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Debt, Austerity and Economic Hit Squads: How China and the West Hoodwinked Kenya

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China has learnt from the West’s weaponisation of sovereign debt as a tool for securing the sovereign assets and acquiescence of poorer countries. By DARIUS OKOLLA

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DEBT, AUSTERITY AND ECONOMIC HIT SQUADS: How China and the West hoodwinked Kenya
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The Christian scriptures state that a good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children. This provides a key entry point into the question of intergenerational mobility of wealth, income and opportunity.

We’ve got to admit that meritocracy is often a myth. Hard work, single-minded focus, and determination are good but are not guarantees to success. The top predictor of a child’s socio-economic class is not his personality, education, IQ, talent, or exposure: it is the parent’s socio-economic status. Researchers Amy Traub and Tatjana Meschede once demonstrated that for African-Americans, and increasingly for non-white races around the globe, going to college doesn’t close the wealth gap; neither do two-parent household set-ups, family spending cuts, or working full time. If a child is poor/middle class/rich, there is a high chance that the parents are poor/middle class /rich, respectively.

Poor people usually have roughly a 10 to 20 per cent chance of ever ending up rich in their lifetime. In fact, the common ratios tend to be between 7 and 15 per cent. In most societies, upper middle class people have a 20 per cent or so chance of ending up rich. In fact, nearly 60 per cent of all people live and die within the social class that they were in in their 20s.

Let’s admit it: the rags-to-riches story tends to be anything but. Yes, there is always a tycoon who started on the streets and became a billionaire but that is the exception, not the rule. A huge proportion of those born into poverty will live and die poor. Contrary to what you keep hearing, education is great but it is not an equaliser; rich kids with low IQs graduate in higher numbers than poor kids with high IQs. It is family incomes, not merit, that primarily determines university enrolment, graduation, and future incomes.

The ability to generate a transformative kind of wealth within one’s lifetime is possible but neither normal nor possible for the majority of the population; usually, it takes about three to four generations of industrious heirs to achieve it. That’s the reason the good book instructs us that a good man leaves an inheritance for his children and his children’s children. The forces at play are referred to as the principles of inherited (dis)advantages.

Ethnicity of capital

Intergenerational mobility tends to be stubbornly calcified, which is a key reason why the deity prioritises the need for one to leave an inheritance for one’s progeny. Wealth is known to stay within certain families for between 500 and 800 years, as studies have demonstrated in Florence, England and ancient China. Capital is quite loyal to filial ties but most importantly, it manifests certain logic and sensibilities, including developing its nature from the demographic, geographic, intellectual, historical and political contexts within which it is employed. Notably, Amy Traub and Lara Sullivan’s study of racial inequality has demonstrated that barring any historical disruptions, capital tends to remain familial, and by extension, stays ethnic.

It is the Euro-American/Christian/White capital in the West whose hegemony has driven modern civilisation since the Renaissance – that’s the bane of global capitalism. This capital is decidedly white, decidedly male, decidedly Christian, decidedly elitist, and notably racist in its sensibilities, a persona it picked from its most famous brawling pioneers like Adam Smith, the rogue Commodore Vanderbilt, and the choleric John Rockefeller. Capitalism, as an initially Western logic, therefore, ought to be examined within the context of its interaction with global economic history, especially the rise of nation-states and slavery.

In Workers of the World: Essays Toward a Global Labor History, economic historians Kenneth Pomeranz and Marcel van der Linden have shown that, viewed from a global perspective, capitalism is notably discovered to have grown on the backs of slavery. The 18th century global oppressive structures that birthed racism and slavery were also central to the invention of the Industrial Revolution, especially the spectacular American capitalism.

It is the Euro-American/Christian/White capital in the West whose hegemony has driven modern civilisation since the Renaissance – that’s the bane of global capitalism. This capital is decidedly white, decidedly male, decidedly Christian, decidedly elitist, and notably racist in its sensibilities…

The American capitalistic experiment took shape in the 1820s just as one of its would-be patriarchs, Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, turned 26 and for the next 150 years it delivered a year-on-year wage rise, including surviving the infamous American Civil War of 1861-1865. However as the economy entered the 1960s, the rise of automation, women pouring into the workplace after the sexual revolution, the rise of immigration, and employers moving production abroad stalled this capitalist experiment.

