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A Lost Opportunity: Can the National Land Commission Reclaim Its Original Mandate and Regain the Public’s Trust?

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A public law model retrieves Kenyans’ hopes for a different and better way to manage and administer land as the commission enters its next phase.

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A Lost Opportunity: Can the National Land Commission Reclaim Its Original Mandate and Regain the Public’s Trust?
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On 19th February 2019, the term of office of officials of the National Land Commission ended. A new set of Commissioners will have to be appointed. This seems like a good moment to reflect on the commission’s record and to remind ourselves of how much hope we citizens had invested in this constitutionally mandated independent commission.

Let us begin by reminding ourselves of the origins of the commission and the mischiefs we had hoped it would address. Institutional change in the land arena was a key aim of the new Constitution when it was inaugurated in 2010. The hope was that a new architecture of land governance would solve Kenya’s long-standing land problems, including massive and worsening inequalities in access to land, the concentration of land in a despotic executive, widespread land grabbing, the irregular and illegal use of land as a patronage resource, and continuing conflicts over who is and who is not entitled to occupy land.

The National Land Commission was envisaged as an independent constitutional commission that would stand apart from existing institutions associated with facilitating a multitude of wrongs, including corruption. The path to the creation of the National Land Commission was by no means easy. Although there was powerful advocacy for it at the start of the constitutional review process, it also encountered its opponents. It was hoped that creating a strong land commission undergirded by constitutional guarantees of its independence would mark the beginning of a new land order for Kenya. It would put into effect Chapter Five of the Constitution that emphasises the importance of land being “held, used and managed in a manner that is equitable, efficient, productive and sustainable”. And it would be guided by the principles of land policy inscribed in the new Constitution and by its national values, including those of participation, consultation and transparency, all of which had entered the Constitution after concerted debate and struggle.

In spite of these aspirations, what we have witnessed in the short life of the National Land Commission is concerted resistance to the changes it might have brought about. The national government has fought hard to retain its control over key land functions, including land registration. There has been a powerful centralising effort by a state determined not to lose control of management of and access to land, including regional and central land registries.

The Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development has been the prime actor in this struggle for control. An incumbent institution with vast experience, it has worked hard to keep the new National Land Commission in check. The short life of the Commission has been riddled with infighting and uncertainty. Those who wished to maintain the status quo sought to make the commission an appendage of the executive. The land commission quickly assumed a subordinate role to the land ministry. It struggled to take on new and distinct responsibilities. It absorbed administrative officials from the ministry. Located in the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development’s headquarters at Ardhi House, it was essentially a tenant at the will the ministry.

In spite of these aspirations, what we have witnessed in the short life of the National Land Commission is concerted resistance to the changes it might have brought about. The national government has fought hard to retain its control over key land functions, including land registration. There has been a powerful centralising effort by a state determined not to lose control of management of and access to land, including regional and central land registries.

The Supreme Court’s Advisory Opinion

In 2014, with much of the business of county land administration at a standstill, the Supreme Court was asked to provide an Advisory Opinion on what should be the relationship between the two bodies in light of the Constitution and the relevant land laws. Advisory Opinions are a judicial mechanism that enable the Supreme Court to provide “authoritative and impartial interpretation of the Constitution” (s. 3 Supreme Court Act 2011). Resorting to the court for its guidance was a clear indication that two bodies with responsibilities on land had reached a stalemate. The country’s highest court was being asked to rule on a key question: what are the responsibilities and duties of the institutions envisaged by Kenya’s new legal framework for land governance?

The Supreme Court is charged by legislation with being a guardian of the Constitution and its values. Section 3 of the Supreme Court Act 2011 provides that the objectives of the court “enable important constitutional and other legal matters, especially matters on transition to the new Constitution be determined with due regard to the circumstances, history and cultures of the people”. The Supreme Court’s ruling in this matter is extremely detailed (it runs to sixty-two pages). It is perhaps one of the best considerations of Kenya’s land history and of the connections between land reform and constitutional transformations currently in existence. But the Advisory Opinion fails to provide, as the amicus curiae submission of the Katiba Institute urged, detailed guidance on the meaning of land administration and management. Despite its keen sense of the history of land in Kenya and its stated commitment to constitutional transformation, including the role of the land commission in this, the court did not provide the direct and forthright judicial support the commission needed at this critical stage of the commission’s infancy.

