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Is Democracy Dead or Has It Simply Been Hijacked?

10 min read. The rise of right-wing populist leaders in many countries across the globe suggests that democracy’s days are numbered. However, as PATRICK GATHARA argues, populism is less a cause of democracy’s demise than a consequence of it.

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Is Democracy Dead or Has It Simply Been Hijacked?
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“Anyone can cook,” declares Chef Auguste Gusteau in the 2007 Pixar classic, Ratatouille, one of my favourite animated movies. The film tells the tale of an anthropomorphic French rat with a passion for haute cuisine, who against all odds, makes it from foraging in the garbage to cooking at a high-end restaurant and being declared “nothing less than the finest chef in France”. It is an inspiring story with valuable lessons about bravery, determination and following one’s dreams. Yet it comes with a caveat, as explained by the funereal critic, Anton Ego, at the end of the movie: “Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

Across the world today, democratic societies appear to have taken Gusteau’s maxim but not necessarily with Ego’s qualification. In Kenya, the death of popular Kibra MP, Kenneth Okoth, has occasioned a by-election in which the ruling Jubilee Party has fronted a professional footballer who has spent much of the last decade in Europe and who, until a few weeks ago, had never even registered to vote or expressed any interest in politics.

“The world is going the Wanjiku way,” Mike Sonko, the populist Governor of Nairobi declared recently on the Sunday show, Punchline. “Take the example of the Ukraine. The President of Ukraine is currently is a comedian. They voted for a comedian. Because the Wanjikus were fed up with the leadership of that country. They were fed up with the politicians…Go to Liberia. They elected a footballer to be their president. Madagascar for the second time have elected a DJ, Rajolina, to be their president”.

He is not wrong. From Donald Trump in the United States to Bobi Wine in Uganda, there seems to be a growing dissatisfaction with and distrust of career politicians and the nebulous “establishment”. In Kenya, this manifests in a contest between the so-called “dynasties” (the wealthy families that have dominated the country’s politics for nearly 60 years) and the “hustlers” (the political upstarts who claim to not be a part of the establishment). It is evident in the “handshake” between President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga, sons of Kenya’s first President and Vice President, respectively, and their open feud with Deputy President William Ruto, the self-declared head of the “hustler nation”.

The idea that “anyone can rule” is taken by many to be a cardinal tenet of democracy. At its root is a legitimate rejection of the old idea that the ability to govern was only bestowed on some bloodlines, which today has largely been consigned to history’s trash heap.

Yet this democratisation of governance has created fears of its contamination by the unwashed and uneducated masses. A famous quote from the early twentieth century US journalist, Henry Mencken, encapsulates these fears: “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” The quote is taken from Mencken’s piece originally posted in the Baltimore Evening Sun in July 1920 in which he rails against the candidacies of Republican Warren Harding and his rival, James Cox, for the US presidency, which he saw as proof of the tendency of democratic competition to result in a race to the bottom.

The idea that “anyone can rule” is taken by many to be a cardinal tenet of democracy. At its root is a legitimate rejection of the old idea that the ability to govern was only bestowed on some bloodlines, which today has largely been consigned to history’s trash heap.

“The first and last aim of the politician,” he wrote, “is to get votes, and the safest of all ways to get votes is to appear to the plain man to be a plain man like himself, which is to say, to appear to him to be happily free from any heretical treason to the body of accepted platitudes – to be filled to the brim with the flabby, banal, childish notions that challenge no prejudice and lay no burden of examination upon the mind.”

Arguing that “this fear of ideas is a peculiarly democratic phenomenon,” he goes on to assert that as politicians increasingly pander to electorates, then “the man of vigorous mind and stout convictions is gradually shouldered out of public life” and the field is left to “intellectual jelly-fish and inner tubes” – those without convictions and those willing to hide them.

Populist idiocy

Many recognise the fulfilment of Menckel’s prophecy in Donald Trump’s presidency, though it is notable that it had been applied to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush before him. However, it is clear that Mencken had a low opinion, not just of politicians, but of electorates as well. In fact, in his view, it is the ignorance and stupidity of the masses that, in a democracy, makes morons of politicians. And moronic politicians love ignorant voters as evidenced by Trump’s declaration during the 2016 presidential campaign: “I love the poorly educated.”

Menckel’s view is also echoed by a common maxim spuriously attributed to Winston Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” So, is the slide into populist idiocy the inevitable fate of democracy? Can anyone cook? Or is Ego right that while good governance can come from anywhere, not everyone can be a great leader?

“Democracy is hard,” notes Kenyan academic and author, Nanjala Nyabola. It “requires constant vigilance—something that we now see is difficult to achieve even under the most ideal circumstances.” For most voters, this constant vigilance is a tough ask. In fact, for most, getting to grips with the issues and personalities is not worth the hassle.

As Ilya Somin, Professor of Law at George Mason University, puts it, “If your only reason to follow politics is to be a better voter, that turns out not to be much of a reason at all… there is very little chance that your vote will actually make a difference to the outcome of an election.”

And that’s not all. Even if one were inclined to be immersed in the policy debates and to investigate candidate platforms, the sheer size of modern government and the scale and impact of its activities means that one could not hope to monitor more than a tiny fraction of what the state gets up to.

