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The Case Against GMOs: Cautionary Tales From Uganda

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The impression being created is that GMOs are about food security and survival, yet experience shows that they are more about the undisclosed interests of foreigners.

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The Case Against GMOs: Cautionary Tales From Uganda
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The official introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Uganda has been delayed yet again as President Yoweri Museveni declines to assent to the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, first passed by Parliament in October 2017. President Museveni sent the Biosafety Act back to Parliament in December 2017, citing a number of concerns he had with it, which he said were “inimical to our future”.

Nearly two years later, he states that Parliament has not addressed those issues to his satisfaction in the reviewed legislation now called the Genetic Engineering Regulatory Act (GERA) passed in August 2019. His second rejection has reopened the GMO debate. The name change signals a new understanding of the paramount need to regulate the technology if its promotion is to serve its purpose and achieve its ends.

In January 2018, the issues were that the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Act should provide for:

  • Preservation of biodiversity in indigenous crops by construction of a gene bank;
  • Clarification of the ownership of patents for GMOs;
  • Identifiability of GMOs by compulsory and regulated labeling;
  • Provisions for isolation of GMOs from indigenous seeds, including protecting the environment from pollen and effluent from GMO farms;
  • Explicit prohibition of the use of biotechnology in human genetic engineering; and
  • Penalties for non-compliance.

Protection of biodiversity

The over-arching question is whether Uganda has a regulatory environment capable of protecting the country’s biodiversity and commercial interests. A good illustration of the importance of sound internal control as a basis for major financial and development decisions is the rehabilitation and development programmes of the 1990s. Before agreeing to replace multiple independent and uncoordinated projects with direct budget support through the Treasury, stakeholders (lenders and grant-makers) insisted on audits of the control (regulatory) environment. When it was found to be weak, steps were taken to strengthen it. Those projects went ahead, the perceived urgency of many overriding due diligence. Looking back at the outcomes of the Universal Primary Education programme, or the District Health Scheme in delivering the National Minimum Healthcare Package, one can only conclude that a lot of resources, including time, were lost by introducing them into a weak environment. Commercial activities with an environmental impact, such as sand mining, have been as damaging as they have because of similar weaknesses in the regulatory environment.

As it is, the statutory National Seed Testing Laboratory (required under Section 11 of the Agricultural Seed and Plant Act, 1994) was unable to prevent the invasion of the armyworm in 2017. It is suspected to have been imported in American produce, yet the Auditor General reported in that year “lack of adequate laboratories for the [post-entry quarantine station] department exposes the whole agricultural sector to risks of inferior crop varieties being imported into the country including failure to control the new invading pests”.

The over-arching question is whether Uganda has a regulatory environment capable of protecting the country’s biodiversity and commercial interests.

Biodiversity is an asset that is vulnerable to commodification. Abandonment of or damage to biodiversity will lead to dependency on GMOs. Dependency on imported seeds that have to be bought every season with a currency that is weaker each year is not a viable solution to hunger.

As with the lake and river beds and wetlands nominally protected by the Constitution, the protection of biodiversity can be waived for a “license fee”. The destruction of many wetlands has been achieved under licence from the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA). Where unlicenced, it has happened under NEMA’s watch. The Wetland Management Department has neither demarcated nor gazetted the wetlands and only 0.3 per cent of the targeted restorations having been implemented. It is unlikely to achieve the target of restoring 12 per cent of those destroyed wetlands by 2020. Yet the same administration is expected to gazette and preserve indigenous plants in a gene bank (distributed across different locations).

In the case of GMOs, an audit trail based on labelling is expected to be maintained so that the origin of specific GMOs can be traced back to the developer/patent-holder, allowing them to be held to account for any undesirable outcomes. It is a beginning, but how capable is the control environment in September 2019?

A key requirement for maintaining an audit trail is labeling; of firms, individuals, seeds, other planting materials and chemicals. Just reviewing our recent performance in the agricultural sector we that find 50 per cent of hybrid maize on the market is fake. The Economic Policy Research Centre says counterfeits are putting livelihoods at risk. This is the environment in which GMO labels are going to be relied on.

Approved seeds must be registered in a national seed catalogue. Inclusion in the seed catalogue is the country’s only protection from seeds deemed undesirable for scientific or commercial reasons. Oversight of the registration function – just like oversight over preserving sovereignty immunity in loan negotiations, and oversight over licencing forests, lakes and rivers for commercial use – is not a function in the public domain. As a result, the regulatory environment depends almost exclusively on post-mortem reports by the Auditor General. Abuses cannot be interrupted as they occur. They can only be reported once the (irreversible) damage is done, as with the wetlands. For example, the Auditor General’s report of 2017 queries the unsystematic manner in which tax-waivers are distributed among investors, often to the detriment of the economy. Without public scrutiny, such abuses continue to be pervasive in every area of enterprise.

To avoid extinction by contamination, or what is called “co-mingling”, isolation measures will need to be devised and enforced; there must be distances between indigenous plants and nearby GMOs that could likely contaminate them. The stipulated distances may constitute the entire area available to the average smallholder farmer, the smallholder possibly being prohibited from growing his indigenous plants in the vicinity of his larger commercial GMO neighbour and thus edged out of the industry. If the commercial neighbour happens to be a foreign investor, it goes without saying who would win that turf war.

Some patented planting material may be tied to certain ancillary products like fertilizers. If failure to adhere to those conditions doesn’t exclude produce from the international market altogether, the price may be affected, meaning that the benefit of the larger harvest will be eroded by lower prices.

In 2017/2018 there was talk of a plant gene bank to preserve indigenous varieties. It is surprising that Parliament is attempting to push the legislation through a second time without educating and assuring the public of the existence of the gene bank. The gene bank, which may comprise of plant beds in situ, in vitro-specimens or cryogenically frozen material preserved in labs, remains elusive although there are claims that it exists. It is unclear whether the gene bank is complete and meets international standards. Whether it was possible in this country to create a plant gene bank in the eighteen months that have elapsed since it was first mooted is doubtful.

Enquiries from a scientist on social media produced the response that there are germplasm collection sites in Uganda in Kawanda and Mbarara as well as in selected farmer fields. One can only hope that Northern and Eastern produce, such as malakwang and moyaa (shea butter), will also be preserved.

A legal regime is proposed to make the patent-holder and importer of GMOs strictly liable for any harm caused by their use, thus putting the onus for their safe use on the patent-holder/importer and protecting farmers from potential negligent or reckless commercial activities. This is another potential internal control weakness – an opportunity for rent-seeking by public officials. As they do with regard to tax-holidays and free land and other incentives, investors may stipulate they will only “help” (investment is seen as aid in Uganda) if they are given indemnity from prosecution, in addition to the usual incentives. (Note that tax-holidays were abolished by the Ministry of Finance in the 1990s but have continued to exist.)

Food security, whose business is it?

