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Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s Political Baptism by Fire in Crazy Town

12 min read. The Somalia-born Ilhan Omar arrived in Washington DC with the kind of backstory that synergised the attention focused on the quintet of new minority Congresswomen. Omar walked into the national spotlight and took a seat in the high profile Congressional Committee for Foreign Relations. A successful proposal to adjust the ban on head covering saw Omar became the first woman to wear a hijab on the House floor.

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Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s Political Baptism by Fire in Crazy Town
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Donald Trump’s election victory dismissed many conventional assumptions about the conduct and content of American political discourse. Once in office, the new president began hollowing out the nation’s foreign policy institutions. He threw allies under the bus, embraced dictators, and took every opportunity to undermine the multilateral institutions sustaining the post-World War II order. By jettisoning the framework containing nuclear weapon proliferation and withdrawing from the Paris consensus on global warming, he ratcheted up the risk factors facing the planet. On the domestic front, he bulldozed his party and staff into lining up behind him. The generals tried to limit the damage his maverick foreign policy was wreaking abroad. They failed.

Unlike the tweeting, dissembling, and mocking the norms governing national politics for generations, most of the president’s agenda represented policy positions that can be contested or debated. But when Trump came to the defence of the Charlottesville neo-Nazis, it confirmed many critics’ worse-case scenarios. The number of hate groups in the United States increased by 7 per cent last year and hate crime reports increased by 17 per cent, according to the FBI.

In a polity where elected leaders usually gravitate towards the middle to implement their agenda, Donald Trump continues to weaponise the polarising subterranean logic that turned Washington into what General Kelley, the former Chief of Staff, described as “Crazy Town”.

Enter Ilhan Omar

The Democratic Party captured the US House of Representatives in the 2018 by-elections. Eighty-one of the record number of 102 women elected to the House are Democrats. The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, expressed the hope of many: “When our new members take the oath, our Congress will be refreshed and our democracy will be strengthened by the optimism, idealism and patriotism of this transformative freshman class.”

Progressives celebrated Ilhan Omar as a victory for inclusion, the Somali nation claimed ownership of their daughter, and The Intercept announced that she was “Trump’s Worst Nightmare.”

The Somalia-born Ilhan Omar arrived in Washington DC with the kind of backstory that synergised the attention focused on the quintet of new minority Congresswomen that included the Palestinian American, Rashida Mtlaib, and the 23-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Omar walked into the national spotlight with panache and charisma, and took a seat in the high profile Congressional Committee for Foreign Relations. A successful proposal to adjust the ban on head covering saw Omar became the first woman to wear a hijab on the House floor.

Progressives celebrated Ilhan Omar as a victory for inclusion, the Somali nation claimed ownership of their daughter, and The Intercept announced that she was “Trump’s Worst Nightmare.”

Omar has constructed her political career on domestic social issues: affordable housing and healthcare, support for a living wagestudent loan debt forgiveness, universal access to higher education, proactive climate change policies, and the protection of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). She strongly opposes the immigration policies of the Trump administration and the Muslim travel ban.

The pivot to Foreign Relations encouraged expectations in this part of the world that she would focus fresh attention on African issues and insight into the shifts accompanying renewed interest across the greater Horn of Africa region.

Beto O’Rourke, the presidential hopeful exemplar of the new blood political wave, was recently revealed as a member of the Cult of the Dead Cow hacker collective. An ex-hacker running for national office would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. A reporter covering the story declared, “There has been no better time to be an American politician rebelling against business as usual.”

Omar proceeded to put the hypothesis to the test by igniting a firestorm that quickly escalated into the resurgent Democratic Party’s first internal crisis. It began when she tweeted lyrics from a rap song, “Its all about the Benjamins.” The reference to the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC)’s financial tentacles was far less derogatory than calling Mogadishu Somalis ‘”skinnies”, or Iraqis “towelheads”. But Omar was vilified for promoting ethnic stereotypes, and then accused of being anti-Semitic after she defended her position.

In a Democratic primary campaign devoid of any religious or ethnic animosity, the Congresswoman defeated the Jewish incumbent of over forty years. But now she was in Trump’s Crazy Town. Instead of mollifying the critics, her attempt to place her opposition to AIPAC in context provoked even more intense condemnation. Some of the strongest reactions to her statement came from within her own party. It did not help that she broke ranks with the Party’s opposition to Venezuela’s Nicholas Maduro, the one foreign policy issue enjoying bipartisan consensus. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used AIPAC’s annual conference to attack her, unleashing the formidable clout of the US pro-Israeli media industry.

The impunity that AIPAC has enjoyed within the Washington establishment over the years is a basic fact documented in analyses by many Jewish critics of Israel’s policies. When CNN’s Jake Tapper invoked the “words count” meme, the context implied that the person who utters them counts even more. A Somali news website observed that Ilhan Omar was singled out for three intersecting reasons: she is black; she is Muslim; and she is a woman.

The tweet detonated a firestorm of vindictive rage and self-righteous condemnation. The range of supporters who came to Ms. Omar’s defence, including a delegation of Jewish rabbis, received considerably less coverage. Al Jazeera’s Mehdi Hassan speculated that “she, perhaps naively, thought she was highlighting a powerful and reactionary lobby group, no different to the NRA.”

The impunity that AIPAC has enjoyed within the Washington establishment over the years is a basic fact documented in analyses by many Jewish critics of Israel’s policies. When CNN’s Jake Tapper invoked the “words count” meme, the context implied that the person who utters them counts even more. A Somali news website observed that Ilhan Omar was singled out for three intersecting reasons: she is black; she is Muslim; and she is a woman.

At the time when Ilhan Omar was being placed on the rack, Trump avoided being sucked into the anti-Semitism maelstrom. He was given a pass despite his flagrant stereotyping of ethnic minorities, including a history of insulting Jews. Private citizen Trump is on record for saying only “short guys that wear yarmulkes” should count his money—itself a dig at the black accountants working for his organisation. He used to keep a book of Adolf Hitler’s speeches on his bedside table. After he became president, as the author of an article differentiating anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism reported, Trump invited Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress (who is on record for saying Jews are going to hell for not accepting Jesus) to lead a prayer at the ceremony inaugurating the US embassy in Jerusalem. The “good people” marching with Charlottesville Neo-Nazis he defended were chanting, among other things, anti-Jewish slogans.

In 2016 Trump tweeted a “Crooked Hilary” campaign ad showing Clinton next to a Star of David superimposed against a background of 100 dollar “Benjamins”. David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan Grandmaster of the recent Spike Lee BlacKKKlansman fame, completed the circle by congratulating her: “Ilhan Omar is now the most important member of the House of Representatives”.

Instead of interrogating the long tradition of hate resurfacing in the recent series of anti-Semitic violence across the US and Europe, the Ilhan Omar news cycle provided a timely gift for the Trump White House that diverted attention from Jared Kushner’s controversial security clearance, reports of the ballooning 51-billion-dollar trade deficit, and the farcical Kim Jong Un summit in Hanoi.

The House Democrats’ motion to condemn crimes of hate in its diverse forms passed with only four dissenting Republican votes. The March 15 attack by a Trump-inspired white extremist on the mosque in Christchurch in New Zealand provided the counterpoint that placed the debate in its proper perspective.