The combination of technology and outsourcing production abroad gave American capital a velocity and agility that gave rise to the possibility of accelerated capital flight, as happened in the 1997 Asian financial crisis. In the 60s, Euro-American capital also learned that it could use debt as a tool for diplomacy and coercion on the global stage.

Of jackals and hit men

John Perkins, who authored the famous book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, begins his narration in Quito, Ecuador. He then journeys us through half a dozen countries, painting tragic pictures of once thriving metropoles turned into volatile and crumbling credit-opoles by the vultures from Washington. He writes:

“Despite the fact that the money is returned almost immediately to corporations that are members of the corporatocracy (the creditor), the recipient country is required to pay it all back, principal plus interest. If an economic hit man (EHM) is completely successful, the loans are so large that the debtor is forced to default on its payments after a few years. When this happens, then like the Mafia we demand our pound of flesh. This often includes one or more of the following: control over United Nations votes, the installation of military bases, or access to precious resources such as oil or the Panama Canal. Of course, the debtor still owes us the money—and another country is added to our global empire.”

Weaponisation of sovereign debt as a tool for oppression emerges as an almost accidental discovery borne of the post-World War I world as the gold standard drew to a close, having dominated global commerce in late 19th and early 20th century. The increasing societal complexity occasioned by industrialist Henry Ford’s assembly line, the World War I military economy and the stock market boom exposed the limited monetary policy options that the gold standard could avail to 20th century governments. Under the gold standard, Central Banks often could only respond to economic downturns with spending cuts and raising interest rates, hoping that labour wage and commodity prices would drop low enough for the economy to self-correct.

In 1946, the political economist John Maynard Keynes resolved that both the headquarters of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which he had helped found, shouldn’t be on American soil. His reservations over the location of the two institutions got torpedoed, as Washington had already secured a dozen allies to sway the vote on the matter in its favour. His death six weeks later set the Bretton Woods institutions firmly on US soil, inevitably rendering the two organisations and their nearly one dozen financial arms as American appendages rather than the global institutions that Keynes has envisaged.

Two years earlier, at the Bretton Woods Conference of July 1944, Keynes’s squabbles with US Treasury official Harry Dexter White had ended in surprising mutual agreement regarding the creation of new post-war institutions for regulating international flow of capital, prohibiting arbitrary currency alterations, stabilising exchange rates, and facilitating international financial cooperation.

Together they built a closely monitored international financial system with post-war reconstruction institutions for capital and currency regulations that replaced the uncoordinated system of the pre-1930s, actions that globally centered the US financial system, laying the groundwork for the rise of economic hit men and the debt tentacles.

By the time journalist Water Isaacson and historian Evans Thomas published their famous book The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made in 1986, the two institutions’ debt arrangement with Kenya – predicated on structural adjustments – was already six years in the making and was creating negative economic effects in Nairobi. The “wise men” comprised six shadowy foreign policy wonks in Harry Truman’s government beginning in 1945 just as the Cold War was reshaping the global hegemonies and reorienting geostrategic loyalties. The six, in typical wise men lore, brought forth hegemonic gifts, not in the strain of gold, myrrh, and frankincense but NATO the Marshall Plan and, alongside Dexter and Maynard, the World Bank. The modern-day pragmatic internationalism, non-partisanship, and America’s aversion to ideology exemplified in catch-phrases such as “for the greater good” reflect some of the hallmarks of their beliefs. The legacy of the six men, namely, Dean Acheson, George Kenna, John McCloy, Robert Lovett, Averell Harriman, and Charles Bholen, played the handmaiden to capitalism’s inherent need for eternal global expansion.

From Kenya, with love

Perkins-esque economic hitmanship in Kenya started in 1980 with a $55 million Structural Adjustment Credit (SAC) by the World Bank, which rose to a $130.9 million loan in 1983. The next six years dragged in three sectoral adjustment loans (SECAL): 1986 Agriculture ($60 million), 1988 Industry ($165.7 million), and 1989 Finance ($231.3 million) to complement the two previous structural adjustment programs (SAPs).

While Kenya didn’t cede any particular strategic assets to the Western oligarchs, the 1971-1972 oil prices shocks had created the perfect opportunity for the West to rope in Kenya into its sphere, away from Soviet influence. SAPs constitute a raft of policy decisions, including market liberalisation, price decontrols, and budget cuts. SAC is the monetary incentive granted to a government to implement SAPs. Sectoral adjustment loans is a credit facility extended to a specific sector of the economy and pegged on the government agreeing to implement SAPs in that particular industry or sector.