Who is responsible for a nation’s food security? “Development partners” (DPs), the international community, philanthropists, World Economic Forum groupies, random anonymous foreigners on Twitter, or the State and its citizens? When food security is being discussed at the World Economic Forum why is Bill Gates there and not independent scientists and maybe smallholder farmers from food-insecure countries? Does it matter that some of those attending are investors in GMOs?

The impression created is that people other than Ugandans have a greater stake in their food security than Ugandans do. From the standpoint of the Ugandan in to whose territory GMOs are about to be introduced, the debate is about food and survival. Attempting to exclude sections of stakeholders on the basis that the industry and scientists know and care more about their well-being than ordinary Ugandans themselves is not a useful approach to promoting the technology. In Uganda, if the GERA becomes law, the official custodian of food security is likely to be the proposed National Genetic Engineering Council under the Office of the President.

Given our lack of effective irrigation (only 1 per cent of potentially irrigable arable land is under irrigation, according to BMAU Briefing Paper, 6/18 May 2018) and the increasing incidence of drought owing to global warming, it is to be expected that the main rationale adopted for the “urgent” need to legalise GMO use is to ensure food security, to end hunger, and to bring prosperity (Note: There were only three serious droughts in the 60 years between 1910 and 1970 but eight between the 40 years between 1970 and 2010.)

Undernourishment rose by an average one percentage point a year between 2006 and 2011 and accelerated to an average two percentage points plus every year from 2011 to 2017, according to the World Bank.. Statistics from the GMO industry show that harvests can be tripled for some crops; pests can be resisted and droughts can be survived by GMO seeds. Coupled with statistics relating to the country’s population growth of 3.3 per cent per year and the 42 million mouths to feed, it is easy to make the case for legalisation as soon as possible. Add the promise that the law will recognise citizens as proprietors of the country’s biodiversity and ensure that they are guaranteed a share in biotechnology developed from it and you have a totally seductive package.

Attempting to exclude sections of stakeholders on the basis that the industry and scientists know and care more about their well-being than ordinary Ugandans themselves is not a useful approach to promoting the technology.

Yet in many ways, food security is the least convincing argument for GMOs, especially when it comes in intemperate interventions by foreigners with undisclosed interests. Logically, if there were genuine concerns about ending hunger, by now development partners would have adopted simpler solutions, such as irrigation and fairer Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) with Europe. Non-tariff trade barriers would have been dismantled. However, that has not happened; Ugandan and other African farmers continue to be unable to meet technical requirements for exports designed to limit their market penetration.

Value-addition to commodities remains a distant dream under the EPAs. Although they are said to be geared to the mutual benefit of the parties and to “contribute, through trade and investment, to sustainable development and poverty reduction” and to transform African, Caribbean and Pacific countries from commodities exporters to exporters of services and goods with added value, trade with Europe follows the colonial pattern and is mainly in unprocessed commodities.

It is only because of the Brexit crisis that the truth about EPAs was officially acknowledged in a debate in the British Parliament aimed at finding post-Brexit markets.

“Apparently, EPA deals had been struck behind closed doors by professional and highly skilled negotiators from the EU, which the best efforts of their African counterparts just could not match. There was little or no input from the Parliaments they were dealing with, and no public debate. Apparently, the conditions imposed in the EPAs were not scrutinised, and there was no analysis of the long-term impact that their restrictions would have on the economies of the countries they were dealing with.” (Chidgey, November 2017)

Logically, if there were genuine concerns about ending hunger, by now development partners would have adopted simpler solutions, such as irrigation and fairer EPAs with Europe.

If that is the current case with EPAs, how much more or less prepared is Uganda to negotiate GMO agreements?

President Museveni’s letter points out that the introduction of GMOs has implications for Uganda’s sovereignty. Yet his own government has ensured loss of sovereignty through bilateral loan treaties for infrastructure development under which the State’s immunity from prosecution by commercial interests was waived and arbitration will take place under lender-country laws by arbitrators appointed by the lender (Auditor General, 2018). In the health sector, all the risks related to the investment in Lubowa Hospital are borne by the government, which provided 100 per cent of the financing and all of the land, and yet the contractor was able to bar a parliamentary committee from carrying out a spot inspection when the project went awry.

EPAs and trade barriers will remain tools at the disposal of both genuine and predatory investors in GMOs. For example, GMO planting material will come with strict usage instructions. Failure – through ignorance or poverty – to employ the approved regimen, such as fertilizers, could reduce or nullify their export value. In that way, farmers could be locked into patented seed and ancillary products.

Furthermore, any liability for harm to humans or damage to the environment could be side-stepped simply by stating that incorrect methods were used. Yet it is clear from the start that very few farmers will be able to implement the isolation requirements, for example. Just going on the experience of the tea industry regeneration scheme (in which only 20 per cent of seedlings were planted in the correct topography) or rice production (which fell by 72 per cent under the scheme), or coffee (which has only a 42% germination rate) – all failing due to lack of effective extension support – it is folly to assume that introducing GMOs is a matter of reading the instructions on the tin (assuming you can understand the language and are able to read 9-point text on a grey background).

Extension support is essential for the successful introduction of any crop, but there is an almost total absence of government agricultural extension services since the early 1990s when they were retrenched. (The military deployed under Operation Wealth Creation is not an effective substitute.) It was expected that the private sector would fill the gap but the Kenyan experience is instructive. Organic farmers in Machakos reported that seed sellers deploy salesmen under the guise of extension workers – hardly impartial advice. In Zambia some years ago, GMO salesmen were suspected to have co-opted public officials, stymying the GM debate in that country.

Furthermore, any liability for harm to humans or damage to the environment could be side-stepped simply by stating that incorrect methods were used. Yet it is clear from the start that very few farmers will be able to implement the isolation requirements, for example.

Still on the domestic front, African governments failed to tackle transaction costs and post-harvest losses which, it is argued, if mitigated, Africa could feed itself. These possibilities were not exhausted before the radical solution of GMOs was proposed.

Glyphosate and other hazardous chemicals

The introduction of GMOs has been accompanied by super weeds – giant weeds resistant to ordinary weed-killers that require more toxic chemicals to control. The GERA will, if the President’s stipulations are followed, also govern (he says prohibit) the use of glyphosate, the ubiquitous herbicide owned by the largest purveyor of GMO seeds and under justified suspicion of causing cancer, and other potentially harmful chemicals until our own scientists have evaluated them. Twenty-nine other jurisdictions in Europe, South America and Asia have banned or intend to ban glyphosate. Germany has just announced a ban by 2022. Unless specifically addressed, it could end up being dumped in Uganda (along with DDT) in an aid package as part of a requirement for use with their GMOs.

Phased-in introduction

It is argued that a case-by-case introduction of GMO plants may be feasible. Nothing could be more legally hazardous. A sound regulatory environment is a prerequisite for the legally safe adoption of GMOs. If, for example, a GMO investor sets up shop in Uganda and later the proposed Genetic Engineering Council develops regulations based on later research curtailing some of the investor’s activities or banning dangerous ones, the Government of Uganda could – would – be liable for the investor’s financial losses under the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) system. Under the ISDS, investors are able to challenge public welfare legislation in countries in which they invest. Regardless of outcomes (which are often unfavourable to the target State) the arbitration procedure is very costly. For the investor it would not be a bad deal; s/he would simply calculate how much s/he expected to profit and be compensated for that without even having done the work.

