannot be taken seriously when they complain about present-day migration.

Migration is as much about the “here” you started from, as it about the “there” you are headed to. It is not about assimilating difference; it is about trying to keep the “here” unchanged, and then to re-allocate ourselves a new place in that old sameness. This is why we go “there”.

This may explain the “old-new” names so common to the mass European migration experience. They carry the names of their origins, and impose them on the new places. Sometimes, they add the word “New” before the old name, and use migrant-settler phrases like “the old country”, “back east”. They then seek to choose a new place to occupy in the old world they seek to recreate, that they could not occupy in the old world itself. But as long as the native still exists, then the settler remains a migrant. And the settler state remains a migrant project.

To recreate the old world, while creating a new place for themselves in it, , such migrants also strive to make the spaces adapt to this new understanding of their presence that they now seek to make real.

I once witness a most ridiculous fight between three Ugandan immigrants in the UK. It took place on the landing of the social housing apartment of two of them, man and wife, against the third, until that moment, their intended house guest. As his contribution to their household, the guest had offered to bring a small refrigerator he owned. However, when the two men went to collect the fridge in a small hired van, the driver explained that traffic laws did not permit both to ride up front with him – one would have to ride in the back with the fridge. The fridge owner, knowing the route better, was nominated to sit up front, to which his friend took great and immediate exception; he certainly had not migrated to London to be consigned to the back of a van like a piece of cargo. After making his way home via public means, and discussing his humiliation with his good wife, the arrangement was called off – occasioning a bitter confrontation with the bewildered would-be guest.

There must have been so many understandings of the meaning of their migration to Britain, but like the Europeans of the New World, the Ugandans had settled on replicating the worst of what they were running from in an attempt to become what they were never going to be allowed to be back home.

A good case in point is the ethnic Irish communities in Boston and New York, whose new-found whiteness—having escaped desperate poverty, oppression and famine under British colonial rule on what were often referred to as “coffin ships” —saw them create some of the most racist and brutal police forces on the East Coast. They did not just migrate physically; they did so socially and economically as well.

It starts even with naming.

The word “migrant” seems to belong more to certain races than to others, although that also changes. When non-white, normally poor people are on the move, they can get labeled all sorts of things: refugees, economic migrants, immigrants, illegals, encroachments, wetbacks and the like.

With white-skinned people, the language was often different. Top of the linguistic league is the word “expatriate”, to refer to any number of European-origin people moving to, or through, or settling in, especially Africa.

According to news reports, some seven million Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion were absorbed by their neighboring European countries, most of which are members of the European Union. Another 8 million remain displaced within the war-torn country.

This is an outcome of which the Europeans are proud. They have even emphasized how the racial and cultural similarities between themselves and the Ukrainian refugees have made the process easier, if not a little obligatory.

This sparked off a storm of commentary in which comparisons were made with the troubles earlier sets of refugees (especially from the Middle East and Afghanistan) faced as the fled their own wars and tried to enter Western Europe.

And the greatest irony is that the worst treatment they received en-route was often in the countries of Eastern Europe.

Many European media houses were most explicit in expressing their shock that a war was taking place in Europe (they thought they were now beyond such things), and in supporting the position that the “white Christian” refugees from Ukraine should be welcomed with open arms, unlike the Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians before them.

Human migration was not always like this.

Pythagoras (570-495 BC), the scholar from Ancient Greece, is far less well remembered as a migrant and yet his development as a thinker is attributable to the 22 or so years he spent as a student and researcher in Ancient Egypt. The same applies to Plato, who spent13 years in Egypt.

There is not that much evidence to suggest that Pythagoras failed to explain where he got all his learning from. If anything, he seems to have been quite open in his own writing about his experiences, first as an apprentice and later a fellow scholar in the Egyptian knowledge systems. The racial make-up of Ancient Egypt, and its implications, was far from becoming the political battleground it is today.

Top of the linguistic league is the word “expatriate” to refer to any number of European-origin people moving to, or through, or settling in, especially Africa.

