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State Capture: The Institutionalisation of Impunity in Kenya

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The 2010 Constitution promised a brave new Kenya with clean, robust, and efficient institutions. But this promise never materialised. WACHIRA MAINA shows how state institutions, including electoral and judicial bodies, have been deliberately weakened by a system designed to protect the corrupt.

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State Capture: The Institutionalisation of Impunity in Kenya
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As Dominic Burbidge argues in The Shadow of Kenyan Democracy, the point of the aggressive avarice of Kenya’s corrupt leaders is to maintain power and privilege. This depends not just on the effective control of the Presidency and the Treasury but also on a repurposing of the machinery of government into a “temporary zone for personalised appropriation”.

The object of this repurposing’ is to gut state resources for electioneering and thus maintain power. In this dispensation, politics is a zero-sum game of “competitive aggression” in which “the principal victim” is “the state itself” and politics is “a pursuit requiring ever faster forms of enrichment”. For state capture to succeed, four things must happen.

One, oversight institutions must be eviscerated and hollowed out. This means that the offices of Controller of Budget, the Auditor General, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights and parliamentary committees must be totally compromised and wholly ineffectual in their oversight.

Two, law enforcement and rule of law institutions (the police, the judiciary, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission and the prosecution agencies) must be weakened or captured and redirected as “weapons” with which to fight political opponents.

Three, the ordinary channels of political change and accountability through periodic elections must be blocked, either by compromising the electoral management body (EMB) or through violent intimidation of political opponents.

Finally, the space for countervailing institutions to function, especially civil society and the media, must be shrunk until these pose no threat to capture. Alternatively, these institutions are also compromised and redirected to the state capture agenda.

Capture technique 1: A compromised electoral management body

In the early 1990s, the primary method for controlling the electoral process was through use of public order laws, such as banning public meetings, arresting and detaining regime opponents, and control of the EMB through the President’s power to appoint commissioners. Once appointed, the commissioners were nominally independent, but were almost immediately compromised by being allowed to draw illegal payments and allowances.

A 1996 analysis of the Controller and Auditor General’s Report for 1993/1994 by the Institute of Economic Affairs showed that the chairman and commissioners of the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) had been paid Sh38,443,800 (equivalent to Sh375 million today) in sitting allowances, subsistence allowances and accommodation. They were paid whether they were on duty or not, even on public holidays. They had also been allowed to use privately registered cars that had no work tickets.

Following the interparty parliamentary group reforms of 1997, opposition parties could nominate commissioners, which expanded the composition of the ECK. In theory, this should have made the ECK more independent, but there were two problems. First, the opposition, like the ruling party, appointed reliable political operatives in the expectation that they would protect its interests in the commission. Second, once the commissioners were in place, they realised they were independent of their appointing parties and that they had unlimited opportunities to “sell” their discretion and judgment to the ruling party. The result is that since 1997, the diversion of funds and fraudulent spending at the electoral management body has ballooned, not subsided.

As an AfriCOG study shows, between 1991 and 2007, the ECK received Sh15.8 billion to run elections. Of this amount, Sh1.9 billion was paid out to commissioners in irregular payments and allowances, unaccountable vehicle hire, unsupported and wasteful expenditure, and imprests that were not accounted for.

Yet huge as these amounts are, they are nothing compared to the wastefulness of the Interim Independent Electoral Commission (IIEC) and the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). If before 2007 corruption in the ECK entailed trimming and larding expenditure heads within the budget, the period since has been characterised by open and rapacious greed that is proportionately matched by a sharp deterioration in the quality of elections.

As an AfriCOG study shows, between 1991 and 2007, the ECK received Sh15.8 billion to run elections. Of this amount, Sh1.9 billion was paid out to commissioners in irregular payments and allowances, unaccountable vehicle hire, unsupported and wasteful expenditure, and imprests that were not accounted for.

That claim is quickly demonstrated. Following the post-election violence in 2007/2008, the Independent Review Commission (IREC), better known as the Kriegler Commission, recommended wide-ranging reforms to address what it described as institutionalised impunity. Yet, within months of Kriegler’s recommendations, the successor to the ECK, the IIEC, had reverted to type, becoming embroiled in corruption on a scale that the ECK had not touched. From that moment on, the EMB would not rely on illicit payments from the government; commission staff would rig the commission’s procurement processes to enrich themselves, knowing well that they would not be prosecuted or called to account if in the process they helped the ruling party.

In this first procurement scam, senior officials of the EMB were paid handsome kickbacks by Smith and Ouzman, a security printer based in the United Kingdom whom they had contracted for the purchase of electoral materials. In a subsequent UK criminal trial for corruption, it emerged that the officials of the company had paid up to £349,057 in bribes (over Sh45 million today, referred to as “chicken” by IIEC officials and commissioners) to secure the contract for the printing of materials for the by-elections following the 2007 election and the 2010 referendum. In return for these payments, IIEC provided Ouzman with information on rival bids to enable the company to inflate printing costs. Many IIEC officials, including the chair, Issack Hassan, were lavishly entertained by Ouzman during visits to the UK.

But “chickengate” was nothing compared to the wanton procurement corruption perpetrated by the new electoral commission, the IEBC, in 2013. Every item bought for that election was corruptly procured. The principal procurement for the electronic voter identification devices (EVID) was so tainted that the Public Procurement Administrative Review Board (PPARB) would have cancelled the contract were the election not so close.

The Board was giving its decision in Avante International Technology Inc. and 2 others v. The IEBC. The case had come before the Board on the main ground that the IEBC had ignored professional advice and awarded a tender worth $16,651,139.13 (Sh1,397,724,925.51) to Face Technologies, a South African company. To do this, the IEBC had unlawfully revised an unresponsive bid by Face Technologies to make it legal. In the words of the PPARB, the IEBC had been inexplicably “magnanimous in interpreting its tender documents” in favour of Face Technologies. The IEBC had not only acted with impunity, it had from the very first been “bent on awarding the [EVID] tender to Face Technologies”. In the Board’s view, the IEBC was “waving the card of public interest as its defence in the various breaches of the procurement law”.

But “chickengate” was nothing compared to the wanton procurement corruption perpetrated by the new electoral commission, the IEBC, in 2013. Every item bought for that election was corruptly procured.

The Board said that under different circumstances, it “would have [had] no hesitation [annulling] this tender”. However, it would not do so here because that would “certainly jeopardise the holding of the forthcoming general elections”.

The IEBC’s conduct was so egregious, that the Board recommended that the “Director General of the Public Procurement Oversight Authority carry out investigations pursuant to powers conferred by section 102 of the ACECA and take appropriate action”. A special audit on the procurement of electronic voting devices for the 2013 general election by the IEBC ordered by Parliament would later prove that what the PPARB had found in the pre-election litigation was just the tip of a monstrous iceberg. It turned out that all electronics purchased for the 2013 election had been procured irregularly.

The audit found that biometric voter registration kits had also been bought irregularly. Though the Treasury had appropriated money for this procurement, the IEBC had inexplicably borrowed commercially to buy the kits. This unusual method, which echoed some of the elements of the Anglo Leasing scandal, meant that the taxpayer would pay fees and interests that ought not to have been paid. More illegalities were committed in procuring the results transmission system. The system was never inspected on delivery, leaving its functionality doubtful on election day.

On receiving the audit report, the Public Accounts Committee was so outraged it recommended an anti-corruption audit and criminal investigation of all IEBC commissioners, the committees, and of the CEO James Oswago who, in addition, they said should not only be barred from holding public office but also surcharged for paying out Sh258 million to Face Technologies without a contract.

None of these recommendations were implemented, although Oswago was replaced in 2015 by Ezra Chiloba. Most scandalous, however, were the “hefty” undisclosed amounts that the IEBC commissioners were paid at the end of 2016 for “agreeing” to retire early to pave way for reforms ahead of the 2017 election. This sweetheart deal, put together by a bipartisan committee of Parliament, signalled that impunity would be rewarded rather than punished. Though the sums were not made public, the commissioners had argued that they were entitled to all their forward pay if they were going to leave before the end of their terms.

That deal set the tone for the behaviour of the IEBC in 2017. Their attitude is already foreshadowed by their response to the recommendation of the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) that the electoral management body bar 106 candidates for governor, MPs, and members of county assemblies from contesting the August 8 elections as they were unfit to hold office. None of the 106 were barred and 60 per cent of them were eventually elected.

