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Kenya’s New Prison Industrial Complex: Fundamental Flaws in Uhuru Kenyatta’s Plan to Make Jails Profitable

10 min read. CHRISTINE MUNGAI explores Kenya’s new prison industrial complex and unearths the fundamental flaws in Jubilee’s plan to make jails profitable.

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KENYA’S NEW PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX: Fundamental flaws in Uhuru Kenyatta’s plan to make jails profitable
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“When I first became involved in anti-prison activism dur­ing the late 1960s, I was astounded to learn that there were then close to two hundred thousand people in prison. Had anyone told me that in three decades, ten times as many peo­ple would be locked away in cages, I would have been absolutely incredulous.” ~ Angela Davis

In the one hundred years between the mid-1850s and 1980s – a period of nearly 130 years – the state of California constructed a total of nine prisons and two prison camps. But in the five years between 1984 and 1989, nine more prisons were constructed. It had taken more than a century to build the first nine prisons in California, and less than a decade for that number to double. Today, there are 34 state prisons in California, and this is not counting federal prisons or county jails – the equivalent of Kenya’s police cells. The state of California also has 43 prison “conservation” camps, whose inmates are procured to fight wildfires and respond to other public emergencies.

That the US is running a Prison Industrial Complex has been well documented. America accounts for just 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners. Ava DuVernay’s gripping 2016 documentary, 13th, expertly tracks the policies, systems and forces that have pressed more than 2.3 million Americans – overwhelmingly black and Latino – into the prison system, so much so that in some neighbourhoods, going to prison is almost a normal rite of passage.

But what the figures above from California reveal is that the processes that produce mass incarceration of an entire demographic can be astonishingly rapid and diabolically efficient.

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“The first thing that happened when we got there is we were told to strip. In the open. All wardens sitting there watching. I think this was the worst thing to happen to us. We were many. The indignity of standing naked in front of strangers…” ~ Anonymous submission to #PrisonDiaries (courtesy of @MarigaThoithi)

 In early October, a press statement from the Presidential Strategic Communications Unit (PSCU) revealed a plan to establish the Kenya Prison Enterprise Corporation, a “state enterprise” that would reportedly expand the scope of prison work programmes “with the aim of unlocking the revenue potential of the prisons industry, and ultimately turn it into a reformative and financially self-sustaining entity.”

The new corporation will also contribute to the realisation of President [Uhuru] Kenyatta’s Big 4 Agenda, particularly food security, affordable housing, and manufacturing,” a statement from State House said. The corporation will be mandated to “organise and manage” the assets of the Prisons Department, including 86 prison farms with a total of over 18,200 acres of land. The corporation will, at some point, “foster ease of entry into partnership with the private sector on different spheres” – a vague statement that could include private contracting of anything from construction of prison facilities to full operations.

As Michael Onsando at BrainstormKE has argued, the plan to “unlock the revenue potential” of the prison industry is linked to the current financial distress in the Jubilee administration, as well as to a desire to make some gains in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s “legacy” term.

However, it is horrifying to think that the way to kill two birds – job creation and industrialisation – is by the deadly stone of expanding the prison sector, corralling people into a pool of cheap labour with almost no rights. Granted, there are many different privatisation models. Private firms can be contracted to build prisons, to manage them, or both. Countries such as the US, UK and Australia have privatised the entire chain of operations from construction to day-to-day operations, while in Europe the trend is to outsource specific functions, such as catering, administration, healthcare and security. In many Asian prisons, the private sector is more directly involved in the prison industry by contracting inmates to work in for-profit factories or firms. Kenya seems to be leaning towards a mixed model, where the corporation, for now, remains fully state-owned but is run with a private sector ethos.

As Michael Onsando at BrainstormKE has argued, the plan to “unlock the revenue potential” of the prison industry is linked to the current financial distress in the Jubilee administration, as well as to a desire to make some gains in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s “legacy” term.

Kenya’s prisons house nearly 50,000 people in facilities designed to hold 14,000. Stories of horrific conditions of disease, vermin and lack of food are common.

Most of the support for the privatisation of prisons is in the form of two arguments: one, that the private sector can run prisons better than governments can; and two, and that prisons ought to support themselves financially.

The evidence is mixed on the first claim; privatisation does not always save money or improve efficiency. A 2011 investigative report by the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that private prisons “do not save money, cannot be demonstrated to save money in meaningful amounts, or may even cost more than government prisons.”

A value-for-money study commissioned by the Dutch government found that while operational costs in private prisons were reduced by 2-13%, savings disappeared once transaction and other financial costs were taken into account.

Some countries have rejected proposals to privatise prisons. In Costa Rica, although the government had signed a pre-contract to build a private prison with a capacity for 1,200 inmates at $73 million, it did not proceed with the deal, instead opting to build facilities at its own expense for 2,600 inmates at $10million. The Costa Rican government realised that going along with the deal would mean being locked into a contract that would spend $37 daily per inmate for 20 years, while in the state prisons the amount was $11. (Inmates in state facilities made up 80% of the prison population.) The government cancelled the contract, and opted instead to improve the situation of all inmates, raising the daily per capita amount to $16 for all those under confinement.

In South Africa, the government took over a private prison in Bloemfontein because G4S – the private security company contracted to run the prison – “had lost effective control of the facility”. Investigations were launched into allegations that some prisoners had been forcibly injected with anti-psychotic medication and subjected to electric shocks.

The second claim – that private prisons should be able to support themselves financially – is deeply rooted in a neoliberal ethos that judges the value of everything through the logic of the market. We see this in the announcement of the plan by PSCU, which stated that unlocking the revenue potential of the prisons industry would ultimately turn it into “a reformative and financially self-sustaining entity”.

In South Africa, the government took over a private prison in Bloemfontein because G4S – the private security company contracted to run the prison – “had lost effective control of the facility”. Investigations were launched into allegations that some prisoners had been forcibly injected with anti-psychotic medication and subjected to electric shocks.