Classic migration was about fitting in. Colonial migration demands that the new space adapt to accommodate the migrant. The idea of migrants and modern migration needs to be looked at again from its proper wider 500-year perspective. People of European descent, with their record of having scattered and forcibly imposed themselves all over the world, should be the last people to express anxieties about immigrants and migration.

With climate change, pandemic cycles, and the economic collapse of the west in full swing, we should also focus on the future of migration. As was with the case for Europeans some two to three hundred years ago, life in Europe is becoming rapidly unlivable for the ordinary European. The combination of the health crisis, the energy crisis, the overall financial crisis and now a stubborn war, suggests that we may be on the threshold of a new wave of migration of poor Europeans, as they seek cheaper places to live.

The advantages to them are many. Large areas of the south of the planet are dominated physically, financially and culturally, by some level of Western values, certainly at a structural level. Just think how many countries in the world use the Greco-Latin origin word “police” to describe law enforcement. These southern spaces have already been sufficiently Westernized to enable a Westerner to live in them without too much of a cultural adjustment on their part. The Westerners are coming back.

This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.

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The Iron Grip of the International Monetary System: CFA Franc, Hyper-Imperial Economies and the Democratization of Money

Cameroonian economist Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi died in 1984, either poisoned or by suicide. His ideas about the international monetary system and the CFA franc are worth revisiting.



The Iron Grip of the International Monetary System: CFA Franc, Hyper-Imperial Economies and the Democratization of Money
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Despite being one of Africa’s greatest economists, Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi is little known outside Francophone intellectual circles. Writing in the 1970s, he offered a stinging rebuke of orthodox monetary theory and policy from an African perspective that remains relevant decades later. Especially powerful are his criticisms of the international monetary system and the CFA franc, the regional currency in West and Central Africa that has historically been pegged to the French currency—at first the franc, and now the euro.

Pouemi was born on November 13th, 1937, to a Bamiléké family in Bangoua, a village in western Cameroon. After obtaining his baccalaureate and working as a primary school teacher, Pouemi moved to France in 1960, where he studied law, mathematics, and economics at the University of Clermont-Ferrand. Pouemi then worked as a university professor and policy adviser in Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire. In 1977, he joined the IMF but quit soon after, vehemently disagreeing with its policies. He returned to Cameroon and published his magnum opus, Money, Servitude, and Freedom, in 1980. The recently elected president of Cameroon, Paul Biya, appointed Pouemi head of the University of Douala in August 1983—then fired him a year later. On December 27th, 1984, Pouemi was found dead of an apparent suicide in a hotel room. Some of his friends and students argue he was poisoned by the Biya regime (which still governs Cameroon), while others believe that harassment by Biya’s cronies drove Pouemi to suicide.

International Monetary System

Writing in the turbulent 1970s after the breakdown of the Bretton Woods regime of fixed exchange rates, Pouemi anticipated the three “fundamental flaws” with the international monetary “non-system”: one, using a national currency, the US dollar, as global currency; two, placing the burden of adjustment exclusively on deficit nations; and, three, the “inequity bias” of the foreign reserve system, which makes it a form of “reverse aid.” All three issues have been highlighted by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Long recognized as a problem, the challenges with using the US dollar as the world’s currency have once again become apparent. Low- and middle-income countries (which include essentially all African countries) have to deal with the vicissitudes of the global financial cycles emanating from the center of the global capitalist system. As the Federal Reserve raises interest rates to combat inflation by engineering a recession—because if borrowing costs rise, people have less money to spend and prices will decrease—they are increasing the debt burden of African governments that have variable-rate loans in US dollars. Already, the World Bank has warned of a looming debt crisis and the potential for another “lost decade” like the 1980s. Moreover, higher interest rates in the US lead to the depreciation of African currencies, making imports more expensive and leading to even higher food and oil prices across the continent.