These were followed by three more SECALs in the 1990s: 1991 Export Development ($149.1 million), 1991 Agriculture II ($75 million), and 1992 Education ($100 million). The disastrous 1996 SAC I ($126.8 million) drew the most anger from the Kenyan public, having been incorrectly tied to some of the economic tailspins unleashed by Kamlesh Pattni’s Goldenberg scandal. SAPs’ drastic economic impact skyrocketed interest on debt payment from 8.3 per cent between 1964 and 1969 to 23 per cent in 1995/96 and 25 per cent in 1997/98, the debt having grown by 362 per cent, from $36.7 billion in 1990 to $169 billion in 1998.

Curiously, the most famous studies on Kenyan SAPs by Ikiara (1990), Swamy (1994), and Ihonvbere (1996) on the effects of the economic hit jobs notoriously ignored the social effects that SAPs had unleashed. The neoliberal cuts in welfare spending, price decontrols, market liberalisation, and budget cuts strangled the health, education and social services sectors, which led to a significant decline in the quality of basic services available to ordinary wananchi. Three decades later, Kenya is yet to fully recover from the debilitating effects of SAPs.

Enter the Red Brigade

French political economist Eric Toussaint, in his report, “Debt as an Instrument of the Colonial Conquest of Egypt, aptly observed that “in the case of Egypt and Tunisia, the European powers used debt as their most powerful weapon for ensuring domination, leading to the total submission of previously independent states”. China, a rising economic power throughout the 1990s and 2000s, would learn and perfect the West’s weaponisation of debt through economic hitmanship.

As of 2007, the People’s Republic of China had a massive financial muscle of $1.4 trillion in currency reserves and a $200 billion sovereign wealth fund, which grew to $3.44 trillion and $810 billion, respectively, by 2013. This financial war chest would come in handy in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

French political economist Eric Toussaint…aptly observed that “in the case of Egypt and Tunisia, the European powers used debt as their most powerful weapon for ensuring domination, leading to the total submission of previously independent states”. China, a rising economic power throughout the 1990s and 2000s, would learn and perfect the West’s weaponisation of debt through economic hitmanship.

The Belt and Road Initiative encompasses an overland route through Eastern Europe as well as the ports of Quanzhou in eastern China, Kuala Lumpur, Colombo, Gwadar in the Middle East, Mombasa, Djibouti, the Suez Canal, Piraeus, and ends in Venice. In a typical Merchant of Venice fashion, Beijing lends money for unviable infrastructure projects that inevitably precipitate a default. And like Shakespeare’s Tubal, it comes to claim its pound of flesh structured as 60-90-year port leases, as has happened to the port of Djibouti and Hambantota port in Sri Lanka.

In March of 2018, the think tank Centre for Global Development (CGD), in a report titled “Examining the Debt Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative from a Policy Perspective, determined that eight countries (Montenegro, Laos, Mongolia, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Mongolia, and Djibouti) were likely to default on their debt obligations to China. Tellingly, all these countries lie on the Belt and Road Initiative’s route.

The IMF’s Wenjie Chen and Roger Nord articulated this in their ominous report “China and Africa: Crouching Lion, Retreating Dragon?that showed that in just a few years Beijing has become, by far, the largest source of (bilateral) loans, lending over $96 billion to sub-Saharan African countries (excluding South Africa).

Today, China controls 72 per cent of Kenya’s bilateral debt or 10 per cent of its total debt. Interestingly, the nearly Sh450 billion Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) loan accounts for a majority of the credit facility that’s maddeningly accompanied by exorbitant interest rates.

All this is happening against a backdrop of increasing economic hardship across the country. A June study estimated the number of starving Nairobi residents to be 900,000 out of a total population of 4 million, while in March 2018 Kenya got ranked as having one of the highest numbers of extremely poor people at – 6th in Africa and 8th in the world. Compound this with the World Bank’s latest report that estimated the number of starving Kenyans to be 17.4 million and the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) figure of 16.4 million starving Kenyans out of an estimated population of 49 million people, and you have an economically strained population. The infrastructure binge hasn’t translated to a notable rise in personal incomes for the struggling majority.

In 2013, Kenya owed China about $630 million, a figure that had risen to $5.57 billion (Sh.557 billion) by May 2018. Meanwhile, the country paid back Sh435.7 billion in the 2016/17 financial year, followed by another Sh870 billion, or over 60 per cent of its tax revenue, in the 2017/18 period – a figure that’s expected to reach Sh1 trillion in the 2018/19 period.

