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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

A Problem of Denial: Why Tanzania Could Lose the War Against COVID-19

President Magufuli’s response to the current coronavirus crisis has been far from exemplary. Some of his actions, like urging pubs to throw post-coronavirus parties and firing those who question his bizarre remedies for COVID-19, could actually put the lives of thousands of Tanzanians at risk.

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A Problem of Denial: Why Tanzania Could Lose the War Against COVID-19
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Authorities in the East African nation of Tanzania have started a process to reopen the country, claiming that the number of people testing positive for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has dropped significantly, with numerous cases of recoveries reported. However, given the state’s laxity in containing the pandemic since it was first reported in the country, plus its obsession with excessive secrecy in its approach to dealing with this new virus, makes many Tanzanians suspicious of the state’s claims and intentions – and for good reason.

Tanzania’s handling of COVID-19 remains a divisive and controversial subject that is passionately debated both within the East African nation and beyond. As nations across the world grapple with the deadly virus, which continues to indiscriminately claim the lives of thousands of people, and wrecks the economies of many countries, opinion here is sharply divided between those who are convinced that this novel coronavirus situation in the country is not so worrying as to warrant interventions seen in other countries, such as lockdowns, and those who accuse the government of underestimating the magnitude of the pandemic, thereby putting the economy above public health, and thus risking the lives of hundreds of citizens. No compromise seems to be on the horizon between these two warring factions.

The ongoing debate, which feeds into the political polarisation already prevalent in Tanzania, has been made more acute by the government’s own approach to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, which to this day remains opaque and unknown to the general public. The government’s approach seems to be informed by partial denial, inordinate secrecy, sheer incompetence, and ancient superstitions and prejudices.

So confusing is the government’s response to COVID-19 that after almost three months since the crisis was first reported, people’s anger and apprehension have subsided to ridicule and mockery as President John Magufuli’s administration continues to expose deep and terrible contradictions in its strategy and style to deal with the pandemic. Annoyance, therefore, seems to have subsided into derision. (If one would expect a different reaction then it means that one is not well-versed in Tanzania’s political culture. The long-reigning years of the ruling CCM have reduced the population to apathy and conformism, all in exchange for “peace and development” as defined by the party’s own ideologues and propagandists.)

Corona parties

The sheer absence of organised protest and pushback on the part of the citizenry, the press, religious institutions, and civil society organizations (CSOs) against the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic means that the minimalists (those who advocate for less restrictive measures lest the economy is hurt and interpret the news that portrays Tanzania in a gloomy picture as fear-mongering and hysterical) secure an ostentatious victory and hence wield a significant influence in the government’s latest measures aimed at bringing the country back to normalcy.

The government’s approach seems to be informed by partial denial, inordinate secrecy, sheer incompetence, and ancient superstitions and prejudices.

On May 21, for example, while addressing the nation from the capital Dodoma, President Magufuli announced that schools, colleges, and universities will be reopened on June 1 and called for the resumption of suspended football activities, citing physical exercise as one of the best ways to avoid contracting the virus. A day earlier, the cocky regional commissioner of Tanzania’s commercial capital Dar es Salaam, Paul Makonda, urged hoteliers and restaurant owners in the city to reopen their businesses, and claimed that COVID-19 was now over and that the city should go back to work. He even urged pub owners to throw a party on Sunday, May 24, to celebrate the end of COVID-19 in the country.

These measures follow the ones taken earlier, including the opening of the country to tourists and the lifting of a restriction that required tourists to undergo the mandatory 14-day quarantine when they visit the country. In the same vein, churches and mosques that were closed due to the pandemic have been ordered to reopen. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT) bishop of Karagwe Diocese, Dr Benson Bagonza, subsequently announced that church services would resume on May 31.

The government’s claim is that these and other measures aimed at returning the country back to normal are thanks to the “tremendous drop” in the number of people contracting COVID-29 in Tanzania and the increasing number of COVID-19 recoveries across the country. For instance, during a church service in his hometown of Chato, a town in Geita region of northwestern Tanzania where President Magufuli has been self-isolating since the pandemic arrived in the country, the head of state told his fellow congregants that, thanks to what he termed as divine intervention, the number of COVID-19 cases in different hospitals across the country have gone down and the number of recoveries have increased. It was in this address that Mr Magufuli talked about his daughter who contracted the virus but who was able to recover, thanks to steam therapy and the consumption of lemons, things that he and his government have been pushing people to use to “stay safe” against the pandemic for a while now.