No external audit has been done on the 2017 procurement, but an August 2018 IEBC internal audit of the 2017 general election provides damning evidence of how corrupt the electoral processes were. The internal audit reviewed 31 contracts worth Sh6.2 billion that the commission had signed. The auditors feared that taxpayers had not received value for money in ten contracts worth Sh4.6 billion.

As with previous corrupt dealings at the IEBC, the culprits were CEO Ezra Chiloba (suspended in 2018), the directorates of finance, ICT, supply chain management and legal and public affairs. The proposal to carry out the audit had generated serious internal conflict, forcing the commission to send its CEO, Mr Chiloba, on compulsory leave to allow for “a comprehensive audit of all major procurements relating to the 2017 general and fresh presidential elections”. Shortly thereafter, three commissioners – Consolata Maina, Paul Kurgat and Margaret Mwachanya – announced that they had no confidence in Mr Chebukati, the chair, and were resigning from the IEBC. They would later rescind their resignations.

As with the Smith Ouzman and Face Technologies cases, the IEBC seemed hell-bent on contracting particular firms. For example, the audit showed that the IEBC had awarded Safran Identity & Security a Sh2.5 billion contract to supply election technology for the repeat presidential election of 26 October 2017 on a Sh423.6 million performance guarantee that had expired two months earlier. At issue was not just the additional Sh2.5 billion contract that Safran Morpho received for the October 26 re-run, but also a further contract to reconfigure the 40,883 Kenya Integrated Elections Management System kits it had supplied for the August election.

Not surprisingly, Safran made hay while the irregularities sun shone. The IEBC paid Sh2.5 billion for the Safran system, two-thirds of what it had spent on the six elections involved in the August general election. Safran charged the IEBC Sh443.8 million for election day support, nearly double the Sh242.5 million it had paid for the same support in the general election. The internal audit concluded that a sum of Sh384.6 million that IEBC paid Safran for “programme and project management” was unnecessary and therefore wasteful.

As with the Smith Ouzman and Face Technologies cases, the IEBC seemed hell-bent on contracting particular firms. For example, the audit showed that the IEBC had awarded Safran Identity & Security a Sh2.5 billion contract to supply election technology for the repeat presidential election of 26 October 2017 on a Sh423.6 million performance guarantee that had expired two months earlier.

As in the 2013 election, many aspects of technology acquisition were corrupt and highly irregular. Airtel was contracted to supply 1,553 units of Thuraya IP SIMs loaded with data bundles for the results transmission system in the areas without 3G and 4G networks – 11,115 polling stations in all. The company could only supply 1,000 by election day. The additional 553 units were supplied after the election.

Oracle Technology Systems (Kenya) Ltd provided database and security solutions at a cost of Sh273.6 million without a signed contract. Scanad Kenya Ltd got the contract for the IEBC’s “strategic communication and integrated media campaign consultancy services”, even though its price was more than twice the Sh350 million budget earmarked by the IEBC. Africa Neurotech was contracted to install IEBC data centre equipment at a cost of Sh249.3 million, an amount almost double the IEBC budget of Sh130 million. The data centre equipment was not ready on election day.

Further details about the extent of impunity within the IEBC come from the lawsuits filed against it concerning the procurement of electoral equipment and materials just before the elections. In early 2017, the IEBC single-sourced Safran Morpho to provide election equipment, the same controversial French company with which the IEBC had negotiated a tripartite agreement to buy biometric voter registration (BVR) kits for the 2013 election. As in 2013, the IEBC argued that its single-sourcing decision was necessitated by the limited time left to comply with the election timetable, a problem that they said had been compounded by interminable litigation. Safran Morpho has a chequered history and due diligence might have ruled them out. In the USA, its subsidiary has been accused of misrepresenting the firm’s track record. In 2013, Safran was fined $630,000 by a French court after being found guilty of bribing public officials in Nigeria to win a Sh17 billion identity cards tender.

Given these experiences, the inevitable question then is: why are electoral management bodies in Kenya allowed to be this unaccountable? Who benefits from a criminalised EMB? The answer lies in the ability of the EMBs to give “state capture” formal legitimacy: so long as the country goes through the formalities of an election that international observers can say “broadly reflects” the will of the people (whatever that means), electoral management bodies can be rapacious in cannibalising their budgets and the governments they help put in power can be trusted to look the other way.

Capture technique 2: Undermining law enforcement

Effective law enforcement institutions, especially an effective and honest police service, a functional, independent and accountable judiciary, and a professionalised office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), are central to fighting corruption effectively. None of these institutions are wholly accountable or fully functional. The police remain unreconstructed and, if the evidence revealed by the police vetting exercise is anything to go by, also unrepentant.

The office of the DPP has been haphazard in prosecuting; it appears to be picking cases for prosecution for reasons that appear patently political, fumbling cases involving the “big fish” and generally being assiduous on those that involve “small fry”. The judiciary seemed on the mend after 2010 when the new constitution came into force but since then things have gone awry: judicial vetting failed to fully root out corruption, bribery has crept back and though some of the excesses of the past have not returned, a clean judiciary is still a long way off. On the whole, the government’s attitude to law enforcement is consistent with the logic of state capture: control and compromise the police and the DPP and weaken the harder-to-control judiciary.

The police: A vertically-organised criminal syndicate

It serves state capture if politicians are wilfully blind to police corruption. In Kenya, police “palm greasing” at traffic stops is so routine that drivers arrive with the bribe already folded, ready to be slapped onto the palm, or slipped into the pocket of the traffic cop. Presidents are often excused from the predations of the police but their responsibility and that of their government was explained many years ago by William of Pagula: “For, one who permits anything to take place that he is able to impede, even though he has not done it himself, has virtually done the act if he allows it.”

The stability of state capture rests on uniting the interests and fates of low-level operatives with those of their bosses. In the case of the police, recruitment into the police service is a grant of a preloaded cash machine. This, in part, is what the recent police vetting revealed. The vetting proved that what Sarah Chayes observed of Afghanistan is true of Kenya, namely that the conventional wisdom that corruption involves doling patronage downwards to juniors is wrong-headed. Instead, it is subordinate officials who pay off the top in return for “unfettered permission to extract resources for personal gain, and second, protection from repercussions”. The critical point is that this whole system depends on “faithful discharge, by senior officials, of their duty to protect their subordinates” and this implicit contract holds, “much as it does within the mafia, no matter how inconsequential the subordinate might be”.

The mechanics of police corruption can be seen in the police vetting exercise undertaken by the National Police Service Commission (NPSC). As one newspaper account sarcastically noted, top cops often seemed hard pressed to cite a major crime bust but the state of their bank accounts showed them to be men of great business acumen, a fact that would alone “put Kiganjo Police Training College at par with the region’s top business schools in producing entrepreneurs of note”.

The stability of state capture rests on uniting the interests and fates of low-level operatives with those of their bosses. In the case of the police, recruitment into the police service is a grant of a preloaded cash machine.

Officers’ bank records show deposits of hundreds of thousands of shillings monthly, mostly from “businesses” that they and their spouses own or from “convenient” sales of assets that they previously owned. Many were Jacks of all trades, running businesses that run the gamut from chicken farming, residential and commercial rentals and fish farming.

That no major shakeup of the police has followed from this much-publicised vetting shows that this high profile “stagecraft” was cynical “busywork” (both Chayes’ words) to manage the expectations of a disillusioned public. So, in the end, a hapless public finds itself caught between an abusive police service and a predatory government of which it is an accomplice. The police vetting process eventually petered out and left in its wake as much confusion as the interest it had piqued. Many of these entrepreneurial officers are still in the police force, still pursuing their sprawling business interests. Who benefits from a compromised and corrupt police force?

Anti-corruption commissions a waste of public money

Since President Uhuru Kenyatta announced his new anti-corruption drive, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) has become busy. However, neither the EACC nor its forerunners have demonstrated the will to fight corruption. Since its establishment under the 2010 Constitution, the EACC has never exercised the authority that Kenyans would like to see it exercise. Some of the problems of its ineffectiveness have to do with its own sloppiness: poor investigations, underhand investigatory methods and a penchant for the dramatic gesture. That has also been compounded by lack of political support and internecine conflict between the commission and the office of the DPP.