Unscrupulous investors have taken advantage of this legality in other countries where they invest in controversial areas and simply file a suit once the domestic government eventually curtails their activities by law.

Ugandan scientists’ freedom to operate

But there are other interests, such as domestic scientists who desire and need freedom to operate. In his letter to Parliament, President Museveni highlights the need for domestic research. Domestic developers also have a GMO product. It is unfortunate that some Ugandan scientists receive warnings about GMOs as indictments of their ability to deliver domestically developed GMOs. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is appreciated that it would be a massive career opportunity to be able to roll out products that may have been under development for years. It is an opportunity for Uganda to invest in scientific research.

It is argued that a case-by-case introduction of GMO plants may be feasible. Nothing could be more legally hazardous. A sound regulatory environment is a prerequisite for the legally safe adoption of GMOs.

If GMO solutions implemented were home-grown and the fruits of Uganda-funded research, there might be less suspicion and resistance. If the GERA provided any certainty that Ugandan GMOs would be protected and put into use ahead of imports (in the same way that the USA and Europe protect their own industries), the discussion would be different. It will be necessary to fight for the rights of domestic scientists and to ensure their research is actually theirs and not commissioned by the GMO lobby.

Foreign players are the most vocal and aggressive in this matter because they stand to gain the most by dominating the market. They can also afford to pay for propaganda and, let’s face it, bribes. A GMO film, Food Evolution, commissioned by the Institute for Food Technologists, was shot partly in Uganda. Food industry scientist Marion Nestle appeared in it for 10 seconds saying there was no evidence of harm in eating GMO produce. In her review of the film titled “Food Politics”, she states she has tried to have the clip deleted because, according to her, her comments were edited out of context. She refers to an article in the New York Times in which it is claimed leaked email evidence shows the GMO lobby pays researchers to front for it. Not surprising.

To quote Nestlé, “Food Evolution focuses exclusively on the safety of GMOs; it dismisses environmental issues out of hand. It extols the benefits of the virus-resistant Hawaiian papaya and African banana but says next to nothing about corn and soybean monoculture and the resulting weed resistance, and it denies the increase in use of toxic herbicides now needed to deal with resistant weeds. It says nothing about how this industry spends fortunes on lobbying and infighting labeling transparency.” (Labelling transparency is one of the conditions Museveni has laid down for his assent to the Act.)

Nestlé adds that GMO lobbyists promote the view that anyone less than enthusiastic about them is “anti-science, ignorant, and stupid”.

 

Written and published with the support of the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) (www.routetofood.org). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan essayist, graduated in Law from King's College, London, and attained an Msc in Intelligent Management Systems from the Southbank. Her work in civil service reform in East Africa lead to an interest in the nature of public service in Africa and the political influences under which it is delivered.

Politics

No War, No Peace: Life and Death in Eritrea

Thirty years after Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia, there has hardly been any meaningful development in this small nation in the Horn of Africa. On the contrary, the government’s authoritarian policies have undermined democracy and forced young people to flee the country.

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No War, No Peace: Life and Death in Eritrea
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Eritrea was an Italian colony from 1890 to 1941. Following the defeat of Italian forces by the Allied Forces during World War Two, Britain occupied Eritrea until its federation to Ethiopia in 1952. However, by 1962 Emperor Haile Selassie had annexed Eritrea, declaring that it was part of Ethiopia, and in this way ending the federation.

In 1961, a year before the annexation, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) started an armed struggle for independence from Ethiopia. The armed struggle continued for 30 years against successive Ethiopian regimes until 1991, when the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), who had replaced the ELF, defeated the Ethiopian forces in Eritrea. Eritrea became formally independent following a United Nations-supervised referendum in 1993.

From the beginning, the EPLF (now the People’s Front of Democracy and Justice – PFDJ)’s strategy for achieving liberation and national unity was for it to dominate all social, political, and economic spaces. The PFDJ implemented a highly centralised and opaque two-track system of administration: an unseen, powerful inner circle of elites; and public structures that projected an image of egalitarian self-sufficiency. This centralised and opaque model of governance continues today.

Since liberation, PFDJ has banned all opposition parties and treats all non-mass-movement organisations (i.e. independent civil society) with suspicion; hence there are no independent national civil society organisations in the country. Without any consultation, the PFDJ has nationalised all land; it has established a unitary form of government, and it has changed the administrative boundaries within the country. Despite these totalitarian tendencies, in 1994, the PFDJ, as the Provisional Government of Eritrea, set up the Constitutional Assembly to draft the Constitution. The task was completed in 1997. But the Constitution remains unimplemented.

Border dispute

In 1998, hostilities and war between Eritrea and Ethiopia resumed over border demarcation issues, particularly in the town of Bademe. By December 2000, the two countries signed the Algiers Peace Agreement and established the Eritrea Ethiopia Border Commission (EEBC) to determine the limits of their shared border.

The EEBC delivered its border decision on 13th April 2002, placing the town of Bademe, the flashpoint of the border conflict, on the Eritrean side. The Ethiopian government contested the allocation of Bademe to Eritrea. Therefore, a situation of “no war, no peace” ensued between the two countries as President Isaias Afewerki refused any dialogue on the issue because the parties had agreed that the decision of the EEBC was final and binding.

President Isaias Afwerki, who is also the chair of the PFDJ, took advantage of the strained relationship with Ethiopia to:

  1. indefinitely postpone the implementation of the 1997 Constitution as well as the general elections;
  2. arrest and disappear dissenters, especially University of Asmara students and the members of the government known as G15 who promoted a democratisation process (2001);
  3. close the independent media and arrest journalists (2001);
  4. abolish the Eritrean National Assembly (i.e. the Eritrean Parliament) (2002);
  5. maintain a high level of militarisation of the country.

To maintain a high level of militarisation, the government vertically integrated the National Service to the National Development Programme (i.e. the Warsay Yikaalo National Development Programme) and to Education. This integration allows the Eritrean government to move students into the National Service and the National Development Programme from high schools (i.e. Grade 12) and indefinitely extends the period of service of the conscripts, hence taking full control over the working population.

In 1998, hostilities and war between Eritrea and Ethiopia resumed over border demarcation issues, particularly in the town of Bademe. By December 2000, the two countries signed the Algiers Peace Agreement and established the Eritrea Ethiopia Border Commission (EEBC) to determine the limits of their shared border.

Through the integration of the National Service into the Warsay Yikaalo National Development Programme and Education, the government has limited the citizenship rights of conscripts who while in service cannot: legally obtain a mobile phone or SIM card; get or renew a business licence; access land; and access travel documents and exit visas. Deserters or objectors are denied any rights and cannot access state services. Thus, the official Eritrean concept of citizenship is intrinsically linked to conscription and the fulfilment of National Service duties.