President Magufuli’s assurance notwithstanding, not many people seem to buy into his government’s claims that Tanzania is safe now and people can go back to doing their business. People’s doubts have been intensified by many factors, the most important factor being the lack of transparency. The claim about the sharp drop in COVID-19 cases reported in the country are being made at a time when the government does not share COVID-19 updates with the public and other national and regional public health stakeholders. This follows the temporary closure of the national health laboratory to pave way for an investigation into the allegations made by President Magufuli that the lab officials were “conspiring with imperialists” to portray Tanzania in a negative light by releasing more positive cases, an allegation which eventually led to the sacking of the lab’s director, Dr Nyambura Moremi.

It was in this address that Mr Magufuli talked about his daughter who contracted the virus but who was able to recover, thanks to steam therapy and the consumption of lemons…

These misgivings are made more relevant by reports from neighbouring Kenya where the increasing number of truck drivers from Tanzania test positive for COVID-19 when they cross the border into Kenya, something which led to the Kenyan authorities to not only close all their borders with Tanzania but also deport 182 people who tested positive for COVID-19 back to Tanzania in an effort to protect Kenyans from the pandemic. Another reason why people doubt the government’s claims of the “divine defeat” of COVID-19 is the feeling that the government is not there to serve their interests in the first place but that of President Magufuli and his administration.

Attacking political opponents, not the virus

Mr Magufuli’s actions portray him as a person who is more interested in himself than he is in the people. One of these actions includes getting rid of people from his administration who are thought to be realists and replacing them with sycophants who are willing to go the extra mile in their attempts to please the president, even if is at the expense of people’s lives.

For instance, President Magufuli swore in Mr Mwigulu Nchemba, a man who just before his appointment as the new constitutional and legal affairs minister to replace Mr Augustine Mahiga, who died after a short illness, had suggested that the government announce only the number of people who recover from COVID-19 and leave out the numbers of those who died of the pandemic.

If that was not enough, President Magufuli fired Dr Faustine Ndungulile as the deputy health minister – a man who once contradicted the president’s steam therapy as a cure for coronavirus and pointed out its associated health risks – and replaced him with Dr Godwin Mollel, who had once advised against mass testing, a practice emphasised by the World Health Organization (WHO) if the war against the coronavirus is to be won, saying it was too expensive for people to afford. According to this lawmaker, who defected from the opposition Chadema to the ruling CCM, “to support President Magufuli’s efforts to bring development to the people” the government’s complete abandonment of mass testing made more sense to him as a people’s representative than asking the government to make the testing free of charge!

Tanzania seeks to reopen at a time when its laxness in its efforts to contain the pandemic has triggered a diplomatic crisis with neighbouring Kenya following the latter’s decision to close all its borders with Tanzania, allowing only cargo to pass through, something which so infuriated the Magufuli administration that regional commissioners with the regions that border Kenya (Arusha, Mara, Kilimanjaro and Tanga) retaliated against Kenyan truck drivers, banning even cargo trucks to pass through. The border crisis, now settled, led to the sacking of Tanzania’s High Commissioner to Kenya, Pindi Chana, presumably because she was not as aggressive as her Kenyan counterpart in Tanzania, Dan Kazungu, in finding a solution to the problem.

The inward-looking approach of Tanzania made it skip two important COVID-19-related consultative meetings organised by the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). While opening the SADC meeting, South African president Mr Cyril Ramaphosa is quoted to have said that he talked to President Magufuli, the sitting chairperson of the block, of the need to organise the meeting but the Tanzanian leader asked for the member states to just send their opinions to him, a charge that Tanzania denies. These and other steps taken during the pandemic had some analysts worried that Tanzania risked losing its historical and strategic allies in the region.

It is this same megalomaniacal type of thinking that has made President Magufuli not listen to, and work on, the advice offered by other stakeholders of Tanzania’s development, such as opposition parties (see here and here) and CSOs, which on more than one occasion have outlined some of the necessary measures to be taken to help the country combat the pandemic and save lives.

Election-related measures

The measures to reopen the country are being taken when Tanzania is just a few months away from a general election in October 2020. The measures are being viewed as preparatory work towards the elections that President Magufuli’s party, CCM, is projected to win in a landslide largely due to a disorganised opposition and years of deliberate efforts to shrink Tanzania’s political and civic space. The measures come against the backdrop of debates among Tanzania’s lawyers and intellectuals on whether or not Tanzania should go ahead with the general elections given the presence of the public health emergency. However, the latest steps that the government has taken to reopen the country seem to have brought this debate to an end.