The dual loyalty contradiction

Ilhan Omar was already a marked woman who has had to fend off attacks from conservative media outlets since she ran for a seat in the Minnesota Legislature. The controversy provided a fresh entry point for recycling the kind of vicious allegations the fake news industry has raised to a commercialised art form. She vented on the hypocrisy of her critics in a robust response delivered at an informal gathering in Washington. This an abridged excerpt of what she said:

“We know what hate looks like. We experience it every single day. We have to deal with death threats. I have colleagues who talk about death threats. I have people driving around my district looking for my home, for my office, causing me harm. I have people every single day on Fox News and everywhere, posting that I am a threat to this country. So I know what fear looks like. The masjid I pray in in Minnesota got bombed by domestic white terrorists. So I know what it feels to be someone who is of faith that is vilified. I know what it means to be someone whose ethnicity is vilified. I know what it feels to be of a race—like I am an immigrant, so I don’t have the historical drama that some of my black sisters and brothers have in this country, but I know what it means for people to just see me as a black person, and to treat me as less than a human. And so, when people say, ‘you are bringing hate’, I know what their intention is. Their intention is to make sure that our lights are dimmed…What people are afraid of is that there are two Muslims in Congress that have their eyes wide open, that have their feet to the ground, that know what they’re talking about, that are fearless, and that understand that they have the same election certificate as everyone else in Congress.” 

Instead of setting the record straight, a semantic stumble re-energised the backlash:

“So for me, I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country. I want to ask, why is it OK for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, of fossil-fuel industries, or Big Pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobby that is influencing policy.”

The politics of dual loyalty has a long history in the United States, dating back to the role of British royalists during the Revolutionary War. It evolved into an unwritten rule that capped the political mobility of minorities like Jews and Catholics. Joseph Kennedy came to understand that it was a glass ceiling that he would never be able to rise above. He curbed his presidential ambitions and instead devoted his resources and political influence to position his sons to break the myth of American Catholics’ loyalty to the Vatican. John F. Kennedy cleared the way for Catholics and Irish Americans to vie for the highest political office.

The politics of dual loyalty has a long history in the United States, dating back to the role of British royalists during the Revolutionary War. It evolved into an unwritten rule that capped the political mobility of minorities like Jews and Catholics. Joseph Kennedy came to understand that it was a glass ceiling that he would never be able to rise above.

Despite the inroads made by African, Muslim, and other ethnic candidates vying for elected offices—including Bernie Sanders’s challenge for the Democratic presidential nomination—the dual loyalty question never went away as a convenient prism for challenging the patriotism of minority communities. For American Muslims, the problem of Western Muslim radicalisation has recast the dual loyalty issue in stark terms. During the Republican primaries, Ben Carson openly stated that a Muslim should never become president of the United States.

According to American intelligence sources, as many as 20,000 foreign fighters joined ISIS’s ranks, about 3,400 of them from Western nations. FBI Director James Comey’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee placed the statistic in perspective. He reported that “upwards of 200 Americans have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria to participate in the conflict”. The Nazi’s Bund operated openly in the US during the run-up to World War II without generating a significant backlash against German Americans, even while the U-boats were sinking hundreds of American vessels. Japanese-Americans, in contrast, were interred in camps after Pearl Harbor.

The integration process in the United States has evolved since these events, as Ilhan Omar’s and the election of less prominent ethnic candidates to local offices indicate. But her “foreign allegiance” reference triggered an avalanche of alt-right and pro-Israel reactions focusing on her own political connections to Somalia and Islam.

PJ Media challenged Omar’s automatic security clearance by citing her activism within the Somali community. It focused on a meeting with Somalia’s then presidential candidate, Mohammed Abdullahi “Farmajo”, referring to his subsequent victory as “one of the most fraudulent political events in Somalia’s history”. It alleged that the meeting led to Ilhan Omar’s brother-in-law, Mohamed Keynan, being appointed to a high-level position in the Somali government.

Another website stated that her allegiance to the Qu’ran outweighs any allegiance she may have claimed to make to the US constitution.  A petition launched to remove her from office claimed that the “Qur’an appears to legalise hatred of specific people groups.” Anti-Israeli views gathered from ethnic Somalis serving in Minnesota jails backed up their claims while reinforcing the accusations of Omar’s Islamist affiliations repeated in Saudi and Israeli press attacks during her campaign.

In an insightful analysis of citizenship, Stephen Njuguna pointed out that most Africans are dual nationals by birth. He used Kenya’s post-multiparty political violence to illustrate how allegiance to community can undermine a citizen’s obligations to the nation.

For Somalia – now a nation no longer tethered to a contiguous territory or physical boundaries – its diaspora citizenship combines sanctuary from the event horizon of clan politics, while supporting many unique opportunities. For example, a Somali friend of mine is an Australian-Bimaal dual citizen. He ran a business from Kenya, was appointed to serve as liaison to the diaspora by the first transitional federal government in Somalia, and assisted the Australian navy with critical intelligence on the western Indian Ocean piracy epidemic.

The Red Sea region is now an important arena for a new Great Game drawing in a complicated array of great and second-tier powers. The Somali government facilitates American military operations in one of the Forever War’s most turbulent theatres. Djibouti is the base for AFRICOM (US Africa Command) operations across the continent. Both Farmajo and Keynan are American citizens; many other diaspora elites have held high political offices in the succession of post-collapse Somalia governments.

My guess is that Western intelligence mandarins for the most part view such dual nationals as insider assets – a long-term soft power advantage not available to the likes of Xi JinPing and Vladimir Putin – not a dual loyalty threat.

American Jews became the most successful exemplar of minority success in the US by turning the Israel dual loyalty issue into a proxy for national security. On the other hand, Omar’s relationship with Somali leaders reinforces her anti-Islamist credentials.

But at this juncture, there is nothing to be gained and much to lose from her pre-congressional links to the Somalia homeland. As one contributor on a Somali blog stated, “If I was her I would stay out of Somali politics. You don’t want to alienate US Somali voters and people back in Somalia don’t care about her or her endorsement.”

The 2020 reckoning

 The upside-down methods and polarising narratives that date back to the culture wars of the Ronald Reagan era now fuel the alt-right’s dumbed-down clash of civilisations algorithm. Their media warriors manipulate the dual loyalty issue to promote America’s own tribal rebellion.

PJ Media is the country’s ninth most conservative website, and the Omar-Farmajo story spawned comments associating Democratic voters in Minnesota with the “enemy”: “The simple-minded Left-wing voters are just as much an enemy as any Jihadi, but they are too stupid to figure out how much damage they are doing to this country.” Another commenter said the problem would persist until the coming civil war sorts things out.

These words function as a thinly-veiled call for action, like the August 2017 bombing of the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Minneapolis by three members the White Rabbits militia. Donald Trump’s threatening reference to his own simple-minded supporters endorsed these sentiments: “I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough – until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.”

It remains to be seen how the AIPAC furore will influence Omar’s long-term contribution to the “optimism, idealism and patriotism” Nancy Pelosi referred to. The incident underscored some cautionary observations regarding timing and strategy.

Around the same time, the few hundred MAGA-hatted protestors gathered at the March 23 event in Los Angeles where Omar was giving a speech signaled the passing of this particular storm. These kind of warnings nevertheless raise the stakes for the potentially “transformative freshman class” in the much more challenging battles now taking form. Nate Silver and his data-driven 548 crowd estimated that Donald Trump would stand a 50-50 chance of being re-elected if the national elections were to be held now.

It remains to be seen how the AIPAC furore will influence Omar’s long-term contribution to the “optimism, idealism and patriotism” Nancy Pelosi referred to. The incident underscored some cautionary observations regarding timing and strategy.

Omar’s freshman colleague from Brooklyn, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, reset the climate change debate by tabling her comprehensive Green Plan that featured policy positions that demanded a sober response. Although a number of Democrats dismissed the document as unfeasible, the Plan moved the discussion forward and expanded the space it occupies.

Ilhan Omar would do well to use a similar comprehensive policy agenda to connect the dots between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s failed war in Yemen and Trump’s callous abandonment of the Kurds (the real warriors who defeated ISIS). She should cultivate bipartisan support for causes, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s condemnation of the Chinese re-education camps in Xinxiang and made-to-order issues like the horrors visited on Africans trafficked through Libya. Above all, she needs to retake control of her narrative.