The National Service is a combination of military training and civil service, working for little pay in non-military activities such as agriculture, the construction of roads, houses and buildings and mining. The Warsay National Development Programme relies on the deployment of te National Service (Warsay) and defence personnel (Yikaalo) as a labour force. The programme operates under the umbrella of the Ministry of Defence.

Since 2003, the government has closed the University of Asmara (the only university in the country). It has also required that all Eritrean students complete Grade 12 at the Sawa military training camp. Students who have not completed their final year of secondary school at Sawa and have not sat for the National School Certificat, cannot access college education. The PFDJ has replaced Asmara University with regional colleges, which are administered jointly by an academic director and a military director.

National Service conscripts work for an indefinite period on development projects, the administration of ministries and local authorities, as well as in PFDJ-owned businesses. Such work is carried out for very little pay and in conditions that a UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea described as “forced labour”.

The Eritrean authorities’ control over the people includes the restriction of movement both internally and externally. Therefore, all Eritreans aged five and above cannot leave the country without an exit visa. The government will not issue an exit visa to any Eritrean above the age of five, irrespective of their situation (i.e. family reunification, health, etc.)

The government’s control over the Eritrean people is a political, social and economic process of deprivation and human rights violations for which it refuses to take any responsibility. It is systematically impoverishing the population. Therefore, Eritrean youth face having to choose between the life of slave labour or exile. They describe their situation as slavery: “[The] situation in Eritrea and long time ago with slaves is the same. We build the houses of the elites without money. We work on farms of government officials for no money. If you are educated, they deploy you to anywhere…for a short time, you can tolerate it…but this is for life.”

Faced with accusations of human rights violations, the government reverts to “threat” mode. It labels any reference to human rights violations as “lies” and “ploys” of its enemies to undermine the state. The PFDJ Head of Political Affairs, Mr Yemane Gebreab, dismissed the findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human rights by saying: “….[it is] really laughable……There is no basis to the claims of the Commission of Inquiry…”

The Eritrean authorities’ control over the people includes the restriction of movement both internally and externally. Therefore, all Eritreans aged five and above cannot leave the country without an exit visa.

In addition to taking control over the working population, the government also took control of the economic sectors, including finance, import and export, transport and construction. It has achieved control over the economic sphere through a process of unfair competition with private business, facilitated by the fact that it does not pay taxes and does not comply with labour, environmental, and other regulatory requirements. Also, as the regime has control over the working population, it has unlimited access to a large pool of free labour, effecting a net transfer of the workforce away from the private sector. This policy of moving human resources to labour sites identified and controlled by the government has crippled the private sector, especially the agricultural industry, which still relies to a large extent on subsistence farming.

The government’s control and domination of the economy have not increased economic activity or productivity. The economy is stagnating, further weakening the private sector and restricting economic opportunities for Eritreans.

Notwithstanding PFDJ’s rhetoric, Eritrean youth experience the state as an albatross around their necks. They understand the state in terms of spy networks; as a human rights violator curtailing civil, political, and economic rights and as the as the source of torture and deprivation. They see it as the source of all restrictions and deprivations. This is the reason why they flee the country.

Peace Agreement with Ethiopia and its aftermath

In April 2018, the Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy announced the acceptance of the EEBC decision, in particular the allocation of the flashpoint town of Bademe to Eritrea. In this way, he started a process that led to the signing of the Ethiopia Eritrea Peace Agreement in July 2018, thus ending two decades of “no war, no peace”. The land borders opened to much jubilation in 2018. However, by April 2019, the Eritrean government had closed them all. So far, the only achievements of the Peace Agreement are the reopening of embassies and telecommunication lines and the resumption of flights.

The signing of the Peace Agreement immediately raised expectations that there would be a normalisation of relations between the two states. It also raised expectations regarding reforms within Eritrea that would lead to a reduction in the number of Eritrean youth fleeing the country. Soon after the signing of the Peace Agreement, the Eritrean Catholic priest Aba Teklemichael pointed to the sweeping reforms implemented by Prime Minister Abiy in Ethiopia, and urged the Eritrean government to also undertake necessary reforms in Eritrea and to democratise the government. By Easter 2019, the Eritrean Catholic bishops were also calling for a constitutional government and the rule of law. They also encouraged the government to release political prisoners and start a process of reconciliation within the country. However, to date there have been no reforms in the country, a state of affairs confirmed by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Eritrea who at the start of this year reported that she had: “ ……no tangible evidence of a meaningful and substantive improvement in the situation of human rights in Eritrea”.

The signing of the Peace Agreement immediately raised expectations that there would be a normalisation of relations between the two states. It also raised expectations regarding reforms within Eritrea that would lead to a reduction in the number of Eritrean youth fleeing the country.

The ongoing peace process is not transparent; it has mostly remained an elite political level agreement unable to deliver on the economic front or to resolve the issue of Bademe as both Prime Minister Abiy and President Isaias Afewerki have marginalised the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) for political motives. The Eritrean government has increasingly identified the Tigray State and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) as an existential threat to Eritrea, thus justifying the maintenance of a high level of militarisation. Consequently, Eritrean youth continue to flee the country. In 2018, UNHCR ranked Eritrea as the ninth-largest refugee-sending state in the world.

Ailing health sector

The totalitarian agenda of the Eritrean government did not spare the health sector either. The task of reconstructing the Eritrean health system after the liberation struggle and following the 1998-2000 Eritrea-Ethiopia border war was monumental. It was an undertaking that the late and former Minister of Health Saleh Meki undertook with passion, commitment, and zest from 1997 to 2009 when Ms Amina Nurhussein replaced him.

In his efforts rebuild the Eritrean health system, Saleh Meki sought to establish strategic partnerships with critical international health institutions, private practitioners, faith-based organisations, such as the Catholic Church, as well as professional members of the Eritrean diaspora. The former Minister of Health carried on with his efforts despite the enormous pressure to conform to the dictates of President Isaias Afwerki, and the concerns generated by the closure of international non-governmental organisations, as well as the restriction of movement imposed on all organisations working in the country. Against all the odds, he re-established the medical school known as the Orotta Medical School.

Saleh Meki died on 2nd October 2009. Soon after his death, all the medical missions of international organisations that he had worked so hard to bring to Eritrea ended. By 2011 the Eritrean Government forced the closure of all private medical clinics. And, by 2018 a total of 29 Catholic health facilities providing maternal and child health support and serving some of the more remote communities in the country were closed. The seizure and closure, of the Catholic health facilities was carried out in complete disregard to the health and safety of the patients, most of whom were left to fend for themselves.

There was no clear justification for the closure of the private health facilities. However, the closure of the Catholic health facilities was justified as an enforcement of the 1995 Proclamation to standardise and articulate religions institutions (Proclamation No 73 of 1995). The Proclamation prohibits religious bodies from engaging in social and welfare services. This position is contested by all faith-based organisations, especially since there was no consultation in the development of the law. The Eritrean Catholic bishops’ communication with the government on the seizure and closure of their health facilities point out that the facilities operated by abiding with all the requirements of the Ministry of Health.