Since voters are unwilling to get their hands dirty, they take short cuts, which often means relying on someone else to tell them what’s going on in the kitchen. For instance, when asked, during the 2005 and 2010 referendum campaigns on a proposed new constitution, whether they had read the drafts, a section of Kenyan voters were reported to have responded with “Baba amesoma” (Father has read it). Baba is a reference to Raila Odinga, perhaps the best known politician in the country and the voters, many of whom had little knowledge of constitutionalism, were opting to take their cue from him. Others chose to follow the musings of pundits and other self-appointed “experts” or journalists or even comedians. The problem here, as with following politicians, is you do not know whether what you are getting is the truth, the real truth and nothing but the truth.

However, that turns out to be less of a problem than one might at first suppose. Truth (shock, horror!) is not always the reason one follows politics – or politicians. Prof. Somin notes that political supporters tend to behave very much like sports fans – less interested in the merits of arguments or how well the game is played than in whether their side wins. This is perhaps best illustrated by the phenomenon of electorates voting against their own interests. For example, in the US, older voters tend to support the Republican Party, which takes a dim view of government entitlement programmes like Medicare and Social Security that primarily benefit the elderly.

Since voters are unwilling to get their hands dirty, they take short cuts, which often means relying on someone else to tell them what’s going on in the kitchen. For instance, when asked, during the 2005 and 2010 referendum campaigns on a proposed new constitution, whether they had read the drafts, a section of Kenyan voters were reported to have responded with “Baba amesoma”.

Even the few neutrals out there tend to talk only to like-minded others or follow the game through like-minded media. In either case, there is little scope for voters to have their views challenged or their horizons expanded. As the former British Prime Minister put it, “The single hardest thing for a practicing politician to understand is that most people, most of the time, don’t give politics a first thought all day long. Or if they do, it is with a sigh… before going back to worrying about the kids, the parents, the mortgage, the boss, their friends, their weight, their health, sex and rock ‘n’ roll.”

A civic ritual

If voters don’t care about politics, why do they even bother to vote? According to Prof Somin, “The key factor is that voting is a lot cheaper and less time-consuming than studying political issues. For many, it is rational to take the time to vote, but without learning much about the issues at stake.”

Voting has thus become a civic ritual, much like going to a football game and cheering your favourite team. It provides the satisfaction of participation – one can brandish a purple finger as a marker of having fulfilled one’s duty without actually doing the hard work of wrestling with the issues. Voters pick their teams based less on ideas than on arbitrary considerations, such as ethnicity or place of birth.

The media exacerbates this trend in two ways; both in the content of their reporting and in the manner they do so. By far, the mainstream press is the most important avenue through which people access and organise information about what is happening in the world. Despite the growth of the internet, which has enabled many more people to get in on the act, news is still largely what the media says it is, whether it is an earthquake or a war in some far-off place or the latest tweet by Donald Trump.

However, as Prof Cas Mudde of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia writes, the media tends to report the news, rather than analyse and explain it. The addiction to scoops and “breaking news” and the competition to be first even when every outlet will have the story in the next few minutes and though social media means there is less attention paid to “trends behind the day-to-day news”. Further, in order to attract a larger audience and sell more advertising space or more newspapers, the media prioritises what is sensational over what is important and stays away from anything that cannot be reduced into a soundbite or squeezed into a two-minute news segment.

It also propagates and perpetuates false notions of “objectivity”, presenting itself as a reliable neutral observer rather than as an active participant. Yet through its curating and shaping functions, the media wields tremendous influence not only on how events unfold but also on how on they are perceived. Like a chef, the media takes events and fashions out of disparate events, to be served up to audiences in bite-sized chunks on its many channels.

Brought up on this fast news diet, Prof Somin says, voters come to “mistakenly believe that the world is a very simple place [requiring] very little knowledge to make an informed decision about politics”. And this leads to the embrace of simplistic panaceas for complex problems, and to a preference for populist politicians who deny complexity. If the world is so simple, then fixing it requires no specialised knowledge. Anybody can cook.

It is no wonder then that today there is a lot of angst about the state of democracy and fears that the ship of liberal democratic constitutionalism is floundering on the rocks of populism. The emergence of right wing populist governments and movements in countries as far removed as Brazil, Italy and the Philippines, and in Western countries once thought to hold the high ground for liberal democracy, such as the UK (which is steeped in a constitutional crisis over Brexit) and the US (where President Trump is facing an impeachment inquiry) has many thinking that democracy’s days are numbered.

William Galston has called populism an internal challenge to liberal democracy. Populists, he says, weaponise popular ignorance “to drive a wedge between democracy and liberalism”. Liberal norms, institutions and policies, they claim, weaken democracy and harm the people and thus should be set aside.

Brought up on this fast news diet, Prof Somin says, voters come to “mistakenly believe that the world is a very simple place [requiring] very little knowledge to make an informed decision about politics”. And this leads to the embrace of simplistic panaceas for complex problems, and to a preference for populist politicians who deny complexity.

Populism, though, is less a cause of democracy’s demise than it is a consequence of it. Democracy has been crumbling from within for a long time. Galston blames this on immigration which, he says, has not only upset the “tacit compact” between electorates and elites – where the former would defer to the latter as long as they delivered economic growth and prosperity – but has also profoundly challenged existing demographic and cultural norms, leaving many feeling dislocated in their own societies.

However, it is that compact that is at the root of the crisis, transforming as it does the understanding of democracy from a system where people participate in governance to one where they elect others to govern them. Further, the gnashing of teeth over historic decline in voter turnout blinds many to the fact that, like populism, it is also a symptom and not the problem.