Israel was not the ideal subject for a maiden foray into foreign policy, however inadvertent. In any case, the country that now ranked fourth among the world’s most unpopular governments has its own long-term security dilemmas, as highlighted by the in-house critique authored by the University of Jerusalem professor, Martin von Creveld.

On the other side of the divide, the emergent Muslim female leadership personified by Omar and Tlaib and many other less recognised advocates elsewhere may over time invert Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations focus on the disruptive impact of the young Muslim male demographic.

There are, however, more immediate concerns at this moment. The two outspoken female representatives are popular in their constituencies but not so much elsewhere. Positive poll ratings at the national level for the articulate Alexandria’s Ocasio-Cortez hover around 25 per cent, disapproval slightly higher, and her Democratic socialist colleagues are probably lower after the recent cat fight.  Their rock star status and the aggressive positioning accompanying the new representatives’ high profile entrance has created frictions among the Democratic Party’s rank and file politicians who grind out the results. Their fascinating but too large field of presidential candidates is a potential damper on voter turnout, and Donald Trump is riding the crest of a vibrant economy that has seen real worker income rise for the first time in a decade.

I expect Ilhan Omar will prove to be resilient in the face of challenges like the representation trap, which arises when controversy involving prominent minority individuals encourages more self-policing from within their community.

The shit storm over the Benjamins was a timely warning puncturing the euphoria over the new Democrats. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is already using their agenda as a campaign wedge. Instead of worst nightmare, Ilhan Omar is exactly the kind of prop Trump exploits to mobilise support.

I expect Ilhan Omar will prove to be resilient in the face of challenges like the representation gap, which arises when controversy involving prominent minority individuals encourages more self-policing from within their community. When Rashida Mtlaib uttered her “We’re going to impeach the motherfucker” statement, one blogger backed the American Muslims who criticised her because “when you are a minority, people judge you not as an individual but as the group you belong to”.

She responded to this scenario by declaring: “There is an interest in putting us in the box of constantly defending our identities and I am not interested in being in that box. I am interested in defending my ideas and not my identity.” Ayaan Hersi created a political niche for Muslim women by blowing up the box. Ilhan Omar faces a more difficult escape route. But focusing on what she does well, supporting working class social issues, and turning out the vote, she increased voter participation by 37 per cent in her district – a good place to start.

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Chief Black Hawk went down in flames over Somalia in the early 1990s. This is a missive from beyond the grave, exclusive to The Elephant.

Politics

BBI: A Ploy to Subvert Democracy through Deception

13 min read. AKOKO AKECH explains why the BBI is a revisionist project and a mock test of a political formula that has sabotaged Kenya’s democracy since independence.

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BBI: A Ploy to Subvert Democracy through Deception
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After several weeks of speculative fake versions of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) taskforce’s report, the real report was launched on Wednesday, 27 November 2019 at the Bomas of Kenya in Nairobi. The document turned out to be woolly. What is most apparent are the short-term political intentions of its authors.

At first glance, the BBI report appears to contain everything. It outlines what is wrong with Kenya today and calls for an urgent response. But a closer look at what it says reveals a chilling distrust of democracy. It is an attempt to sabotage democracy – a desire to return to a mythical old order of unquestioned authority and obsequious citizenry. This is most telling in the recommendation to take away from the residents of the city of Nairobi the right to be ruled by a governor of their choice, ostensibly because of the city’s special status as the capital and as a diplomatic hub.

However, the BBI report’s rhetoric ignores the problem at the core of Kenya’s politics that precipitated “the handshake” between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga in the first place. Its rhetoric on electoral competition masks the identity of the political formula and its nefarious mechanisms and protests that since 2007 have produced successive governments with huge political legitimacy deficits and which have left a lot destruction in their wake. By referring to the heart-rending rising cases of femicide, terrorism, divisive elections, the crises within the family, indiscipline, and runaway corruption, the BBI report paints a picture of a once great nation now beleaguered and in decline.

Moreover, the report not only partly attributes Kenya’s woes to the adoption of Western democratic models, but also seeks to reverse them. Whenever rights and responsibilities are mentioned in the report, responsibilities take precedence over rights. The BBI report laments that Kenya has become “a responsibility-light and rights-heavy society”. The authors’ obsession with the word responsibility points to the BBI’s tentative political programme of action: rolling back a human rights-conscious society, curtailing human rights talk, and setting the public against non-governmental and civil society organisations – ostensibly the conduits of such rights ideas and talks.

The BBI is a revisionist project on many fronts. It outlines an ambitious plan that ostensibly seeks to take history to the heart of government. It appeals to Kenyans to look back, and embrace their past – history with a capital H as it were, ostensibly in the name of a desirable “official and inclusive national history of every community and stretching back a thousand years” that includes the creation of an Office of the Historian resident in the National Archive” and a return to “an egalitarian pre-colonial African past” (assuming there ever was one).

The report not only partly attributes Kenya’s woes to the adoption of Western democratic models, but also seeks to reverse them. Whenever rights and responsibilities are mentioned in the report, responsibilities take precedence over rights.

BBI neither critically engages with Kenya’s problematic historiography or politics, particularly presidential election politics that necessitated its formation in the first place. The BBI report seems to invoke history, just as it does the moral panic over current social problems besetting Kenya – a perfect cover for an ambitious multi-pronged short-term and long-term political project that mainly includes changing the structure of the executive arm of the government to suit a new political coalition. This political rhetoric lays the ground for conservative social reforms, the kind of reforms that could promote authoritarianism in the long term.

The Uthamaki crisis

Simply put, Kenya is not in the kind of crisis the BBI report portrays. Arguably, Kenya’s current constitution and social institutions can address or redress most of these problems. The crisis lies in Uthamaki – the ideology of the Gikuyu elite that led to three out of four Kenyan governments dominated mainly by the same Gikuyu elite. It’s mainly a crisis of how Uhtamaki can reproduce itself after Uhuru Kenyatta’s disastrous economic record and of how to avert the possibility of having a president who is hostile to the elite’s interests.

Arguably, it’s a crisis which has no ready or credible response. It’s the Uthamakists who are caught in several crises: they have no credible patriarchy-compliant succession plan that can guarantee their selfish interests after Uhuru Kenyatta’s second and last term. Moreover, they no longer have a legitimating myth or ideology that can justify Uhuru Kenyatta’s leading role in defining his own succession, especially after his dismal economic performance that has brought on a revolt against Uthamakists in his core constituency.

The Gikuyu elite who control state power have walked out of the “kumi kumi” deal, short-changed the Kalenjin elite, and are searching for a new partner and a new coalition deal, as well as new legitimating myths for the next government through the BBI process.

What’s more, there is hardly sufficient time or resources to groom a formidable candidate who can mollify a disenchanted political base and steer the succession to Uthamakists’ advantage. The government is broke. And Uthamakists are caught between the possibility of a dreaded William Ruto presidency or a reconstituted executive that could guarantee them representation, and give them more time to groom a suitable successor to Uhuru.

It wouldn’t be a crisis if the presidency wasn’t so consequential and if the incumbent trusted the uncertainties of a truly democratic process. But the Uthamakists don’t trust a credible, free and fair election nor do they respect the outcome, as we have witnessed in recent elections.

Electoral coups

Since 2007, the Uthamakists have found a working formula for seizing and keeping state power. It works, but only perfectly well when an Uthamakist is in power and has a strong preferred “home-grown” male candidate. It’s the formula for the execution of an electoral coup d’état, perhaps Mwai Kibaki’s most enduring legacy.

Arguably, the Johann Kriegler Commission did not identify electoral coups nor did it offer sufficient remedy against them. Instead, the Kriegler reforms and the other security sector reforms were a mixed bag of harvest for Kenya’s electoral coup d’état makers. The Kriegler Commission’s report mainly sought to diffuse the claims and counterclaims of the winner of the disputed 2007 presidential election. It did so by claiming, contestably, that both sides stole the election, making it impossible to determine who won. But it dexterously avoided the question of how Mwai Kibaki ascended to power despite the 2007 presidential electoral contest being so muddled that one could not tell who the winner or loser of the election was.