The framing of this proposal is curious, particularly in the way it connects reformation with financial independence. It is neoliberalism offering rehabilitation through success in the market. (No wonder that the phrase “prominent Nairobi businessman/ woman” is often used to sanitise the reputation of people mired in scandal.)

Moreover, in a place like Kenya, where government contracts are often irregularly awarded and where corruption is endemic, privatisation can actually result in degraded services. Already, detectives are investigating a Sh6.2 billion scandal at the Prisons Department. A senior detective revealed a few weeks ago that investigators from the Directorate of Criminal Investigations and the anti-graft commission were closing in on suspects behind the suspicious spending on prisoners’ food, which was cleared last year although it is still marked as a pending bill.

Now, by linking the prisons sector with President Kenyatta’s Big 4 Agenda, we are likely to see the emergence of a “hard-working performer” at the helm of the prison corporation who will point to the profits at the end of the prison pipeline as evidence of “cleaning up” the ailing penal system.

***

“The perpetrator is a product of criminal discourse and a victim of institutions that claim to deter crime, but are actually invested in perpetrating a police state where everyone is under surveillance and on the border of falling into criminality.” ~ Michel Foucault

All this is happening in a worrying context of a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets the young, the poor and the urban. Last year, a damning audit by the National Council on the Administration of Justice revealed that the Kenyan state is essentially at war with informality. In practical terms, poverty is a crime.

Not only that, colonial laws against offences like vagrancy and loitering remain on our statute books and are vigorously enforced – as Carey Baraka articulated on the perils of being a young man on the streets of Nairobi and being forced to prove your existence by producing an ID card on demand. In fact, demands for ID documents assume that the black body in the city is not legitimate and must be accounted for.

“It’s an assumption that Africans can never be urban,” says city planner Constant Cap. “If you are urban, then you are not a real African, and you must explain your presence in the city to the powers that be. Our cities are actually not planned with us in mind – it is like they are not expecting permanent residents, just itinerant workers who trade their labour.”

This means that nearly 70% of court cases in our criminal judicial system are criminally petty, nuisance offences, or economically-driven (such as being drunk and disorderly, trading without a licence, loitering, causing a disturbance, or “preparing to commit a felony”). The dragnet is so large and indiscriminate that a Kenyan adult has a 1 in 10 chance of spending some time in police custody over the course of a year, although these figures skew heavily towards those who are young, male and poor.

In some ways, it is a logic that leans towards universal punishment rather than supporting universal prosperity – even for the small street trader who is really not doing anyone any harm, and certainly does not deserve jail time. As the economy continues to be depressed, we are likely to see more people who are unable to secure formal employment and who turn to informal trading on the street. This will make them more vulnerable to police harassment and arbitrary arrest.

A recent investigation by Nation Newsplex revealed that there are more pre-trial detainees incarcerated in Kenya than convicted prisoners; 90% of those in remand have been granted bail but cannot afford it even though more than half of the bails were set at less than Sh250,000 (roughly $2,500). In other words, there are immediate better outcomes for being rich and guilty than poor and innocent.

Meanwhile, the Judiciary is reeling from huge budget cuts this year. It had requested Sh31 billion to fund its operations for the current financial year but it was allocated Sh17 billion by the National Treasury. The latter figure was further reduced by Parliament to Sh14 billion. This means that judicial officers will likely be under more pressure to arrest and fine, as a prosecutor in the Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP) told me. “Petty offences are prosecuted vigorously in the judicial system because they are quick and easy to prove – the only witness needed in most cases is a police officer,” she said. “And the fines are now an even important source of money for the Judiciary.”

A recent investigation by Nation Newsplex revealed that there are more pre-trial detainees incarcerated in Kenya than convicted prisoners; 90% of those in remand have been granted bail but cannot afford it even though more than half of the bails were set at less than Sh250,000 (roughly $2,500). In other words, there are immediate better outcomes for being rich and guilty than poor and innocent.

It doesn’t help that the key performance indicators (KPIs) for judicial officers are convictions. The gravity of the case doesn’t matter because “a conviction is a conviction, and magistrates get promoted on the basis of the number, not the type, of convictions,” the prosecutor told me, “even if the charges are just trespassing, hawking, illegal grazing, and the like.”

How might the profit incentive in the prisons change the trends in convictions and sentencing? “I definitely see a possibility for it to be more profitable to send people to jail than to fine them,” the prosecutor said. “Remandees are often given work to do things like sweep the governor’s compound – a profit motive in prisons will escalate this, and it will be framed as a favour to prisoners.”

***

But this is not all. The Kenyan education system is undergoing two major changes. On the one hand, the new curriculum has an increased focus on technical and vocational skills, and less of an emphasis on academic subjects. On the other hand, there is increased surveillance and militarisation of the school system, with authorities, including the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) and the Education Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed, issuing threats of a criminal record and jail time for students who protest or who are implicated in anti-social behaviour.

“This is to warn every student from primary school, secondary school, college and university that the DCI is archiving and profiling every criminal act and consolidating charges that may be preferred to each and every student involved in any crime,” the DCI tweeted in June.

A school-to-prison pipeline is therefore not far-fetched. With the new curriculum putting students on individual “talent” pathways, it will be easy to explain student failures on their lack of talent, thereby obscuring the bigger structural issues that might be at play. And now, students cannot complain, or they risk jail time.

“[The] negative characterization of poor and largely nonwhite youth is in sync with the broader push to replace social services with criminalization,” Alex Vitale writes in “The Criminalization of Youth”, an article in Jacobin magazine. “As more and more deprived neighborhoods are denied access to decent jobs and schools, their young people are criminalized as ‘the worst of the worst’ to ensure that the problems in these communities are understood as individual and group moral failures, rather than the result of rapacious market forces and a hollowed-out state.”