The combination of its own weaknesses and lack of political support means that the EACC is rarely taken seriously. As already noted, its 2017 recommendation that the IEBC bar 106 candidates was ignored. The EACC blames the IEBC for this debacle; in truth, both commissions have been ineffectual and are often implicated in corruption themselves.

The modus operandi of the EACC, which has damaged its credibility and undermined its ability to lead the fight against corruption, is to launch an investigation in the glare of publicity and make sweeping claims that it is generally unable to later substantiate. The question is why successive anti-corruption commissions have been allowed to continue operating in this manner. The answer is another question: who benefits from this?

The judiciary: Partly reformed and easy to sway for state capture purposes

As the ill-fated indictment and prosecution of Kamlesh Pattni in the 1990s Goldenberg scandal showed, the judiciary was a central pillar of the repressive and corrupt dispensation replaced by the 2010 Constitution. By the year 2000 the judiciary was universally condemned as both corrupt and incompetent. The few honest judges faced myriad problems: lack of research support; poor record keeping occasioned by insufficient stenographers and electronic recording devices; a huge and ever-growing backlog of cases; biased and politicised allotment of benefits to judicial officers, especially cars and houses; and highly politicised appointments and promotions awarded by the President, nominally with the advice of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), but in practice, at his own discretion.

The combination of its own weaknesses and lack of political support means that the EACC is rarely taken seriously. As already noted, its 2017 recommendation that the IEBC bar 106 candidates was ignored. The EACC blames the IEBC for this debacle; in truth, both commissions have been ineffectual and are often implicated in corruption themselves.

Shortly after the election of President Mwaii Kibaki in 2003, the then Minister for Justice, Kiraitu Murungi, launched what he termed “radical surgery” – a high profile process of identifying and purging corrupt judges and magistrates from the judiciary. It soon proved neither radical nor surgical. The reforms were based on an investigation carried out by a former law partner of the justice minister. Thus, congenitally politicised, radical forgery failed to mollify critics who saw it as a Kibaki plot to remove President Daniel arap Moi’s judicial cronies to make room for friends of the new government, rather than a root and branch reform of Kenya’s decrepit judiciary. This criticism was overdone. However, the minister’s best intentions had no base in statute and without this radical surgery merely mortgaged judicial reforms to the factionalism that was then tearing apart the ruling coalition.

Eventually, over 80 magistrates and 23 judges were removed for corruption-related reasons, but by 2006 not a single judge had been found guilty by any of the many tribunals established to investigate them. In one particularly notorious case involving Justice Philip Waki, who would later lead the investigation into the 2007/2008 post-election violence, the tribunal was scathing about the methods that Justice Aaron Ringera had used: unsafe reliance on clearly unreliable witnesses; failure to talk to the affected judge and overlooking innocent explanations related to the claims made. More importantly, radical surgery left many judges in place who would be later be dismissed as unfit to hold office.

The result of this unsatisfactory purge was that there was still much left to do when the 2010 Constitution came into force. The constitution adopted a two-pronged approach to dealing with corruption and judicial failure. The first was institutional design and the second was vetting of incumbent judges and magistrates.

The institutional reforms reorganised the powers, functions and composition of the judiciary, strengthened the JSC and created a Supreme Court. Vetting was based on Article 23 of the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution and the Vetting of Judges and Magistrates Act. The aim of vetting was to clean up the judiciary, partly to create a more accountable judiciary by removing the bad apples and partly to provide a transitional justice mechanism that would eliminate institutionalised impunity.

Once it got going the vetting proved (as the police vetting was to subsequently prove) both ineffectual and inadequate; ineffectual, because the vetting mechanism was congenitally defective in that some aspects of vetting were challenged in court and heard by judges who were themselves yet to be vetted. It is not surprising then, that the effect of this litigation was to constrict the wide mandate and discretion initially given to the Vetting Board. In addition, the timetable for vetting was hopelessly optimistic and had to be extended several times through amendments to the law. The resulting legislative delays slowly punctured the Vetting Board.

In theory, the vetting helped to clean out the courts, but it is hard to know what to make of statistics. It seems as though there were, in effect, two vetting processes: vetting as understood by the Vetting Board and vetting as interpreted by the courts. One out of every three first instance decisions made by the Board was reversed on review in both the High Court and the Court of Appeal. Among the magistrates, about 45 per cent of the Vetting Board’s first instance decisions of unsuitability were reversed.

The Vetting Board would eventually run into more serious problems: the “scope of vetting” was dramatically reduced by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court said that the Board could only vet judges and magistrates for conduct that occurred between the date of appointment and 27 August 2010, the day the 2010 Constitution was promulgated. This had far-reaching consequences. All the decisions of the Vetting Board that found judges and magistrates unsuitable on account of acts committed before they were appointed, or for acts committed after 27 August 2010, were effectively nullified.

The Board was now obliged to send all cases related to the post-August 2010 period to the JSC. In the end, judicial vetting never met its twin objectives of cleaning up the judiciary and fully restoring public confidence in the courts. That it failed to clean the judiciary explains the persistence of judicial corruption and resistance to reforms – periodically explained as “cartels fighting back”. That vetting failed to restore public confidence explains why the judiciary gets lukewarm public support when it is dismissed by politicians as “activist” or “captured by NGO or opposition interests”.

Why did vetting fail to achieve its purposes? To begin with, the vetting law was too restrictive. In retrospect, the law could have been more robust than it was. One of its main weaknesses was that it gave no immunity to people who had ever given or been asked for a bribe by a judicial officer. Without immunity from prosecution, witnesses had effectively been denied the means with which to prove corruption. That left the Board with the unenviable task of inferring bribery from unexplained deposits in the judges’ and magistrates’ bank accounts, very much like in the police vetting exercise.

Secondly, the Supreme Court’s formalistic reading of the Vetting Act (i.e. limiting the relevant period of acts committed between appointment and the constitution’s effective date) undermined the broad purpose of the statute, which was to remove undesirable individuals from the judiciary. That decision created more problems than it solved. One, it allowed judicial officers known to be unfit to continue in office, which itself was a serious blow to public confidence. Two, it introduced unnecessary unevenness – some might even say discrimination – into the vetting process for those who had already been vetted. Three, it saddled the JSC with what in effect were vetting decisions, thereby mixing transitional justice issues, which is what the vetting was about, with the core mandate of the JSC, which is more prospective.

Thirdly, it was wrong in principle that many aspects of the vetting process were litigated before judges who had not themselves been vetted, that is, before judges with a personal stake in limiting how deep and wide the vetting went. This eroded public confidence in the integrity of the vetting exercise although the reason for vetting in the first place was the need to restore public confidence in the courts.

Why did vetting fail to achieve its purposes? To begin with, the vetting law was too restrictive…One of its main weaknesses was that it gave no immunity to people who had ever given or been asked for a bribe by a judicial officer. Without immunity from prosecution, witnesses had effectively been denied the means with which to prove corruption.

Fourthly, the Vetting Board compounded its own problems. It decided that in deference to the seniority of judges of the Court of Appeal it would sit en banc, that is, as a full bench rather than in small panels of three, when it came to scrutiny of the judges of that court. The result was bizarre: the Board would sit in one capacity to vet a particular judge and if that judge was dissatisfied with that decision, he would then seek a review, which would be heard by the same full panel of the Vetting Board. Some lawyers saw no problem with this, arguing that the Board’s review power was no different from the power of an apex court to review its own decisions. Yet again, the question was whether the public would appreciate what seems on the face of it to be a rather otiose legal argument and whether this did anything for the public’s confidence in the vetting exercise.

The result of these partial measures is that the judiciary retains many of its bad old ways, which are now being used to undermine “the good guys”. The government now blames corruption in the judiciary as the greatest barrier to anti-corruption reforms, discounting the shoddy, compromised investigations often carried out by the police, and the ineffectual and often politically targeted prosecutions by the State Law Office. As with the other aspects of law enforcement, the question is: who benefits when the courts are perceived as compromised or untrustworthy?

Kenya’s anti-corruption efforts: Motion without movement

Given this analysis, it is clear that the latest anti-corruption efforts can be summarised as the “tried, tested and known-to-be ineffective” approaches of the past. This means that although it is good to have an energetic public prosecutor in office and that the EACC has bestirred itself, this won’t be enough. The lynchpin of the government’s approach to fighting corruption is, like the Goldenberg scandal, high profile arrests followed by quick indictments.