The Kriegler commissioners kicked the can down the road. They recommended a raft of reforms on how to secure the integrity of future elections, especially reconstituting the electoral management body, and using technology and procedures for voting, vote-counting and tallying. It gave Kenyans a promissory note.

Since 2007, the Uthamakists have found a working formula for seizing and keeping state power…It’s the formula for the execution of an electoral coup d’état, perhaps Mwai Kibaki’s most enduring legacy.

Poignantly, the Kreigler Commission failed to locate the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK)’s fiasco at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC) within the country’s history of the executive aiding the stealing of elections. The 2007 election-rigging was writ large on a national platform under the glare of the international media. It was switch-off-the–lights-swap-the-ballot-boxes, declare the government’s preferred candidate the winner, and order police officers to beat up anyone who objects.

The success of the strategy rests on a deceptively simple logic: it is easier for a Returning Officer to declare an executive’s preferred candidate the winner than it is to undo such a declaration – whether valid or not – through an election petition or a popular protest. Judges can be leaned on, intimidated or bribed to uphold such a victory. Not even a courageous Supreme Court bench like Justice Maraga’s has changed this logic.

In recent times, this formula has had a patriarchal ethno-chauvinist Gikuyu presidential candidate as the core or as the constant, plus or minus one, two or three substitutable ethnic-other elite. If, however, the disgruntled elite left out of the incumbent’s winning formula or coalition forms a formidable coalition and unexpectedly wins the presidential election, you can still roll back their victory via the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) and the control and abuse of security forces. Then, with their backs to the wall, you can press the “losers” to accept half of the Executive’s loaf of bread.

Better still, you can launch a sleek media and academic campaign on a self-fulfilling prophecy of the incumbent’s developmental record or development portal or the invincibility of the demographic strength of the incumbent’s coalition. With the electoral body under your armpit and the multi-agency security forces at your beck and call, you can take the whole loaf of the executive bread after driving the opposition up the judicial cul-de-sac, with a nod from Western powers, the real custodians of Kenya’s state power who fear losing out to the Chinese on lucrative infrastructure projects and trade opportunities.

And presto, you are back as the status quo, standing tall atop the debris of broken institutions of liberal democracy, broken limbs, rapes, destroyed properties, and fresh graves after a general election, and ready for yet another round of this “democratic” three ring circus: the formation of a new coalition; an electoral theft; and a formal or informal power-sharing agreement. It works, but leaves the victor with a huge legitimacy deficit, especially when he reneges on the promise of nusu mkate or the commitment to hand over the whole loaf of bread midstream.

The kumi kumi promise

A case in point is the Jubilee government’s crisis of legitimacy. The legitimating myth, which held the Jubilee’s core patriarchal, ethno-chauvinistic Gikuyu-Kalenjin elite pact and their respective constituencies, is in tatters. It was the myth of the “tyranny of numbers” and the promise of decades of an alternately Kikuyu/Kalenjin mainly male elite dominance over the rest of Kenyans. This is now a mirage, especially for William Ruto’s disbanded United Republican Party faction of the Jubilee government.

“We reluctantly but robustly supported the Uhuruto deal after political propagandists fabricated 07/08 PEV investigations. Some victims were depicted as villains. We justifiably sympathised, defended our own. That’s after quiet efforts by some of us to get a Raila-Uhuru alliance failed,” said Kabando wa Kadando in a thread of tweets, which suggests that William Ruto no longer fits as a variable in the next Mt. Kenya elite’s wining political formula.

“William Ruto, it seems, is very cunning and ambitious, while the Prince slept on the job,” says Kabando wa Kabando. “Ruto controlled both houses of Parliament and the executive. Anyone wanting a fix went to see Ruto. Even governors in trouble with the Senate! He fixed all. We still don’t know why Uhuru let it happen. Everyone knows ‘Annex’ became ‘Extortion Palace’. Well-oiled Sky Team ruled.”

The Gikuyu elite who control state power have walked out of the “kumi kumi” deal, short-changed the Kalenjin elite, and are searching for a new partner and a new coalition deal, as well as new legitimating myths for the next government through the BBI process. They’ve reneged on the “kumi kumi” promise – the promise of a ten-year William Ruto rule following Uhuru Kenyatta’s two five-year presidential terms in office. The Kalenjin are seemingly out of the incumbent’s equation, and William Ruto’s presidential prospect is increasingly looks dim.

Disastrous economic performance

However, substituting Raila Odinga for William Ruto in the incumbent’s victory formula would have been easy but for Uhuru Kenyatta’s disastrous economic performance, the inflexible constitutional provision of the executive, and the burden of history, especially the legacy of Gatundu oaths and the unethical campaigns of the recently closely-fought presidential elections.

Before the Jubilee government took Kenya into the deep suffocating waters of debt through reckless borrowing of commercial loans heavily padded with bribes, and drove out SMEs out of business, Uhuru was sold as the filthy rich presidential candidate who will invariably will run a clean government because he doesn’t need money. Unlike his mentor Daniel arap Moi, and like his predecessors Jomo Kenyatta and Mwai Kibaki, he was the archetypical Gikuyu with a magical economic touch who would make everyone prosperous.

But, after six years in power, the economy is listing and a revolt is brewing. He’s no longer the “People’s Prince” among those impoverished by the Jubilee government’s reckless economic choices and unprecedented levels of corruption. The economic downturn has left the president mostly with the coercive instruments of state power with which to intimidate the disgruntled pesky “Tanga Tanga” opponents who are stirring the Central Kenya revolt, and with little fiscal room for a persuasive response to the economic woes fueling the rebellion. This has given his Tanga Tanga critics wide room to chart their own destiny without the Prince and driven the Uthamakists into the arms of a previous implacable foe for help: the much demonised Raila Odinga and his ODM party.

Raila: A hard sell  

But Raila Odinga has never been an easy sell among the Gikuyu. He was briefly a njamba nene among the Gikuyu after playing a decisive role in Mwai Kibaki’s victory in 2002. However, in the intervening period between 2003 and 2017, during which Raila Odinga ran for the presidency three times, he has been demonised and characterised as the ultimate enemy of the Gikuyu bourgeoisie, peasants and working class.

As Kabando wa Kabando says, “Central Kenya’s fear of Raila is real. Like Boers feared Mandela. We must courageously crash unjustified phobia. Raila is feared because our grandparents were oathed that Jaramogi was bad. In 2002 Raila was ‘our’ hero. 2005-8 Ruto was ‘our’ enemy. We shall, for Kenya, embrace Raila.”

Before the Jubilee government took Kenya into the deep suffocating waters of debt through reckless borrowing of commercial loans heavily padded with bribes, and drove out SMEs out of business, Uhuru was sold as the filthy rich presidential candidate who will invariably will run a clean government because he doesn’t need money.

Raila Odinga and the ODM party may be a hard sell in Central Kenya, but he can be trusted to do the heavy lifting of reforming the executive. He’s been a champion of the parliamentary system of government for long, which is also, as the late John Michuki pointed out, the Uthamakist default position on executive reforms when one of their own is not in State House or, in this instance, when prospects of losing state power looms. And a new political coalition of Uthamaki and the ODM party also provides a ready-made self-fulfilling prophecy or narrative of an electoral victory that a compromised IEBC can deliver.

The BBI brief is to seek to legitimate a previously unthinkable Uthamaki- compliant presidential succession plan, and it does this through historical revisionism. If Uthamaki’s core constituency is shaky, and William Ruto has to be replaced with Raila Odinga because Ruto now poses a greater threat to the Gikuyu bourgeoisie than Raila Odinga, but excites a significant cross-section of Gikuyu petit bourgeoisie, the peasants and the working class, then Uhuru must look for a new legitimating story, especially one that conveniently leaves out Ruto, and brings back Raila into the Uthamakist winning political formula.