Poor COVID-19 response

The closure of health facilities has reduced the number of available beds and the overall capacity of the health system. Hence, Eritrea, with a score of 0.434, was ranked 182nd out of 189 countries by the 2019 Human Development Index. The low Human Development Index combined with a hospital bed capacity of 7 beds for 10,000 people, and no available data as to the number of health professionals (i.e. doctors and nurses) available per 10,000 people, suggests that the situation might be even more dire. And the poor connectivity of the country (i.e. mobile phones, internet, broadbands) means that the country’s capacity to deal with pandemics such as COVID-19 is low.

The low capacity of the Eritrean health system to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic was also of concern to the diaspora Eritrean Healthcare Professionals Network (EHPN), which urged the Eritrean government to immediately implement the World ealth Orbanization (WHO) and Centre for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines and advisories to contain the pandemic. EHPN expressed concern that the country lacks the necessary prerequisites to implement hygiene measures because: “There is a shortage of water, disinfectants, laboratories that carry out diagnostic tests and medical professionals, including nursing and technical staff. There is also a lack of functioning intensive care units with adequate ventilation equipment needed to properly treat patients. The reality is that many Eritreans will not be able to seek and obtain medical treatment in their homeland or neighbouring countries. In short, the Eritrean health system is not adequately prepared for COVID 19.”

Fears regarding the poor state of the Eritrean health system were further heightened when the Eritrean government refused COVID-19 emergency supplies donated by the Chinese billionaire Jack Ma and his Alibaba Group. Mr Hagos “Kisha” Gebrehiwet, the head of Economic Affairs in the ruling PFDJ, justified the rejection of Jack Ma’s donation by saying that it was unsolicited.

The government’s willingness to reject donations has, however, launched a COVID-19 appeal among citizens. The appeal is remarkable for the lack of information as to how the funds raised will be used. There is no single COVID-19 emergency response bank account designated for the appeal; hence, in the diaspora, funds are collected in different foreign bank accounts set up by Eritrean embassies. Consequently, there is a real danger that the funds will never enter the country and will disappear into the government’s opaque offshore financial system. Also, there is no information as to how the Ministry of Health will use the funds. Reports by Eritrean human rights activists say the appeal is coerced, confirming the lack of transparency and accountability of the fundraising process.

There is also no transparency in the COVID-19 data that the Eritrean government is providing. It reported the first four COVID-positive cases on the 21st and 23rd of March. One patient was an Eritrean national resident in Norway, and the other three positive patients were Eritrean nationals returning from Dubai. Because of these events, by 26th March, the government banned all commercial passenger flights for two weeks. It also closed schools. And, by 1st April, it imposed COVID-19 lockdown measures.

Fears regarding the poor state of the Eritrean health system were further heightened when the Eritrean government refused COVID-19 emergency supplies donated by the Chinese billionaire Jack Ma and his Alibaba Group. Mr Hagos “Kisha” Gebrehiwet, the head of Economic Affairs in the ruling PFDJ, justified the rejection of Jack Ma’s donation by saying that it was unsolicited.

The lockdown measures did not include the closure of the Sawa military training camp or the release of political prisoners. The government has recently released 27 Christian prisoners, who were imprisoned without charge or trial for as long as sixteen years. Their release is conditional on their family lodging their property deeds with the government as a guarantee that the people released will not leave the country.

While maintaining a strict lockdown, the Eritrean government has allowed mass gatherings to celebrate the graduation of the 33rd round of Sawa military training camp graduates as well as the transfer of Grade 12 conscripts to the facility.

From 1st April to 18th April, the Eritrean government reported 39 COVID positive cases, all linked to Eritreans visiting or returning from their travels. Then, for two months, there were no new cases reported. After that, the number of COVID-positive cases increased, and by the 12th of October, Eritrea reported a total of 414 COVID-positive patients and 372 recoveries.

Though the government makes repeated references to quarantine centres, it has not shared a list of the centres, their location or capacity. It is also not reporting the daily number of COVID tests. Nor has it reported any COVID-related deaths or any community transmission of the virus. It continues to attribute all the new COVID cases to Eritreans returning through “irregular land and sea routes” from Ethiopia, Sudan, Djibouti and Yemen. But there is no explanation as to why so many nationals are travelling despite the government’s strict lockdown procedure that prohibits all movement between towns and that restricts te movement of any vehicles, including buses and taxis, which require movement permits. Such permits are not easy to obtain.

Finally, there are only five incidents of Ministry of Information reporting the number of individuals tested or in quarantine:

  1. 3,000 quarantined – 8th May 2020;
  2. 5,270 quarantined – 3rd June 2020;
  3. 7,158 nationals returned through irregular land and sea routes. Not clearly stated but the implication is that they were all quarantined – 14th June 2020;
  4. 18,000 citizens allegedly returned through irregular land and sea routes. This movement occurred in the last four months. Again, not clearly stated but the implication is that they were all quarantined – the 12th October 2020;
  5. 41,100 tests – 12th October 2020.

In a recent report, the Eritrean Ministry of Information asserted that the rate of COVID infection in the country was “a paltry 0.02%”, based on one (1) positive result during 4659 random tests done in Asmara”. The data shared by the government (41,100 tests and 414 COVID-positive cases) suggests that the rate of infection is just 1 per cent.

The COVID lockdown in Eritrea, like in other countries, has brought economic activities to a standstill. The difference between Eritrea and other countries is that the Eritrean economy was already on its knees before the lockdown and the Eritrean government has not made any attempt – beyond extorting donations from its citizens – to alleviate the suffering of the people with economic support packages. Consequently, Eritreans are hungry and desperate and have started to ignore strict lockdowns. They are on the streets selling all kinds of goods. Women are out in the streets, making tea and cooking food for sale. Family and friends describe Asmara, the capital city, as full of mobile tea shops.

In a recent report, the Eritrean Ministry of Information asserted that the rate of COVID infection in the country was “a paltry 0.02%”, based on one (1) positive result during 4659 random tests done in Asmara”. The data shared by the government (41,100 tests and 414 COVID-positive cases) suggests that the rate of infection is just 1 per cent.

The Eritrean Afars have, through the Red Sea Afar Human Rights Organisation (RSAHRO), issued a press statement, describing their situation under lockdown as a: “… siege imposed by the Eritrean regime on the citizens of the region.”. They warn of the danger of hunger in their area. They also describe confiscation of boats, camels and supplies by the military, closed health centres, unprepared quarantine centres, as well as lack of medical supplies. The human rights organisation also accuse General Tekle Manjus of confiscating trucks of emergency food sent from Asmara for distribution among the Afar.

The Afar coastal area is not the only area in danger of hunger. The information from Eritrea is that hunger is very real all over the country. The government media and social media accounts do not report the danger of hunger or any of the difficulties that the people are facing during this COVID-19 emergency. Their postings give the impression that Eritrea is doing just fine.