Efforts to reopen the country go hand in hand with steps to further shrink the available civic space in the country. For example, COVID-19 has not stopped the Magufuli administration from detaining a comedian who laughed at the president’s old photos, arresting journalists, local and foreign, who interviewed people on their experience with the pandemic, as well as restricting NGOs working in the country. On May 22, for example, a coalition of Tanzanian NGOs planned to organise a TV programme with a local television station, ITV, to talk about NGOs’ role in the fight against COVID-19 pandemic only to have the network postpone it at the last minute without giving a rational or understandable reason.

It was against this troubling background then that after being tired of government lies and prevarications, and having lost her close relative to COVID-19, gender and human rights activist Mwanahamisi Singano was forced to write an open letter to President Magufuli, reminding him that fear is not fought with threats, torture, or shackles (or lies if I could add), but with “sincere and intentional government actions in the fight against [COVID-19] scourge”.

The measures to reopen the country are being taken when Tanzania is just a few months away from a general election in October 2020. The measures are being viewed as preparatory work towards the elections that President Magufuli’s party, CCM, is projected to win in a landslide largely due to a disorganised opposition and years of deliberate efforts to shrink Tanzania’s political and civic space.

Sincerity is what is missing in the government’s entire strategy in the fight against the pandemic and thus explains to a great extent why most people are suspicious of its assurances that the pandemic has been contained and that people are free to go about their business as they did during the pre-COVID-19 period.

How, for instance, can a sane person trust a government claiming that the number of COVID-19 cases have dropped yet it declines to share those very statistics with anyone, not even its own citizens or at least with the Africa Disease Control and Prevention? How can we trust an administration that tries to lull us to sleep with sweet songs that the pandemic is over when it has treated the pandemic more as a national security issue than as a public health crisis? (The president’s second address on COVID-19 was to the heads of Tanzania’s security organs, not with public health experts.)

If the government is being genuine that coronavirus has been contained in the country to the extent that studies and sports should resume, why did it find it necessary to ask Kenya in making public the data on the COVID-19 status of truck drivers, not to mention the nationality of those who test positive?

If we cut through the propaganda barrage, we find that Tanzania is not as safe as the ruling elites and their apologists want people to believe. People who heed the call to go about their business believing that the pandemic is over will be doing so at their own risk.

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A Very Political Virus: Trumpism’s Ridiculous Response to COVID-19

Trumpism in the age of coronavirus may be gasoline poured onto the fire of a worldwide catastrophe in bizarre ways that are only beginning to be spelled out now, but which could have dire ramifications globally, including in East Africa.

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A Very Political Virus: Trumpism’s Ridiculous Response to COVID-19
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I can’t tell for certain, but the ambulance sirens seem to keep increasing, not with the incessant wails reported in New York, but a creeping feeling that something is on the rise.

Here, in the state of Wisconsin, on April 6th, the Democratic Governor, Tony Evers, fearing the worst in light of the COVID-19 crisis, passed an executive order to postpone the primary election, which took place on April 7th. Republicans had immediately taken the order to the state Supreme Court, and over turned it, forcing people to go to the polls.

Why? To align with Trump’s political desires. With thousands of absentee ballots already thrown out, the primary election (which includes a key state Supreme Court seat) is one that could be decisive in what is sure to be a controversial, close and unprecedented presidential election in the fall. President Donald Trump had backed the Republican candidate publicly, and called for the people of Wisconsin to turn out to vote for him, despite COVID-19.

In a state with controversial voter ID laws (which disproportionately affect people of colour), this has made a stark choice all the more vivid – come vote if you dare tempt coronavirus or stay home and be disenfranchised.

That’s where the screw really turns here: Donald Trump didn’t just learn from the example of Kenyan election farces; he studied and plagiarised them. (It makes sense that in this context, both the Kenyan ruling political elite and the Trump campaign were clients of Cambridge Analytica, the controversial firm whose use of unethical data mining tactics during elections have been exposed by the international media.)

Shown through the lens of an increasingly horrific pandemic, such election rigging is all the more grotesque. But it will soon be swept aside as another story of power grabbing, political manoeuvring over human life and bullshit grandstanding over the public good will utterly mar the last two months of the descent into the Age of the Coronavirus. An entire state just got thrown into an accelerated timeline of potentially being a horrific hotspot for the virus; the fates of potentially thousands of lives now sealed, there will be a push to promote a political agenda.

Donald Trump didn’t just learn from the example of Kenyan election farces; he studied and plagiarised them.

The political leadership of East Africa could truly stand in awe at the utter Machiavellian dumbness of this narcissistic manoeuvre – as it is truly a Stalinesque effort. The problem inherent right now in the world’s “best economy” is that politics has crept into the pandemic; the divisive nature of the discourse is such that it has spiraled downwards over the last five years. The election debacle in Wisconsin perfectly encapsulates the state of things right now in the US. In the year of a presidential election, pandemic tumult and constant political punching dominate.