***

“Companies that service the criminal sys­tem need sufficient quantities of raw materials to guarantee long-term growth . . . In the criminal jus­tice field, the raw material is prisoners and indus­try will do what is necessary to guarantee a steady supply. For the supply of prisoners to grow, criminal justice policies must ensure a sufficient number of incarcerated [people] regardless of whether crime is rising or the incarceration is necessary.” Steven Donziger

Three new menacing forces – the profit motive of privatised prisons, a depressed economy with fewer formal jobs and more informal trade, and a more militarised school system with jail sentences for unruly students – are likely to work with diabolical synergy to push an increasing number of young people into the criminal justice system.

This should worry us all because mere contact with the system leaves “a stain of criminality”, my prosecutor friend told me. “I’ve seen children and young people enter the criminal justice system for a small reason that could have been handled at home or in the community – and by the time the system is done with them, they are into proper crime: hardened, disillusioned and angry.”

Three new menacing forces – the profit motive of privatised prisons, a depressed economy with fewer formal jobs and more informal trade, and a more militarised school system with jail sentences for unruly students – are likely to work with diabolical synergy to push an increasing number of young people into the criminal justice system.

This is not a feature of a broken state apparatus; on the contrary, the state is acting just as it was designed to act, as Keguro Macharia reminds us:

One reads Kenyans demanding colonial systems work better, and weeps. 

– “we need police to do their work properly”

– “we need the laws implemented properly”

– “we need the judicial systems to work properly”

If you are being unhumaned, those systems are working properly.

If you are being executed, those systems are working properly.

If you are feeling frustrated and humiliated, those systems are working properly.

The demand cannot be that systems designed to unhuman Africans work properly.

The demand is abolition.

And as for Uhuru Kenyatta achieving the Big 4 agenda through prison “reform”, it would be worth looking at how the US government systematically and cynically deprived its black and brown citizens of liberty at a huge cost even to itself. Instead of building good public housing like the Housing Acts of 1949/65/68 mandated, the US rapidly built prisons. So in an evil kind of way, the US did end up investing in public housing – in jail.

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Christine Mungai is a writer and journalist. She was a 2018 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

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The Real Story Behind the Dams Scam

7 min read. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s decision to cancel the tender for the construction of the Kimwarer dam but to allow for the Arror dam project to proceed at half the original cost has been viewed as a commendable action in the fight against graft. However, ALESSANDRO DA ROLD and LORENZO BAGNOLI suggest that there could more than meets the eye in what is known as the “dams scam”.

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The Real Story Behind the Dams Scam
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Since the 1970s, Kenya has been considered by convicted Italian criminals as a safe haven – a place to hide from justice. A recent tide has, however, occurred and now some of these criminals have been extradited after spending years enjoying the “good vibes” of the Kenyan sea shores, especially in their stronghold Malindi. It seems to be the end of an era marked by impunity as Kenyan authorities have started pursuing alleged felonies committed by Italians living in Kenya. The authorities are not just going after individuals, but companies as well.

On the 29th of July this year, the Milimani Chief Magistrate’s court in Nairobi allowed Kenya’s Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Noordin Haji, to issue an arrest warrant for the Italian citizen Paolo Porcelli, the CEO of CMC (Cooperativa Muratori e Cementisti) from Ravenna. Porcelli is charged with abuse of office, bid-rigging and misuse of public funds and could face jail time if he returns to Kenya. With him on the list of the indicted there is also the Italian joint venture between the Italian companies Itinera (Gavio Group) and CMC.

Porcelli declined to appear in court twice. “Porcelli is a fugitive. Despite being given the opportunity, he hasn’t presented himself in court for a second time,” DPP Special Prosecutor Taib Ali Taib told the court. “The Italians think they can break the law and get away with it contemptuously. They believe nothing will come out of it.  Don’t allow it, your honour”.

Porcelli’s lawyers have a different opinion on his judicial status in Kenya: they explained that the indictment has charges only against the Kenyan top officials involved in the case. “It is not clear, and it is not explained [by the investigators] why Mr Porcelli and the joint venture CMC-Itinera could be indicted for the only charges they have, namely cashing in the deposit on the construction as it was agreed upon the contracts.”

The arrest warrant issued to the Italian manager is the latest development in a long saga reported in the international media as the “dams scam”. This story has many facets: the alleged criminal conduct of the Italian company in Kenya (CMC declines any involvement, claiming its innocence); the blatant lies and unfulfilled promises to the local population living around the proposed dams area; and the way local politicians turned Kenya’s natural assets into a personal gold mine.

The CMC’s long nightmare

CMC is a giant company in the field of construction globally. Wherever there is an important tender, the company is among the bidders. However, the glorious history of the company didn’t guarantee CMC’s success – construction is a competitive sector around the world. Sometimes to be awarded a tender, managers have to cross the line between lobbying and corruption.

In 2014, CMC signed a consultancy contract with Primo Greganti, a businessman and former politician who was arrested for alleged corruption: he would have helped some companies to be granted tenders for the construction of the site of Expo Milan 2015, the world food exhibition hosted in the Italian city.  The trial ended in a plea: in the Italian judiciary system, it means there is no verdict on the culpability of the defendant.

This story has many facets: the alleged criminal conduct of the Italian company in Kenya; the blatant lies and unfulfilled promises to the local population living around the proposed dams area; and the way local politicians turned Kenya’s natural assets into a personal gold mine.

The company was effectively granted a six million euro tender for the recovery of the land of the so called “plate”, the foundation for the exhibition facilities. At the end of the work, the final cost skyrocketed to 30 million euros because of differences caused by unexpected changes in the project. These extra costs were heavily criticised by the Expo 2015 board members because there were no grounds for justifying them. But because time for the construction at the site was running out, nobody within the board could reject the CMC’s requests. CMC was also awarded the tender for the construction of one of the French pavilions at the exhibition.