Or, better still, a new legitimating myth is being created – one that simultaneously leaves Ruto out while portraying him as the originator of the Jubilee government’s economic sins. This gives the impression of casting out the “kusema, kutenga na ku-tender” tenderpreneur tendencies within the Jubilee government while laying claim to the “pedigree” that Ruto lacks.

A mythical past

The BBI’s first communiqué and report spins a mythical Kenyan past, an exclusive patriotic patrimony of the scions of Kenya’s founding fathers. Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga are the sons of the Republic of Kenya’s first president and vice president, respectively. The BBI seems to have rediscovered the unfulfilled dreams and promises of Kenya’s independence, and has answered the oracle’s call to complete the so-called Kenya’s founding fathers’ independence journey.

In its first March 9, 2018 communiqué, which caught many by surprise, the BBI was billed as the rediscovery of the unfulfilled promises and ideals of Kenya’s Independence. It also conjured a mythical historical past and assigned Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga a larger-than-life leading role in shaping Kenya’s destiny.

A new legitimating myth is being created – one that simultaneously leaves Ruto out while portraying him as the originator of the Jubilee government’s economic sins.

The communiqué claimed that “Kenya has constantly sought to live up to its promise and dreams its founding mothers and fathers had for us,” as if there was ever a common political vision shared by all.

What triumphed after “Independence,” especially after 1965, wasn’t what the KANU coalition fought for and promised at independence; it was what Oginga Oginda would fight against for the rest of his life with little success – Jomo Kenyatta’s ethno-centric authoritarian one-party state system.

The communiqué also gives Kenya a mythical history. It talks about a mythical pre-colonial “Kenya” that was peaceful and conflict-free, and later despoiled by colonialism, which the founding mothers and fathers fought and defeated with the promise of creating a united nation.

These are the myths that legitimize the Uhuru-Raila partnership’s exclusive claim to shepherding the Uhuru succession politics. The BBI did not seek to make amends for the sins of the founding fathers, as the congratulatory speeches at the Bomas of Kenya during the launch of the BBI report demonstrated.

The jubilant mood at Bomas of Kenya was almost spoilt by Senator Kipchumba Murkomen, who is neither a Masinde Muliro reincarnate nor a Junet Mohammed or a Tom Mboya reincarnate by any stretch of imagination. Murkomen’s plea for fair representation of both supporting and opposing sides, and his belligerent call for minorities’ voices to be heard was a complaint that reminded one of KADU’s plea to respect dissenting voices – a cardinal democratic value that KADU (more than KANU) stood for and championed briefly.

The founding fathers’ myth might bridge the political chasm between the Uthamakist and the much-demonised Raila Odinga’s political constituencies, and perhaps bury the Gikuyu bourgeoisie’s fear of a Raila Odinga leadership. But a victory by any means necessary against a Ruto-led coalition of the disgruntled would make Uhuru’s opinion of Raila Odinga quoted in the Washington Post after NASA’s boycott of the repeat 2017 elections ring true: “There is sadness in the decision of my opponent. He fought for decades to make Kenya a multiparty democracy. His opposition to one-party rule and his devotion to winning democracy for Kenya cannot be questioned.”

The desire by the Deep State to steady Uhuru Kenyatta’s succession ship, and guide it through the William Ruto-stirred rough and turbulent political waters by balancing Raila’s political ambitions against Ruto’s hasn’t put wind behind Raila’s sails. But it has assigned to Raila a critical role in Uthamaki’s rebirth project, much to the chagrin of some of Uhuru’s die-hard supporters who have been brought up on a steady diet of “Uthamaki ni witu, thamaki ni ciao”.

The BBI’s Bomas show was a ploy. It was a mock test of a political formula that sabotages Kenya’s democracy, always with the same predictable tragic results every five-year electoral cycle. Though billed as historic, it was in reality the Deep State’s preview of the coming John Michuki “liver-juggling” show.

A new supporting cast

The BBI report inspires little confidence, but serves as a reminder that Kenya is stuck in a deep political rut – held hostage by a cabal of ethno-chauvinists who have perfected the art of subverting democracy and political deception by introducing a new supporting cast of enemies-turned-allies.

That Raila Odinga is aiding and abetting such political calculations (which have repeatedly cost him the presidency) is tragic. It’s a capitulation to the evils of seizing and controlling state power; not a triumph of patriotism over self-interest.

Kenya might be playing Russian roulette in the next presidential election, not with Raila Odinga’s single bullet, but with a half-loaded revolver, particularly if we go back to the Supreme Court to preserve what millions of Kenyans can’t effectively and collectively resist. If Kenya is stuck only with patriarchal options and craves a home-grown solution, then it has to polish up KADU’s plinths instead of mythologising the patrimony of the KANU founding father’s dream and promise.

The evils that KADU stalwarts such Ronald Ngala and Masinde Muliro warned us against have metastasised in Kenya’s body politic. But at least KADU got the diagnosis right: ethnic dominance in the commanding heights of state bureaucracy by one or two ethnic groups is injurious to the interests of those they exclude. KADU’s prescriptions for the cure – a federal system of government, equitable development, a Bill of Rights, and a multiparty system of government – came close to what Kenyans have been earnestly debating since 1992.

The desire by the Deep State to steady Uhuru Kenyatta’s succession ship, and guide it through the William Ruto-stirred rough and turbulent political waters by balancing Raila’s political ambitions against Ruto’s hasn’t put wind behind Raila’s sails. But it has assigned to Raila a critical role in Uthamaki’s rebirth project…

It seems the powers that be have turned the evils KADU warned us against into an advantageous political formula. Perhaps the key question one would ask the incumbent and his Western supporters is: Is it ethical to continually stage an electoral coup d’état under the guise of a presidential electoral competition? How many more such coups can Kenya survive?

Kenya’s political problem is not competition as such but rather the lack of ethical competition and the violence it engenders on both sides of any political divide – from the party primaries of various political parties and electoral positions to the presidential election. It’s the current electoral system that lends itself to the electoral coups plots.

Until the Kenyans who benefit from minority rule and electoral coups give up their advantages or those who oppose illegitimate minority rule mount a resistance, BBI-like proposals will always be made. Unfortunately, the deadly recasting of who is the new or not-so-new ethnic enemy or ally of the ethnic-chauvinistic minorities who control state power will not yield democratic ideals. This is the tragedy of “Uhuru”.

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France in Africa: Never Can Say Adieu

9 min read. KALUNDI SERUMAGA explores France’s paternalistic and exploitative colonial pact with some West African countries, and explains why those who resist this arrangement are quickly silenced.

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France in Africa: Never Can Say Adieu
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Despite apparently going as quickly as it came up, the recent disagreement between the African Union (AU) and one of its employees created a few interesting insights into the current state of Official Pan-Africanism, and also allowed an opportunity for reflection.

In summary, one Dr. Aneka Chihombori-Quao took to the fringes of radical African American media to begin denouncing the state of economic relations between France and the various West African countries descended from France’s colonial empire. Her point was that an essentially colonial (by which she meant paternalistic and exploitative) relationship between France and Africa continues to exist. This, she contends, is a matter that the African Union, Africans and Africa’s well-wishers should all be concerned about, and be fighting against.

The medical doctor-turned-diplomat, and long-term resident of the United States previously, was to make a series of strongly-worded attacks on France. All this coincided with the announcement that the AU was to terminate her services as ambassador.

“Fourteen African countries are obliged by France through a colonial pact”, said Dr. Chihombori, “to put 85 per cent of their foreign reserve into France’s central bank under the French minister of finance’s control.” She continued:

“…… if you look deeper, of the roughly 68 coups that have happened in Africa, 61 per cent have taken place in so-called Francophone countries. In other words, any African leader wanting to take his country out from under the economic control of France was subject to be overthrown by a French-engineered coup…A case in point: Togo’s first democratic leader was assassinated by Etienne Gnassingbe, an ex-French Foreign Legionnaire army sergeant who allegedly received a bounty of $612 million. Similar things can be said of coups or political instability in Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin and the Central African Republic.”