All things are on equal footing, all things are intertwined, as Trump has made them to be. And as anyone with eyes or outside the administration can tell, it is going terribly. By the third week of May, the US had more than 1.5 million COVID-19 cases; of these, nearly 94,000 had died from the disease. Because the country is woefully inept at testing, more than a dozen states seem to be on the upward curve.

Where to start?

Even attempting to encapsulate the last several weeks in a sprawling critique seems to point in a million directions, so let’s focus and dissect three key aspects of the response to coronavirus in the US more in depth:

The Trump administration playing dumb while being dumber

First, Trump and his cohort have seemingly deliberately made a once distant threat of disease exponentially worse through denial, deceit, malice and twists so moronic they mystify the mind. (You can’t expect a climate denier to have the brains to handle a scientific crisis). Trump’s positions, like a fish left on the counter, grow in their stench as the days continue bloodily onward. His latest in a long string of travesties find him stumbling into the idea of injecting disinfectant into the human body to “clean it” of the virus. This latest gaffe, at least, was rooted more in idiocy than in cruelty, and was almost a welcome change towards comic relief after previous actions he’s undertaken. Even so, despite what he and the American far right-wing culture say, the fact is that the White House is listened to by the public, and so poison control cases went up across several US states after Trump made this ridiculous claim.

Trump and his cohort have seemingly deliberately made a once distant threat of disease exponentially worse through denial, deceit, malice and twists so moronic they mystify the mind.

The most important aspect to emphasise here is the outright denial that carried over for approximately six weeks (and, according to some reports that leaked memos to the White House regarding the COVID-19 threat, possibly even longer). Trump’s denial of the crisis was astounding, and to be frank, is still ongoing. Often, even in the days leading into May of 2020, the stance of the White House has been to express how things are improving, although they are clearly markedly getting worse for all to see. The optics hit the American public in the same vein as the Westgate mall terror attack crisis hit Kenya’s. (The fires in the mall couldn’t possibly be merely burning mattresses.)

Trump’s reaction to the crisis helped spur what must be statistically the worst outbreak globally. As far as optics are concerned, his reaction can only be put alongside Bolsanaro’s in Brazil and the Iranian regime’s in terms of terminal dumbness, obtuse means-spiritedness and ineptitude. It is a denial of a natural disaster that I haven’t seen at a leadership level since perhaps the 2011 drought ravaging northern Kenya; while the Kibaki administration and Kenya’s Parliament seemed largely to sit and twiddle their thumbs, occasionally making a statement expressing their condolences, they promptly went back to bitching at one another.

On a daily basis, Trump lumbers out (despite constant efforts by Republican lawmakers to stop him), shouts mixed messages to a confused press corps, then screams at them for asking what he’s talking about. The paranoia has reached levels of Daniel arap Moi in the 1980s; there are enemies within all corners, closing in, making the virus worse just to hurt him, the mounting deaths swept aside in importance so that the name of his brand not be tarnished by “haters”.

Such a tone is a tonic for no one, least of all medical staff, who, despite all outward claims made by the administration, are in dire need of absolutely everything, with no end in sight. Random people are scrambling to adjust – there are weird stories of desperation and plugging in holes wherever the government fell abysmally flat. People sew masks and stockpile if they can afford to. There is mounting concern that the hospitals are so overwhelmed that people with other conditions are going ignored or skipping vital visits.

It is simply proving to be more than anyone bargained for, even for those who officially became doctors and nurses by taking the Hippocratic Oath. As an old friend, a resident nurse at a prominent Michigan hospital, told me in early March, “We’re going to lose many doctors, nurses…people we already have a national shortage of. There are already conversations amongst healthcare providers, nurses, staff about what’s worth the risk. None of us signed up to work in unprotected conditions. It is like walking onto a battlefield without anything, anything at all needed for the specific fight.”

In the US, nurses, doctors and emergency medical technicians talk openly about going on strike, citing lack of protection – a move almost reminiscent of the series of strikes undertaken by medical workers in Kenya over employment conditions across the last several years. Even now, after months of the obvious from a multitude of voices, the Trump administration comes out and yells about its successes in the very areas that are the depths of its failure.

Think about this: over the last several weeks, Trump has ignored the virus, then fought to reopen the economy; he has blamed Democrats, yelled at the media on a daily basis, and called the virus a conspiracy to get him out of office; he has supported rebellion in several US states, encouraged primary elections to go forward and given his son-in-law (who has been cited by multiple researchers as an utter failure) a more prominent role in the COVID-19 response than any scientific expert.