Some people are impressed that some big names have already been scalped: former Sports Cabinet Secretary, Hassan Wario, former Principal Secretaries Lillian Omollo, Richard Ekai and Richard Lesiyampe, present and former Kenya Power bosses Ken Tarus and Ben Chumo, Kenya Railways boss, Atanas Maina, chairman of the National Land Commission, Mohammed Swazuri and senior managers at the National Cereals and Produce Board. These arrests have generated much excitement but this excitement is premature. Kenya’s prosecution-driven anti-corruption strategy has always been rather benign; it is “capture-mark-release”, a bit like the ecological methods of estimating the population in an ecosystem. It is never meant to harm the corrupt.

This is Part 2 of an abridged version of State Capture: Inside Kenya’s Inability to Fight Corruption, a report published by the Africa Centre for Open Governance (AfriCOG) in May 2019.

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Wachira Maina is a constitutional lawyer based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Politics

John Magufuli: The Death of a Denier-in-Chief

Late president John Magafuli never was the anti-corruption saviour international media claimed.

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John Magufuli: The Death of a Denier-in-Chief
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Tanzania, a country that produced Julius Nyerere, is a country tottering on the precipice of a pandemic catastrophe. The philosopher-president ruled for 23 years and put the nation on the international map as a frontline state that stood up to Apartheid South Africa and helped liberate modern Uganda by ridding it of Idi Amin.

With the abrupt death of its populist president John Magufuli on March 17, 2021, ostensibly from a COVID-19 related ailment, Tanzania finds itself at a crossroads, insofar as tackling the devasting disease is concerned. Magufuli who was the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, became the denier-in-chief of COVID-19. The disease has decimated scores of Tanzanians, including top government officials.

Magufuli was hailed as a tough anti-corruption crusader, as he entered state house in 2015. Ordinary Tanzanians initially saw him as their saviour in the fight against institutionalised state corruption. The international media also saw him as a man keen on tackling state corruption, “but Magufuli was all about optics,” said a Tanzanian journalist. “He wasn’t fighting state corruption pers se, what he was doing was to get rid of Jakaya Kikwete’s (immediate former president) networks in the government and replace with his own. So, it was just a matter of time before Tanzanians and the world realised Magufuli was just interested in musical chairs.”

Magufuli was re-elected on October 28, 2020 in one of the most controversial post-Nyerere’s Tanzania elections with a whopping 84 percent. His “true colours” revealed themselves after Benjamin Mkapa’s death in July 2020. After mourning the ex-president, Magufuli turned his attention to the business of crippling the opposition.

Magufuli was a protégé of Mkapa who served as president between 1995–2005. It was Mkapa, who in 2015, prevailed on the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM, ‘Party of the Revolution’) national executive council (NEC) to pick newcomer Magufuli as its flagbearer for what was to be a hotly contested general election in October 2015. Magufuli was then primed to run against Edward Lowassa, a CCM stalwart, who had bolted to Chama Cha Democrasia na Maendeleo (CHADEMA), after not clinching the CCM ticket, in which he was touted as one of the hot favourites.

The “true colours” was the ruthlessness with which Magufuli pursued the opposition in the lead-up to the presidential elections. That massive victory came in the backdrop of President Magufuli’s continuous campaigns since being inaugurated as the fifth president in 2015. “Magufuli never stopped campaigning,” said a Tanzanian journalist: “He rode on the wave of populism – dishing out money and favours to select supporters and well-choreographed individuals wherever he went.”

The 2020 Magufuli campaigns were a mirror-image of his mentor’s similar campaigns in 2000. Just like Mkapa’s mission was to presumably pulverize the nascent opposition, Magufuli’s mission 20 years later was similarly to ensure that the “irritating” opposition is no more and is, literary ran out of town. Mkapa in the October 2000 elections unleashed so much violence on the opposition that many of its supporters sought exile in neighbouring Kenya, after the elections.

Mkapa’s use of unmitigated force by Jeshi la Polisi (Tanzania has a police force, as opposed to a police service) and Field Force Unit (FFU), a paramilitary outfit much like Kenya’s dreaded General Service Unit (GSU) was unprecedented in Tanzanian politics. Just like Magufuli, it seems Mkapa’s “true colours” were revealed only after his mentor’s death the previous year on October 14, 1999. Mkapa was a protégé of the founding father Julius Kambarage Nyerere.

It was Nyerere who held Mkapa’s hand in 1995, after influencing his nomination by CCM, and single-handedly campaigned for him throughout the country. Tanzania held its first multiparty general elections in 1995, pitting CCM against a disparate opposition for the first time since its formation in 1977.

He dished out money and favours to select supporters.

Revisiting this unparalleled violence orchestrated on fellow Tanzanians, Mkapa, the former journalist-turned-diplomat-turned-president in his memoirs: My Life, My Purpose – A Tanzanian President Remembers published in January 2019, regretted the 2000 election ordeal. To some Tanzanian journalists and political analysts, Mkapa and Magufuli are today referred to as the chief advocates and perpetrators of state violence in post-independent Tanzania.

Both the presidential elections of 2000 and 2020 happened under a cloud of America’s own election problems: In 2000, it was the “Florida fiasco.” Florida was then governed by the Republican’s presidential candidate, George Bush’s brother, Jeb Bush. Bush was running against the Democratic Party’s Al Gore. Jeb was allegedly accused of rigging on behalf of his elder brother.

Like the Americans say, the electoral college vote was too close to call: the vote was not only going to determine who was going to be the winner of the states’s 25 votes, but the next president after Bill Clinton. A recount was called by the Democrats and for a brief moment, the democrats believed they had taken it, only for the Republicans to also ask for their own recount. Bush won with a razor thin win vote. The democrats were not persuaded. To cut a long story short, the sunshine state’s case found itself in the supreme court, where the republican-led court declared George Bush the eventual winner.

In 2020, with both the Tanzania and US elections being held days apart, America once again came under the world spotlight after the “Pennsylvania problem”, in which President Donald Trump claimed his votes had been tampered with and paid for a recount. The MAGA Republican Party candidate was defending his seat against “sleepy Joe” a derogatory tag given by Trump to Joe Biden.

The citing of both examples here is to emphasise that America in 2000 and 2020 could not claim a moral compass to the Tanzania government’s excesses in its elections. Covering the 2000 elections, I remember in Dar es Salaam, a CCM top official telling us journalists that America could not lecture Tanzania on matters election – “they should first deal with their own election rigging in Florida, before accusing us of unleashing violence and rigging the islands’ results.”

Nyerere had always been opposed to the twin islands of Pemba and Zanzibar’s divorce with the mainland Tanganyika – a sticking sore thump between the mainland and the islands, since the republic turned to plural politics. But he never advocated state violence, instead, he sued for dialogue and persuasion.

Magufuli was determined to put the opposition in its place this time round: In a parliament of 261 members, the opposition only won seven. “By the time I’m through with Tanzania, there’ll be no opposition in the country,” said the deceased in one of his campaign rallies.

There is not a doubt that he loathed the opposition, so much so that he warned the regional commissioners and election officials, “I don’t pay you so that you can allow opposition to win.” Tume la Uchaguzi (National Election Commission) flatly refused any presidential debates and told the opposition it could debate among itself if it so wished.

In Tanzania, CCM ni tasisi,” a local journalist reiterated to me. Literary it means the ruling party CCM is an institution. Figuratively it means, CCM is Tanzania and Tanzania is CCM. Anybody going against the “wishes of the party” would be crushed. The CCM’s propaganda machinery against the leading opposition figure Tundu Lissu of CHADEMA was geared to pulverize all his efforts of running a successful campaign. “He was being hunted down like a wild animal,” said the journalist.

Magufuli claimed Lissu was a supporter of LGBTQ and that he was a tool of the West being used to campaign for mashoga, homosexuals’ rights. Several African presidents during their re-election campaigns have turned the hot-button issue of LGBTQ, their favourite bogeyman: In the terribly conservative African societies, nothing evokes emotions of antipathy like suggesting gay-ism could be mainstreamed. Yoweri Museveni has done it, John Magufuli did it, just like Robert Mugabe did it before him.

CCM being Tanzania and Tanzania being CCM, not even the bravest of private media would dare report on the opposition or against Magufuli and CCM. “There was total blackout on the opposition by the media. All what Tanzanians could read and listen to, on politics, was on the ‘indefatigable Magu’ and his infrastructural developments,” said my Tanzanian journalist friend. Hence, Tanzania media did not report on politics – it reported on Magufuli, the person.