In May 2018, the company issued a press release on its financial situation. Under “total turnover” it reads: “Decreased from €289.0 million to €258.2 million. In particular, construction revenue decreased from €278.0 million to €236.7 million, due to a €23.0 million reduction overseas and an €18.3 million reduction in Italy. A significant increase is expected from certain projects achieving full production stage and from the start of the new project secured in recent quarters.”

In another press release issued in November last year, the company stated: “The Board unanimously concurred that, in a market context that was already structurally problematic, for reasons that arose spontaneously without any predictability, linked to non-receipts of orders and/or the state of progress of work, the Company is facing a moment of cash-flow tension.”

The main “non-receipts of order” at that time was Anas, the Italian company partially controlled by the state and in charge of maintaining and managing Italian highways. With the Kenya dams tender, it seemed that the cash flow problem might be solved. Kenya and Nepal were at that point considered as possible anchors that could recover the company’s accounts. One of the primary goals of the managers, therefore, was to immediately cash in on the advances made on work yet to be carried out. And this is when new problems arose.

The masterminds targeted by the investigation

CMC in Kenya has been granted contracts worth almost 800 million euros for the construction of the dams at Arror and Kimwarer. The awarding of the tender was officially presented during a meeting between the former Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, and President Uhuru Kenyatta. Both projects were expected to provide water to the population of the Rift Valley. According to the 2017 annual budget of CMC, Kenya was among the list of countries that contributed to expand the productivity of the company. Two years later, the situation is totally different.

In Italy, the authors of this article have since March been investigating the Kenyan dams case for La Verità, a right wing newspaper. The newspaper discovered a contract signed in 2013 between CMC and Stansha Limited, the company associated with the Lamu West MP, Stanley Muthama who was arrested on 28th June for tax evasion. It is a consultancy contract granting Muthama a fixed fee of 3 per cent in case CMC signs a contract with local development authorities in Kenya.

CMC in Kenya has been granted contracts worth almost 800 million euros for the construction of the dams at Arror and Kimwarer. The awarding of the tender was officially presented during a meeting between the former Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, and President Uhuru Kenyatta.

In that case, it was the Itare dam, another project to supply water in the Rift Valley, which apparently is not included in the current investigation. The investigation went silent until 22nd July when 28 other people were arrested on a different charge: international corruption. Among them was the Italian CEO, Paolo Porcelli, and Kenya’s Treasury Cabinet Secretary, Henry Rotich. The Italian prosecutor Lucia Lotti is handling the case in Rome, with the option to file a new investigation in Italy as well.

As is everything in Kenya now, this case could be framed as the battle between Uhuru and his number 2 in the 2022 election campaign, William Ruto. It has been suggested that Ruto could be using the Italian company for political support. Ruto’s daughter, June Chepchirchir, holds a senior position as the second counselor at the Kenyan embassy in Rome, Italy.

A key moment in diplomatic relations

The investigation on CMC Itinera is happening at a sensitive moment. Kenya and Italy are trying to collaborate on the Silvia Romano kidnapping. The 23-year-old Italian volunteer, who worked for the Italian charity Africa Milele, was abducted on 20th November last year from Chakama village in Kilifi County. But since then there has been no substantial information on her situation, apart from the trial of Gababa Wariu and Moses Lwari Chende, who confessed to aiding Romano’s abduction. But the investigation so far has not resulted in finding her.

In Italy the absence of updates on Silvia Romano’s health conditions are considered very alarming. At the same time, there is a new ongoing effort in Italy to have Romano released. The Kenyan head of public prosecutions, Noordin Haji, and Italian prosecutors in Rome are discussing a common strategy on the issue. If no positive results are achieved, the predictable outcome could be the cooling down of business and diplomatic relations between the two countries, at least in the initial stages.

The investigation on CMC Itinera is happening at a sensitive moment. Kenya and Italy are trying to collaborate on the Silvia Romano kidnapping. The 23-year-old Italian volunteer, who worked for the Italian charity Africa Milele, was kidnapped on 20th November last year from Chakama village in Kilifi County.

While Italy is grappling with the dams scandal and the search for Silvia Romano, France is trying to find a foothold in East Africa by signing new contracts with the Kenyan government. Rivalry in bilateral relationships in Africa is always a hot issue within the European Union (EU) member states, who have been unable to come up with a single comprehensive strategy for how EU member states should deal with African governments.

A possible read on the dams case is that William Ruto was the guarantor for the Italians and he can’t assure them anymore because he is currently dealing with bigger challenges related to his re-election campaign, which has been marred by corruption scandals implicating individuals from his political camp.

 

Editorial note:

For additional information on the Arrow and Kimwarer Dams saga see links below.

Contract Agreement between KVDA and CMC di Ravenna – Itinera Joint Venture for Kimwarer Dam
A contract agreement (KVDA/RPF/39/2014-15) between Kerio Valley Development Authority and CMC di Ravenna – Itinera Joint Venture made on 5th April 2017 for works on the Kimwarer Multipurpose Dam Development Project on River Kimwarer.

Contract Agreement between KVDA and CMC di Ravenna – Itinera Joint Venture for Arror Dam
A contract agreement (KVDA/RPF/36/2014-15) between Kerio Valley Development Authority and CMC di Ravenna – Itinera Joint Venture made on 5th April 2017 for works on the Arror Multipurpose Dam Development Project on River Arror.

A consultancy agreement between C.M.C. di Ravenna South Africa Branch and Stansha Limited (a company registered in Kenya) for the general purposes to provide consultancy services for the Itare Dam and Ruiru II Dam project under Athi Water Service Board.