All this while the high-ranking members of his party and surrounding hangers-on float ideas, such as the federal US government not owing states supplies (although states make up the US) and for states themselves to go bankrupt.

It has, for all intents and purposes, been a showing so abysmal and wrong-headed at every conceivable level that there is already talk that the last two months may have permanently crippled the GOP and will push them out of political relevance permanently as the US becomes a more diverse and younger country moving into the middle decades of the 21st century.

Trump and his administration, in their desperate flailing about in the dark for someone to blame, have made this crisis entirely about themselves and their own inherent “victimisation” – a strategy which, as deaths mount steadily and the economy finds new cliffs to dive from, looks increasingly foolhardy.

It is now growing harder to see how the current administration will get its collective act together (even though it urgently needs to do so) as the virus continues to pound the US in the coming months.

Clear cracks in the US system

Over the years, many friends have told me that they have wanted to go to the United States – to study, to work, to whatever. Universally, I’ve told them all to look elsewhere. All the flaws in the American Death Star have been highlighted by the Trump administration, including inherent societal problems, susceptibility to totalitarian blowhards, racial inequity, horrific economic disparity, capitalism’s exploitative nature, and the fundamental flaws in the US system of governance itself.

Trump and his administration, in their desperate flailing about in the dark for someone to blame, have made this crisis entirely about themselves and their own inherent “victimisation” – a strategy which, as deaths mount steadily and the economy finds new cliffs to dive from, looks increasingly foolhardy.

The last several weeks have proven the “far left types” (myself included) correct – although few of us could have imagined such a rapid descent. America, “the most powerful nation on Earth”, is inherently unequal, terminally flawed and fetishises money to a disgusting level. There are rampant stories of businesses closing, predatory loans, and debt claims coming out of life-saving stimulus money.

The very governmental system has shown itself to be labyrinthine, a truth only accelerated by capitalism, Trumpism and, let’s face it, the modern Republican Party.

Take medical care, where is an ugly Catch-22 at play. People are broke, and the American medical system is the most expensive in the world. People need healthcare and tests, but the fear of the cost often outweighs the fear of a deadly virus. The one thing that could correct the economy (testing) is avoided because of the state of the economy (both before the crisis and into it).

States compete against each other to get supplies while the government sells off its supplies to companies in order for the companies to sell them back to the government for distribution to the states. All this is happening while the government is questioning whether the states really need the supplies, and possibly favouring some states that favour Trump and his cronies politically. It is the kind of nightmarish inaction that would even make Kafka stir in his grave.

The medical system itself has been brought to its knees. Walking around a few weeks ago, I saw two ambulance crews going into houses, all wearing masks, every one of them looking well beyond their breaking points.

All this is happening while the government is questioning whether the states really need the supplies, and possibly favouring some states that favour Trump and his cronies politically. It is the kind of nightmarish inaction that would even make Kafka stir in his grave.

This, in a well-to-do city with several prominent functioning hospitals run by competent individuals. This is not the case in all US states and cities, but the most glaringly obtuse responses are coming from Republican-held legislatures.

An inherent problem in the US is that smaller states skew Republican votes, hold equal power in the Senate, and elect increasingly bigger idiots and inept climate sceptics while carving up districts to benefit their own hold on power. This has proven true in South Dakota, where the Republican Governor, resistant to social distancing, has seen an outbreak of more than 500 cases in a single pork processing plant.

It has also rung true in Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis, himself a loyal Trumpian, resisted calls within his state to close down because the state with the high geriatric population could be hit catastrophically. Instead he waited for Trump’s go ahead, even as White House press conferences repeatedly turned into unbalanced, unhinged name-calling sessions while Trump himself denied the true impact of the virus and prematurely called for the economy to reopen. DeSantis has since given a “stay-at-home” order and ordered that World Wrestling Entertainment be continued as an essential service, alongside grocery stores, banks, hospitals, and the fire department.

It inherently means that while some states (such as California, Ohio and Washington) reacted with preemptive speed and some (like Maryland, New York and New Jersey) have risen to the challenge admirably after it began to spiral, other states may keep up the perpetual game of whack-a-mole indefinitely through their own failings.

In many of these states, particularly those with large black communities (New York, New Jersey, Michigan), the disparities have grown even more stark. It is a discrepancy in standards that can almost be compared to the lack of resources afforded to Western Kenya; there are some areas of focus, but if you’re not of a certain set, a constant less will be your systemic truth.

This has become all the more clear in the American situation. Ugly reports have seeped out about black and minority individuals being less likely to receive coronavirus testing, care or access to the same medical treatment as whites. In turn, this has led to minority and lower class communities being slammed by this virus disproportionately, sometimes at shocking rates. In hardest hit New York City, some reports show people of colour dying at double the rate of white people.