As Phil Parvin notes in his paper, Democracy Without Participation, the decline in political engagement and deliberation by ordinary citizens and the eclipse of broad-based citizen associations by professional lobby groups have resulted in a model of democracy where “politics … is something done by other people on behalf of citizens rather than by citizens themselves”.

In Africa, the “wind of change” that toppled many dictatorships in the 1990s and early 2000s did not result in the empowerment of local populations to do anything other than participate in the ritual of periodic elections. Participation in governance in the periods in between elections is actively discouraged. Those who are dissatisfied with government policies are routinely told to shut up and await the opportunity to do something about it at the next election.

This model of democracy as reality show, where elites compete on who gets a turn at the trough (with the media providing a running commentary and the public choosing the winner) is at the root of the malaise. The professionalisation of democratic participation – outsourcing it to politicians and activists – leads to an increasing polarisation and tribalisation, with everyone claiming to be the authentic voice of the silent and silenced population. Alienation, as political debate focuses on the problems of elites rather than those of the people, becomes inevitable.

It is into this void that the populists have stepped, claiming to do away with the edifice of “the establishment” when in fact, they are seeking to entrench elite rule by doing away with even the appearance of popular consultation. This is what they mean when they evoke the idea of a “strong leader” – one who is not bound by the charade of democratic politics and can thus instinctively channel a pure form of the people’s will. But, as the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, says, this is to ignore the lessons of history. Strongmen, as Africans know from bitter experience, tend to reflect, not the aspirations of their people, but their own.

In Africa, the “wind of change” that toppled many dictatorships in the 1990s and early 2000s did not result in the empowerment of local populations to do anything other than participate in the ritual of periodic elections.

The solution may be to do away with elections altogether as a means for selecting decision-makers. In any case, what is required is not less popular participation, but more. We can no longer afford to continue to treat governance as something voters get to participate in once every election cycle, to pretend that democracy is a fire-and-forget proposition. Constant vigilance requires citizens at all levels willing to get their hands dirty, learn about issues, debate openly and engage with representatives – citizens who collectively insist on being heard and who demand accountability from those in power, not simply wait for someone else to do it on their behalf.

Paradoxically, the internet has dramatically lowered the costs of participation and it has never been easier for people to access information, to express opinions, to participate in petitions and to organise outside the parameters set by the elite or by the state. The question for societies with democratic aspirations should be how to make the voices and concerns of ordinary folks, rather than just their votes, count and not be drowned out by the din of elite politics. How do we truly get to the public interested in the ideal of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”?

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Mr. Gathara is a social and political commentator and cartoonist based in Nairobi.

Politics

Kibra: The Face of Kenyan Politics to Come?

4 min read. What does the Kibra by-election portend for the future of Kenya’s politics? Renowned photographer CARL ODERA captures the sights.

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“The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.”― Søren Kierkegaard

Located about 6.6 kilometres from Nairobi city centre, Kibra is a sprawling informal settlement with an estimated population of about 200,000 people. Majority of Kibra residents live in extreme poverty. Unemployment rates are high, persons living with HIV/AIDS are many, and cases of assault and rape common. Clean water is scarce. Diseases caused by this lack of water are common. The majority living in the informal settlement lack access to basic services including electricity, running water, and medical care.

But this photo essay is not about the peddled quintessential cliché narrative depiction of Kibra as Africa’s biggest slum’ – itself a false assertion. Rather, Kibra has historically been Nairobi’s most vibrant political constituency; its residents often at the forefront of agitation for expansion of political space in Kenya; and, the most enthusiastic demonstrators at political meetings where the opposition is pitched against an apparently recalcitrant ruling elite. The Kibra by-election is also the political backyard of Raila Odinga, leader of the Orange Democratic Movement and the most enduring fixture in opposition leadership since the early 1990s. Currently, in an alliance with the President Uhuru Kenyatta, the Kibra by-election was occasioned by the death on the 26th of July 2019 of Ken Okoth, 41, the area’s dynamic, popular and highly effective MP.

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The demise of Ken Okoth left the seat open for a contest directly between Raila Odinga, whose family has dominated the area for decades and the Deputy President William S. Ruto who is determined to entrench himself as the only viable successor to Kenyatta who is currently serving his last constitutionally mandated term. As such the Kibra by-election of November 7 marked the unofficial commencement of the 2022 campaign season in Kenya with Ruto’s aggressive raid into Odinga’s ‘political bedroom’.

Deputy President William Ruto and Jubilee candidate McDonald Mariga in Kibra's DC Grounds on Sunday.

Deputy President William Ruto and Jubilee candidate McDonald Mariga in Kibra’s DC Grounds on Sunday.

ODM leader Raila Odinga with party flag-bearer Bernard Imran Okoth (left) sings the national anthem at a rally on Kiambere Road.

ODM leader Raila Odinga with party flag-bearer Bernard Imran Okoth (left) sings the national anthem at a rally on Kiambere Road.

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The by-election to fill the position left vacant following the death of the area MP, Okoth, attracted 24 candidates, ODM candidate Imran Okoth, Jubilee’s McDonald Mariga and Eliud Owalo of Amani National Congress, were the dominant players.

Endorsed football star McDonald Mariga

Endorsed football star McDonald Mariga

 Rally to drum up support for Imran Okoth, ODM's candidate for Kibra by-election.

Rally to drum up support for Imran Okoth, ODM’s candidate for Kibra by-election.

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Days to the parliamentary by-election there were reports of fracas between warring factions. Rowdy residents, for instance, kicked former Kakamega senator Boni Khawale out of Kibra upon his arrival in Laini Saba ward, claiming it was ODM’s bedroom.