Pouemi viewed the IMF’s attempt to create a global currency through the 1969 establishment of the special drawing rights (SDR) system as an inadequate response to the problems created by using the US dollar. The issuance of SDRs essentially drops money from the sky into the savings accounts of governments around the world. The IMF has only issued SDRs four times in its history, most recently in August 2021 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With African governments dealing with falling export earnings and the need to import greater amounts of personal protective equipment—and, eventually, vaccines—there was a clear need to bolster their savings, i.e., foreign reserves. The problem is that the current formula for allocating SDRs provides 60% of them to the richest countries—countries that do not need them, since they can and have borrowed in their own currencies. Of the new 456 billion SDR (approximately US$650 billion), the entire African continent received only 5% (about US$33 billion).

Decades ago, Pouemi had slammed SDRs as “arbitrary in three respects: the determination of their volume, their allocation and the calculation of their value.” Instead, Pouemi advocated for a truly global currency, one that could be issued by a global central bank in response to global recessions and that prioritized financing for the poorest countries. Such a reorientation of SDRs could provide a way of repaying African nations for colonialism and climate change.

Secondly, unable to get the financing they need, African governments with balance-of-payments deficits (when more money leaves a country than enters in a given year) have no choice but to shrink their economies. Pouemi strongly criticized the IMF, which he dubbed the “Instant Misery Fund” for applying the same “stereotypical, invariable remedies: reduce public expenditures, limit credit, do not subsidize nationalized enterprises” regardless of the source of a country’s deficits. Devaluing the currency is unlikely to work for small countries that are price takers in world markets and instead improves the trade balance by lowering domestic spending. The IMF has become “a veritable policeman to repress governments that attempt to offer their countries a minimum of welfare.” The current international monetary non-system then creates a global “deflationary bias,” since those countries with balance-of-payments deficits must reduce their spending, while those with large surpluses—like Germany, China, Japan, and the Netherlands—face little pressure to decrease their surpluses by spending more.

The third major issue with the current international monetary non-system is that developing countries have to accumulate foreign exchange reserves denominated in “hard” currencies like US dollars and euros, which means they are forced to transfer real resources to richer countries in return for financial assets—mere IOUs. Pouemi claimed that “if the international monetary system was not ‘rigged,’ reserves would be held as other goods like coffee or cocoa, gold for example. But the system is ‘rigged’; coffee reserves are quantified as dollars, pound sterling or non-convertible francs.” Instead, in the late 1970s, governments like that of Rwanda effectively lent coffee to the United States by using export earnings to purchase US treasury bills, whose real value was being quickly eroded by high inflation in the US. Hence, we live in a world where developing countries like China and Brazil lend money to rich governments like that of the US. As Pouemi explains: “The logic of the international monetary system wants the poor to lend to—what am I saying—give to the rich.”

CFA franc

Pouemi was also a harsh critic of the CFA franc, since maintaining the fixed exchange rate to the euro implies abandoning an autonomous monetary policy and the need to restrict commercial bank credit. Pouemi also argued that the potential benefits and costs of currency unions are different for rich and poor countries, and that therefore it is inappropriate to analyze African monetary unions through a European lens. His thoughts are especially relevant at a moment when the future of the CFA franc and West African monetary integration are up for debate.

In theory, by fixing the exchange rate to the euro, the two regional central banks that issue the CFA franc—the Banque centrale des états de l’Afrique de l’ouest (Central Bank of West African States) and the Banque centrale des états de l’Afrique centrale (Central Bank of Central African States)—have relinquished monetary policy autonomy. They have to mimic the European Central Bank’s policy rates instead of setting interest rates that reflect economic conditions in the CFA zone. The amount of CFA francs in circulation is also limited by the amount of foreign reserves each regional central bank holds in euros. Therefore, “the solidity of the CFA franc is based on restricting M [the money supply], a restriction not desired by the states, but one proceeding from the very architecture of the zone.” As a result, the economies of the CFA franc zone are starved of credit, especially farmers and small businesses, hindering growth and development. In Pouemi’s words, “There is no doubt, the CFA remains fundamentally a currency of the colonial type.”