Meanwhile, the best case scenario for revenue collection stands at Sh1.3 trillion. The Treasury has just revealed that the government expects to collect Sh2.3 trillion by 2022, an unrealistic and highly optimistic figure, given that the country will be borrowing at least a trillion shillings a year from 2019 through 2024 to compensate for falling revenues occasioned by capital flight and the collapse of over 2.2 million small and medium enterprises (SMEs) between 2012 and 2016 alone. The 2016 National Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) Survey found that half a million MSMEs die every year in Kenya due to high operating costs, declining incomes and losses incurred by business, which suggests that the Kenyan economy is not doing well at all.

A struggling economy and a debt estimate of between Sh9 trillion and Sh10 trillion by 2022 – equivalent to 120 per cent of the current 8.65 trillion GDP – is the more likely scenario. There’s no doubt that servicing this debt will be a headache for the government and defaults aren’t a far-fetched possibility.

Meanwhile, the best case scenario for revenue collection stands at Sh1.3 trillion. The Treasury has just revealed that the government expects to collect Sh2.3 trillion by 2022, an unrealistic and highly optimistic figure, given that the country will be borrowing at least a trillion shillings a year from 2019 through 2024 to compensate for falling revenues occasioned by capital flight and the collapse of over 2.2 million SMEs between 2012 and 2016 alone.

And China, just like it did in Djibouti, Zambia and Hambantota, will seek to extort a lease for strategic assets as a trade-off, key among them being the port of Mombasa that lies on the Silk Belt and Road route.

For a deeply religious country, we overlooked one of the core verses in Proverbs 13:22 about generational wealth. We have auctioned our children’s and their children’s coastal (and strategically important) inheritance for a worthless piece of rail. Future generations will pay dearly for this mistake.

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Darius Okolla is a researcher based in Nairobi.

Politics

Kenya Chooses Its Next Chief Justice

The search for Kenya’s next Chief Justice that commenced Monday will seek to replace Justice David Maraga, who retired early this year, has captured the attention of the nation.

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Kenya Chooses Its Next Chief Justice
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Since Monday, the 12th of April 2021, interviews to replace retired Chief Justice David Maraga for the post of the most important jurist in Kenya and the president of the Supreme Court have been underway.

The Judiciary is one of the three State organs established under Chapter 10, Article 159 of the Constitution of Kenya. It establishes the Judiciary as an independent custodian of justice in Kenya. Its primary role is to exercise judicial authority given to it, by the people of Kenya.

The institution is mandated to deliver justice in line with the Constitution and other laws. It is expected to resolve disputes in a just manner with a view to protecting the rights and liberties of all, thereby facilitating the attainment of the ideal rule of law.

The man or woman who will take up this mantle will lead the Judiciary at a time when its independence and leadership will be paramount for the nation. He or she will be selected by the Judicial Service Commission in a competitive process.

KWAMCHETSI MAKOKHA profiles the ten candidates shortlisted by the JSC.

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IMF and SAPs 2.0: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Riding into Town

Stabilisation, liberalisation, deregulation, and privatisation: what do these four pillars of structural adjustment augur for Kenya’s beleaguered public health sector?

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IMF and SAPs 2.0: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Riding into Town
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The International Monetary Fund’s announcement on the 2nd of April 2020 that it had approved a US$ 2.3 billion loan for Kenya prompted David Ndii to spell it out to young #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) that “the loan Kenya has taken is called a structural adjustment loan (SAPs). It comes with austerity (tax raises, spending cuts, downsizing) to keep Kenya creditworthy so that we can continue borrowing and servicing debt”, adding that the “IMF is not here for fun. Ask older people.” With this last quip, Ndii was referring to the economic hardship visited on Kenyans under the structural adjustment programmes of the 80s and 90s.

Well, I’m old enough to remember; except that I was not in the country. I had left home, left the country, leaving behind parents who were still working, still putting my siblings through school. Parents with permanent and pensionable jobs, who were still paying the mortgage on their modest “maisonette” in a middle class Nairobi neighbourhood.

In those pre-Internet, pre-WhatsApp days, much use was made of the post office and I have kept the piles of aerogramme letters that used to bring me news of home. In those letters my parents said nothing of the deteriorating economic situation, unwilling to burden me with worries about which I could do nothing, keeping body and soul together being just about all I could manage in that foreign land where I had gone to further my education.