Destruction of property was also reported.

Milly Achieng, a tailor-resident of Kibra told the Elephant that supporters of an opposing candidate recently went and attacked one of her friends and fellow party member and demolished her house. She was forced to flee Kibra with her children.

A family house demolished in a political violence encounter in Kibra.

A family house demolished in a political violence encounter in Kibra.

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The Kibra by-election received wide support from leaders across the political divide. Governors Charity Ngilu, Alfred Mutua, Kivutha Kibwana and Anne Waiguru joined Raila Odinga and the ODM party in drumming up support for its candidate, Imran Okoth. The leaders announced that this by-election was the beginning of a new political movement that would drum up support for the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) and ultimately forge an alliance for the 2022 General Election.

Charity Ngilu campaigning in Kibra to get the vote for ODM candidate Imran Okoth within the Kamba community

Charity Ngilu campaigning in Kibra to get the vote for ODM candidate Imran Okoth within the Kamba community

Governor Waiguru at Joseph Kangethe Grounds in Kibra on Sunday the 3rd of November to drum up support for the ODM candidate

Governor Waiguru at Joseph Kangethe Grounds in Kibra on Sunday the 3rd of November to drum up support for the ODM candidate

Raila Odinga and Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua arriving for a rally organised to woo Kamba voters to rally behind ODM candidate for Kibra constituency.

Raila Odinga and Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua arriving for a rally organised to woo Kamba voters to rally behind ODM candidate for Kibra constituency.

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On November 7, 2019, the polling stations across the constituency were opened by 6 am to a smooth start of voting throughout the day amidst a reportedly low voter turnout. The voting stations were closed immediately after the voting exercise was concluded and voter tallying began thereafter. Residents stood in groups waiting for the results.

A man carries his disabled friend to a polling station in Kibra's Laini Saba.

A man carries his disabled friend to a polling station in Kibra’s Laini Saba.

ODM leader Raila Odinga at Old Kibera Primary school polling station to cast his vote.

ODM leader Raila Odinga at Old Kibera Primary school polling station to cast his vote.

An election official marks an indelible ink stain on Amani Congress Party's candidate Eliud Owalo at Old Kibera.

An election official marks an indelible ink stain on Amani Congress Party’s candidate Eliud Owalo at Old Kibera.

Amani Party Congress party leader Musalia Mudavadi (right) accompanies party candidate Eliud Owalo at Old Kibera Primary school to cast his vote.

Amani Party Congress party leader Musalia Mudavadi (right) accompanies party candidate Eliud Owalo at Old Kibera Primary school to cast his vote.

A man shows his finger marked with phosphorous ink after voting

A man shows his finger marked with phosphorous ink after voting

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As counting of votes for Kibra by-election continued on the night of November the 7, Jubilee candidate McDonald Mariga conceded defeat to Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party aspirant Imran Okoth.

In a Twitter post, Mariga called Okoth and congratulated him for his victory and promised to work together after the elections.

According to the results announced by the Independent Electoral Boundaries Commission (IEBC) on Friday, November 8, Imran Okoth garnered 24,636 votes beating Mariga by over half the total number of counted votes standing at 11,230 votes. ANC’s Eliud Owalo was a distant third, managing to garner a paltry 5,275 votes out of the 41,984 votes cast.

A child in Kibra celebrating Imran Okoth’s victory

A child in Kibra celebrating Imran Okoth’s victory

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Though the Kibra by-election has been deemed a win for Raila Odinga and the handshake and a loss for Ruto and the “tanga tanga” movement, these political battles have yet to translate into tangible benefits for the ordinary mwananchi whom they purport to fight for.

Nancy Akinyi, a resident of Sarang’ombe Ward, Kibra constituency

Nancy Akinyi, a resident of Sarang’ombe Ward, Kibra constituency

Written by Joe Kobuthi

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Politics

The Diplomatic Gaffe That Could Sour Relations Between Kenya and Somalia

10 min read. Have Kenya’s close ties with its “Man in Somalia”, Ahmed Madobe, created a rift between Mogadishu and Nairobi? RASNA WARAH explores the precarious relationship between the two neighbouring countries.

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The Diplomatic Gaffe That Could Sour Relations Between Kenya and Somalia
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On Saturday 12 October 2019, a plane carrying a high-level Kenyan delegation arrived in the Somali port city of Kismaayo for the inauguration of Ahmed Madobe as the president of Jubaland, a Somali federal state that borders Kenya. The delegation included Aden Duale, the Majority Leader in Kenya’s National Assembly, and Member of Parliament Yusuf Hassan Abdi, among others.

The arrival of Duale and his entourage of mainly Kenyan Somalis in Kismaayo broke several diplomatic protocols. The delegation did not make a courtesy call to Somali president Mohammed Abdullahi Farmaajo in Mogadishu before embarking on their journey to Kismaayo, and was, therefore, perceived as snubbing a sitting head of state. The visit reignited fears in Somalia that Kenya is trying to assert its authority in Somalia through puppet regional leaders such as Madobe who do Kenya’s bidding.

The visit also contravened a directive by President Farmaajo that all international flights to Kismaayo should first pass through Mogadishu’s Aden Adde international airport for inspection. By ignoring the directive, Duale and his delegation not only spurned an ally and a neighbour, but deepened fissures between Somalia and Kenya, two countries that already have tense relations due to an ongoing Indian Ocean maritime boundary dispute.