(Some of her statements have tested the bounds of credibility, especially in the financial figures she gave.)

These attacks then formed the basis of her criticism of the AU as an institution for failing, in her view, to end this robbery. Her insinuation was that the real reason for her sacking was because of criticising a powerful European country to which the AU was somehow beholden.

On its part, the AU defended itself not by answering the charges, but rather by challenging the credibility of the one making the accusation.

Describing Dr. Chihombori as running a “misleading campaign” in an October 15th statement, Ebba Kalondo, the AU Commission chair’s spokesperson, explained that Dr. Chihombori’s tour of duty had simply ended, and that a string of irregularities were uncovered in the normal review undertaken at the end of such a cycle. She stated that the ambassador had initiated a whole series of projects and activities without the knowledge or authority of her employer.

These attacks then formed the basis of her criticism of the AU as an institution for failing, in her view, to end this robbery. Her insinuation was that the real reason for her sacking was because of criticising a powerful European country to which the AU was somehow beholden.

In so doing, the accusation goes, Dr. Chihombori utilised the African Union logo and official address so as to present these activities as official ones, and went on to appoint people to these tasks, as well as to solicit for funds from the private sector to support them. Fraud, basically. The implication, it appears, is that these broadsides against France served as a diversion.

But this is not really the problem: everything that the AU has said about their former employee can be true, without everything that the employee said about France-Africa relations being untrue.

It is indeed a fact that the French government maintains an undue beneficial influence on fiscal matters among its former West African colonies. This is an arrangement that began in all cases well before independence, and has continued long after it.

It is also a fact that Official Africa, including the collectivity of the African Union, benefits from European Union and French aid largesse.

Furthermore, there is ample historical evidence of France’s penchant for ripping off whole nations of black people.

From slavery to colonialism to post-colonialism

After the enslaved Africans in the French Caribbean island colony of Haiti rebelled in 1791 by killing most of the slave plantation managers and defeating the resident French forces, the revolutionary government of France sent reinforcements at the request of the absentee slave plantation owners. These forces – Napoleonic, no less – were also defeated, and the formerly enslaved of Haiti declared themselves an independent republic in 1804.

In 1825, a decade after the end of Napoleon, twelve French warships armed, it is said, with 528 cannons, sailed to Haiti and delivered a demand: France was willing to finally recognise the new independent republic on condition that Haiti committed to paying France 150 million French francs in gold for the “loss of property” incurred during the rebellion. What’s more, this was to be borrowed from French banks. Haiti, faced with the prospect of a naval blockade, accepted.

This “debt” was kept in force until the final payment was made in 1947. That is a period of 122 years. To complete it, Haiti had to take an additional loan from the United States. As a result, Haiti remains one of the poorest countries in the world.

France continues to offer what I shall term “intervention services” aimed at resolving security problems in the various countries with which it has historical linkages to the tune of $665 million a year.

However, the line between friendly assistance, and imperial overlordship is quite blurred.

Following a helicopter collision that caused the death of thirteen French soldiers in a November 26 combat operation against jihadis in northern Mali, France’s President Emmanuel Macron announced that he was summoning the heads of Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad to a December 16 Paris meeting to explain themselves. (France has a heavy military presence in the Sahel, ostensibly to combat terrorism.)

“I can’t, nor do I want French soldiers on the ground while there is anti-French sentiment that is sometimes held by the leaders of some of the African countries,” declared Macron at a press conference during a NATO summit in London early this month.

“The leaders of five West African nations…should come to France on December 16 to provide clarifications,” he added, more than a little imperiously.

Normally, revelations, such as the ones made by Dr. Chihombori, could promote a wider discussion of what effect a wholesale African rejection of Franco-African economic arrangements would have on the domestic French economy, and the wider European Union economy in which it is embedded. France is, after all, the EU’s third, and the world’s seventh largest economy.

With the revolts taking place against power globally, it is worth reflecting on how France, already dealing with twelve months of Yellow Vest rioters protesting the general fall in the standard of living, would then cope if it were dropped any lower.

Indeed, there are already rumblings afoot regarding what should be the future of that financial relationship.

The challenge of the imperfect messenger

But the problem may be the challenge of the “imperfect messenger”. The challenge, rooted perhaps in the Christian foundations of Western-built discourse, is the expectation that those who offer us redemption must first be above all blemish themselves.

The New African magazine and has been beating the drum on French trickery in Africa for at least two decades.

One hears a lot of things. For example, that Francophone countries are only allowed to access 10 to 15 percent of their own money held in the France Reserve Bank at any given time, and that any requests for more are charged at punitive rates, with the Bank having the discretion to deny the request.

Furthermore, that this power extends to French government officials sitting on the boards of more than a few West African central banks as representatives of France, and having veto powers.

Normally, revelations, such as the ones made by Dr. Chihombori, could promote a wider discussion of what effect a wholesale African rejection of Franco-African economic arrangements would have on the domestic French economy, and the wider European Union economy in which it is embedded.

What Dr. Chihombori has done is perhaps what the writer Parselelo Kantai has described to me as the “privatisation of Pan-Africanism”. She would not be the first African person we have seen in our long history to take it upon herself to appear to speak for the whole race, and to establish organisations supposedly to advance this project.

The historical record of this is murky and riven with division and polarising interpretations. The principal and most famous of these, of course, is the story of the grandfather of Pan-Africanism himself, Mzee Marcus Garvey.

Looking at the bare facts, there is much to cast doubt on Garvey’s credentials as a leader. He had already been labelled as a charlatan by some other black activists in the period before he rode to global prominence between the two great European wars.

By the time his political career was over, he had been successfully sued for criminal libel by a fellow activist, and had been sued by numerous journalists for non-payment for their contributions to his newspaper. He had been married twice, after what can only be described as a chaotic short-lived first marriage, and somewhat messy divorce. He had overseen the failure of a number of business ventures seeded by money from his followers, and served a prison term for financial fraud before being immediately deported from the United States after the sentence was commuted.

The key point is this: If Official Africa will not step into the breach and actually do something effective about these long-running problems, then nobody should be surprised to see the rise of self-appointed lions. And therefore, nobody should be surprised that among those lions there may well be a good portion of chancers who have sensed an opportunity. Neither Dr, Chihombori nor Marcus Garvey are necessarily either.

What we need to note is the fact that that most well-known Africanist movements aimed at liberating black people, and whose legacy lives on today in a variety of ways, were not founded by a native African institution, nor an Africa-based political party, nor an African country; they were started by a person of African descent who did not speak a word of any African language, and who would reach the end of his life having never set foot on African soil.

This is in no way an attempted defence of Dr Chihombori and her actions. Nor is it an attempt to understand her initiatives. I am certainly not attempting to place her alongside Marcus Garvey. I am, however, making the point that when it comes to the politics of other wider Pan-African struggles, all will be condemned, be they prophets or phonies.

As things stand, the AU approach could be accused of being an attempt to reduce the whole incident to a matter of mere human resources management.

And even within that context, no explanation was offered as to why any such irregularities were not picked up earlier by Dr. Chihombori’s superiors, nor how a person of such alleged dubious character came to be in the AU’s employ at such an important deployment in the first place.

Instead the statement ended on an ominous note: “The African Union Commission reserves the right to take any legal action, if necessary, against any use and/or misuse of its name, logo and resources by any unauthorised individuals or entities.”

Whether that is a cover-up or a blind spot is a matter that only further discussions can bring out.