Particularly in relation to titling responsibilities, the court failed to grasp how the case presented a unique jurisprudential opportunity. The court might have developed in its judgment reasoning that had the effect of “locking in” a public law perspective on land issues. What was being asked of it was an interpretation of public functions, essentially administrative law. It should have provided robust and detailed guidance on the powers and responsibilities of institutions and individuals in the land arena.

Instead, the court relied rather too much on a view of the case as predominantly based on land law, and specifically private law. This is evidenced by its reading of the function of registration of title. Its reasoning here was that the legislature cannot have envisaged a fragmentation of the role of land title issuance between the ministry and the commission because that would be bad for land markets and lead to uncertainty. This emphasis by the court on the need to avoid fragmentation in a key area of land dealings shows a private law interpretive inclination. The court prioritised a private law view of land as a tradeable asset. It failed to see that the task of breathing life into terms such as “land management” and “land administration” is essentially an elaboration of public law. Such a stance might have led the court to reason differently. Its own account of constitutional and land history in the judgment should have led it to that point. Aware of the mischief, which a new dispensation in land was developed to address, the court should instead have provided jurisprudential backing for a strongly protected constitutional commission rooted in administrative law.

Particularly in relation to titling responsibilities, the court failed to grasp how the case presented a unique jurisprudential opportunity. The court might have developed in its judgment reasoning that had the effect of “locking in” a public law perspective on land issues.

The Advisory Opinion falls short of issuing specific detail of how to resolve the problems between the land ministry and the land commission that had come to characterise the years since the new land laws were enacted. The judgment leaves this for the two bodies to work out. Given the strains of the past few years, and the impasse at which they found themselves on the eve of the Advisory Opinion, it is hard to see how this order could be an effective one. The judgment provides everything needed for a historically informed jurisprudence. The court knows why there is a need to guarantee the independence of the National Land Commission, but it does not build a sturdy and enduring architecture with detailed and carefully elaborated roles specifically set out.

The outcome of the judgment is that the role of the land commission is truncated. The roles it remains with are: the conduct of research on land issues and on natural resources; initiating inquiries into historical land grievances and recommending redress; and promoting traditional methods of resolving land conflict. The mandate of the commission is succinctly summed up by the court as “a brains-trust mandate in relation to land grievances, with functions that are in nature consultative, advisory, and safeguard-oriented”. Thinker, but not doer, the resultant land commission is a far cry from that envisaged by the Constitution and the National Land Policy.

Successes and challenges

Despite the numerous challenges that it has been faced with, the commission has had some successes. Staff at the commission have demonstrated an ability to make progress in spite of the difficult context. For instance, through its Research Directorate, the commission has partnered with civil society organisations, academics and practitioners. The commission has also undertaken the process of review of grants and dispositions on public land.

The Shule Yangu initiative represents an important success. The issuance of title deeds to public schools has guaranteed the protection of land owned by schools. The commission has worked hard to recover public land allocated to various state agencies, including the Water Ministry, the National Youth Service, the Kenya Prisons Department, Kenya Ports Authority and the Kenya Maritime Authority, which was subsequently grabbed by private developers. (See, for example, the Makupa Causeway and Kitale Museum cases.)

Although our focus in this article has not been on rehashing graft narratives, it is important to acknowledge how much harm has been done to the commission’s independence and non-partisanship by recent scandals. Allegations of impropriety and of corruption have become commonplace. The commission’s credibility has been called into question since the loss of data on compensation payments for land which it was holding on an internal computer. It has been embroiled in land compensation scandals. Serious doubts have been cast over the integrity of some commissioners.

The commission has not only lost the public’s trust, it has also lost its status as an independent guardian of the Constitution in the land arena and has become associated instead with the sorts of land wrongs for which the land ministry is infamous. Most recently, by allowing the regularisation of title to the land on which Weston Hotel sits, the commission caused much upset. Why, asked Kenyans, did it not give the same opportunity to the many properties that were demolished after it was established that they were sitting on public or riparian land? Differential treatment of this sort casts doubt on the commission’s independence in discharging its mandate.

The coming years

In discharging their responsibilities, the new land commissioners must have at the front of their minds the public and administrative law framework that should govern their work. Unlike other independent commissions, the land commission has a unique and symbiotic relationship with the executive in the form of the Ministry of Lands. Negotiating this relationship has not been easy but a renewed National Land Commission will reconnect with constitutional history and with the long-standing demands of Kenyans for an accountable and independent institution in charge of land.