DPP’s press statement on investigations concerning KVDA and Rift Valley Water Services Board
Following complaints to the Government of Kenya has been exposed to the loss of billions of shillings arising out of manipulation of the tendering process of several dam projects including the Arrow dam, Kimwarer dam, Itare dam, Embobut multi-purpose dam, Lower Turkwell irrigation scheme et.al the DPP’s office constituted a team of prosecutors to ensure the investigations of the aforementioned projects were carried out.

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Freedom Fighter or Ruthless Dictator? Unravelling the Tragedy that was Robert Gabriel Mugabe

8 min read. Admired by Pan-Africanists for his anti-imperialist rhetoric but loathed at home for his authoritarian tendencies, Robert Mugabe was a man full of contradictions. TINASHE L. CHIMEDZA reflects on the controversial life of Zimbabwe’s longest-serving leader.

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Freedom Fighter or Ruthless Dictator? Unravelling the Tragedy that was Robert Gabriel Mugabe
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Robert Gabriel Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s leader for nearly four decades. died on the 6th of September 2019 in a hospital in Singapore. Mugabe’s death, like his life, has generated animated debate, the very first irony being that after nearly four decades in office he died in a foreign hospital. Some have praised Mugabe for being a “liberation icon”, and a “great Pan-Africanist”. Former South African president Thabo Mbeki called him “a fellow combatant”. Others have charged Mugabe with being a “tyrant” who collapsed his country and fanned “genocidal” ethnic divisions.

However, in order to fully understand this complex character, we have to put Mugabe into a broader historical purview. Mugabe was educated by Jesuit Catholics. Initially trained as a teacher, he would remain deeply religious his entire life. It was in the maelstrom of liberation contests that Mugabe’s oratory skills came to the fore and he became the target of the vicious Rhodesian state that threw him and other nationalists, into detention.

Mugabe used his time in jail to get qualifications in law and economics. With his release from the Rhodesian jail, after almost eleven years, he headed straight to the liberation war front by escaping the country and crossing into Mozambique. There he became the voice on Radio Zimbabwe, and fronted media engagements. His star was shining as he became the forceful voice leading liberation delegations first at the failed Geneva Conference of 1976 and then at the Lancaster House settlement in 1979 in London.

When Mugabe was prime minister and then president, there were geopolitical factors that worked against the success of Zimbabwe. South of the Limpopo, apartheid South Africa destabilised the whole region. Importantly, the Rhodesian political economy was constructed for a few white settlers and the black majority government that Mugabe led had inherited an economy that was stable but very parochial.

The 1980s, considered by some as the happy years, were also full of contradictions. Education and health were expanded but in the western part of the country, Mugabe’s comrades were brutalising a whole region into subservience. Young men labelled “dissidents” were tortured, murdered in cold blood, and buried in mass graves. The violence was so macabre it brought nationalist leader Joshua Nkomo to near tears. He escaped to London and wrote The Story of My Life (1984). This was only settled in Mugabe’s favour when they signed the Unity Agreement of 1987.

That sordid part of Zimbabwe’s post-colonial history provided a script into the 1990s and 2000s. But what most political biographers of Zimbabwe leave out is that the Rhodesian settler-state inherited by the nationalist movement was a war machinery built to defend white settler interests. Ken Flower, who was the first director of the vicious Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), wrote about the “exploits” of the white-security state apparatus in a book titled Serving Secretly. The 1980 Lancaster House Constitution at Zimbabwe’s independence left this state-security apparatus unreformed and years later Mugabe would boast that “he had degrees in violence” and that the “gun was mightier than the pen”.

The 1980s, considered by some as the happy years, were also full of contradictions. Education and health were expanded but in the western part of the country, Mugabe’s comrades were brutalising a whole region into subservience.

The ruling political class dealt with opponents ruthlessly and Mugabe’s rise and demise as leader was tightly linked to the military. Professor Jonathan Moyo argued that Mugabe was the victim of Zimbabwe’s “militarists”’. It was a military declaration in 1975 called the Mgagao Declaration that put Mugabe at the apex of the liberation movement in Mozambique. It was the military that kept him in power and that took him out of power via the putsch of November 2017. He was replaced with a man chosen by the military – Emerson Mnangagwa aka the crocodile, a name bequeathed to him because of his ruthlessness.

Scattered ideological orientations

Mugabe blundered from one political ideology to another but at the core of the project was power retention at any cost. In the 1970s Mugabe preached socialism and dabbled in some incoherent half-understood Marxist-Leninism. But when young guerillas attempted to build a Marxist political movement, they were thwarted and thrown into prison.

One young military commander from then, Wilfred Mhanda, wrote about the experience in his memoir Dzino: Memories of a Freedom Fighter (20011 – Weaver Press). In the early 1980s, Mugabe articulated variant forms of socialism and Marxism but only to court allies, given the global geopolitical contests of the Cold War era. The ZANU-PF manifestos of the 1980s discussed socialism in theory but there was no attempt to build a socialist economy and by the end of the 1980s any pretence to building socialism was abandoned – the road to socialism was closed off. In another memoir, Re-living the Second Chimurenga: Memories from Zimbabwe’s Liberation Struggle (2006), Fay Chung would state that Mugabe was a devoted Roman Catholic and it’s possible that this closed off any concrete inclination towards Marxism or Maoism.

In the 1990s Mugabe walked into neoliberalism, embraced structural adjustment programmes (SAPs), and took loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But the policy move was disastrous. Social and public services collapsed, informality set it and the industrial base melted away, provoking resistance from the labour, women and student movements. The crisis of falling incomes, unemployment, inflation, adventure into the DRC war and the increased debt levels knocked the economy down. This was made more acute by the seizure of white-owned farms, which led to the collapse of the agriculture sector.

Mugabe then veered into a radical indigenisation programme. To keep all these threads from exploding, he entrenched a political system of shredding the Constitution and making himself an imperial, almost feudal-aristocratic president. Zimbabweans mass migrated into the region and a passport, to escape anywhere, became a prized possession in a country that has become what Dambudzo Marechera called “The House of Hunger”.