The fact remains that not just Africa as a continent but the people of African descent everywhere remain the most precarious on the planet in terms of the conditions faced by the continent’s people wherever they are interfacing with the modern world. Unlike Asia, where amidst the poverty, there are large economic classes of more or less indigenous wealthy people, and unlike South America, where, despite the weight of exploitative American capital and a large domestic class often descended from long-term European settlers, the ordinary people have sustained generations of resistance and are even now are in the midst of several uprisings. In contrast, Africans on the continent remain dispossessed, and even the rich are not rich. As for the diaspora, they remain the targets of an institutionalised racism, whose underlying workings are only being fully exposed by a new generation of activists and researchers.

Other questions arise.

The AU does have policies committed to a vision for relationships with and between the various African communities long domiciled in countries outside Africa, and, in particular, relationships with the First Diaspora comprising the descendants of those Africans taken from this continent during the various stages of Western and Eastern enslavements.

Had there ever been any discussion on the implementation of those policies between Dr. Chihombori and the AU before she subsequently allegedly embarked upon her unauthorised initiatives? Does the AU see any merit in and of itself in initiatives of the type begun by Dr. Chihombori Quao in the USA? Does the AU have its own plans, or even existing practical programmes, for such initiatives? If not, why not?

The fact remains that not just Africa as a continent but the people of African descent everywhere remain the most precarious on the planet in terms of the conditions faced by the continent’s people wherever they are interfacing with the modern world.

Does the AU have a view on the justness, or otherwise, of the existing financial relations between France and some of her former colonies?

Perhaps these are not matters discussed in the course of a sacking. However, they should be of interest with us. I did put these questions, and more to the AU communications office, using the provided official address. I had not received a response by the time of submitting this article.

Even before Macron’s Napoleonic reaction to the French soldiers’ deaths (one the worst losses of life in France’s military in decades) Bloomberg news agency had reported an announcement of intent by the West African Monetary Union, which is the mechanism created to maintain the currency unit binding former French colonies to France (while France, ironically, has no independent currency of her own anymore), to make a significant adjustment to the arrangement.

Benin’s President Patrice Talon announced that the Africans had “unanimously” agreed to repatriate some their cash reserves from the French treasury.

This is no longer a private matter between them.

In January this year, one Luigi Di Maio, a member of Italy’s populist Five Star movement, had already dragged the issue into an internal European Union quarrel over EU fiscal policy that he was having with Emmanuel Macron’s France. “First [he] lectures us, then continues to finance public debt with the money which he exploits [from] Africa,” said the Italian.

Macron was furious. And it seems he has remained so ever since.

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Moving On or Business as Usual? Contemplating a Post-Museveni Uganda

9 min read. Is the West’s renewed interest in promoting human rights in Uganda a genuine attempt at bringing about democracy and eliminating corruption, or is it based on the commercial interests of a superpower intent on reducing China’s influence in Africa?

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The Western media is taking notice of growing agitation for regime change in Uganda at a level comparable to the 1980s when Yoweri Museveni was referred to as a “a young handsome guerilla” on ITV News and featured in a British documentary filmed in the Luwero Triangle. Even as the then President Milton Obote was denying the existence of a rebel threat in Uganda, British journalist William Pike was interviewing Museveni in the bush. Pike later became a mobiliser for international support for the National Resistance Army (NRA) between 1984 and 1986.

In the past two years, the international mainstream media have regularly covered the phenomenon that is the People Power movement. With the help of social media, the movement’s leader, Robert Kyagulanyi, better known as Bobi Wine, has been noted as a leader of the future by two influential Western publications and has won multiple leadership awards on the African continent. As result, the failings of the 33-year-old National Resistance Movement (NRM) government have been under the global spotlight.

In his latest interview with Al Jazeera, Kyagulanyi appealed to the international community and investors to deal with Uganda and not with President Museveni. As the 2021 presidential and parliamentary elections draw near, foreign debt is coming to the fore in Uganda’s political discourse. Where human rights abuse once dominated, managerial failures in government and poor budget outcomes are gaining increasing attention. A series of events in 2018 and 2019 highlighted the impact of debt distress and managerial incompetence on service delivery.

Corruption and incompetence are no longer simply a drag on development but are bringing public institutions to a standstill. Special audits of thirteen out of fourteen regional referral hospitals show persistent drug stock-outs, understaffing and crumbling infrastructure. (The ICU at Jinja Hospital was shut down due to lack of batteries.).

In his latest interview with Al Jazeera, Kyagulanyi appealed to the international community and investors to deal with Uganda and not with President Museveni. As the 2021 presidential and parliamentary elections draw near, foreign debt is coming to the fore in Uganda’s political discourse.

Yet the health sector was unable to spend Shs.171 billion ($46,367,125.02) allocated to wages and construction and had to return the funds to the Treasury. Shs150 billion ($40,520,625.00) of that was external funding. Reasons given point to institutional failures, and inability to organise recruitment and procurement in time (Budget Monitoring and Accountability Unit, 2019).

In the education sector, the Makerere University strike was a reaction to the government’s inability to cover operational costs, and to the university increasingly relying on fees paid by private students. Ten years ago it was estimated that Shs.600 billion ($162,191,100.00) a year was lost through government procurement fraud alone. Professor Nuwagaba, a Makerere University lecturer and author of the study, estimated that the amount lost was enough to cover all of Makerere University’s student fees for two years.

The latest statistics from the primary education sector show the rate of literacy and numeracy fell from 39 per cent to 33 per cent. With a primary school drop-out rate of 60 per cent, this means that most of those who do not complete primary school education are insufficiently literate or numerate to go on to existing skills training institutions. Loans for skills training and higher education worth $100 million expired, with just a little over 50 per cent utilised and the rest returned to source. An application for a new $45 million has been tabled in Parliament.

Global climate right for change

The global climate is right for political change. By Executive Order 13818 (2017) the Trump administration declared global corruption and human rights violations “a national emergency” with respect to serious human rights abuses and corruption globally, which constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States. The Magnitsky Act has since been invoked against senior army personnel while the former Inspector General of Police has been publicly designated under Section 7031(c) of the FY 2019 Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act for human rights abuses.

Elsewhere in Africa, five Congolese officials of the DRC’s electoral commission and one from the Constitutional Court had visa restrictions placed on them and were publicly designated for electoral fraud. Together with military officials, they have also been identified as having undermined democracy by violating Congolese citizens’ rights to peaceful assembly, and freedom of expression.

Other publicly designated officials include Kenya’s former Attorney General Amos Wako, Cameroon’s Inspector General of the Cameroonian Gendarmerie, Colonel Jean Claude Ango, Malawi’s former Minister of Home Affairs, and current Special Advisor on Parliamentary Affairs, Uladi Basikolo Mussa due to involvement in significant corruption (a charge that Wako has denied). Exiled former president of the Gambia, Yahya Jammeh is also designated in an undated notice.

Since October 2019, Tanzania’s opposition politician Tundu Lissu and the Justice for All South Sudanese movement have retained a Canadian firm in the area of human rights abuses. Amsterdam & Partners offered its services to the embattled Bobi Wine after the torture the state subjected him to in 2018.

During their press conference, Robert Amsterdam denounced Uganda’s history of political violence and the use of $500 million worth (his figure) of US weaponry in carrying out that violence, saying the West cannot ignore it any longer.

The question is how closely multinational commercial interests are aligned with the long-term interests of the political movements, parties and individuals they now support.

The language of the Executive Order implies that to be actionable, the violations must be a threat to American global interests. By implication, if those interests can be secured by means other than sanctioning human rights violators, then violators need not be sanctioned. Yet in order to end impunity African opposition politicians and activists are clamouring for sanctions on serving officials like foreign minister Sam Kutesa cited in the Patrick Ho bribery case.

In an interview with Aly Khan Satchu in October 2018, Amsterdam described his firm’s work as “litigation in global markets” around both political and commercial matters. He portrayed foreign investor and domestic governance issues as being intertwined.