The commission has not only lost the public’s trust, it has also lost its status as an independent guardian of the Constitution in the land arena and has become associated instead with the sorts of land wrongs for which the land ministry is infamous. Most recently, by allowing the regularisation of title to the land on which Weston Hotel sits, the commission caused much upset. Why, asked Kenyans, did it not give the same opportunity to the many properties that were demolished after it was established that they were sitting on public or riparian land?

The public law model we have suggested emphasises administrative duties, restraint of public officials and accountability. These are the constitutional values with which the land commission was inaugurated. Since then, a private land law model has been allowed to predominate, including in the landmark Supreme Court ruling on the relationship between the land ministry and the land commission and in the analyses of most commentators on land matters. A public law model retrieves Kenyans’ hopes for a different and better way to manage and administer land as the commission enters its next phase.

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Ambreena Manji is Professor of Land Law and Development at the Centre for Law and Global Justice, Cardiff Law School. She is completing a book Land and the Struggle for Justice in Modern Kenya. Smith Ouma is a doctoral researcher at the Centre for Law and Global Justice, an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya and the co-author of Property Law (Strathmore University Press, 2016).

Politics

For J.M’s Ten Million Beggars, the Hustler vs Dynasty Narrative is a Red Herring

Hon. William Ruto’s hustler vs dynasty narrative is a shrewd way of redefining Kenyan identity politics in order to avoid playing the tribal card in his quest for the presidency.

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For J.M’s Ten Million Beggars, the Hustler vs Dynasty Narrative is a Red Herring
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Stifling the “hustler” vs “dynasty” debate will not save us from the imminent implosion resulting from Kenya’s obscene inequalities. While the debate is a welcome distraction from our frequent divisive tribal politics, leaders in government and society are frightened that it might lead to class wars. Our sustained subtle, yet brazen, war against the poor has made class conflict inevitable. If only we had listened to Hon. J. M. Kariuki, the assassinated former Member of Parliament for Nyandarua (1969-1975), and provided the poor with the means to develop themselves, perhaps the prospect of revolt would now be remote.

Could this be the angry ghost of J.M. Kariuki coming back to haunt us? Listen to his voice still crying from the grave, as did his supporters at a rally in 1974: “We do not want a Kenya of ten millionaires and ten million beggars. Our people who died in the forests died with a handful of soil in their right hands, believing they had fallen in a noble struggle to regain our land . . . But we are being carried away by selfishness and greed. Unless something is done now, the land question will be answered by bloodshed” (quoted by Prof. Simiyu Wandibba in his book J.M. Kariuki). Fired by this speech, his followers set ablaze 700 acres of wheat on Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s farm in Rongai and slaughtered cattle with malice. Thus did J.M. invite his death.

What Hon. William Ruto propounds in his hustler vs dynasty debate is a shrewd way of redefining Kenyan identity politics. Ruto is re-directing the political narrative from the “us” vs “them” of tribalism, to one characterised by the poor and desperate (hustlers) who have seen subsequent governments betray their hopes for a better life, pitted against “them”, Ruto’s rivals, the offspring of politicians born to unfair and unearned privilege.

Wycliffe Muga, the Star newspaper columnist, has eloquently described them as the “sons of a hereditary political elite who absorbed all the benefits that came with independence, leaving ‘the rest of us’ destitute and having no choice but to beg for the crumbs under their table.” By opting for an alternative approach, Ruto hopes to avoid playing the tribal card to attain the presidency. For, besides his own, he would need the support of at least one other of the five big tribes who often reserve support for their own sons unless there is a brokered alliance. But even then, the underlying logic of Kenyan politics remains that of identity politics, which creates a binary narrative of “us” against “them”.

Meanwhile, Ruto has not only radicalised the poor, but he has also hastened the country’s hour of reckoning — judgement for the years of neglect of the poor — and this may ignite the tinder sooner we imagine.

In their article in The Elephant, Dauti Kahura and Akoko Akech observe that, “Ruto might have belatedly discovered the great socio-economic divide between the walala-hoi and the walala-hai in Kenya”. Ruto has galvanised the poor and their plight around the banner of the “hustler nation”, a nation aspiring to erase the tribal or geographical lines that have kept Kenyans apart. As a result the poor are restless as they compare their state with the ease of the lives of the affluent. But Ruto is not organising to awaken class-consciousness among the exploited.  ‘As Thandika Mkandawire, citing Karl Marx, observed, “The existence of class may portend class struggles, but it does not automatically trigger them. It is not enough that classes exist in themselves, they must also be for themselves”’, Kahura and Akech further reiterate.