The 2017 coup and the militarists

When Zimbabwe’s generals staged a coup in 2017, they pointed out that ZANU-PF was corrupt and needed to be rescued from itself. The whirlwind that consumed Mugabe was in the seeds that he had sown. When the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) emerged in 1999, he had allowed the chief of defence forces to say “the presidency was a straightjacket” and in 2008 he had allowed the military to take over the running of the election under the Joint Operations Command (JOC) – a relic of the Rhodesian military state.

The political nose that Mugabe had used to strangle the opposition and to brutalise civil society into subjugation was now turned on his neck. Professor Jonathan Moyo, now in exile, has argued that Mugabe was a mere “spokesperson” of the military system that harbours, in his words, the “repugnant ideology” that the “gun commands politics”. To claim that Mugabe, after almost half a century at the helm of the nationalist movement, was a mere “mouth” of the military is the grandest of revisionism.

In the 1990s Mugabe walked into neoliberalism, embraced structural adjustment programmes (SAPs), and took loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But the policy move was disastrous. Social and public services collapsed, informality set it and the industrial base melted away, provoking resistance from the labour, women and student movements.

But Mugabe also went beyond violence as a means of political rule. Using his oratory skills, he presented himself as a Pan-African liberation fighter, and often riled against imperialism and stirred the ideological support of nationalist movements. In Zimbabwe, the political system became dominated by what Professor Ranger called “patriotic history”. In a way the system of political rule was a complex combination of authoritarianism, ideological narrative and patronage networks. Jonathan Fisher and Nic Cheeseman have pointed out more clearly that “authoritarian regimes rely on ideas, not just guns”:

“The more resilient of Africa’s authoritarian regimes, for example, have bought support from powerful local elites, soldiers, particular ethnic groups or political influencers through building them into extensive patronage structures where state resources are cascaded down chains of patron-client links. In so doing, they may assemble a large, and often diverse, group of communities who rely on the regime’s survival for their prosperity.” (Mail and Guardian, 6 November 2019)

In dealing with his opponents within and outside his party, Mugabe was scheming and coldly ruthless, but he also built ideological narratives and patronage networks, and controlled the public memory to place himself – not other nationalists – at the centre of history. Mugabe compared the nationalist leader Joshua Nkomo to “a snake whose head must be crushed”.

In the 1990s, when his former comrade Edgar Tekere opposed the “one-party state”, he was thrown out of the party and his supporters were accusing of “courting death”. Years after that the famed guerilla leader, Rex Nhongo, Zimbabwe’s first army general, died in a suspicious fire. Rex Nhongo was suspected of first supporting Simba Makoni and then his wife Joyce Mujuru to challenge Mugabe. A few years later, Emerson Mnangagwa was kicked out as Mugabe played one political faction against the other in Machiavellian style. Nearly all of Zimbabwe’s opposition leaders were charged of “subversion”. (Morgan Tsvangirai has written about his trials and tribulations is his memoir At the Deep End.)

When Mugabe was president, the opulence of his and his family’s lifestyle was on display at their home called “The Blue Roof”. Nepotism and cronyism were rife. Those networked with the Mugabes worked their way into economy. In Mazowe, just outside Harare, poor farmers who had been allocated land were kicked out and some were only saved by High Court orders. Nephews, nieces, uncles, children and the president’s immediate family amassed vast amounts of wealth. Mining claims, multiple farms, fuel cartels and contracts with the government is how this wealth was amassed. One of Mugabe’s nephews boasted “if you want to be rich join ZANU PF”. Public enterprises were looted with reckless abandon. Before being deposed, the Mugabes were going to build a Robert Mugabe University to the tune of US$1billion. Even in death Mugabe will be buried in a mausoleum possibility costing millions.

Of Kwame Nkrumah, Mwalimu Nyerere and Nelson Mandela 

Robert Mugabe left no condensed publication of his thoughts, which means his intellectual footprint is only found in speeches and scattered interviews. For a president whose education varied from law, economics and education, this is rather disappointing.

In dealing with his opponents within and outside his party, Mugabe was scheming and coldly ruthless, but he also built ideological narratives and patronage networks, and controlled the public memory to place himself – not other nationalists – at the centre of history.

It was at continental and global forums that Mugabe attracted the affinity of Black Africa, and where he mesmerised the Global Pan-African movements and other social and political forces. He went to United Nations General Assembly meetings religiously. There he made scathing comments about racism, demanded equality at the UN Security Council, railed against economic exploitation of Africa and raised his voice to throw spears at imperialism. An articulate black president from a small former African colony who repossessed land, who was placed under sanctions, and who made stinging statements against inequitable global power relations is what the Pan-Africanist movement was lacking and some sections praised Mugabe for this.

Compared to the other towering intellectuals, theorists and revolutionaries of Pan-Africanism, Robert Mugabe’s legacy withers. Kwame Nkrumah was a thinker and an intellectual who penned treatises that dealt with the African condition. Mwalimu Nyerere was a nation-state builder who forged the disparate social groups of Tanzania into a cohesive stable polity and who retired into a modest life. Nelson Mandela pulled the strands of a nation traumatised by the violence of apartheid into a “Rainbow Nation”. Having had a “long walk to freedom”, Nelson Mandela subjected the country to constitutional democracy. Thomas Sankara forged an everlasting revolutionary legacy. He placed women at the centre of politics and development, tackled illiteracy, and invested in health. The young captain lived a modest life, shunned decadent opulence and boldly set into motion the belief that the “future can be invented”.