When discussing the possibilities for a single currency for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Pouemi stressed that the potential benefits and costs of currency union are different for rich and poor countries. “There is not only a difference of perception of the mechanisms of cooperation” between Europe and Africa, “there’s a difference of the conception of common life. Economic cooperation as it is conceived in the industrialized West is the Kennedy Round, North-South dialogue, the EEC, etc.—in other words, essentially ‘customs disarmament’ or common defense; armament is the rule, disarmament the exception.” In Africa, however, economic cooperation is a positive-sum game. Conventional economic theory argues against monetary integration among African countries, since they trade little with each other. But to Pouemi, the goal of monetary integration is precisely to get these countries to trade more with one another. He also questions the view that monetary integration should come last, following the same sequence as the European Union from free trade zone to customs union to common market and, finally, to currency union. “This view is not only imaginary, it is practically non-verified; we have seen examples. Theoretically, it is indefensible: a 10% decrease in tariffs could be … offset by a devaluation of 10%.”

Pouemi also dismissed arguments that Nigeria would dominate the proposed ECOWAS single currency as another example of the classic colonialist tactic of “divide and conquer.” While he acknowledged that “monetary union between unequal partners poses problems,” these are “only problems, open to solutions.” They do not make monetary integration unviable. Such integration need not limit sovereignty. In a regional or continental African monetary union, no “currency would be the reserve of others. Each country would have its own central bank, free to conduct the policy that best suits the directives judged necessary by the government. The only loss of sovereignty following such a union would be the respect of the collective balance. It would not be appropriated by anyone; it would be at the service of all. It would be, for that matter, less a loss of sovereignty than the collective discipline necessary to all communal life.”

Pouemi advocated for an African monetary union with fixed exchange rates between members, the pooling of foreign reserves, and a common unit of account—like the European Currency Unit that preceded the euro. He thought that the debate over whether the CFA franc is overvalued is misguided, since there is no a priori reason for its members to have the same exchange rate. Fixed but adjustable exchange rates—as in the Bretton Woods system or European Monetary System—would allow each nation greater monetary and exchange rate policy autonomy. Settling payments using a common unit of account instead of foreign exchange reserves would help economize on the latter. Moving toward the free movement of capital, goods and labor—as envisioned by the African Continental Free Trade Area—would help diffuse shocks through the monetary union. Finally, such a union would need to have a common policy on capital controls or at least collective supervision of international capital flows.

As Pouemi so eloquently lamented: “History will hold on to the fact that all of [Africa’s] children that have tried to make her respected have perished, one after the other, by African hands, without having the time to serve her.” We do not know what Pouemi could have accomplished had he had the time to serve Africa for longer. All we can do is heed his call that “in Africa, money needs to stop being the domain of a small number of ‘specialists’ pretending to be magicians.”

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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The Post-colonial Kenyan State: The Thorn in Our Flesh

The lesson from political economist Rok Ajulu’s academic work and activism: it’s not enough to change the “tenants,” but fight to change both the “state” and all of its houses.



The Post Colonial Kenyan State: The Thorn in Our Flesh
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In early May 2022, with almost three months to the August election, Kenya had close to 50 presidential candidates, and 5,000 people running for the 1,500 Member of County Assembly (MCA) positions. Ultimately, not all of these aspirants will be cleared by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) (more like “blunder commission” judging from the 2017 elections and its lack of preparedness for the August 2022 poll), but the question remains—one that the political economist, Rok Ajulu, asked in his 2021 book Post-Colonial Kenya: The Rise of an Authoritarian and Predatory State: what is it about the post-colonial state in Africa that makes so many people want to control it?

In this impressive compendium, Ajulu chronologically and exhaustively mapped out the authoritarian turns of the Kenyan post-colonial state. In doing so, he documented the predatory nature of the colonial regime and how three successive African governments— headed respectively by Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel Arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki—have built on this legacy and, in addition, weaponized ethnicity at specific junctures to consolidate control and accumulation. And not just any accumulation: predatory and parasitic hoarding—in the sum of trillions of dollars and with many detrimental effects for the population—that is only possible when steered, despite declarations to the contrary from the top.