The problem kicks in immediately he points to the “dynasty”. In juxtaposing the hustlers and dynasty, the poor find a target of hate, an object of their wrath. This situation can easily slide into violence, the violence emerging only when the “us” see themselves as all good and the “them” as all evil.

I worry this controversy has led us to that radicalisation stage where the poor see themselves as the good children of light fighting evil forces of darkness. In our case, the so-called hustler nation believe they are against the deep-state which doesn’t care about them but wants to give to the dynasty that which is due to them. They believe that this collusion between deep-state and dynasty is preventing them from reaching prosperity and so they blame their situation on those who they perceive to be the cause of their wretchedness. Interestingly, the colonial state always feared the day when the masses would rise up and topple it. Unfortunately, Ruto is using the crisis of the underclass created by the colonial state and perpetuated by the political class for political expediency and for his own self-advancement.

By declaring himself the saviour of the hustlers from the dynasties, Ruto — who is devoid of any pro-democracy and pro-suffering citizens political credentials — is perceived to be antagonising the Kenyatta family’s political and financial interests. He has with precision stoked the anger of the poor against particular political elites he calls dynasties and the Odingas, the Kenyattas, the Mois and their associates have become the hustler nation’s enemy. So, one understands why President Uhuru Kenyatta considers Ruto’s dynasty vs hustler debate “a divisive and a major threat to the country’s security”, which he fears may degenerate into class warfare.

Hon. Paul Koinange, Chairman of the Parliamentary Administration and Security Committee errs in his call to criminalise the hustler vs dynasty narrative. If this is hate speech, as Koinange wants it classified, then neglect of the poor by their government is a worse form of hate speech. The application of policies favouring tender-preneurs at the expense of the majority poor, landless and unemployed will incite Kenyans against each other faster than the hustler vs dynasty narrative. The failure to provide public services for the poor and the spiralling wealth of the political class must be confronted.

We have been speeding down this slippery slope for years. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) data released in December 2020, only 2.92 million Kenyans work in the formal sector, of which 1.34 million or 45.9 per cent earn less than Sh30,000. If we accept that the informal sector employs another 15 million Kenyans, an overwhelming majority (71 per cent) would be in micro-scale enterprises or in small-scale enterprises (which make up 26 per cent). This implies that 97 per cent of our enterprises are micro or small, and these are easily wound up. The situation is exasperated by the opulence at the top. The UK-based New World Wealth survey (2014) conducted over 5 years paints a grim picture of wealth distribution in Kenya. Of the country’s 43.1 million people then, 46 per cent lived below the poverty line, surviving on less than Sh172 ($2) a day.

The report shows that nearly two-thirds of Kenya’s Sh4.3 trillion ($50 billion) economy is controlled by a tiny clique of 8,300 super-wealthy individuals, highlighting the huge inequality between the rich and the poor. Without a clear understanding of these disparities, it is difficult to evaluate the currents that are conducive to the widening of this gap not to mention those that would bridge it. Hon. Koinange should be addressing these inequalities that the masses are awakening to rather than combatting the hustler narrative. Our government must be intentional in levelling the playing field, or live in perpetual fear like the British colonials who feared mass revolt across imaginary ethnic lines.

In Kenya, past injustices have yielded gross inequalities. In Reading on inequality in Kenya: Sectoral Dynamics and Perceptions, Okello and Gitau illustrate how state power is still being used to perpetuate differences in the sharing of political and economic welfare. Okello further observes that: “In a country where for a long time economic and political power was/has been heavily partisan, where the state appropriated for itself the role of being the agency for development, and where politics is highly ethnicised, the hypothesis of unequal treatment has been so easy to build.”

This, and not the euphoria of the hustler nation, is the pressure cooker that is about to explode. The horizontal manifestation of inequality stemming from the failure of state institutions and policies that have continued to allow inequalities to fester is what should be of concern to the state. How can the government not see the risk such extreme economic disparities within the population pose for the nation’s stability?

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Politics

We Didn’t Make It for You: Vaccine Nationalism and the West’s Claim to the COVID-19 Jab

Wealthy nations are actively hoarding pre-orders of the multiple vaccines, and the pharmaceutical giants from which they sprang are largely avoiding sharing their advancements with the developing world.