It has also shown the true insidious nature of the political divide under the Trump administration. From powerful corners on the right, there have been ideas floated to defund Democratic states for reasons that are still unclear beyond the spectrum of unbelievable political pettiness. Take Trump’s Twitter gem on April 27th: “Why should the people and taxpayers of America be bailing out poorly run states (like Illinois, as example) and cities, in all cases Democrat run and managed, when most of the other states are not looking for bailout help? I am open to discussing anything, but just asking?” The irony that states like Illinois are also American is an irony that may or may not be lost upon the Republican Party.

Economically, the capital of capitalism has shown its true colours; and they break badly along generational lines. People post long screeds about suddenly being thrown out of work, with the government arguing bitterly about any support for citizens while simultaneously sending trillions to large corporations.

There seems to be something tectonic happening, although it is yet to be seen if it will prove to be beneficial or harmful to the public good after the scourge of COVID finally recedes.

Trump sinks the world

The final key takeaway: that in this globalised world, Trumpism in the Age of Coronavirus may be gasoline poured onto the fire of a worldwide catastrophe in bizarre ways that are only beginning to be spelled out now, but which could have dire ramifications globally, including in East Africa.

The virus has already shifted from the West down and into the Southern hemisphere, with the level of consequence yet to be seen. While some credit must be given to the swift action taken in many African countries (such as closing borders and reinstating Ebola protocols), the reaction of some governments has taken on a definitively Western tint: doing what works for them while simultaneously ignoring the economic realities in their own backyards.

Economically, the capital of capitalism has shown its true colours; and they break badly along generational lines. People post long screeds about suddenly being thrown out of work, with the government arguing bitterly about any support for citizens while simultaneously sending trillions to large corporations.

China, of course, has borne the brunt of the blame, and perhaps in the long term, ensured the nation’s dominance over global influence (especially in sub-Saharan Africa, a focus of Beijing).

Given this, the failings of countries such as the US should be looked at as a warning. Where society fails to protect, advantage shall be taken, and swiftly. Just this month, the US cut off funding to the World Health Organization (WHO), a UN body where US contributions constitute approximately 20 per cent of the budget. Make no mistake about Trump and his ilk – he abandoned us Americans, and, as his recent cut in funding to WHO showed, he won’t think twice about abandoning the rest of the world too. There will be no gestures of international goodwill coming from the Trump administration, something that is leading to feelings of unease within spheres of the diplomatic community. It can be seen already, with valuable protective equipment being intercepted from going abroad; those ugly protectionist and isolationist instincts are taking over.

This move just proves that the ugliness of Trumpism is, unfortunately, not localised within US borders; there is no quarantining this administration. Such isolationism and xenophobia will get downright dangerous when (for instance) a global pandemic, a historic economic crisis and a once-in-a-century locust swarm hits the East African region simultaneously with full force in the coming months.

On top of this, the Trump administration’s policies have helped to undercut the already stretched-thin medical systems of the developing world. In Kenya, for instance, a major pillar of funding for blood donations and subsequent transfusions has already been cut. It is unlikely to be restored under a Republican White House.

In times of crisis, the failings of this White House will become starker. In the years to come, it may come to light that the mishandling of this crisis by the Trump administration accelerated the economic and health ramifications of COVID-19 and spiraled the global system further on its downward trajectory. If the West has been brought to its knees, the United States seems hell-bent on sinking itself lower, swamping the world as well.

Once the US industrial machine finds footing and produces the needed testing, masks, ventilators and medication (it will, despite the Trump administration, not because of it), the White House will surely rapidly pivot to “these must be kept to protect us”, the same shortsighted dumbness that will both kill people by the tens of thousands in the developing world, and serve to perpetuate the virus once it circulates around the global channels again, inevitably circling back into America, which, when led by such an inept head of the federal government, will be “totally unaware, because it is your fault anyway” and the cycle will continue until a vaccine is developed or Trump is finally cast out of the White House.

The latter option, while knocking on every piece of wood within reach, is becoming increasingly viable. In that same bastardisation of an election in Wisconsin – the one that was blatantly rigged and dangerous – Jill Karofsky, the Democratic candidate for the Supreme Court, landed an improbable victory, and a massive one. Winning by more than 150,000 votes and a margin of more than 10 per cent (which is much higher due to factors such as voter suppression and the throwing out of ballots) in the swing state of Wisconsin, which narrowly went for Trump in 2016, gives hope that a rational person can get back behind the wheel of the White House as early as January of next year. It may be an early indication that Trumpism has overstayed its welcome in the time of corona, and that a more sensible America may emerge again.