While he charts the oscillating, often moderate and neo-imperial allegiances of actors such as Jomo Kenyatta (the late father of outgoing president, Uhuru), Tom Mboya and Moi—none of whom were great fans of the Mau Mau—Ajulu’s focus is on how the state “becomes brazenly the instrument of the dominant political elite. This type of regime gravitates towards authoritarian dispensation of power precisely because economic mobility and expansion of the new elite is largely tied to their continued control of state-power.”

This thesis, while not unique to Ajulu and recognized in everyday discourse, is anchored here in a prolific and comprehensive archive, which also makes evident, as does the author, that the predatory pursuits of politicians are not unencumbered, even against the heavy-handed authoritarian implements (read political assassinations, state sanctioned ethnic clashes) they use to entrench them. Although Ajulu does not dwell on protests or resistances  to this authoritarian rule over four decades(please read this powerful book by Maina wa Kinyatti for that), and focuses primarily on party politics and the trajectories of (in)famous politicians to narrate the incremental creation of an authoritarian state in Kenya, the constant tug and pull of class tensions and the heterogeneous actions of supposedly homogeneous ethnic populations are always on the horizon.

Who is this man Rok Ajulu? In the short film about him called Breakfast in Kisumu, his daughter, the filmmaker Rebecca Achieng Ajulu-Bushell, documents his academic and political labors dating to his exile from Kenya in the early 1970s. Oriented around interviews she had with him—and it is his narrations that piece together the diverse landscapes that are the visuals for this film (we actually, interestingly, barely see Ajulu)—his voice takes us through his life as a student, political activist  and academic, in a journey that spans Bulgaria, Lesotho, the UK and South Africa. The evocative images of these countries where Rok Ajulu lived, while recent, anchor this narrative that accounts for a life of political praxes in academia and beyond. Though his sojourns mainly pivot around academic pursuits, we also hear about his labors as an agricultural worker in Bulgaria, a pirate taxi driver in Fulham, London and, importantly, as an organizer with the Committee for Action and Solidarity for Southern African Students (CASSAS) while at the National University of Lesotho in the late 1970s and early 1980s (for this work he was imprisoned for three weeks).

It is, perhaps, this period as an anti-apartheid organizer in Lesotho that created the path to a life in South Africa from 1994. Here he taught at Rhodes University and married Lindiwe Sisulu, the current Minister of Tourism (and one of the aspirants vying to succeed Cyril Ramaphosa as South Africa’s next president), and daughter of renowned anti-apartheid activists Walter and Albertina Sisulu. Consequently, it is in South Africa, rather than Kenya, where his influence was more extensive, even as Kenya appears to have been the primary focus of his academic scholarship.

Ajulu-Bushell’s poetic film demonstrates that her father’s life was not ordinary. But it is perhaps the internationalist and pan-African paths he chose that led her to recognize him, as she does in this film, as a “father” but not a “parent.” Her bid to understand her father’s life as an adult and, simultaneously, to document his political praxes, appear to be what has prompted this documentary. While the style of the film may not be for everyone—there are a few seemingly gratuitous appearances of the filmmaker—Breakfast in Kisumu is an important tribute to a father, and one who is representative of a generation who endured many unanticipated and painful exiles for nations and lands which did not always claim them, but for which they gave their lives.

As the final book Ajulu wrote before he died of cancer in 2016, Post-Colonial Kenya: The Rise of an Authoritarian and Predatory State is informed by questions that, likely, the author grappled with throughout his life.

Against the impending 2022 Kenya general elections that are not cause for much inspiration —with the male dominated alliances, handshakes, intrigues and elite contestations that characterize it—Ajulu’s thesis still rings true: that the state is the primary vehicle for accumulation and thus engenders a predatory authoritarianism by those who want to control it.

After years in an exile(s) documented by Ajulu-Bushell’s film, I’m not sure how optimistic Ajulu was for our Kenyan future, for he wrote in his final book: “Besides the change of tenants at the state house, not much really changed. The mandarins who used to lord it over the hapless rank and file remained in their same old places.”

At the very least, this generation can turn to the histories Rok Ajulu has documented in his book, as well as those he lived, to reflect on how, for this election and the next, we are not just going to change the “tenants,” but will fight to change both the “state” and all of its houses.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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