By the time I’m through with Tanzania, there’ll be no opposition in the country

Being heavy users of social media, Tanzanians turned to VPN – virtual private network. Found as an app in many smart phones, it protects one’s communication from snoopers like government agencies and hackers. What VPN does when activated is to bypass the conventional internet service providers (ISP) when connecting to the internet. In the case of Tanzania’s government shutting down its ISP, tech savvy Tanzanians resorted to VPN to access facebook and especially Twitter, to fend off the states’s eavesdropping.

This is the reason why Magufuli ordered all social media outlets shut, said the journalist. All what the Tanzania Communication Authority needed was a nod from Magufuli. A consumer of foreign news outlets, Tanzanians also resorted to BBC, Deutsche Welle (Sauti ya Ujerumani) and VOA, to stay informed on their country’s politics. “This is how many of them were informed and kept tabs on Lissu’s campaigns,” said the journalist.

Even after being sworn-in for the second term, President Magufuli pursued the browbeaten opposition. Chief opposition figure Lissu had to escape the country a second time. “Run or be run over, these people are not joking,” Lissu was ostensibly warned by his intelligence team. In September 2017, Lissu had survived an assassination attempt in Dodoma, that saw his vehicle sprayed with bullets by “unknown” assailants, as he left parliament for his house for lunch. On November 7, 10 days after the elections were over, he hid at the German embassy, then onwards to Brussels, where he had been recuperating for three years after treatment in Nairobi.

The former MP for Arusha Urban Godbless Lema also skipped the country and sought refuge in Kenya after claiming government people were after him. Lema, with his family was granted asylum in Canada.

Nyerere’s CCM may have operated in the one-party era during the cold war, but many Tanzanians of the post-independent generation remember those days with nostalgia. “The party was more democratic and free, unlike today,” said a former CCM mkereketwa (party diehard).

Magufuli’s populism was laced with autocratic tendencies. He told fellow Tanzanians msinijaribu mimi ni jiwe (don’t try me, I’m as tough as a rock), meaning he prided himself in being tough-headed.

“Magufuli’s CCM in the era of multiparty brooks no dissent, is dictatorial and dangerous, while Nyerere’s CCM preferred a palaver type of democracy where party issues were discussed until it arrived at a consensus,” said a University of Dar es Salaam don.

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South Africa: A New Politics From the Left?

Assuming today’s socioeconomic crisis benefits the Left is folly. That will only happen if we have the political vision to make class the fault line of social polarisation, and for that we need to face the challenge of constructing a new party.

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South Africa: A New Politics From the Left?
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Over the last decade, the Left in a number of Western countries has undergone a historic transition from “protest to politics,” to borrow the words of the late Canadian Marxist Leo Panitch and his frequent co-author Sam Gindin. From Podemos in Spain to Sanders in the United States, a new wave of parties and electoral coalitions have emerged and made rapid gains. Despite setbacks and defeats, Panitch and Gindin’s indispensable analysis of these events in The Socialist Challenge Today, casts them in an unambiguously positive light. None of the examples they study offer formulas for resolving the vexing dilemmas facing the socialist movement in our globalised present.

But in their determination to take state power seriously they constitute an unmistakable step forward, after decades in which the Left’s confinement to episodic instances of mobilisation left the electoral field wide open to the parties of business. Part of this “new new” Left’s success stems from a willingness to shake free of its own past. Building a viable socialism of the 21st century, they argue, requires dispensing with the outmoded parts of the Leninist model, like its wager on insurrection, while retaining that which still holds value, like its internationalist spirit.

These developments hold important lessons for us on the South African Left. Just under a decade ago it seemed that we were on the verge of effecting a similar transition “from protest to politics.” During the first decade and a half of democracy, a socialist opposition had found a locus in the so-called “new” social movements—like the Anti-Privatisation Forum—which grew in reaction to various parts of the ruling African National Congress’ neoliberal agenda.

These waged a number of important defensive struggles and scored a few key victories but fundamentally did nothing to loosen capital’s grip on policymaking. By the end of the 2000s most were a spent force. It became clear to a growing segment of the Left that lasting gains would not be achieved unless social agitation were more effectively linked with efforts to seise governing power. The ability to think these more ambitious terms received a major boost when the National Union of Metalworkers South Africa (NUMSA), the nation’s largest manufacturing union, appeared to redraw the political map of the country by breaking from the ANC, amidst a wave of working class militancy.

Of course for the “official” left which NUMSA represented there had never been any turn away from politics as such. But decades of compromise had bred a form of politics that had become completely unmoored from the guiding thread of class antagonism. NUMSA’s move thus constituted a kind of mirror image transition—from a back-room corporatism to a politics more grounded in the methods and spirit of “protest”. This is what imbued the “NUMSA moment” with such hope—it promised to re-connect the two sides of South Africa’s bifurcated Left, and supply the strategic elements that had been missing from each. By matching the militancy and class-independence of the social movement Left with structural and organisational might of the “official” Left, it seemed possible that a mass socialist movement could be rapidly brought into being.

That was not to be. From today’s vantage it’s impossible to regard the NUMSA moment as anything but an abject failure. The political party which eventually issued from it is the farthest cry from the unifying force that so many had hoped for. While the international left has been able to advance by breaking with its shibboleths, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) has fallen back on a slavish appropriation of Bolshevik ideology, almost comical in its extremes.

Despite enormous resources, a large part supplied by a US-based billionaire, the party ran a dismal general election campaign in 2019 where it failed to get even a tenth of NUMSA’s own membership to vote for it (it ultimately only amassed 25 000 votes nationally, below the threshold to obtain one seat in Parliament). It’s since never recovered, joining a host of other failed socialist parties on the margins of political life. Marginality seems in turn to have degraded the internal culture of the party, which now resembles closely the Stalinism of the ANC-aligned South African Communist Party in all its worst aspects.

The floundering of the NUMSA moment is a terrible blow. But the setback inflicted on us will far greater if we fail to draw the correct lessons from it. Perhaps the most worrying outcome is that it precipitates a slide back into movementism, and shuts the window that we’ve had to execute the transition from “protest to politics.” Party politics acquired a bad name during the era of “protest” in South Africa, and many on the Left already feel that the SRWP’s example vindicated their worst suspicions.

But what the SRWP actually reveals to us is are not flaws inherent in the party-form as such, so much as the limits of a certain kind of party, one founded on a hidebound Leninism. If the Left were to abandon party building altogether there would, quite simply, be no socialist future. All visions of radical change that eschew parties and an active takeover of the state suffer from a principal defect in that they misconceive the nature of class formation—the process by which individuals become aware of their class position and begin to articulate their politics through it. This is presented as a quasi-automatic effect of the capitalist class structure.

But history offers no support for such a view. Class is impactful because it frames the options we have over so many major decisions in our lives—but not so narrowly as to make resistance to one’s employer, or the system behind him, inevitable. Indeed, the extreme vulnerability of workers under capitalism means that individualised modes of coping tend to be more commonplace than collective action. That’s why socialist consciousness has been the exception rather than the norm in the global history of capitalism, and exceedingly rare in the absence of a well-organised party. As Panitch argued with the force of a life’s work—parties make classes as much as they are made by them.

Thankfully, an outright repudiation of the party-form is not really where we are at in South Africa. The variant of movementism which took hold here, and which has revived in the aftermath of the NUMSA moment, was not really this more extreme kind, which denies the ultimate need for a party. Rather what it advocates is a downgrading of the role of party building or its deferral to some indefinite future.

What seems to be the common premise for this position is that party building can only succeed when perfectly timed to the right “objective conditions” —conditions which are only likely to form in the wake of a rupture moment defined by intensified street-level mobilisation. Only the transformation of mass consciousness brought about by such an episode of struggle can furnish the base for a party. Moreover, efforts to “impose” a party on the working class before this are liable to be rejected by its most conscious and active layers. Cut off from nourishing energy of grassroots movements, they are likely to grow in authoritarian directions. The task of socialists in the present, therefore, is devote ourselves to strengthening movements, and hope that a party may gestate from within them in some future context.