Even so, while there may be some glimmer of better heads coming to the table in the US, this is far from certain. The fear is that the damage to the world from a single man with bad hair may be irreparable.

This is the truest shame of the US side of this initial chapter of coronavirus: that it has truly shown the goodness of the people of the country who as individual citizens and communities have largely reacted admirably, at times even heroically, to meet the challenge head on. Their efforts couldn’t have been wasted on a worse leader. What progress they make locally gets undercut nationally.

Even so, while there may be some glimmer of better heads coming to the table in the US, this is far from certain. The fear is that the damage to the world from a single man with bad hair may be irreparable.

As Trump and his cronies continue to cast blame, ban immigrants and defund international health organisations, there may be a truly long fight ahead. It may become a situation akin to an unruly drunk desperately trying to break everything just to ruin the vibe of a party as he is forced out of the gathering.

If nothing else, this crisis proves that the American model is an utter failure. Anyone who wishes to emulate its foray into neoliberalism will wind up in a similar ruin.

And the ambulances will continue coming.

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Responding to COVID-19: Should Science Alone Determine Policy?

The advantages of governments pursuing policies that are based on scientific evidence cannot be disputed. However, listening to the science does not automatically mean shutting down society and the economy.

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As I was starting to write this article, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, a victim of the coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping the globe, had just left the intensive care unit of a London hospital after fighting for his life. Just a few weeks earlier, he had been gleefully shaking hands at events, including one at a hospital treating coronavirus patients. That may seem, in hindsight, to be incredibly reckless behaviour on his part, which ignored the scientific advice we were all getting about the need for social distancing. Similarly, many may see the sluggish UK response to the threat posed by the virus as flying in the face of science.

However, a Reuters investigation suggests the opposite. In fact, Johnson may have been guilty of too uncritically following the advice of scientists. It suggests that when future historians look back at his handling of the crisis, “the criticism levelled at the prime minister may be that, rather than ignoring the advice of his scientific advisers, he failed to question their assumptions”.

Should we be listening to the doctors? It may seem like a foolish question to ask in the midst of a deadly global pandemic that had infected over 3 million people and killed more than 200,000 by the end of April. In such circumstances, heeding the advice of the medical establishment seems to be the most sensible thing to do.

However, as the disruption of national and global commerce and travel demonstrates, the coronavirus does not just attack individuals; it poses a threat to entire social and economic systems built around mass personal interactions, be they markets or transport systems. And though medics may be adept at safeguarding and even curing our bodies, they are perhaps less so when it comes to societies. As Kenyan economist and outspoken public intellectual, Dr David Ndii, pointed out on Twitter, “Our medical/epidemic experts seem to understand pathogens/disease spread but they don’t seem to understand people/society. And that’s a problem.”

However, this has not stopped governments around the world from rolling out the high priests of science (medical doctors and epidemiology specialists) to lend legitimacy and credibility to the measures they are taking, in some cases reluctantly, to combat the virus. It is, after all, difficult for the ordinary citizen to argue with inevitability as presented by knowledgeable people who have spent their lives drinking from the fountain of wisdom and who now come armed with charts and graphs and statistics predicting a terrifying apocalypse if we do not obey.

Yet the question still should be asked whether it is desirable that science and scientists should be dictating government policy responses. One thing to keep in mind is that despite the appeals to it, science doesn’t actually tell us what to do; rather, scientists attempt to explain the linkages between variables, to predict what might happen if we decided on a particular course of action. As Therese Raphael explains, “The world of scientific modelers looks so neat — pristine sloping lines on two-dimensional axes that tickle our love of pattern recognition and cause-effect. Only, that’s deceptive; it simply masks all the uncertainty.”

Models are simplified representations of reality, and inasmuch as scientists may recommend a particular path, this recommendation is based on their interpretation of what the science is telling them about the options they have looked at, the assumptions they have made, and the variables they have decided to consider. As Dr Mark Nanyingi, an infectious diseases epidemiologist explains, “Models can help in forecasting where and when the diseases are likely to occur and what measures are needed to slow down the spread. This can guide future government policies for better preparedness and response to pandemics.”

One thing to keep in mind is that despite the appeals to it, science doesn’t actually tell us what to do. Rather, scientists attempt to explain the linkages between variables, to predict what might happen if we decided on a particular course of action.

Further, as the saying goes, to a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. So different scientists will bring their various biases to their assessment of problems. While medics may privilege the need to do whatever it takes to arrest the disease, economists, on the other hand, may point out that harming the economy could create worse problems.