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We Didn’t Make It for You: Vaccine Nationalism and the West’s Claim to the COVID-19 Jab
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The sun dipped over the Nile in Jinja on New Year’s Eve. Shots were thrown back, toasts were raised, beer glasses clinking against each other. The night almost seemed like the usual run-of-the-mill end-of-year celebration, with the noticeably big exception that people kept their distance and the gates were locked to keep out roving members of the army looking to catch any reveler dumb enough to wander out mask-free past curfew and slam them with a myriad of charges until bribes were produced.

Now 2021 seems to be little more than the continuation of the cavalcade of horrors that kicked off the new decade. And once again the cynicism is proving justified. For the last couple of months, in various social settings, over various libations, statements of optimism had sprung forth regarding COVID-19 vaccine developments. These were invariably met with knowing laughter from someone at the table, an individual almost certainly all out of damns to give and sick of starry-eyed statements of global equity in these desperate and turbulent times.

And now, as if from some unexpected remnant of colonial history, it trickles out (not as a leading headline amongst the upstanding Western press) that the wealthy nations of the world are actively hoarding pre-orders of the multiple vaccines, and the pharmaceutical giants from which they sprang are largely avoiding sharing their advancements with the developing world.

It is not just the typical candidates that are guilty of this. By typical candidates I am pointing the finger at the United States, Britain, China, and France. But also at countries like Canada, which has pre-ordered enough vaccines to inject its population an estimated five times over. Are they also trying to stop the pandemic from affecting two generations of their ancestors and the local polar bear population? In fact, by mid-December last year, only 700 million doses had been secured for the entire “underdeveloped” world. That number is laughably low. Politics is being played well above people’s heads once again. Nothing has been learned, and mega-corporations are in lockstep with the very same austerity-measure-loving members of the Western political elite.

In essence, this means that pencil-pushing cheapskates in the big conference rooms of places with organizational titles like NATO, the UN and the EU are fully content to once again screw the developing world over if it doesn’t add a couple of hundred million euros to western coffers. Bailouts and massive pushes for research were fine for the good, upstanding, and largely white citizenry within their own borders. International cooperation to ensure worldwide immunity? Well, that might be a problem for those who pull the purse strings.

The only surprise with such behaviour is that there is any surprise at all within the global South. Is this not a continuing theme spread across years, regimes, decades, centuries? 2020 certainly didn’t shape up to be a boring year, dreadful though it was. It was almost enjoyable (albeit in a deeply perverse way) to watch the bullshit come flying from the mouths of nearly everyone in charge, including the deep tones of patriarchal condescension from powerful nations directed disdainfully at sub-Saharan African countries, even as their own fell into disrepair and chaos.

And isn’t it interesting that the entire global market and economic conditions truly were a series of well-constructed lies this entire time? Let me expand. In saying that the global state of affairs was a lie, it is a finger pointed squarely at the West. With a special round of kudos to the United States.

This lie has been easy to spot in media narratives, as they make little mention of smaller, less powerful nations rolling out their vaccine plans or how such goals will be attained. No. Instead, if the narrative remains that the powerful countries have defeated the virus, then it has been defeated. The rest of the issue can be quickly swept under the carpet. Out of sight, out of mind. What will the next phase look like? Will immigration restrictions on citizens of African countries get even more stringent? Will the song now be: “Well you have not been immunised against the pandemic, so surely how can you be allowed around our citizens who have?”

A darker-minded conspiracy theorist than I would almost view such a series of actions as intentional moves to quicken the crippling of “developing” nations from attaining that aspiration. Of course, citizens of such developing nations are still having their rights stripped back, curfews violently enforced, and media freedoms curtailed seemingly daily. Meanwhile, there are rumours that Kenya’s and Uganda’s rich and powerful are having their vaccines flown in on private planes. These claims are, of course, entirely unsubstantiated.

In the age of COVID-19, such governments have the perfect excuse to call on their darker nature and have their nations more fully in their grip, the economy be damned. In fact, this seems the likely option as during the daylight hours, most aspects of daily life seem to grind on utterly unimpeded. There is little logic to the current 9 p.m. curfew especially since bars, movie theaters and indoor restaurants are all allowed to keep their doors open and are largely operating as normal. With the pandemic however, one must be incredibly careful not to overstep the mark, unless they wish to face fines, jail, or more sinister off-the-record consequences.

Now, as the West and other wealthy countries stumble around in the dark in their own vaccination campaigns, one must ask, when exactly does this end for the unlucky “other” countries of the world? Are all others simply doomed to an endless half-decade of dodging curfews, watching the development wave recede and roll back and feeling the iron hand of whichever government figure decides to come down on them for breaking a newly rolled out “rule”?