Related but distinguishable from this, is an ingrained hostility on the South African Left towards electoral politics. This view tends to draw a sharp line between the electoral arena and movements. While movements unlock popular power by sensitising their participants to their potential for collective action, elections offer no such platform for consciousness-raising. Instead, they tend to reproduce the atomisation of liberal democracy, and to fortify the myth that progress is possible within it. Moreover, movements which take the electoral road subject themselves to debilitating pressures. The logic of getting the vote tends to conflict with the logic of grassroot mobilisation, and all too often to overwhelm it.

Movementist positions contain many insights. It is wise, for example, to be attuned to the importance of ruptural breaks—the likelihood that we will ever get to a mass party simply through a molecular accretion of our ranks is slim. But the contention that movement building alone is the best way to prepare for such a rupture fails to take seriously the inherent weaknesses of social movements.

Of the numerous movements which sustained the first era of “protest” in post-Apartheid South Africa virtually none remain (barring one major exception). New ones have of course cropped up, and a tide of less organised community protests has continued unabated across the country. But these show equally little likelihood of autonomously cohering into anything bigger or more resilient.

It’s now very hard to avoid the conclusion that their failures resulted from internal rather than external factors. The model underpinning them rested on localised mobilisation around immediate demands, while actively eschewing efforts to politicise a leadership layer. Some of their more excitable proponents portrayed them as crucibles of anti-capitalism, in which the mere experience of collective decision making offered a form of political education beyond what traditional forms of Left organisation could hope to match.

But in doing so they exhibited the same fallacious thinking about class formation that informs all ventures aimed at “changing the world without taking power.” Much less a break with capitalism, it’s not clear that social movements even succeeded in getting most of their members to question their loyalty to the ANC. That left them prone to demobilisation and disorganisation when circumstances changed, when defeats where incurred or when key individuals drifted off or were co-opted.

One strategic upshot of this critique is that the trade-off between movement and party building posited by movementists is a false one. It’s likely that there is no winning formula for transforming single issue mobilisations into lasting, mass organisations without NGOifying them. But what we can do is to ensure that the small advances made by movements each time they arise are not dissipated. After all—the notion that struggle develops consciousness is not a false, what movementists get wrong is overstating the extent to which it does so organically. Virtually every movement throws up militant leaders, who stand to become tribunes for socialist politics if they can be identified, recruited and supported appropriately. This is work that a party is best suited to undertake.

But facing up to the limits of social movements should lead us to even stronger conclusions than this. It should lead us to question the overwhelming strategic significance that they have been accorded in the politics of the “independent left.” If movements are tough to sustain and to politicise, they may not be the vehicles best suited to bringing about a political rupture or ensuring that it outcome favors the Left.

Of course this was a strategic orientation that was largely foisted on us by circumstance. The stranglehold that the Tripartite Alliance (whose third member is the Congress of South African Trade Unions) exercised on organised labour and mass politics generally left little room for an alternative. But the situation has changed. The factionalisation of the ANC, the split in COSATU and the emergence of its rival, the South African Federation of Trade Unions, have created an opening for a more militant socialism to regain a foothold in organised labour. This ought to be the clear priority of socialists.

For all its infirmities, the union movement still presents a much more promising site for grounding socialist politics in a mass base. Although this may not hold for much longer, unions remain mass membership organisations with considerable resources. Most importantly, and most differently from social movements, they have access to structural power (i.e, the power to withdraw labour and shut down the economy). Here is one insight of Leninism which time has not invalidated– that our project will most likely fail unless that structural power is at its center.

If organised labour is once again to become our strategic focal point, this strengthens the case for not consigning the party to an intangible future. The synergies between party-building and organisation building are arguably stronger in the case of unions than social movements. At a fairly abstract level, one reason for this is that union building (or revitalisation) typically relies on a few individuals being prepared to take bold action out of moral conviction. Marxists have often argued something very different—that shopfloors collectivise as soon as workers wake up to their material interests. But narrow self-interest is unlikely to ever motivate someone to take the first steps towards organising their co-workers, since doing so incurs enormous risks but yields no extra benefit—the essence of the “free-rider” problem.

Thus, it’s not a coincidence that so often in history, socialists of various stripes have been significantly overrepresented among the “militant minority.” The values that draw people to the banner of socialism are often the same as those that move them to action against workplace injustices. It’s also not a coincidence that a militant minority is more likely to take shape when socialist ideas are more prominent in the public realm.

Arresting the decline of South African unions, and returning them to their proud history of worker control and grassroots democracy will require a herculean organising effort. At the simplest level this is why we need an organisational vehicle that at  least broadly resembles a party. Without one we have no real means of translating strategic debates into action—of coordinating our energies towards the tasks most likely to yield long-term gains.

There’s therefore a case for not delaying in building a fighting organisation, that tries to cohere leading militants from workplace and community struggles around a socialist program. But such an organisation should do more. As soon as it has the numbers needed, it should seek to involve itself in elections. In all likelihood it would have to start at the local level, and logic would dictate that it seeks out community and social movement partners in doing so. But as quickly as possible is should seek to graduate to the national stage. South Africa’s unusually proportional representation electoral system (which was in fact designed to provide space for smaller parties), makes this a reasonable short-term goal.

Arresting the decline of South African unions, and returning them to their proud history of worker control and grassroots democracy will require a herculean organising effort. At the simplest level this is why we need an organisational vehicle that at least broadly resembles a party.

The first thing that sceptics of this strategy tend to get wrong is that they overstate, or misunderstand, the legitimacy problem facing formal political institutions. The SRWP seems to think that any worker with lingering attachments to electoral politics is suffering from “false consciousness.” But in our current circumstances, there is nothing the least bit irrational about remaining invested in the electoral arena, even while recognising the severity of its class bias. The simple reason for that, is that there is no existing social force capable of challenging state power while remaining entirely outside its institutions, nor does one show any prospect of coming into being in any foreseeable horison. Worker organisations in SA are locked a desperate defensive struggle—not preparing to set up a parallel state.

It’s not a failure of dialectical imagination that causes people to conflate politics with elections, but an appraisal of our situation that is more accurate than the one provided by the apostles of imminent revolution.

It’s thus not surprising that despite the tremendous alienation produced by decades of neoliberalism, electoral movements in the West have been able to engineer a political realignment that was much deeper than what post-2008 movements were able to achieve on their own. Their location within the domain of mainstream politics provided both visibility but also a kind of credibility—they promised to take over the institutions in front of us, rather than replace them with ones we can’t see and can’t yet imagine. Several of these examples stood the movementist model on its head. Rather than an electoral breakthrough growing out of a period of intensified movement activity, it was the electoral arena itself that has delivered the rupture moment, the energy from which can then be filtered down to social and labour struggles.

In the process they challenged another fallacy of movementism—that the electoral arena is entirely inimical to a politics of struggle. Sanders, Corbyn, and others imbued their campaigns with a spirit of insurgency that succeeded in appealing to many otherwise turned off by politics, particularly among younger generations. Rather than sucking energy from the streets, these examples provided a renewed model of “class struggle elections” —not their own invention but one that had faded from the Left’s repertoire during the era of movementism.

Class struggle elections seek to deliberately leverage electoral campaigns, and political office itself, to bolster movements. They use every platform available to raise awareness of, and encourage solidarity with, labour and social struggles. In doing so they try to inculcate the understanding that radical policies can only be won with an inside-outside strategy, in which legislators are supported and pushed forward by powerful movements. At the same time they use campaigns as tools of organisation building.

They recruit and deploy a mass of activist to spread a socialist message, and simultaneously try to develop those activists by building political education into their activities. Done properly, this can bridge the gaps that supposedly separate movement from electoral organising, infusing the latter with a powerful sense of collectivity. That’s why so many thousands of young Americans (to pick a recent example), were politically activated through their involvement in the Sanders campaign, which became a gateway to organising in their workplaces, campuses and communities.

Note that this is completely different to the SRWP’s narrowly propagandistic approach to elections which didn’t promote social struggles so much as fantasies of revolution, whilst denouncing ‘bourgeois democracy’ as a sham and doing nothing to actually win. After a predictably disastrous outcome, the party chose to compound the embarrassment, and feed into a profoundly dangerous trend by denouncing South Africa’s independent election management body and claiming the result was rigged.

It’s not a failure of dialectical imagination that causes people to conflate politics with elections, but an appraisal of our situation that is more accurate than the one provided by the apostles of imminent revolution.