Even within the medical fraternity, one might be likely to find people who think that focusing on coronavirus while ignoring other diseases that kill many more people may be a mistake. As Tom Angier of the University of St Andrews points out, “There are significant disagreements between experts even within limited domains of expertise, and these disagreements are often themselves fundamentally political.” He adds that it would be naïve to expect politically neutral results. “The rule of experts would generate not expert rule, but a cacophony of conflicting views and interests.”

Asking whether we should listen to our doctors is not about questioning their capabilities and knowledge; it is about querying the role of science and scientists in democratic governance and decision-making. Few would argue that they have no role. But it is another thing altogether to claim that theirs are the only considerations. For one, when scientists speak, it is not just the science talking; they bring with them their biases, even prejudices, as exemplified by the recent suggestion by two French doctors that a potential coronavirus vaccine should be first tried out on Africans. As Prof W. Henry Lambright notes, “When scientists leave their labs to advocate position they may be behaving much like other interest groups, trying to influence public policy.”

More importantly, technocracy (rule by unelected skilled experts) or its cousin, epistocracy (rule by the knowledgeable) may not be a good idea. As David Runciman explained two years ago in an intriguing article for the Guardian, “Even qualified economists often haven’t a clue what’s best to do. What they know is how to operate a complex system that they have been instrumental in building – so long as it behaves the way it is meant to. Technocrats are the people who understand what’s best for the machine. But keeping the machine running might be the worst thing we could do. Technocrats won’t help with that question.” Substitute medics for economists and you begin to see the conundrum.

Asking whether we should listen to our doctors is not about questioning their capabilities and knowledge; it is about querying the role of science and scientists in democratic governance and decision-making.

The British response provides a telling example. In explaining why the UK government did not join the rush to impose a lockdown, Graham Medley of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who chairs a group of scientists advising the government on pandemic responses, told The Atlantic’s Ed Yong: “My problem with many countries’ strategies is that they haven’t thought beyond the next month. The U.K. is different.” The country would not be panicked into taking rash measures, such as closing down schools, “in a way that feels good but isn’t necessarily evidence-based”.

Waiting for the evidence to come in before making a decision may sound like a good plan in the academy, but in the real world, decisions often need to be taken in the absence of full information, and waiting can have catastrophic consequences, as was the case in Italy.

Who decides?

So who should determine what the best course of action is? In a democracy, this function is left to elected public officials who then answer to the electorate. But are politicians any better placed to make wiser decisions? Not necessarily. However, as Runciman argues, the advantage of democracy is assuming that no one has a monopoly on wisdom; it “protects us against getting stuck with truly bad ideas”, even when these are promoted by the most knowledgeable people on the planet.

Democracy is better thought of as system for limiting the harm that governments can do than as a route to generating the best possible decisions. “Rather than thinking of democracy as the least worst form of politics, we could think of it as the best when at its worst.” And such damage limitation is undoubtedly a virtue when poor decisions – such as choosing to wait – could lead to people dying in the streets. As Prof Rupert Read writes regarding the situation in the UK, “Make no mistake, it is government policy that has led to the dire situation we are now in.”

But democracy cannot function in the absence of information and transparency about the basis on which governments are making their decisions. In the case of the UK, Yong pointed out that the models and data that had influenced the government’s initial strategy hadn’t been published, much to the chagrin of many scientists. “If your models are not ready for public scrutiny, they shouldn’t be the basis of public policy,” one scientist told him. The same could be said of other countries, including Kenya, where Dr Nanyingi has decried the government’s reluctance to publish the information on which it is basing its directives. “The disease belongs to the people but data belongs to the government,” he wryly observed.

However, as Runciman argues, the advantage of democracy is assuming that no one has a monopoly on wisdom; it “protects us against getting stuck with truly bad ideas”, even when these are promoted by the most knowledgeable people on the planet.

Obviously, science and the advice of scientists matters. The advantages of governments pursuing policies that are based on evidence and the best and most accurate information available cannot be disputed. And listening to the science does not automatically mean shutting down society and the economy, as countries like Sweden and South Korea may be proving. Requiring politicians to reveal the data underlying their decisions can inoculate against the tendency of politicians to play to the gallery, taking actions that may be popular or make them look decisive but that may have little actual utility. However, it must be emphasised that this is not the same as saying that it is the scientists who should be setting public policy.

In the end, querying the role of science is not really about the competence of modern day medicine-men, but rather the accountability of politicians and public officials. The decisions that need to be taken must consider the scenarios presented by different cadres of scientists, as well as the various uncertainties in their models. They will need to take into account not just consequences but also values and the aspirations of society. They will inevitably involve painful trade-offs and compromises.

In short, these are political, not technical, decisions and will require human beings prepared to make them and to be accountable for them. They are not abstract science.

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