Broad strokes of history

They say history is written in broad strokes. Mugabe’s anti-colonial credentials will shine; he stayed in prison for over a decade, the radical land repossession will also burn bright but this will be blighted by the brutality, the ruthlessness, the corruption and the repugnant politics of polarity authored by Mugabe. Of Mugabe’s politics, the Pan-Africanist Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem had this to say:

“Zimbabwe and President Mugabe are a situation we cannot in all good conscience continue to pussyfoot about anymore. It is indefensible that one man, no matter his contribution to the country, should be holding the people to ransom…Mugabe is no longer the part of the problem of Zimbabwe: he is now the problem (Speaking Truth to Power: Selected Pan-African Postcards, 2010)

Mugabe built a surveillance state of Stalinist proportions that was littered with impunity, arrogance of power, extrajudicial killings, a rapacious propaganda system, and a personality cult that exacted worship and fear from the man and woman on the street. The long motorcade, ambulance in tow, imported cavalcade of cars, gun-toting soldiers, loud police sirens, police motorbikes, traffic cleared from the road and armoured cars that ferried Mugabe have died down. The putsch of 2017 ushered in the country’s militarists who remain in control of a vicious perpetuum mobile ­­– a kleptocratic military class that has melted away any respect for the constitutional edicts of the country.

We from Zimbabwe will remember Mugabe for a dream that could have been possible but instead was collapsed into what Professor Sabelo Gatsheni-Ndlovu called “grotesque nationalism”.

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Why South Africa Should Not Do a Zimbabwe: Demerits of the Proposed Land Expropriation Law

8 min read. A law to allow the seizure of white-owned land could have a profoundly negative impact that goes well beyond the violation of fundamental human rights. Its consequences could be catastrophic on the industrial, agricultural, and banking sectors in South Africa.

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Why South Africa Should Not Do a Zimbabwe: Demerits of the Proposed Land Expropriation Law
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Some time has passed since South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s highly controversial announcement of a new land reform law that would allow for the expropriation of land without compensation. Accused by some of racism, and by others of populism, the president is trying to address the pressing requests of the vast majority of blacks who still feel oppressed after white minority rule ended in 1994. According to a recently released parliamentary media statement, this bold move should fix “the historical wrongs caused by arbitrary dispossession of land, and in so doing ensure equitable access to land and further empower the majority of South Africans to be productive participants in ownership, food security, and agricultural reform programmes.”

Apparently, in a country where the white minority account for just over 9 per cent of the population but which owns over 70 per cent of the land, such a law seems to be a fair way to balance the scales of social justice. However, on the other side of the barricade, there are thousands of white Afrikaners descended from Europeans who colonised South Africa who claim that they worked hard to obtain that land. These people are human beings as well, and many of them are only paying the price of a segregation regime imposed by their fathers and grandfathers.

This bitter battle between these two sides is rooted in apartheid, a terrible word that does more than just bring back bad memories. It is an ugly concept that speaks to us of racial segregation, and inhumane treatment. And even if now the faces (and colours) of the protagonists may have swapped, the dehumanising cruelty behind it has probably not.

The controversial amendment to section 25 of the Constitution

To date, the African National Congress (ANC), the country’s leading political party since the end of apartheid, has redistributed land following a “willing seller, willing buyer” model. In a nutshell, the government buys white-owned farms and then redistributes them to black farmers. The idea was to return at least 30 per cent of the land that was expropriated from black farmers to their legitimate owners by 2014. However, today less than 10 per cent of commercial farmland has been redistributed. Exponents of the South African Homeless People’s Association claim that the “willing seller, willing buyer” model only widened the social divide, bringing more poverty to the masses.

The law proposed by Ramaphosa aims at amending section 25 of the Constitution to make the expropriation of land without compensation an explicitly legitimate option. In other words, the government could take this land away from white hands without paying them anything, as long as the reform doesn’t cause any damage to the nation’s economy, agricultural production, and food security.

This law was supported by a small radical party led by Julius Malema, the newly-created Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). However, not all the white owners got their land by means of coercion during the previous century. Many claim they legitimately bought it through the hard work of their ancestors and defined this law as grossly immoral and inhumane. Some threatened to wage war to defend their farms, bringing back the sad memories of the recent land expropriation policies enforced in Zimbabwe. Some other “softer” reforms have been proposed, such as paying “just and equitable” compensation that is well below market price to landowners, or banning foreigners from buying agricultural lands.

Racism: the legacy of a century of apartheid in South Africa

Unlike other countries where racism is a tremendous plague that crawls hidden in the very fabric of society, in South Africa racism and discrimination against blacks were explicit laws. During the last century, European colonialists simply institutionalised them as part of the nation’s legal infrastructure. Similar to the racial laws that forced Jews to lose their jobs just because of their heritage, during apartheid in South Africa, a series of laws were put in place to enforce white dominance. It was the Parliament itself that decided that black people had to be inferior human beings and had, therefore, limited access to rights.

In 1913, the South African’s colonialist administration passed the Natives Land Act, a law which stripped nearly all black people of their right to own land. Although 72 per cent of the population consisted of black people, this law limited land ownership among blacks to a mere 8 per cent of the country. White South Africans literally gave land to themselves, a capital offence that created a terrible precedent as many black people were forcefully evicted from their farms.

The law proposed by Ramaphosa aims at amending section 25 of the Constitution to make the expropriation of land without compensation an explicitly legitimate option. In other words, the government could take this land away from white hands without paying them anything, as long as the reform doesn’t cause any damage to the nation’s economy, agricultural production, and food security.

Other laws, such as the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953 and the Group Areas Development Act of 1955, further reinforced these policies of segregation. Blacks were forced into unproductive land and underdeveloped regions, which excluded them from amenities such as parks, schools, and hospitals that only whites could access. Blacks could not obtain formal training for skilled jobs, which denied them the right to study, and barred them from equal employment and development opportunities. Together with many other racial laws, apartheid drove the black community into poverty, prevented them from expressing their opinions freely, and stripped them of their properties.