Contrast its subsequent marginalisation with the early trajectory with the Economic Freedom Fighters (now South Africa’s third-largest party), which leveraged the electoral know-how of its ex-ANCYL cadre and Malema’s media savvy to run an enormously successful first campaign. It then built on the success, steadily expanding its vote share each cycle, while using parliamentary office to bolster its national profile. Sadly it drifted off the orbit of the Left along the way. But the two diverging cases provide an obvious lesson: if elections are to be useful to us, we have to show that we are capable of succeeding in them. If we can’t, how on earth will we convince anyone that we’re capable of transforming society from its roots up?

None of this is to suggest that the concerns movementists raise about electoral politics are meritless. Its unquestionably true that electoral competition imposes its own logic, which can be ruinous if it totally subsumes the party’s strategic purview. We can trace the decline of many a worker’s party, at least proximately, to misguided efforts to capture middle-class votes by abandoning a politics of class antagonism. But all socialist strategising in our dismal conjuncture is the consideration of perilous alternatives. Far better for us to confront the dangers of succumbing to a narrow electoralism than the near certitude of permanent marginalisation should we choose to abstain from mainstream politics altogether.

The NUMSA moment may have come and gone. But the many elements of the broader conjuncture which produced it, and which seemed to augur a new direction for socialist politics, persist. The Alliance coalition is in the doldrums. Expecting its inevitable demise is of course a pastime of which we “independent leftists” should now be wary. But the material facts this time really are different. The state faces a fiscal crisis that President Cyril Ramaphosa has neither the wherewithal nor the institutional tools to escape from. His factional opponents preach a “radical economic transformation” that offers nothing whatsoever to workers.

Social strains look set to keep accumulating. But assuming that any crisis they produce will automatically redound to the Left’s benefit would be folly. That will only happen if we have the political vision and the organisational capacity to ensure that class becomes the fault line of social polarisation. And for that we need to face up to the challenge of constructing a new party.

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Is a Plutocratic America in Terminal Decline?

We may not be aware of it yet, because of the hold the nation has on global media, but America’s decline appears to be terminal.

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Is a Plutocratic America in Terminal Decline?
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As President Joe Biden begins to get comfortable in the White House, there are those who might say that America, under a democratic system of government, has once again allowed the voice of her people to be heard, and that they have elected a new leader into office. Some might go so far as to say that the world’s most affluent democracy has once again proved that government of the people, by the people, for the people is alive and well.

But just below the surface, there are questions deserving of a deeper examination. One is how narrow the margins of victory were. For while it is true that President Biden won the highest number of votes in American electoral history, it is also true that President Trump won the second-highest number of votes in American electoral history; 10 million more people voted for President Trump in 2020 than did so in 2016. Mr Biden’s margin of victory in Georgia was 0.48 per cent, while that in Arizona was 0.63 per cent. Further, even as the Democrats belatedly won a majority in the Senate, again by the finest of margins, the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives actually narrowed. Why, if the choice was so clear, were margins so narrow?

The regrettable truth is that the US is not a democracy – not merely because true democracy has never existed, but because even that imperfect form of democracy that characterises modern politics long perished in America. The United States today is in fact a corporatocracy; mega-corporations rule the country, a polite way of saying that that nation is now a plutocracy. This development is not really new – wealth has always, eventually, determined leadership, in America and elsewhere.

This article attempts – colossally log-in-eye, and at a distance of thousands of miles, admittedly – to furnish proof of the existence of this plutocracy; to demonstrate the effects of this plutocracy on American life and politics; and to establish whether there is any way out of the present morass.

That America is a plutocracy

A total of US$14 billion (KSh1.4 trillion) was spent on campaigns in the US this year, twice as much as in 2016. Where is this money coming from?

In 2010, the US Supreme Court handed down a decision called Citizens United that allowed unions, corporations and associations to spend unlimited amounts in elections provided they would not coordinate their efforts with a candidate. As a result, political action committees (or PACs – private organisations established to raise money in support of a candidate or an issue) morphed into Super PACs that could receive unlimited amounts of money for campaign purposes. The effect was immediate: in 2012 non-party outside spending tripled 2008’s total and topped US$1 billion for the first time. Of that amount, Super PACs spent more than US$840 million.

The regrettable truth is that the US is not a democracy.

Yet the amounts spent in 2012 pale in comparison with spending during the 2020 campaign; in October 2020 alone, outside spending by super PACs and other big-money groups totalled nearly US$1.2 billion. President Joe Biden alone raised US$1.6 billion. President Trump raised US$596 million, itself a significant haul. Given the closely fought nature of the presidential election, it would not be wrong to conclude that money helped tip the scales in favour of the new president. Nor was this true only of the presidential race; it was true across the ballot. Eighty-nine per cent of House races and 71 per cent of Senate races were won by the better financed candidate. The conclusion is clear: money – corporate money – wins American elections.

The effects of the plutocracy on American life

It is all very well and good to conclude that corporate money runs and wins American elections. The issue is what the effect of all this money is on American life. If corporate hegemony is harmless – even beneficial – arguments can be made that it should be left alone. If it is not, however, then that fact should be exposed, and reform commenced.

The American mega-corporation has achieved a number of victories (from a corporate standpoint) that have constituted assaults on the wellbeing of the American people and populace. For example, these corporations have been allowed to outsource American manufacturing jobs to China and other nations. The iPhone, signature product of America’s second largest company by market valuation (Apple), is assembled in Shenzhen. Nike began outsourcing manufacturing in the 1970s; today it has plants in Vietnam and South Korea as well as China. IBM now has more workers in India than in the US. As of April 2012, Walmart’s supply chain included some 30,000 Chinese factories, producing an estimated 70 per cent of all of the goods it sells. This trend has gone on so long that there now exists a portion of the northeastern US, formerly known as the Manufacturing/Steel/Factory Belt, that is now known as the Rust Belt, owing to industrial and economic decline occasioned by outsourcing and the automation of jobs.

Meanwhile, for those jobs that have escaped being shipped overseas, the average wage has been stagnant for 40 years. A generation has now arisen in America that will be the first in modern American history to end up poorer than their parents. To make up for stagnant incomes, American citizens are drowning in private debt (US$14 trillion worth) including mortgages (US$9.44 trillion) and student loans (US$1.5 trillion). Indeed, absolute US household debt was higher in November 2019 than prior to/during the great recession, although the debt-to-income levels during the great recession were higher than the 2019 levels (83 per cent to 73 per cent). High house prices, supported as they are by mortgage lending, coupled with student loans, together mean that new graduates are experiencing “failure to launch”, i.e. the inability to leave one’s parents’ home and start one’s own family.

(We should pause here to note, parenthetically, that the level of any nation’s private debt, and America’s in particular, is a very important metric. The level of private debt was the key indicator that enabled Professor Steve Keen, one of the Bezemer 12, to predict the North Atlantic financial crisis of 2007-8, a prediction mainstream/neoclassical economics, quite criminally, failed to make.)

The US$14 trillion of private debt that American citizens owe is owed to the very same mega-corporation class whose wage stagnation has necessitated the need for lending (since the early 1970s, the hourly inflation-adjusted wages received by the typical worker have barely risen, growing only 0.2 per cent per year). Most unfortunately, this wage stagnation is not uniform: the ratio of CEO-to-worker earnings has soared from 21-to-1 in 1965 to 320-to-1 in 2019.

A generation has now arisen in America that will be the first in modern American history to end up poorer than their parents.

Has the American mega-corporation been censured by the political class for these excesses? Hardly. In fact, the large American corporation, while using American infrastructure, using some degree of American labour and selling to Americans, is allowed to pretend that it operates outside America, by invoicing from nations with low tax rates, such as Ireland, thereby avoiding paying federal taxes on its income. From 2009-2018, for example, Amazon paid an effective federal tax rate of 3 per cent on profits totalling US$26.5 billion. In 2018 alone, the company received a tax relief of US$129 million dollars on profits of US$11.2 billion. Such is the scale of tax avoidance by American corporations that by 2016 a staggering US$2 trillion in untaxed corporate profits was stashed outside the US, according to the New York Times. (What makes this doubly lamentable is that the Internal Revenue Service tells the American citizen in unambiguous terms that “Your worldwide income is subject to U.S. income tax, regardless of where you reside.”)

Corporations, therefore, enjoy egregious advantages. It is in order to keep them that they are so willing to fund political campaigns. In other words, corporations will do everything to avoid paying the taxes that would improve American infrastructure and healthcare (to their own benefit) but spend billions on political campaigns to inoculate themselves from losing the unfair advantages they have carved out for themselves.