Farah Maalim, the former Deputy Speaker in Kenya’s National Assembly, had warned that the visit could damage Kenya’s diplomatic relations with Somalia and with other countries in the region. He advised Kenya to cut its ties with Madobe in order to foster a healthier and more amicable relationship with the Federal Government of Somalia in Mogadishu and with President Farmaajo. (It should be noted that President Farmaajo did not support Madobe’s election in the Jubaland polls and had backed a candidate from his own Marehan clan for the state presidency.)

Kenya’s Man in Somalia

Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed Islam, better known by his nickname Madobe, is often viewed as “Kenya’s Man in Somalia” because of the critical role he and his Ras Kamboni militia played in helping the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) to push out Al Shabaab from the port city of Kismaayo in September 2012. Yet, despite being viewed as an ally of Kenya in its war against terror, Madobe is a man who has himself been associated with terrorist activities and radical elements that wreaked havoc in Somalia after the fall of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in 2006.

It is common knowledge that Madobe was a high-ranking official of the militant Islamic group Hizbul Islam, which was formed in 2009 by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys – who has been designated as an international terrorist by the United States – before he joined the Kenyan forces. Madobe was the governor of Kismaayo in 2006 during the short and ill-fated rule of the ICU, a militant coalition of clan-based entities, businesspeople and Muslim clerics who sought to bring about a semblance of governance in Somalia, but which was ousted by US-backed Ethiopian forces because it was perceived as an Islamic fundamentalist group that would bring about the “Talibanisation” of Somalia.

Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed Islam, better known by his nickname Madobe, is often viewed as “Kenya’s Man in Somalia” because of the critical role he and his Ras Kamboni militia played in helping the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) to push out Al Shabaab from the port city of Kismaayo in September 2012.

Madobe later joined and then defected from Al Shabaab (formed after the collapse of the ICU), ostensibly after protesting against its brutal methods. He later formed the Ras Kamboni militia to fight his former allies and to regain control over the prized port of Kismaayo, which was under the control of Al Shabaab when his militia and the Kenyan forces entered Somalia. (This could have been his primary motive for collaborating with the Kenyans.)

In his book Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, American journalist Jeremy Scahill says that Madobe’s change of heart vis-à-vis Al Shabaab came about after he spent two years in an Ethiopian prison after he was captured while fleeing Ethiopian and American forces when the ICU fell. He then became “one of the new generation of US-backed warlords drawn from the rubble of the Islamic Courts Union”.

Some observers believe that because he already knew the lay of the land, and had similar objectives as the Kenyan forces – to gain control of Kismaayo, Al Shabaab’s economic base – Madobe was identified (and probably presented himself) as a natural ally of the Kenyans. That he belongs to the Ogaden clan, which has for years sought to control southern Somalia – one of the most heterogenous regions of Somalia that is home to several clans and which is also politically dominant in north-eastern Kenya – could also have worked to his advantage.

In the early part of 2011, prior to joining forces with Madobe’s militia, the Kenyan government had plans to support Mohamed Abdi Mohamed Gandhi, the former Minister of Defence and an Ogaden from the Jubaland region, to administer a potential Jubaland regional authority called “Azania” (also known as the Jubaland Initiative). It is believed that Ethiopia – Kenya’s “big brother” when it comes to regional military matters – opposed the creation of the Azania “buffer zone” between Kenya and Somalia as it was viewed as an Ogaden-dominated Kenyan project. It is likely that, because of its propensity to support warlords in Somalia, the Ethiopian government encouraged Kenya to work with the battle-hardened Madobe, whom they trusted more than the suave and cultured anthropologist Gandhi, who did not command any militia in Jubaland.

In May 2013, less than a year after Kismaayo fell to KDF (then re-hatted as AMISOM) and his militia, Madobe declared himself president of the self-styled state of Jubaland, which was not recognised by the central government in Mogadishu. It is believed that the Federal Government of Somalia had been supporting a rival group headed by Barre Aden Shire, who declared himself president of Jubaland moments after Modobe did.

Despite an Ethiopia-brokered agreement in August of the same year that stipulated that Madobe’s “interim administration” should hand over the port of Kismaayo to the central administration in Mogadishu within six months, there have been no signs of a handover to date. Somalia’s fragile “federalism” project to create semi-autonomous states also seems to be suffering from a lack of clarity or direction. Meanwhile, eleven years after Kenyan boots entered Somalia, there seems to be no stabilisation plan for the region, nor any exit strategy for the Kenyan forces.

Clan politics and fears of secession

Some Somali analysts and conspiracy theorists believe that Kenya does not want to see a strong and stable Somalia because the latter would pose a threat to its own national political and economic interests. They say that Kenya seeks a weak – but friendly – Somalia because Kenya believes that a strong Somali state may revive aspirations for a “Greater Somalia” that would include the ethnic Somali-dominated Ogaden region in Ethiopia and the north-eastern region of Kenya.

The Somali analyst Afyare Abdi Elmi believes that both Kenya and Ethiopia have been manipulating Somalia’s political leadership and could actually be fuelling conflict in Somalia to maintain an upper hand in the country. In his book Understanding the Somalia Conflagration: Identity, Political Islam and Peacebuilding, published in 2010, he writes:

“Ethiopia, and to a lesser extent Kenya, have important stakes in either installing their own proxy government in Somalia or in perpetuating the Somali conflict for as long as they can. The strategies that Somalia’s hostile neighbours adopt differ. At a time when the world would not allow an opportunistic invasion, Ethiopia sent weapons and created warlords from different clans. After 9/11 Ethiopia and Kenya capitalised on the ‘war on terror’ and used it to their advantage. As such, Ethiopia invaded Somalia [in 2006] as part of a ‘war on terror’ campaign, albeit in pursuance of its own geographical interests. Kenya has also facilitated this invasion. This leads me to conclude that these countries are determined to block a viable and strong Somali state for as long as they can as their perception is based on a zero-sum understanding of power.”