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The Search for a Puppet Chief Justice

The emotional energy invested in controlling the recruitment of the next Chief Justice could turn out to be a source of great frustration when administrative fiat and bench-fixing do not deliver the anticipated results.

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The Search for a Puppet Chief Justice
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Anxiety over who will replace Chief Justice David Maraga exploded into the public domain on Friday, October 16, 2020, when a member of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) alleged a plot to delay the recruitment process. Macharia Njeru, one of the two representatives of the Law Society of Kenya (LSK) to the JSC, claimed in a public statement that the Chief Justice and a few others were “hellbent on derailing the orderly recruitment of his successor and leaving the institution of the Judiciary in a crisis of leadership”.

LSK immediately dissociated itself from Macharia’s position and asserted that the “state capture of the Judiciary and the Judicial Service Commission would not be executed through its representatives”.

The parliamentary Justice and Legal Affairs Committee had earlier failed to prevail on Justice Maraga to take early terminal leave, and subsequently published a proposal to change the law on when to begin recruitment of a new Chief Justice. The Chief Justice will officially retire on January 12, 2021, when he turns 70, but he is expected to take leave on December 15, 2020.

Powerful individuals in the country’s politics cannot wait to see Justice Maraga’s back because of his surprising show of spine. On September 1, 2017, the mild-mannered and soft-spoken jurist led a four-judge majority of the Supreme Court to annul the presidential election in a decision that reverberated across the globe. Last month, Justice Maraga advised the President to dissolve Parliament for failing enact laws to increase representation of women in national elected leadership on the strength of a High Court declaration and six petitions.

Between the two monumental decisions, the Chief Justice has called out the President over judiciary budget cuts, disregard for court orders and verbal attacks on the institution he leads.

Justice Maraga’s name conjures up odium and foreboding in state organs at the executive and legislative levels, expressed through punitive budget cuts in the Judiciary, disregard of courts’ authority, and derisive rhetoric. None of these backhanded actions have brought the politically powerful any satisfaction, hence the abiding desire to find a more user-friendly Chief Justice.

Vacancies in the Judiciary can only be advertised fourteen days after they open up, according to the law, which means that the Chief Justice, who also chairs the JSC, plays no role in recruiting his successor. Previously, individuals in the presidency unsuccessfully sought to influence who becomes Chief Justice since the Constitution of Kenya, on its promulgation in 2010, retired Justice Evan Gicheru in February 2011. At the time, President Mwai Kibaki nominated the Court of Appeal’s Justice Alnashir Visram for Chief Justice without inviting applications or conducting interviews. He was countermanded by the newly-constituted JSC, which then conducted one of the most brutal public interviews for the position before choosing civil society icon and law scholar Willy Mutunga.

Justice Maraga’s name conjures up odium and foreboding in state organs at the executive and legislative levels, expressed through punitive budget cuts in the Judiciary, disregard of courts’ authority, and derisive rhetoric.

Dr Mutunga’s transparent recruitment freed him from the usual baggage that would accompany a political appointment to lead the transformation of the judiciary into an independent, publicly accountable institution [Full disclosure: I was communication advisor in the Office of the Chief Justice from 2011 to 2015]. By the time Dr Mutunga chose to retire a year early in June 2016, he had trebled the number of judges to increase efficiency, built confidence and secured the highest funding ever for the institution. He also ring-fenced decisional independence that would enable courts to act as a check on executive and legislative power.

After the Supreme Court upheld the 2013 presidential election, an internal corruption investigation in the Judiciary sucked the institution into a confrontation with the National Assembly, which petitioned the President to appoint a tribunal to investigate six members of the JSC. A five-judge High Court bench neutered the tribunal before it could sit and presented the first contest between Dr Mutunga and President Uhuru Kenyatta.

President Kenyatta would play possum with a list of 25 judge nominees presented to him by the JSC, first appointing 11 and then keeping the other 14 in abeyance for a year. An amendment to the law to require the JSC to send the President three names from which he could choose the Chief Justice was struck down on account of unconstitutionality.

When Dr Mutunga wanted to retire, the President declined to meet him, and the Speaker of the National Assembly refused to respond to his request to address Parliament. By the time interviews for Dr Mutunga’s replacement began in September 2016, the Executive was disoriented and unable to muscle its substantial vote strength in the JSC for a single candidate.

Although the presidency nominates two non-lawyers as members of the JSC in addition to the Attorney General and a nominee of the Public Service Commission, thus controlling 36 per cent of the vote, the Judiciary has five members – the Chief Justice as chair and one representative each for the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, the High Court and the magistrates – and has 45 per cent voice. The Law Society of Kenya’s two representatives – 18 per cent – provide an important swing vote for the Executive or the Judiciary whenever there is no consensus.

Justice Maraga of the Court of Appeal emerged as the dark horse in the three-month search for the Chief Justice on the strength of his electoral law jurisprudence. Earlier attempts to name Supreme Court judge Jackton Ojwang as acting Chief Justice were abandoned. Justice Ojwang trailed fellow Supreme Court judge Smokin Wanjala, Kenyan-American law professor Makau Mutua, and constitutional law expert Nzamba Kitonga.

When Dr Mutunga wanted to retire, the President declined to meet him, and the Speaker of the National Assembly refused to respond to his request to address Parliament.

The Supreme Court’s annulment of the presidential election in September 2017 produced voluble complaints from President Kenyatta, who threatened unspecified action against the Judiciary. The independence of the Judiciary, represented in the person of the Chief Justice, has clearly rankled President Kenyatta and his supporters. He subsequently began a systematic reorganisation of the Executive’s representatives to the JSC by picking a judiciary insider, Court of Appeal president, Kihara Kariuki, to replace Attorney General Githu Muigai. Even before the terms of public representatives Winnie Guchu and Kipng’etich Bett were midway, he recalled them and replaced them with Prof Olive Mugenda and Felix Koskey. And then he declined to gazette the re-election of Mohammed Warsame as Court of Appeal representative to the JSC. Judge Warsame was finally seated without re-taking oath courtesy of a court decision that obviated the need for his election to be gazetted. He joined the judiciary column led by the Chief Justice, Deputy Chief Justice Philomena Mwilu, who had been elected to represent the Supreme Court, and Justice David Majanja, who represents the High Court.

Fears have been rife that the election of the magistrates’ representative to replace Chief Magistrate Emily Ominde in December and the replacement of LSK woman representative Mercy Deche could provide an opportunity for the Executive to support pliant candidates, in addition to Macharia Njeru.

It is likely that urgent attempts to start the Chief Justice’s recruitment could exclude the two representatives of the magistrates and the LSK, thus denying the panel two critical voices. Voting strength in the JSC could also be significantly altered if some of the commissioners apply for the Chief Justice’s position. For one, it is not clear if the 62-year-old Deputy Chief Justice Philomena Mwilu, who already represents the Supreme Court in the JSC, will act as chairperson of the commission once Justice Maraga leaves.

Although voting is an important factor in choosing the next Chief Justice, qualification is probably more important. And the public scrutiny candidates are subjected to, complete with court oversight when required, means that a naked attempt to install a puppet would backfire.