My brother Tony’s letters should have warned me that all was not well back home but he wrote so hilariously about the status conferred on those men who could afford second-hand underwear from America, complete with stars and stripes, that the sub-text went right over my head. I came back home for the first time after five years — having left college and found a first job — to find parents that had visibly aged beyond their years and a home that was palpably less well-off financially than when I had left. I’m a Kicomi girl and something in me rebelled against second-hand clothes, second-hand things. It seemed that in my absence Kenya had regressed to the time before independence, the years of hope and optimism wiped away by the neoliberal designs of the Bretton Woods twins. I remember wanting to flee; I wanted to go back to not knowing, to finding my family exactly as I had left it — seemingly thriving, happy, hopeful.

Now, after eight years of irresponsible government borrowing, it appears that I am to experience the effects of a Structural Adjustment Programme first-hand, and I wonder how things could possibly be worse than they already are.

When speaking to Nancy* a couple of weeks back about the COVID-19 situation at the Nyahururu County Referral Hospital in Laikipia County, she brought up the issue of pregnant women having to share beds in the maternity ward yet — quite apart from the fact that this arrangement is unacceptable whichever way you look at it — patients admitted to the ward are not routinely tested for COVID-19.

Nancy told me that candidates for emergency caesarean sections or surgery for ectopic and intra-abdominal pregnancies must wait their turn at the door to the operating theatre. Construction of a new maternity wing, complete with its own operating theatre, has ground to a halt because, rumour has it, the contractor has not been paid. The 120-bed facility should have been completed in mid-2020 to ease congestion at the Nyahururu hospital whose catchment area for referrals includes large swathes of both Nyandarua and Laikipia counties because of its geographical location.

According to Nancy, vital medicine used to prevent excessive bleeding in newly delivered mothers has not been available at her hospital since January; patients have to buy the medication themselves. This issue was also raised on Twitter by Dr Mercy Korir who, referring to the Nanyuki Teaching and Referral Hospital — the only other major hospital in Laikipia County — said that lack of emergency medication in the maternity ward was putting the lives of mothers at risk. Judging by the responses to that tweet, this dire situation is not peculiar to the Nanyuki hospital; how much worse is it going to get under the imminent SAP?

Kenya was among the first countries to sign on for a SAP in 1980 when commodity prices went through the floor and the 1973 oil crisis hit, bringing to a painful halt a post-independence decade of sustained growth and prosperity. The country was to remain under one form of structural adjustment or another from then on until 1996.

Damaris Parsitau, who has written about the impact of Structural Adjustment Programmes on women’s health in Kenya, already reported in her 2008 study that, “at Nakuru District Hospital in Kenya, for example, expectant mothers are required to buy gloves, surgical blades, disinfectants and syringes in preparation for childbirth”. It would appear that not much has changed since then.

The constitution of the World Health Organisation states that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition” and that “governments have a responsibility for the health of their peoples which can be fulfilled only by the provision of adequate health and social measures.”

The WHO should have added gender as a discrimination criteria. Parsitau notes that “compared to men, women in Kenya have less access to medical care, are more likely to be malnourished, poor, and illiterate, and even work longer and harder. The situation exacerbates women’s reproductive role, which increases their vulnerability to morbidity and mortality.”

With economic decline in the 80s, and the implementation of structural adjustment measures that resulted in cutbacks in funding and the introduction of cost sharing in a sector where from independence the government had borne the cost of providing free healthcare, the effects were inevitably felt most by the poor, the majority of who — in Kenya as in the rest of the world — are women.

A more recent review of studies carried out on the effect of SAPs on child and maternal health published in 2017 finds that “in their current form, structural adjustment programmes are incongruous with achieving SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] 3.1 and 3.2, which stipulate reductions in neonatal, under-5, and maternal mortality rates. It is telling that even the IMF’s Independent Evaluation Office, in assessing the performance of structural adjustment loans, noted that ‘outcomes such as maternal and infant mortality rates have generally not improved.’”

The review also says that “adjustment programmes commonly promote decentralisation of health systems [which] may produce a more fractious and unequal implementation of services — including those for child and maternal health — nationally. Furthermore, lack of co-ordination in decentralised systems can hinder efforts to combat major disease outbreaks”. Well, we are in the throes of a devastating global pandemic which has brought this observation into sharp relief. According to the Ministry of Health, as of the 6th of April, 325,592 people had been vaccinated against COVID-19. Of those, 33 per cent were in Nairobi County, which accounts for just 9.2 per cent of the country’s total population of 47,564,296 people.