However, Kenya’s and Somalia’s fears that ethnic Somalis within their territories pose a threat to national unity are not completely unfounded and have historical roots. In the 1960s, Somalia’s first president Aden Abdullah Osman supported secessionist movements in both Kenya and Ethiopia. Although the Somali government eventually entered into a truce with both countries and restored diplomatic relations, the 1969 coup d’etat revived ambitions of a Greater Somalia in President Siad Barre. In 1977, Barre initiated a war with Ethiopia in a bid to regain the Ogaden region. Memories of Barre’s attempts to take over the Ogaden in 1977 are still fresh in many Ethiopians’ minds

The Kenyan government, on the other hand, has been antagonistic and suspicious of its own ethnic Somali population ever since the people of Kenya’s Northern Frontier District voted for secession prior to independence in 1962. This resulted in the so-called Shifta wars that led to the militarisation and marginalisation of the region by the Jomo Kenyatta and successive regimes.

“Taming” the Somalis in Kenya’s north-eastern region has been one of the Kenyan government’s objectives since the Shifta wars of the 1960s that saw this region become a terror zone. “Collective punishments” of the region’s people by the government were common. Until devolution “mainstreamed” Kenya’s northern territories, the region had remained largely neglected and devoid of any meaningful development.

Some Somali analysts and conspiracy theorists believe that Kenya does not want to see a strong and stable Somalia because the latter would pose a threat to its own national political and economic interests. They say that Kenya seeks a weak – but friendly – Somalia because Kenya believes that a strong Somali state may revive aspirations for a “Greater Somalia”…

In its efforts to control the seemingly uncontrollable population, the Kenyan government relied on ethnic Somalis to carry out atrocities against their own people. For instance, the brutal operation known as the “Wagalla Massacre”, which resulted in the death of between 3,000 and 5,000 men in Wajir, was carried out under the watch of General Mohamud Mohamed, the army chief of staff in Daniel arap Moi’s administration, and his brother Hussein Maalim Mohamed, the minister of state in charge of internal security, both of who belonged to the Somali Ogaden clan that controlled politics in the then Northeastern Province. They were among a small group of Kenyan Somalis who were in positions of power in the Moi government. General Mohamed had played a key role in thwarting the August 1982 coup attempt, and had thus contributed to saving the Moi presidency.

It is believed that Moi appointed ethnic Somalis in important positions as they were considered “neutral” in terms of their ethnic affiliation, and could, therefore, be trusted to be loyal. Incorporating ethnic Somalis in his government was also probably a strategy to defuse any “Greater Somalia” sentiments Kenyan Somalis might harbour – a strategy that the Jubilee government has also adopted by appointing or nominating Kenyan Somalis in important government positions.

Many Kenyan Somalis believe that the Mohamed brothers used their influential positions to punish and evict members of rival clans from the then Northeastern Province. Others say that in his hallmark Machiavellian style, Moi used ethnic Somalis in his government to carry out atrocities against their own people – who could easily be divided along clan lines. While it is unlikely that these powerful brothers sanctioned mass killings, they probably played into the clan politics of the area.

Clan politics is also what probably drove Aden Duale and his delegation to make the visit to Kismaayo; Kenya’s north-eastern region is dominated by the Ogaden – Madobe’s and Duale’s clan. The visit symbolised Ogaden authority in Jubaland and in Kenya’s north-eastern region.

And so, because many federal states in Somalia are run like personal or clan-based fiefdoms, decisions made by Madobe could be construed to be at the behest of Kenya. By aligning himself with Madobe, Duale – and by extension, the Kenyan government – has affirmed that Kenya is not interested in a united, democratic Somalia, and that it is using proxies to achieve its objectives in this fragmented country. The visit to Kismaayo was also a slap in the face of the Federal Government of Somalia in Mogadishu, which is now likely to have an even more antagonistic attitude towards Kenya.

Clan politics is also what probably drove Aden Duale and his delegation to make the visit to Kismaayo. Kenya’s north-eastern region is dominated by the Ogaden – Madobe’s and Duale’s clan. The visit symbolised Ogaden authority in Jubaland and in Kenya’s north-eastern region.

Although many question the legitimacy of the government in Mogadishu – which is propped up mostly by the international community, mainly Western and Arab donors – the deliberate disregard for its authority by the Kenyan delegation is bound to deepen fissures between Kenya and Somalia, which could have an impact on how the Somali government views the presence of Kenyan soldiers on its soil. The Somali government, although relying heavily on AMISOM for security, has recently been making calls to strengthen Somalia’s national army to replace AMISOM.

The Al Shabaab factor

It must be noted, however, that Somalia and Kenya enjoyed “live and let live” relations until the latter’s incursion into Somalia in October 2011, which muddied the waters and painted Kenya as an aggressor nation in the eyes of many Somalis, not least Al Shabaab, which then made Kenya a target for its terrorist activities. Up until then – hosting the largest Somali refugee population – Kenya was viewed as a generous neighbour that came to the aid of people fleeing conflict. The decision to undertake a military intervention in Somalia was probably one of the biggest blunders of the Mwai Kibaki administration.