The question is how closely multinational commercial interests are aligned with the long-term interests of the political movements, parties and individuals they now support.

Amsterdam described the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as predatory lending and neo-colonial, a choice of phrase that would appeal to post-colonial Africa and Asia. He said that the initiative had “prohibited the growth of representative democracy…and given some autocrats a new lease on life.” [Amsterdam video @9:48] Explaining that China uses its surpluses from exporting manufactured goods to “colonise” the rest of the world. Amsterdam warned that “the debt trap is very real”.

He mentioned Hambantota, the port that Sri Lanka lost to China as a result of a debt default in 2018. In the same year, the Auditor General revealed that Uganda too has contracted loan agreements with China that surrender sovereign immunity over territory in the event of default.

The phrase “predatory lending” had been used earlier by the sixteen U.S. congressmen who wrote to the Secretaries of State and the Treasury in August 2018, demanding action to disrupt what they described as China’s bid to dominate the global economy. What is of concern to the Congressmen is that 23 out of 68 BRI countries are said to be at risk of debt distress. Defaulting BRI countries are expected to seek IMF bail-outs, meaning a portion of America’s investment in the IMF (the largest shareholding) would be transferred to China.

The portrayal of Uganda’s governance deficits and Western foreign political and commercial interests as organically related issues is not convincing. The exit plan being signaled for President Museveni is less about human rights abuses about which the world has known for over 30 years and more in aid of preserving existing power and trade relations between Uganda and the United States.

In his latest interview (Al Jazeera, November 2019) Kyagulanyi appealed to the international community and international investors, in particular, to hold the Ugandan administration accountable for human rights abuses and corruption. He urged them not to focus only on business relations but to be united with Uganda by values such as “democracy, respect for human rights…zero tolerance of corruption”. Ugandan activists are aware of the debt-trap and welcome sanctions.

However, in his interview with Sachu, Amsterdam seemed to be suggesting that perpetrators be given a Get Out of Jail card. Apart from floating the idea of an easy exit for Museveni, he stated that sanctions would only “hand over” countries to China (because Chinese foreign policy does not enforce its anti-foreign bribery laws). He gave Myanmar as an example. Sanctioned for the Rohingya genocide, Myanmar allegedly fell profoundly under Chinese influence.

He is again at odds with African activists when he advises his clients to avoid the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by denominating their foreign contracts in currencies other than dollars to avoid the New York-based SWIFT money transfer system. Corruption, some of the proceeds of which pass through the SWIFT system, costs the African continent billions of dollars a year. The US Department of Justice recovered $30 million from Vice President Teodorín Obiang in 2014. France recovered (and confiscated) $35 million from him in 2017.

Uganda’s corruption circles are at least as big as Equatorial Guinea’s. There are over 100 ministries and statutory agencies and many more presidential appointees. Museveni himself is rumoured to have stashed away $5 billion in illicit earnings. This figure is difficult to confirm but following the recent ‘#fishrot’ disclosures in which the Namibian Minister of Justice is filmed soliciting a bribe of $200,000 in return for allocating fishing rights to an Icelandic firm, Samherji, it is possible that during Museveni’s thirty years at the helm – when he oversaw the country’s privatisation programme – he amassed a lot of wealth.

An easy exit for Museveni in the interests of a “smooth transition” could jeopardise the hoped for recovery of stolen funds. Robert Mugabe estate includes $10 million in cash, not an insignificant amount in a country where child delivery in hospitals is done by candlelight and a unit of blood costs $120.00, the equivalent of a doctors’ monthly salary or just over two month’s pay for a teacher.

Service delivery default or debt default?

More divergences of interest can be expected post-Museveni. A key issue for Ugandans in the inevitable transition will be the status of Uganda’s foreign debt. By 2021 debt servicing will have risen to at least 65 per cent of revenue (Auditor General 2018).

In the event that the NRM regime is dislodged in the 2021 elections, expectations for more and better service delivery will be high as they were in post-apartheid South Africa. South Africa elected to pay the apartheid debt and as a result, twenty years later, 40 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. Access to social housing, electricity, running water and other services in the quantities and to the standards promised during the anti-apartheid struggle is still limited for at least half the population.

An easy exit also implies the inheritance of unsustainable debt, whether or not contracted in return for bribes, and regardless of whether it was put to developmental use or stolen. Without a debt audit carried out by an independent body, the repudiation of illegal, illegitimate and odious debt, and the recovery of misappropriated funds, the new government will not be able to meet service delivery expectations without taking on yet more debt. Service delivery will be the casualty. Zimbabwe cleared its debt to the IMF circa 2016. However latest statistics show undernourishment in Zimbabwe is 51.3%, up from 50.9% in 2016 when the IMF debt was cleared.

Post-Mugabe Zimbabwe discovered that it was unable to get new IMF financing without clearing the $5 billion owed to the African Development Bank and World Bank, and without securing financing commitments from development partners to whom money is owed.

Uganda’s corruption circles are at least as big as Equatorial Guinea’s. There are over 100 cabinet ministers and many more presidential appointees, in addition to Museveni, who is rumoured to have stashed away $5 billion in illicit earnings.

The legal status of the Museveni debt, and therefore the obligation to repay it, has been challenged by Dr Kizza Besigye on the grounds that it is odious – contracted at a time when the government was waging war against the people of Uganda. There is ample legal precedent for repudiation of odious debt.

To the extent that payment of the Museveni debt would force the State to continue to default on its obligation to meet the basic needs of its citizens, it is illegitimate. As in Zimbabwe, undernourishment in Uganda has been rising for over a decade. Infant and maternal mortality remain high.

Legally, if the Museveni debt can be shown to be odious or that it was contracted with the lenders’ knowledge or expectation that the government lacked the capacity to manage or repay it and was in any case inclined to steal it (as with the Mozambique tuna bonds), a case can be made for repudiation.

There are several examples of debt being successfully repudiated. In 2007 Norway established the precedent for repudiating debt which is neither illegitimate nor odious on the grounds that “repayment may be subject to broader considerations of the equities of the debtor-creditor relationship” (UNCTAD).

The legal status of the Museveni debt, and therefore the obligation to repay it, has been challenged by Dr Kizza Besigye on the grounds that it is odious – contracted at a time when the government was waging war against the people of Uganda.

The Tsarist debt owed by Russia was significantly reduced after payment demands were repudiated. The German and Prussian debt used to colonise Poland was repudiated in 1919. Commercial loans made by the Royal Bank of Canada to fallen dictator Tinoco were repudiated by Costa Rica. Germany repudiated Austrian debt in 1938, and the Franco–Italian Conciliation Commission ruled that Italy was exempt from debt incurred during war waged by a previous regime (1947). (Source: The Concept of Odious Debt in International Law, UNCTAD.)

Debt mismanagement continues in Uganda. The long-awaited health insurance scheme – the National Minimum Healthcare Package (NMHCP) – was tabled in Parliament in August 2019. The maternal health component of it will be financed under the World Bank’s Health Systems Strengthening Project through a loan of $130 million even though $45 million was wasted when the first attempt to design the NMHCP scheme in 2003 came to nothing. The World Bank’s evaluation stated the reasons stemmed from failures within the World Bank itself, including unrealistic design timetables, lack of a monitoring and evaluation (M&E) framework, and little appreciation of the political economy of the reform programme.

There are tens of projects such as these dating back to the initial Economic Recovery Programme of 1987 for which loans were contracted, commissions were paid, disbursements often not completed, some money stolen and outputs only partially delivered, if at all.

The recovery of public funds lost in this way provides ample scope for alliances between opposition groupings across Africa. It remains to be seen whether Ugandans will be able to leverage the West’s new-found willingness to put the well-being of her citizens on the table and negotiate agreements that will prioritise service delivery over investor interests after Museveni’s departure. The pressure on them to do the opposite will be massive.

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