The Constitution of Kenya 2010 provides the legal framework for a rights-based approach to health and is the basis for the rollout of Universal Health Coverage (UHC) that was announced by President Uhuru Kenyatta on 12 December 2018 — with the customary fanfare — as part of the “Big Four Agenda” to be fulfilled before his departure in 2022.

However, a KEMRI-Wellcome Trust policy brief states that UHC is still some distance to achieving 100 per cent population coverage and recommends that “the Kenyan government should increase public financing of the health sector. Specifically, the level of public funding for healthcare in Kenya should double, if the threshold (5% of GDP) … is to be reached” and that “Kenya should reorient its health financing strategy away from a focus on contributory, voluntary health insurance, and instead recognize that increased tax funding is critical.”

These recommendations, it would seem to me, run counter to the conditionalities habitually imposed by the IMF and it is therefore not clear how the government will deliver UHC nation-wide by next year if this latest SAP is accompanied by budgetary cutbacks in the healthcare sector.

With the coronavirus graft scandal and the disappearance of medical supplies donated by Jack Ma still fresh on their minds, Kenyans are not inclined to believe that the IMF billions will indeed go to “support[ing] the next phase of the authorities’ COVID-19 response and their plan to reduce debt vulnerabilities while safeguarding resources to protect vulnerable groups”, as the IMF has claimed.

#KOT have — with outrage, with humour, vociferously — rejected this latest loan, tweeting the IMF in their hundreds and inundating the organisation’s Facebook page with demands that the IMF rescind its decision. An online petition had garnered more than 200,000 signatures within days of the IMF’s announcement. Whether the IMF will review its decision is moot. The prevailing economic climate is such that we are damned if we do take the loan, and damned if we don’t.

Structural adjustment supposedly “encourages countries to become economically self-sufficient by creating an environment that is friendly to innovation, investment and growth”, but the recidivist nature of the programmes suggests that either the Kenyan government is a recalcitrant pupil or SAPs simply don’t work. I would say it is both.

But the Kenyan government has not just been a recalcitrant pupil; it has also been a consistently profligate one. While SAPs do indeed provide for “safeguarding resources to protect vulnerable groups”, political choices are made that sacrifice the welfare of the ordinary Kenyan at the altar of grandiose infrastructure projects, based on the fiction peddled by international financial institutions that infrastructure-led growth can generate enough income to service debt. And when resources are not being wasted on “legacy” projects, they are embezzled on a scale that literally boggles the mind. We can no longer speak of runaway corruption; a new lexicon is required to describe this phenomenon which pervades every facet of our lives and which has rendered the years of sacrifice our parents endured meaningless and put us in debt bondage for many more generations to come. David Ndii long warned us that this moment was coming. It is here.

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East Africa: A ‘Hotbed of Terror’

African states are involved in the War on Terror more than we think. They’re surrounded by an eco-system of the war industry.

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In late January, reports circulated on social media about a suspected US drone strike in southern Somalia, in the Al-Shabaab controlled Ma’moodow town in Bakool province. Debate quickly ensued on Twitter about whether the newly installed Biden administration was responsible for this strike, which was reported to have occurred at 10 p.m. local time on January 29th, 2021.

Southern Somalia has been the target of an unprecedented escalation of US drone strikes in the last several years, with approximately 900 to 1,000 people killed between 2016 and 2019. According to the nonprofit group Airwars, which monitors and assesses civilian harm from airpower-dominated international military actions, “it was under the Obama administration that a significant US drone and airstrike campaign began,” coupled with the deployment of Special Operations forces inside the country.

Soon after Donald Trump took office in 2017, he signed a directive designating parts of Somalia “areas of active hostilities.” While the US never formally declared war in Somalia, Trump effectively instituted war-zone targeting rules by expanding the discretionary authority of the military to conduct airstrikes and raids. Thus the debate over the January 29 strike largely hinged on the question of whether President Joe Biden was upholding Trump’s “flexible” approach to drone warfare―one that sanctioned more airstrikes in Somalia in the first seven months of 2020 than were carried out during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, combined.