But even if Kenya’s intention is to create a safe buffer zone between Kenya and Somalia, the fact remains that apart from controlling the city of Kismaayo and its immediate environs, Madobe has little control over the rest of Jubaland state where Al Shabaab is still very much in control. There have been reports of his administration and KDF making deals with Al Shabaab to gain access to the territories that the terrorist organisation controls. Some of these deals are said to involve the smuggling of contraband into Kenya, as has been reported severally by the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea.

It must be noted, however, that Somalia and Kenya enjoyed “live and let live” relations until the latter’s incursion into Somalia in October 2011, which muddied the waters and painted Kenya as an aggressor nation in the eyes of many Somalis, not least Al Shabaab, which then made Kenya a target for its terrorist activities.

The reality in Jubaland and in much of the rest of Somalia is that the majority of the people have not experienced the benefits of a strong central or state government for more than 20 years. The concept of a government has remained a mirage for most residents living outside Mogadishu, especially in remote areas where the only system of governance is customary law or the Sharia. In fact, it has been argued that, with its strict codes and its hold over populations through systems of “tax collection” or “protection fees” combined with service delivery, Al Shabaab offers a semblance of governance in the regions that it controls.

Where AMISOM forces have liberated regions from the clutches of Al Shabaab, they have essentially left behind a power vacuum which neither the Federal Government of Somalia nor the emerging regional administrations can fill. This has rendered these regions more prone to clan-based conflicts, already apparent in Jubaland, where some members of the marginalised Bantu/Wagosha minority group have taken up arms in response to what they perceive to be a form of “ethnic cleansing” by both Al Shabaab and the new Ogaden-dominated administration of Ahmed Madobe.

All these developments do not augur well for peace-building efforts in the Horn, which have been made more precarious by Kenya’s relations with Madobe, who is not likely to cooperate with Mogadishu or cede control of a state characterised by clan-based feuds over resources.

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#FeesMustFall: Is the Makerere University Strike a Response to State Capture?

9 min read. Student protests in Uganda have highlighted a crisis in higher education and exposed the dark underbelly of a state struggling for legitimacy.

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#FeesMustFall: Is the Makerere University Strike a Response to State Capture?
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During the current lull in strike activity at Makerere University, it is possible to examine the root causes of sporadic strike action on the campus, both by staff and students. The strike was a student protest under the banner #FeesMustFall and was triggered by the proposed 15 per cent annual increase in fees for privately sponsored students (more than half of the student body).

It has been a tense two weeks, with the strike leader, one Siperia Saasirabo, reportedly abducted and held for a number of days, and the Guild President Julius Kateregga disappearing en route from an appearance on a morning television chat show and an extraordinary general meeting of the Guild. Both were reportedly dumped in public places, Kateregga with alleged soft tissue injuries.

An opposition MP told Parliament he was being held in a “safe house” run by the Special Forces Command (SFC) while the minister for higher education stated that he had information that Kateregga was merely taking time out from the pressure he had been undergoing. Kateregga says he made that statement at gunpoint.

The Budget Monitoring and Accountability Unit (BMAU) at the Ministry of Finance summarised the problem at Makerere and other government universities: there simply isn’t enough money to run them. Apart from Makerere and Kyambogo universities, the Government of Uganda has established six other public universities and two degree-awarding institutions. Three came into existence as recently as 2016/17. The major source of funding is tuition fees followed by government/public funding – which includes tuition fees, external grants and internally generated funding. The cost of funding public universities leapt from Shs.167.94 billion ($45,215,553.00) in FY 2012/13 to Shs.606.09 billion ($163,220,340.00) in FY 2017/18. The Ministry of Finance is unequivocal in stating that the government is unable to provide for all the financial needs of public universities and that funds are insufficient to produce “good outputs”. In fact for the last five years, cash releases from the Treasury have been below budget (BMAU Policy Briefing Paper (24/18, 2018).

It is, therefore, safe to conclude that private students subsidise government-sponsored students. This may not have been a problem in principle or in practice if the economy was such that they could afford it. The fact is that most courses charge close to half of Uganda’s income per capita of about $800 or Shs.2,971,608. Assuming parents have more than one child, payment for university education is out of reach for the majority.

The Budget Monitoring and Accountability Unit (BMAU) at the Ministry of Finance summarised the problem at Makerere and other government universities: there simply isn’t enough money to run them.

The major casualties of this are the quality of outcomes, staff development, and research. Because 59 per cent of Makerere’s budget goes towards payroll, and 11 per cent each on student costs and material supplies, less than 2 per cent is available for staff development. Research, a core function of the institution, is allocated under 1 per cent of the government budget (as distinct from external funding). Student welfare allowances can hardly compete and have been stagnant for over two decades. Research received Shs.30 billion ($8,079,015.00) against the expected Shs.50 billion ($13,465,025.00) in 2018/19. As a solution, the BMAU recommends diversification of income streams to reduce over-reliance on tuition fees. In the interim, financial brinksmanship has been the order of the day.

There are 20,091 government-sponsored students at Makerere of whom just over 4,000 are accommodated off-campus. An allowance of Shs.432,750 ($117) a semester was budgeted for each student to cater for their subsistence. The 2019/2020 allowances budget was reduced in order to rehabilitate the dental school whose dilapidated state and consequent interruption of admission of dentistry students made the news in 2017. According to The Observer of 17 July 2019, “285 million was diverted from the allowances vote and allocated to the Dental School. Another Shs.1.8 billion was allocated towards equipping the university library, while Shs.1.5 billion was allocated to the renovation of toilets in the halls of residence.” This was done in compliance with Parliament’s education and social services committee recommendations communicated on 18 June 2019.