Such arguments may sound like the ramblings of a conspiracy theorist but make no mistake, this is a serious issue that needs addressing. A year into the pandemic, and many world governments have not exactly done much to shield their citizens from the vast hardships that come along with lockdowns, closures, and social distancing. It seems reasonable to bet that they will not figure it out any time soon. In some instances, it seems that the efforts can be viewed as a sort of willful ignorance. To be sure, the global healthcare system will drastically change for the better in the fallout from COVID-19, but the rate at which access to future advancements will trickle down to the developing world is unclear. It seems as though many actors chosen the more protectionist and nativist camps, abandoning the spirit of “global unity” that the NGO world likes to make bumper stickers about.

With vaccination campaigns seemingly starting in earnest (and some countries such as Israel already having vaccinated 12 per cent of the population as of 3 January 2021) one could be forgiven for rolling their eyes. This seems a familiar narrative: the vaccines are being distributed to some countries while leaving others well out of the scheme. Sure, the pandemic affects all the people of the world equally, but now that there is a solution within grasp, some people are proving to be much more equal than others. Most African nations now find themselves in the unenviable position of waiting around for the West to quit dawdling and get their act together.

The US for one seems to be stumbling from one rollout hurdle to the next, a hodgepodge of state governments interacting with federal, bad, and incompetent actors. The US vaccination effort had set a target of 20 million people having received their first injection by the end of 2020. The reality? Between three and six million, at most just thirty per cent of the number targeted. It isn’t too unreasonable to predict that the US will spend the whole of 2021 trying to grab the reins and steer the COVID-19 response back into a series of workable solutions. Even while putting the US campaign to shame, several other nations’ efforts aren’t exactly stellar either. The UK, home to arguably the world’s best healthcare system, reported issues with distribution in the latter part of 2020. All these factors slow down the efforts to get the vaccine distributed globally – if that was ever part of the plan to begin with.

In the future, it will become clear that there is some blame to be laid at the feet of East African governments as well, given their dubious relationships with foreign nations and their murky tendering procedures. In the years to come, when the many trials and errors regarding vaccine distribution in sub-Saharan Africa come to light, I’m willing to put money down that at least one country will fall drastically behind in the vaccination effort, having thrown its lot in with a questionable tender worth several hundred billion shillings, only for it to emerge that all that money went to the Sinovac vaccine made by China that only has a 50.4 per cent efficacy rate.

It is yet to be seen how exactly African state actors (and their respective publics) will react to this period of global chaos, whether they will start to move away from the neo-colonial overreach of Western governments considering their bungling of the pandemic or if the old guard will remain and carry on down this new decade. As I have mentioned in previous pieces for this publication, the pandemic has illuminated something to the youth within the United States; that all the systems that they were told to comply with were built on lies. A similar sentiment seems to be taking root within several developing countries; that the current guard isn’t really in charge of anything and that the systems need to be overhauled and made more equitable if they are to last. The vaccine buy-up by the West is just a symptom of a larger disease.

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Politics

Death By Compromise: Will the Biden Administration Do What People Actually Want Or Play Politics?

If the Biden presidency is making excuses and is handicapped before even it has begun, especially during this time, then maybe it is the modern Democratic Party that is truly in jeopardy.

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Death By Compromise: Will the Biden Administration Do What People Actually Want Or Play Politics?
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The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Trump’s inherent flaw is that he failed to tap into his own political potential. Yes, he is an uncouth racist who harbours American isolationist instincts and is hell-bent on division. It would be a mistake, however, to ignore the fact that his greatest attraction was due to the economy. In essence, the real situation of many working people in the US had grown so difficult that out of desperation they threw in their lot with a two-bit huckster who claimed that he could make all their empty-wallet woes disappear into the ether of history. Now upper middle class liberals in places like Seattle, Washington, Madison, Wisconsin and the suburbs of New York City are scratching their heads and wondering just how, how could so many millions still vote for this abomination after all that has happened during his time in the White House?

There has been an outright refusal by many on the left to acknowledge that the Trump base are anything but hidden racists, now magically freed to unmask themselves by some sort of Orange Pied Piper. Now as the Trump camp closes shop and flies away from the White House in shame, Biden is beginning his presidential term under deeply bizarre circumstances. The election victory, the transition and the first few weeks of the Democratic administration were met with some jubilation, but overall the response to Biden’s victory was rather tepid, especially when compared to the response that greeted Obama.