The effect of the plutocracy on American politics

The shock election of President Donald Trump in 2016 can be seen as a response to the deleterious effects of corporate hegemony on the American political and economic life. Candidate Trump campaigned as an outsider, promising to “drain the swamp”, even though, ironically, he was himself a self-styled billionaire who shipped jobs to China and paid very little in taxes. America was suffering economically. He claimed that the blame for this could be placed squarely on the shoulders of China and immigrants. In an illuminating two-part, three-and-a-half hour 2019 interview with PBS, key Trump campaign advisor Steve Bannon (who was arrested for fraud and then pardoned by President Trump on his last full day in office) stated that the cost of the 2008-09 bailout was loaded onto the American middle class, and that American gig economy millennials are nothing but 19th-century Russian serfs. Many may disagree with Mr Bannon’s political views, but his statement had its finger on the pulse of post-bank-bailout America. The genius of the Trump campaign was its ability to identify these pain points; to incorrectly but convincingly blame foreigners – locally (immigrants) and abroad (China) – for what were and continue to be the excesses of the plutocracy; to identify the existence of a swamp in Washington and characterise Hillary Clinton as the personification of these ills; and to ride that wave all the way to the White House. The lesson – a lesson seemingly yet unlearned by mainstream politics – is that it actually worked.

Candidates however, campaign in poetry; rulers, on the other hand, govern in prose. During Trump’s presidency Faustian bargains, in Steve Bannon’s words, were made; here again the power of the corporatocracy made itself felt. One of the early indicators of the direction and tenor a presidency will take is a president’s cabinet picks; Steven Mnuchin, yet another ex-Wall Street executive, was placed in charge of the Treasury. While President Trump did not drag the US into another war – in spite of the assassination of Iranian Major-General Qassim Soleimani – his presidency did not up-end Washington in ways meaningful to the nation’s citizenry. Readers may recall the US$2 trillion of untaxed corporate profits mentioned earlier; President Trump’s signature legislative achievement was to open new windows for tax rebates for major corporations, reducing taxes on the wealthy. This legislation resulted in the repatriation of US$777 billion in 2018, but the Federal Reserve noted that “the strongest effect of repatriation was on share buybacks” by corporate America. This particular episode is a textbook example of the plutocracy at work.

Trump does not greatly differ in this way from the way in which Candidate Obama contrasts with President Obama. Candidate Obama campaigned on Change We Can Believe In. Yet, once elected, he bailed out the banks (the abiding question on this, some wonder, is why citizens did not retain their houses if the banks’ losses were made good). Obamacare, a very significant advance in the fight for decent healthcare for Americans, did not include a public option although it could have. Nor did President Obama succeed in extricating himself from American warmongering abroad: in a particularly sad and tragic episode he helped end the Libya Gaddaffi had created. Libya under Gaddaffi was a nation that had free university education, free healthcare, no external debt and reserves of US$150 billion – all ideals that America, ironically, declares it wants but has yet to achieve despite its claim to being the richest nation in history. Allied “intervention” replaced that Libya with today’s bombed-out nation, in which incessant internecine strife went on for a decade. This in Africa, the land of Obama’s fathers. Only two years previously, at a location just two hours from Benghazi by air, the new President had given his “A New Beginning” speech in Cairo, which speech contributed to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize later that year.

In these two presidencies, we see, microcosmically, the effects of the plutocracy at work: the lofty ideals of the campaigning candidate and the searing needs of the masses, once office is assumed, are replaced by a kind of neutered, ineffective pragmatism, as far as the wellbeing of American citizens is concerned, and a sly and insidious effectiveness where corporate welfare is concerned.

The 2020 campaign

Perhaps the defining characteristic of the 2020 campaign is that it took place against the backdrop of a global pandemic. The cost of this pandemic – in the gruesome currency of American lives – has been more than 500,000 dead Americans and counting, nearly 10 times the number of US soldiers who died in the Vietnam War, and more than the number of American lives lost in World War II.

Uniquely among developed nations, the structure of America’s healthcare system is such that very often one only has healthcare if one is employed. So that when 44 million Americans filed for unemployment during the pandemic, they lost their medical cover at precisely the time they most needed it. The pandemic therefore threw into sharp focus the critical importance of having a healthcare system that is not based upon employment.

(Nor is the state of health insurance all that is wrong with American healthcare – in several tragic articles it has been reported that American diabetics have been driving to Canada in caravans to buy insulin – some driving up to 5 hours one way. Price-gouging by pharmaceutical companies means that the drug is ten times cheaper in Canada than it is in America.)

The bipartisan response to the pandemic was to pass the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that – while it gave individuals with less than US$99,000 a year annual income a check of US$1,200 a month – also gave further tax cuts to the wealthy. According to the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, just 43,000 individual tax filers covered by one of the Act’s provisions would see their tax liability fall by a combined US$70.3 billion in 2020 (or about US$1.7 million each). This is the America that corporatism has created.

And yet, mid-pandemic, was healthcare on the national ballot? How, when pharmaceutical and health product industries have spent a total of US$4.7 billion on lobbying the federal government, US$877 million on state candidates and committees, and US$414 million in the 20 years to 2018? Indeed, by the time he won the nomination, Joe Biden had already said he would veto a Medicare for All bill if it landed on his desk (a colossal if, it must be said), proposing a public option instead.

So what was on the ballot? Democrats, choosing to characterise Trump’s presidency as the problem, instead of seeing it as the natural consequence of the decades of wage stagnation, high healthcare costs, inordinately high levels of private debt, etc., campaigned on the platform of “restoring the soul of America”. The president’s narrow margins of victory perhaps find an explanation here: the problems Americans face were not really on the ballot. And they were not on the ballot because the corporations that stump up the money to fund electoral campaigns benefit from providing privatised solutions to the problems Americans face.

Is there hope?

There is an American constituency that is in broad agreement on the issues raised above: a Fox News exit poll, for example, showed that 72 per cent of Americans were at least somewhat in favour of changing to a government-run healthcare plan. Florida, a state President Trump won, voted to increase the state’s minimum wage to US$15 an hour.

However, it is unlikely that this broad constituency will be allowed to unite under the current political system. The reality is that the US is a de facto one-party state. If that party were to be honestly named, it might be named the Megacorp Party, or, slightly more genteelly, the Corporatist/Establishment Party. It has two wings: a supposedly left-leaning Democratic wing and a supposedly conservative Republican wing. Under the framework of Citizens United these two wings will continue to swap power ad infinitum. Yet, even as the presidency bounces from party to party, a president from one party will bomb Iraq; the next president, from the other party, will campaign on the platform that he never voted to go to war in Iraq, only to subsequently bomb Libya. These tragic contradictions find their resolution in the fact that this war activity happens at the behest of the military-industrial complex.

Political consultants will keep finding new, misleading ways of “framing the political argument,” creating false choices and developing narratives such as restoring the soul of the nation. Meanwhile, the money that pays them will continue to fortify itself against the needs of the people; the rich will get richer, the poor will get poorer and power will remain with the wealthy.

As long as this continues, we can expect two outcomes. The first is that the issues that Americans need solved will not be solved. (We are now reading, for example, that the US$15 dollars/hour minimum wage President Biden promised (during a presidential debate), is unlikely be included in the US$1.9 trillion-dollar stimulus package President Biden intends to bring to Congress.) The second is that, as a result of the failure to resolve these issues, America will, in the words of Robert Reich, continue to produce candidatures like Donald Trump’s as far as the eye can see. The American political system does not contain within itself the mechanism to correct the current malaise. As a result, money will continue to win out: it will continue to select which issues are on the ballot, and it will continue to choose which candidates win. America’s long decline, therefore, is likely to continue.

The corporations that stump up the money to fund electoral campaigns benefit from providing privatised solutions to the problems Americans face.

We may not be aware of it yet, because of the hold the nation has on global media (the concentration of media ownership in America is yet another triumph of the plutocracy), but America’s decline appears to be terminal.

I return to the beginning – this article is written colossally log-in-eye. As a Kenyan I know we have major, pressing domestic issues to resolve. If or as we make a detour to examine the American political situation, let our contemplation resemble our use of a mirror, and let our aims be those of helping us to avoid the problems others have experienced, in order to more wisely and speedily resolve our own.

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