In the days following the January 29 strike, the US Military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) denied responsibility, claiming that the last US military action in Somalia occurred on January 19, the last full day of the Trump presidency. Responding to an inquiry from Airwars, AFRICOM’s public affairs team announced:

We are aware of the reporting. US Africa Command was not involved in the Jan. 29 action referenced below. US Africa Command last strike was conducted on Jan. 19. Our policy of acknowledging all airstrikes by either press release or response to query has not changed.

In early March, The New York Times reported that the Biden administration had in fact imposed temporary limits on the Trump-era directives, thereby constraining drone strikes outside of “conventional battlefield zones.” In practice, this means that the US military and the CIA now require White House permission to pursue terror suspects in places like Somalia and Yemen where the US is not “officially” at war. This does not necessarily reflect a permanent change in policy, but rather a stopgap measure while the Biden administration develops “its own policy and procedures for counterterrorism kill-or-capture operations outside war zones.”

If we take AFRICOM at its word about January 29th, this provokes the question of who was behind that particular strike. Following AFRICOM’s denial of responsibility, analysts at Airwars concluded that the strike was likely carried out by forces from the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somali (AMISOM) or by Ethiopian troops, as it occurred soon after Al-Shabaab fighters had ambushed a contingent of Ethiopian troops in the area. If indeed the military of an African state is responsible for the bombing, what does this mean for our analysis of the security assemblages that sustain the US’s war-making apparatus in Africa?

Thanks to the work of scholars, activists, and investigative journalists, we have a growing understanding of what AFRICOM operations look like in practice. Maps of logistics hubs, forward operating sites, cooperative security locations, and contingency locations―from Mali and Niger to Kenya and Djibouti―capture the infrastructures that facilitate militarism and war on a global scale. Yet what the events of January 29th suggest is that AFRICOM is situated within, and often reliant upon, less scrutinized war-making infrastructures that, like those of the United States, claim to operate in the name of security.

A careful examination of the geographies of the US’s so-called war on terror in East Africa points not to one unified structure in the form of AFRICOM, but to multiple, interconnected geopolitical projects. Inspired by the abolitionist thought of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who cautions activists against focusing exclusively on any one site of violent exception like the prison, I am interested in the relational geographies that sustain the imperial war-making infrastructure in Africa today. Just as the modern prison is “a central but by no means singularly defining institution of carceral geography,” AFRICOM is a fundamental but by no means singularly defining instrument of war-making in Africa today.

Since the US military’s embarrassing exit from Somalia in 1993, the US has shifted from a boots-on-the ground approach to imperial warfare, instead relying on African militaries, private contractors, clandestine ground operations, and drone strikes. To singularly focus on AFRICOM’s drone warfare is therefore to miss the wider matrix of militarized violence that is at work. As Madiha Tahir reminds us, attack drones are only the most visible element of what she refers to as “distributed empire”—differentially distributed opaque networks of technologies and actors that augment the reach of the war on terror to govern more bodies and spaces. This dispersal of power requires careful consideration of the racialized labor that sustains war-making in Somalia, and of the geographical implications of this labor. The vast array of actors involved in the war against Al-Shabaab has generated political and economic entanglements that extend well beyond the territory of Somalia itself.

Ethiopia was the first African military to intervene in Somalia in December 2006, sending thousands of troops across the border, but it did not do so alone. Ethiopia’s effort was backed by US aerial reconnaissance and satellite surveillance, signaling the entanglement of at least two geopolitical projects. While the US was focused on threats from actors with alleged ties to Al-Qaeda, Ethiopia had its own concerns about irredentism and the potential for its then-rival Eritrea to fund Somali militants that would infiltrate and destabilize Ethiopia. As Ethiopian troops drove Somali militant leaders into exile, more violent factions emerged in their place. In short, the 2006 invasion planted the seeds for the growth of what is now known as Al-Shabaab.

The United Nations soon authorized an African Union peacekeeping operation (AMISOM) to “stabilize” Somalia. What began as a small deployment of 1,650 peacekeepers in 2007 gradually transformed into a number that exceeded 22,000 by 2014. The African Union has emerged as a key subcontractor of migrant military labor in Somalia: troops from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda deployed to fight Al-Shabaab are paid significantly higher salaries than they receive back home, and their governments obtain generous military aid packages from the US, UK, and increasingly the European Union in the name of “security.”

But because these are African troops rather than American ones, we hear little of lives lost, or of salaries not paid. The rhetoric of “peacekeeping” makes AMISOM seem something other than what it is in practice—a state-sanctioned, transnational apparatus of violent labor that exploits group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death. (This is also how Gilmore defines racism.)