When the apartheid formally saw its end in 1994, many who suffered from these disparities imposed by this regime rejoiced, hoping for reforms that would bring back some justice in their lives. However, as often happens in politics, many of these promises of equity and equality quickly turned into empty words and vain declarations. The resources that the South African government allocated for land reform were vastly insufficient, never exceeding a mere 1 per cent of the national budget. Even today, land reform doesn’t look like a priority, with the amount allocated to it being just 0.4 per cent of the national budget. Racial inequalities persist in many sectors, including in the mining and industrial sectors, which constitute the backbone of the nation’s economy. The majority of the most profitable companies remain controlled and managed by whites, and the whole labour market still suffers from substantial polarisation.

Growing inequalities

The snowball effect of nearly 400 years of colonialism left the black community in dire poverty, ripe with nearly-illiterate individuals who had no chances to become competitive in the upcoming century of globalisation. According to the World Bank, 25 years after the end of apartheid, South Africa is still one of the most unequal countries in the world. In 2017, the unemployment rate was still high and growing at 27 per cent, with many people lacking tangible prospects for a better life. Race still has a tremendous impact on an individual’s chances of finding a job, as well as on the wages received once employed. A bitter divide between white Afrikaners and black people has kept growing and has become the core of all social or political debate in this tormented country.

Despite the country’s huge potential for growth, the economy kept stagnating during the nine years of Jacob Zuma’s presidency. Characterised by rampant corruption and continuous scandals, Zuma’s administration came under pressure as the masses started asking for policies that would address unemployment, disparities, and poverty.

The resources that the South African government allocated for land reform were vastly insufficient, never exceeding a mere 1 per cent of the national budget. Even today, land reform doesn’t look like a priority, with the amount allocated to it being just 0.4 per cent of the national budget.

Eventually, after an extremely unpopular cabinet reshuffle, Zuma was forced to resign and was replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa in February 2018. The new president cracked down on corruption and kicked out many inept ministers while Zuma was indicted for money laundering and racketeering. However, the damage that Zuma inflicted to the party’s credibility was so severe that it had to rely on radical parties such as the EFF to gain some traction.

The ANC lost so many voters in the 2016 local elections that the 2019 ones may be in jeopardy. Some argue that Ramaphosa is simply pushing the Land Expropriation Act as a populist ploy aimed at recovering a significant portion of the voters’ trust. The nation’s poor, in fact, make up the majority of the electorate, and addressing their plight will certainly provide him with the political stability his government needs so much.

The human, social, and economic consequences

ANC’s and EFF’s new land reform tastes like nothing but a bloody policy of revenge inspired by populism and driven by a desperate need to win the elections. But blood always calls for blood, and may easily throw South Africa into a new civil war, no matter how justified this law may seem. The French Revolution, the recent Zimbabwe land expropriation laws, and even the Communist Revolution all teach us a fundamental lesson – that legislation that allows a state to violate property rights only creates new privileged elites rather than equalising the social fabric.

A law to allow the seizure of land has a profoundly negative impact that goes well beyond the violation of fundamental human rights. Its consequences can be catastrophic on the industrial, agricultural, and banking sectors as well, and neighbouring Zimbabwe is a prime example. Just like Venezuela, another country where land was redistributed from the rich to the poor, today Zimbabwe needs to import nearly all the food it needs rather than producing most of it, as it did 20 years ago.

Distributing land “fairly and equally” to all people means creating a large number of smallholder farmers who will have to face tremendous costs to grow and be competitive. An entire nation of small farmers will have a really hard time competing with the larger players of globalised agriculture unless they have access to the latest methods and technologies. Yet, once again, has the government thought and planned a strategy to provide these future landowners with the necessary means to survive in such a harshly competitive environment? Worst case scenario: this may lead to large-scale deforestation by owners who will start selling their wood cheaply to foreign companies – a process that has already devastated Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia.

However, we may have a very different scenario – one where land is handed down to a smaller amount of black people who will quickly become rich at the expenses of others. A new handful of privileged individuals who will simply substitute former white owners with other newer sons and daughters of uncontrolled capitalism. Their faces may change, but the inequality will bring the country to its knees in the same exact way. Whether their skin tone is darker won’t make them any better than their colonialist predecessors, nor will make the whole act of seizing land be more just or justifiable by any means.

On top of all that, a scenario of harsh social tensions and violent clashes is a bomb that is about to explode. Following some cases of brutal and murderous attacks of white farmer that got the attention of the media, some Afrikaners called out for international aid, claiming there was a “white genocide” going on. And while smart people may easily understand that the numbers are no way as high as to justify the choice of this vastly exaggerated terminology, this alarmist rhetoric is bound to have serious global consequences.

Distributing land “fairly and equally” to all people means creating a large number of smallholder farmers who will have to face tremendous costs to grow and be competitive. An entire nation of small farmers will have a really hard time competing with the larger players of globalised agriculture…

In an era where the rise of neo-fascism, fake news, gross misinformation, and distorted nationalisms represent a serious threat to all societies, this may be a spark that would ignite an uncontrollable chain reaction. Black people around the world are often unjustly identified as enemies by organisations and parties who willfully manipulate information. Knowing there’s a country where a murderous government justifies their violent persecution will only fuel a hate that is certainly more detrimental than beneficial to the black cause.

Conclusion

History cannot be corrected by doing the wrong thing, and the ANC’s policy means nothing but repeating the same mistake over and over again. South Africans deserve having the right to cultivate their lands once again, they deserve to live in a fair country, they deserve peace. It is totally understandable that poverty must be fought with all means, and that the current situation is all but just or fair.

But enforcing the rights of black people with violence won’t restore the justice and equality this country so desperately needs. It will only open a gaping wound across the nation that will widen the divide even more. It may reach the point of breaking any bridge built so far between all those human beings whose sole difference is the colour of their skin and the heredity of their ancestors.

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