Political horse-trading with Parliament is a necessity for nominees to the position of Chief Justice and Deputy Chief Justice to be confirmed during vetting. Often, politicians view the Chief Justice’s position as one of the spoils to be traded during ethno-regional deal-making. So far, the Chief Justice’s position has been occupied by a kaleidoscope of Kenyans – including many ethnic and religious colourations.

The law only provides for the Deputy Chief Justice to act as Chief Justice “[i]n the event of the removal, resignation or death” and only for a period not exceeding six months pending the appointment of a new one. It remains to be seen if legal experts will argue that retirement is not equivalent to removal, resignation or death. Should Justice Mwilu also throw her hat in the ring for the top job, she would not be able to cast a vote as a JSC member.

Another JSC member who has to weigh between voting and chasing the job is 66-year-old Justice Kihara Kariuki, believed to be a front-runner to succeed Chief Justice Evan Gicheru in 2011 but has bided his time, rising to President of the Court of Appeal before accepting to serve as Attorney General. Meanwhile, Justice Mwilu has been embroiled in petitions seeking her removal from office since the Supreme Court annulled the presidential election. Two years ago, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Director of Criminal Investigations launched a highly publicised effort to arrest and charge her with corruption before the High Court discharged her and advised that complaints against her be first have been processed through the JSC. Justice Mwilu has since tied the JSC in legal knots over the involvement of the Attorney General and one other member in hearing the complaint against her, claiming that they have shown bias.

Although the Constitution allows a Chief Justice to serve for a maximum of 10 years, the practice so far has been to choose individuals who are close to the retirement age, with the effect that those chosen preside over only presidential petitions from one election cycle before they reach the retirement age of 70. If appointments continue to be short-term to limit the pain individuals can inflict on the institution, candidates in their mid-60s appear to be chosen to navigate the 2022 election and leave before the 2027 one.

Although voting is an important factor in choosing the next Chief Justice, qualification is probably more important. And the public scrutiny candidates are subjected to, complete with court oversight when required, means that a naked attempt to install a puppet would backfire.

Although the Supreme Court’s Justice Smokin Wanjala gave a good showing at the 2016 interviews and was ranked second, his age – 60 – means that if appointed, he would hold the job for 10 years. Law scholar Makau Mutua, 62, who was ranked third in the 2016 interviews for Chief Justice, could also give the job another try, as would former Attorney General Githu Muigai, who would similarly be hampered by fears of serving out the 10 years in the post.

The Executive’s frustration with the Judiciary has been expressed as blame for the slow pace of corruption cases, where the courts are criticised for not pulling their weight to deliver quick convictions. The most evident sign of frustration has been the President’s refusal to appoint 41 individuals nominated by the JSC as Court of Appeal and High Court judges. The law does not permit the JSC to reconsider its nominees after the names have been submitted to the President, except in the case of death, incapacity or withdrawal of a nominee. Last week, judge designate Harrison Okeche died after a road traffic accident before he could be sworn in because the President has not published the names as expected. It remains to be seen how the JSC responds.

Chief Justices chair the Judicial Service Commission, and preside over the Supreme Court, which decides the presidential election petitions. Besides the very constrained and collegial power in these two sites, the Chief Justice also exercises administrative power in empanelling High Court benches for constitutional references, and posts judges – powers shared with the President of the Court of Appeal and the Presiding Judge of the High Court.

A Chief Justice cannot direct judicial officers – from the lowliest magistrate to the Supreme Court judge – on how to decide a matter. Much of the power she or he wields is moral and symbolic. The emotional energy invested in controlling the recruitment of the next Chief Justice could turn out to be a source of great frustration when administrative fiat and bench-fixing do not deliver the anticipated results for those seeking a puppet Chief Justice.

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African Continent a Milking Cow for Google and Facebook

‘Sandwich’ helps tech giants avoid tax in Africa via the Netherlands and Ireland.

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Algorithmic Colonisation of Africa
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Google’s office at the airport residential area in Accra, Ghana, sits inside a plain white and blue two-storey building that could do with a coat of paint. Google, which made more than US$ 160 billion in global revenue in 2019, of which an estimated US$ eighteen billion in ‘Africa and the Middle East’, pays no tax in Ghana, nor does it do so in most of the countries on the African continent.

Google Street View of the building registered as Google's office in Accra

Google Street View of the building registered as Google’s office in Accra

It is able to escape tax duties because of an old regulation that says that an individual or entity must have a ‘physical presence’ in the country in order to owe tax.  And Google’s Accra office clearly defines itself as ‘not a physical presence.’ When asked, a front desk employee at the building says it is perfectly alright for Google not to display its logo on the door outside. ‘It is our right to choose if we do that or not’. A visitor to the building, who said she was there for a different company, said she had no idea Google was based inside.

Facebook is even less visible. Even though practically all 250 million smartphone owners in Africa use Facebook, it only has an office in South Africa, making that country the only one on the continent where it pays tax.

Brick and mortar

The physical presence rule in African tax laws is ‘remnant of a situation before the digital economy, where a company could only act in a country if it had a “brick and mortar” building’, says an official of the Nigerian Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), who wants to remain anonymous. ‘Many countries did not foresee the digital economy and its ability to generate income without a physical presence. This is why tax laws didn’t cover them’.

Tax administrations globally have initiated changes to allow for the taxing of digital entities since at least 2017. African countries still lag behind, which is why the continent continues to provide lucrative gains for the tech giants. A 2018 PriceWaterhouseCoopers report noted that Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, has seen an average of a thirty percent year-on-year growth in internet advertising in the last five years, and that the same sector in that country is projected, in 2020, to amount to US$ 125 million in the entertainment and media industry alone.

‘Their revenue comes from me’.

William Ansah, Ghana-based CEO of leading West African advertising company Origin 8, pays a significant amount of his budget to online services. He says he is aware that tax on his payments to Facebook and Google escapes his country through what is commonly referred to as ‘transfer pricing’ and feels bad about it. ‘These companies should pay tax here, in Ghana, because their revenue comes from me’, he says, showing us a receipt from Google Ireland for his payments. During this investigation we were also shown an advert receipt from a Nigerian Facebook ad that listed ‘Ireland’ as the destination of the payment.

Like Google, Facebook does not provide country-by-country reports of its revenue from Africa or even from the African continent as a whole, but the tech giant reported general revenue of US$ sixty billion as a whole from ‘Rest of the world’, which is the world minus the USA, Canada, Europe and Asia.

Facebook revenue by user geography

Facebook revenue by user geography

Irish Double

The specific transfer pricing construction Google and other tech giants such as Facebook use to channel income away from tax obligations is called an ‘Irish Double’ or ‘Dutch Sandwich’, since both countries are used in the scheme. In the construction, the income is declared in Ireland, then routed to the Netherlands, then transferred to Bermuda, where Google Ireland is officially located. Bermuda is a country with no corporation tax. According to documents filed at the Dutch Chamber of Commerce in December 2018, Google moved US$ 22,7 billion through a Dutch shell company to Bermuda in 2017.