Meanwhile, Somali analyst Abukar Arman uses the term “predatory capitalism” to describe the hidden economic deals that accompany the so-called stabilization effort, such as “capacity-building” programs for the Somali security apparatus that serve as a cover for oil and gas companies to obtain exploration and drilling rights. Kenya is an important example of a “partner” state that has now become imbricated in this economy of war. Following the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) invasion of Somalia in October 2011, the African Union’s readiness to incorporate Kenyan troops into AMISOM was a strategic victory for Kenya, as it provided a veneer of legitimacy for maintaining what has amounted to a decade-long military occupation of southern Somalia.

Through carefully constructed discourses of threat that build on colonial-era mappings of alterity in relation to Somalis, the Kenyan political elite have worked to divert attention away from internal troubles and from the economic interests that have shaped its involvement in Somalia. From collusion with Al-Shabaab in the illicit cross-border trade in sugar and charcoal, to pursuing a strategic foothold in offshore oil fields, Kenya is sufficiently ensnared in the business of war that, as Horace Campbell observes, “it is not in the interest of those involved in this business to have peace.”

What began as purportedly targeted interventions spawned increasingly broader projects that expanded across multiple geographies. In the early stages of AMISOM troop deployment, for example, one-third of Mogadishu’s population abandoned the city due to the violence caused by confrontations between the mission and Al-Shabaab forces, with many seeking refuge in Kenya. While the mission’s initial rules of engagement permitted the use of force only when necessary, it gradually assumed an offensive role, engaging in counterinsurgency and counterterror operations.

Rather than weaken Al-Shabaab, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia observed that offensive military operations exacerbated insecurity. According to the UN, the dislodgment of Al-Shabaab from major urban centers “has prompted its further spread into the broader Horn of Africa region” and resulted in repeated displacements of people from their homes. Meanwhile, targeted operations against individuals with suspected ties to Al-Shabaab are unfolding not only in Somalia itself, but equally in neighboring countries like Kenya, where US-trained Kenyan police employ military tactics of tracking and targeting potential suspects, contributing to what one Kenyan rights group referred to as an “epidemic” of extrajudicial killings and disappearances.

Finally, the fact that some of AMISOM’s troop-contributing states have conducted their own aerial assaults against Al-Shabaab in Somalia demands further attention. A December 2017 United Nations report, for example, alleged that unauthorized Kenyan airstrikes had contributed to at least 40 civilian deaths in a 22-month period between 2015 and 2017. In May 2020, senior military officials in the Somali National Army accused the Kenyan military of indiscriminately bombing pastoralists in the Gedo region, where the KDF reportedly conducted over 50 airstrikes in a two week period. And in January 2021, one week prior to the January 29 strike that Airwars ascribed to Ethiopia, Uganda employed its own fleet of helicopter gunships to launch a simultaneous ground and air assault in southern Somalia, contributing to the deaths—according to the Ugandan military—of 189 people, allegedly all Al-Shabaab fighters.

While each of the governments in question are formally allies of the US, their actions are not reducible to US directives. War making in Somalia relies on contingent and fluid alliances that evolve over time, as each set of actors evaluates and reevaluates their interests. The ability of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda to maintain their own war-making projects requires the active or tacit collaboration of various actors at the national level, including politicians who sanction the purchase of military hardware, political and business elite who glorify militarized masculinities and femininities, media houses that censor the brutalities of war, logistics companies that facilitate the movement of supplies, and the troops themselves, whose morale and faith in their mission must be sustained.

As the Biden administration seeks to restore the image of the United States abroad, it is possible that AFRICOM will gradually assume a backseat role in counterterror operations in Somalia. Officially, at least, US troops have been withdrawn and repositioned in Kenya and Djibouti, while African troops remain on the ground in Somalia. Relying more heavily on its partners in the region would enable the US to offset the public scrutiny and liability that comes with its own direct involvement.

But if our focus is exclusively on the US, then we succumb to its tactics of invisibility and invincibility, and we fail to reckon with the reality that the East African warscape is a terrain shaped by interconnected modes of power. The necessary struggle to abolish AFRICOM requires that we recognize its entanglement in and reliance upon other war-making assemblages, and that we distribute our activism accordingly. Recounting that resistance itself has long been framed as “terrorism,” we would do well to learn from those across the continent who, in various ways over the years, have pushed back, often at a heavy price.

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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