So why the underlying feeling of trepidation? It could have something to do with the well-deserved hand-wringing coming from the left wing of the party, seemingly left out in the cold for the last several months (at least since they were largely locked out of the Democratic National Convention last August). They had been promised a seat at the table, but that chair appears to have been lost in the move. What does this mean exactly?

Well, the Biden team and cabinet is being packed with the same type of lobbyists, centrists, supporters of the Iraq war and even billionaire Democrats disenchanted with the Obama administration who helped to turn the tide against Hillary Clinton during the 2016 race. One Washington insider quipped that the cabinet picks for the Biden administration looked like a guest list for a bourgeois dinner party in the upper crust Washington DC neighbourhood of Georgetown. It includes some of the same minds that helped to walk back the Obama White House from a more progressive agenda. Already Democrats are walking back the very promises that brought them to power — such as promising US$2000 cheques and now floating “hopefully US$1400, because the US$600 sent in early January and the new round of US$1400 would equal US$2000”. This goes against Occam’s razor principle, where the simplest solution is usually the right one. In this instance, the smart thing to do would be to send the full amount immediately, because a desperate public doesn’t give a damn about technocratic reasoning and austerity measures. In America’s skewed political structure, the prospect of the Democrats staying in long-term control of the US government is tenuous at best.

For example, in a year absolutely stuffed to the brim with progressive sentiments and activism across the US, why did the Democrat-controlled House actually lose seats (narrowing their majority)? As projections were touted across the media for months on end, and innumerable polls read the tea leaves to project an utterly massive Democratic win in the US Senate, the forecasts proved utterly wrong. In the end, the Democrats took the Senate by flipping Georgia’s two seats in January, but back in November several infamous Republicans, projected as vulnerable, held onto their seats by wide margins of victory.

Now Biden is already falling into the trap of being too bipartisan — a concept that doesn’t yield results and doesn’t truly affect anyone’s day-to-day lives. Republicans sure as hell don’t do bipartisan. In fact, Mitch McConnell, the controversial Senate minority leader from the state of Kentucky, had given himself the awkward moniker of the Grim Reaper during the Obama years, focusing solely on killing off any legislation that the Democratic Party brought forward, resulting in stagnation, political fallout and economic destitution for millions — and all that was before the scourge of COVID-19 revealed America’s system to be a mere façade of a true empire.

If this is the way forward, then the US is truly in dire straits and Biden may easily face another Trump-esque arch-conservative again in four years, or perhaps even Trump himself; he seems intent on positioning himself as a media figure, holding continuous rallies, never admitting that he truly lost, and then riding down another escalator some time in June of 2022. If the Biden presidency is making excuses and is handicapped before even beginning, especially during this time, then maybe it is the modern Democratic Party that is truly in jeopardy.

To put it bluntly, there are absolutely massive problems facing the US right now, ones that could well put an end to its status as a global leader and reputation as a democracy. This winter has thrown tens of thousands into starvation, cast millions into poverty and consolidated power further in the tentacled grasp of a corporate elite. COVID-19 killed over 100,000 Americans during the month of January 2021 alone. Now the status quo has returned to Washington DC, but the Democratic elite are acting as though that is a good thing, not seeing that the writing on the wall has been there since the financial crisis of 2008, a groundswell of populism that will soon be hard to ignore.

Rather than doing away with archaic filibuster and trying to confer statehood on DC and Puerto Rico and instead immediately passing a massive economic stimulus package, the Democrats are dithering and posturing with austerity-tinged deals and half measures that accord Republicans some sort of input. There could be very serious repercussions for the left wing and the right wing in two years if political action is not taken to get both the economic crisis and the pandemic under control within the next few months.

Looking ahead, however, it seems as though once again the youth will be blamed for whatever future is to come in the political landscape. It will be claimed that they will not have voted in large enough numbers (despite the rates being similar for nearly every single election amongst voters under 30 since the 1950s). They’ll be called lazy, entitled, ignorant, and the argument will be made for incremental change by an assortment of millionaire octogenarian figures within the Democratic leadership.

The progressive wing has already been blamed by the more conservative elements of the party for it not being a wide enough victory, with Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger of Virginia (who used to work for the CIA and represents some of the richest people in America) stating in a taped conference call in the days after the November general election that if progressive ideals (or the specter of socialism) are put on the ballot, then Democratic candidates will get “fucking torn apart in the 2022 election”. This despite the fact that it was the more centrist candidates who faced tougher competition in their election bids, and the further to the left a candidate was, the better they performed overall.