Moustapha Cisse, Africa team lead at Google AI

Moustapha Cisse, Africa team lead at Google AI

An ongoing court case in Ghana — albeit on a different issue — recently highlighted attempts by Google to justify its tax-avoiding practices in that country. The case against Google Ghana and Google Inc, now called Google LLC in the USA, was started by lawyer George Agyemang Sarpong, who held that both entities were responsible for defamatory material against him that had been posted on the Ghana platform. Responding to the charge, Google Ghana contended in court documents that it was not the ‘owner of the search engine www.google.com.gh’; that it did not ‘operate or control the search engine’ and that ‘its business (was) different from Google Inc’.

Google Ghana is an ‘artificial intelligence research facility’.

Google Ghana describes itself in company papers as an ‘Artificial Intelligence research facility’. It says that its business is to ‘provide sales and operational support for services provided by other legal entities’, a construction whereby these other legal entities — in this case Google Inc — are responsible for any material on the platform. Google Ghana emphasised during the court case that Ghana’s advertising money was also correctly paid to Google Ireland Ltd, because this company is formally a part of Google Inc.

Rowland Kissi, law lecturer at the University of Professional Studies in Accra describes Google’s defence in the Sarpong court case as a ‘clever attempt’ by the business to shirk all ‘future liability of the platform’. Kissi is cautiously optimistic about the outcome, though: while the case is ongoing, the court has already asserted that ‘the distinction regarding who is responsible for material appearing on www.google.com.gh, is not so clear as to absolve the first defendant (Google Ghana) from blame before trial’. According to leading tax lawyer and expert Abdallah Ali-Nakyea, if the ‘government can establish that Google Ghana is an agent of Google Inc, the state could compel it to pay all relevant taxes including income taxes and withholding taxes’.

Cash-strapped countries

Like most countries, especially in Africa, Nigeria and Ghana have become more cash-strapped than usual as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic. While lockdowns enforced by governments to stop the spread of the virus have caused sharp contractions of the economy worldwide, ‘much worse than during the 2008–09 financial crisis’, according to the International Monetary Fund, Africa has experienced unprecedented shrinking, with sectors such as aviation, tourism and hospitality hardest hit. (Ironically, in the same period, tech giants like Google and Facebook have emerged from the pandemic stronger, due to, among others, the new reality that people work from home.)

With much needed tax income still absent, many countries have become even more dependent on charitable handouts. Nigeria recently sent out a tweet to ask international tech personality and philanthropist, Elon Musk, for a donation of ventilators to help weather the COVID 19 pandemic: ‘Dear @elonmusk @Tesla, Federal Government of Nigeria needs support with 100-500 ventilators to assist with #Covid19 cases arising every day in Nigeria’, it said. After Nigerians on Twitter accused the government of historically not investing adequately in public health, pointing at neglect leading to a situation where a government ministry was now begging for help on social media, the tweet was deleted. A government spokesperson later commented that the tweet had been ‘unauthorised’.

Cost to public

The criticism that governments often mismanage their budgets and that much money is lost to corruption regularly features in public debates in many countries in Africa, including Nigeria. However, executive secretary Logan Wort of the African Tax Administration Forum ATAF has argued that this view should not be used to excuse tax avoidance. In a previous interview with ZAM Wort said that ‘African countries must develop their tax base. It is only in this way that we can become independent from handouts and resource exploitation. Then, if a government does not use the tax money in the way it should, it must be held accountable by the taxpayers. A tax paying people is a questioning people’.

‘A tax paying people is a questioning people’

Commenting on this investigation, Alex Ezenagu, Professor of Taxation and Commercial Law at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar, adds that in matters of tax avoidance by ‘popular multinationals such as Facebook and Google, it is important to understand the cost to the public. If (large) businesses don’t pay tax, the burden is shifted to either small businesses or low income earners because the revenue deficit would have to be met one way or another’. For example, a Nigerian revenue gap may cause the government to increase other taxes, Ezenagu says, such as value added tax, which increased from five to seven and a half percent in Nigeria in January. ‘When multinationals don’t pay tax, you are taxed more as a person’.

Nigeria has recently begun to tighten its tax laws, thereby following in the footsteps of Europe, that last year made it more difficult for the digital multinationals to use the ‘Irish Double’ to escape tax in their countries. South Africa, too, in 2019 tailored changes to its tax laws in order to close remaining legal loopholes used by the tech giants. These ‘could raise (tax income) up to US$ 290 million a year’ more from companies like Google and Facebook, a South African finance source said. With US$ 290 million, Ghana’s could fund its flagship free senior high school education; Nigeria could fully fund the annual budget (2016/2017 figures) of Oyo, a state in the south west of the country.

Interior view of the Facebook office in Johannesburg, South Africa

Interior view of the Facebook office in Johannesburg, South Africa

Waiting for the Finance Minister

Nigeria’s new Finance Act, signed into law in January 2020, has expanded provisions to shift the country’s focus from physical presence to ‘significant economic presence’. The new law leaves the question whether a prospective taxpayer has a ‘significant economic presence’ in Nigeria to the determination of the Finance Minister, whose action with regard to the tech giants is awaited.

In Ghana, digital taxation discussions are slowly gaining momentum among policy makers. The Deputy Commissioner of that country’s Large Taxpayer Office, Edward Gyamerah, said in a June 2019 presentation that current rules ‘must be revised to cover the digital economy and deal with companies that don’t have traditional brick-and-mortar office presences’. However, a top government official at Ghana’s Ministry of Finance who was not authorised to speak publicly stated that, ‘from the taxation policy point of view, the government has not paid a lot attention to digital taxation’.

He blamed the ‘complexity of developing robust infrastructure to assess e-commerce activity in the country’ as a major reason for the government’s inaction on this, but hoped that a broad digital tax policy would still be announced in 2020.” Until the authorities get around to this, he said he believed that, ‘Google and Facebook will (continue to) pay close to nothing in Ghana’.

Comment

Google Nigeria did not respond to several requests for interviews; Google Ghana did not respond to a request for comment on this investigation. Neither entities responded to a list of questions, which included queries as to what of their activities in the two countries might be liable for tax, and whether they could publish country by country revenues generated in Africa. When reached by phone, Google Nigeria’s Head of Communications, Taiwo Kola Ogunlade, said that he couldn’t speak on the company’s taxation status. Facebook spokesperson Kezia Anim-Addo said in an email: ‘Facebook pays all taxes required by law in the countries in which we operate (where we have offices), and we will continue to comply with our obligations’.

Note: The figure of eighteen billion US$ as revenue for Google in ‘Africa and the Middle East’ over 2019 was arrived at as follows. Google’s EMEA figures for 2019 indicate US$ 40 billion revenue for ‘Africa, Europe and the Middle East’ all together. According to this German publication, Google’s revenue in Europe was 22 billion in 2019This leaves US$ eighteen billion for Africa and the Middle East.

This article was first published by our partner ZAM Magazine.

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