So why would a multitude of people vote in the next midterm elections in 2022 or the next presidential election in 2024? The phrase “getting turned on” inherently means that some effort has been made, something has turned you on to that idea or cause to propel you to join or vote for it. Such are the problems that the current party is grappling with. It is bogged down in partisan signaling and identity-based politics, while not actually advancing any progressive agenda, blaming the youth and the far left that could save them from their underperformance in the United States congressional races, and refusing to negotiate meaningful stimulus packages to revive a US economy that has been in the COVID-19-drenched economic doldrums since 2020.

The Democrats have pigeonholed themselves as a middling, tedious political entity, one that turns people off in droves and panders to the wealthier coastal suburbanites. The numbers don’t lie; while they had projected that adding Kamala Harris to the vice presidential slot would bolster their bloc amongst minorities, this didn’t play out, and Latinos, Blacks and Asian Americans voted for Biden at a lower rate than they did for Clinton in 2016. The question goes unanswered: could voters be more concerned about their economic standing during a pandemic-induced depression than about the racial makeup of the candidate on the ticket? Such thoughts can easily get one removed from the good graces of the current Democratic establishment, even as the possibility of rallying their base seems to diminish by the day.

For starters, anyone vaguely on the left already despises Donald J. Trump, and felt that way even before the last 11 disastrous months. The Democratic Party didn’t need to convince anyone here, but the Biden team spent most of the primaries solely attacking Trump for being the useless self-obsessed goon that he is. They then proceeded to not hammer him nearly hard enough when the disaster truly arrived, instead leaning back into the tropes of tired-eyed neo-conservatives from the George W. Bush era (some of the same talking heads who pushed messaging for the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars) and continuously beaming over advertisements coming from anti-Trump Republicans like the “Lincoln Project”. More centrist media outlets like MSNBC fawned over these “high-minded idealists” and simultaneously ridiculed left-wing figures for questioning if this would truly be a progressive administration.

This is an avoidable issue, but as the leadership within Congress (House Majority leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer) can’t be moved from their messaging, this slow-moving car is heading for a cliff. Biden can either push the pedal down to the floor and drive off to an untimely death or pull the emergency brake and change course.

Democrats could have run on the progressive economic policies that they tip-toed around during this last horrifying year. They could have at least pretended to embrace a sweeping set of policies unseen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. If they had, there is a very real possibility that their lead in the House would have increased and they would have at least been able to flip the Senate. They didn’t. Instead they bowed to outside interests and fucked around politically, even leaving stimulus on the table. Now, the same crowd that pushed for bombing Libya under Obama is back into the fold, all within the same umbrella of a “well needed return to normalcy”. Normal sucks in America.

The real middle class has been dying for a long time, but it seems the Biden administration can’t actually wrap their heads around this fact. Instead, it seems as though they’ll be content to simply reverse some of Trump’s uglier policies and call it a winning formula. In fact, that’s exactly what Biden did on day one of his administration instead of passing executive orders regarding COVID-19.

So, if the Democratic Party continues on the trajectory they are on, who exactly do they intend to turn on? If anything, millions have been utterly turned off by the state of politics in the United States, and if an individual doesn’t stand to actually benefit, what is the benefit of supporting a political party? Back to normal shouldn’t have been the banner of the Democratic party in 2020; it should have been like the title of a horror movie to be run away from as quickly as can be messaged by PR officials in the corridors of the United States capitol.

Tragedies earn their names by reflecting the failures that weren’t overcome although they could have been. In years to come, the fear shouldn’t be Trump himself per se — he was much too incapable to be an outright authoritarian, and too big a coward to really make such moves anyway. It should be the fear of those for whom Trump was the unwieldy flagbearer.

The worry should really be: who will come after Trump? With all of the so-called “rising stars” on the right wing in the US right now, someone will crawl out of the primordial ooze to usurp an aging Donald Trump. Could such a figure manage to turn on a large enough swath of Millennial and Generation Z voters distraught at the economic conditions brought on by previous generations, and in less than four years from now sweep to a landslide victory over Joe Biden/Kamala Harris/another middling Democrat who doesn’t inspire?

What if the next one is some kind of ultra-conservative Evangelical someone with all of the idealism of a Vice President Mike Pence and none of the soul-sucking lack of charisma? What kind of irreversible damage could such a figure actually do? Not all totalitarians are useless, some are altogether efficient.

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