During the current strike, there have been calls for Makerere to be managed by people with business skills as opposed to vice-chancellors elected from amongst academics. There is some merit in this argument; Makerere’s history of financial management does not inspire confidence. In 2016 the Auditor General qualified the university’s audit report, citing a number of significant anomalies that suggested sleight of hand in hiding income, debt, and payroll fraud. The report cited the following irregularities:

  • The budget itself was undermined by the fact that Shs.317,227,405 ($85,429.00) was charged against incorrect expenditure codes thereby misstating the balances in the financial statements.
  • Staff advances for various activities amounting to Shs.882,316,616 ($237,608.00) were not accounted for. “There is uncertainty as to whether the amount in question was properly utilised for the intended purposes.”
  • Revenues received from grants and investments were under-reported. Only revenue from 79 out of a total of 182 active grants was disclosed in the financial statements. The university administration also claimed it did not obtain any revenue from investments during the year under review. However its annual report for 2015 puts the cost of running projects from grants at US$50,000,000 in the year 2015. It also says that the university initiated an endowment fund in 2014 called the Makerere University Endowment Fund, whose investment activities and revenues to date have not been disclosed in the financial statements.
  • Fourteen retired members of staff were kept on the payroll, costing Shs.386,790 while overpayments to other staff cost a further Shs.172,560,
  • 2,494,991,040 ($671,902.00) in revenue was collected from short courses although this amount was not declared in the financial statements.
  • Revenue from tuition and functional fees was similarly misstated; the cash book showed 86,816,793,066 ($23,435,802) while the financial statements reported a figure of Shs.87,946,425,729 ($23,740,741.00). The Auditor-General stated: “I was not provided with a satisfactory explanation regarding this discrepancy. Under the circumstances, I am unable to establish the accuracy of the revenue reflected in the financial statements.”
  • Emphasis was placed on the under-statement of outstanding obligations. Out of 119,664,797,892 ($32,225,789.00) owed by Makerere by close of the financial year, “only Shs.47,167,283,674 ($12,702,173.00) was recognised in its Statement of Financial position and Statement of Outstanding Commitments, while the remaining Shs. 72,497,514,218 ($19,523,616.00) is only mentioned/disclosed in additional notes.”

The patronage economy

What is missing from the solutions proposed for Makerere by BMAU, such as the diversification of income and rationalisation of courses offered, is the elimination of waste. In addition to reducing waste and financial loss caused by sheer lack of capacity to run the business end of the university, the government needs urgently to address other areas of waste.

Shs.69 billion was lost to systemic waste across all spending entities in 2017/18. Some of the means by which this was achieved are examined here. Structurally, the ballooning number of administrative units – 134 districts and rising from the initial 29 in 1997 – is a huge drain on resources that doesn’t necessarily increase effectiveness (this writer has dealt elsewhere with the phenomenon of districts being unable to utilise funds for lack of skilled manpower). Each new district is entitled to three members of parliament, one a woman and one a youth. District leaders are elected but the president appoints a Resident District Commissioner (RDC) to each. The RDC wage bill is Shs. 15.8 billion ($4,259,292.00), 30 per cent more than Makerere’s annual development budget.

Similarly, ministries, departments and agencies (MDA) increase in number as service delivery becomes ever more inadequate. In 2016, 34 per cent of local governments were found to lack critical staff such as doctors. 116 were understaffed by up to 40 per cent. That year the most affected by understaffing were said to be public universities.

During the current strike, there have been calls for Makerere to be managed by people with business skills as opposed to vice-chancellors elected from amongst academics. There is some merit in this argument; Makerere’s history of financial management does not inspire confidence.

In order to lower the cost of public administration, a major restructuring was agreed by Cabinet in September 2018. Only four agencies (Kampala Capital City Authority, the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, Uganda National Bureau of Standards, and Uganda Communications Commission) and the National Medical Stores were either to be retained and the functions of the rest returned to their parent ministries or to be merged or disbanded. Over one-third of the government payroll is absorbed by the 10,000 employees of agencies, which have tended to duplicate work and serve mainly as sinecures for party apparatchiks. This would have freed up funds currently used for the higher salaries paid to agency executives as well as their pensions and gratuities. Since the announcement a year ago, there has not been a single closure; implementation modalities were reportedly still under review by August 2019. Furthermore, there are more agencies in the pipeline (i.e. the Skills Development Authority and Sector Skills Councils slated for 2021).

The lack of political will to conserve scarce resources is evident in other areas, as a recent review of the cost of political appointees by the Daily Monitor shows. There are now 170 presidential advisors – up from four in the 1990s – whose annual wage bill is Shs.29 billion ($7,817,689.00), with an additional Shs.24 billion ($6,469,812.00) for their ministerial vehicles (without fuel, drivers and guards). Again, the total exceeds Makerere’s research budget. The most recent appointees are musicians appointed to advise on Ghetto and Kampala Affairs. They join the relatively new Ministry for Kampala and the new position of Executive Director of Kampala Capital City Authority, both seen locally as political appointments.


Further savings could have been made by eliminating the Shs.30 billion spent every year on flying dignitaries abroad for medical treatment but they have been cancelled out by the inept procurement of a domestic specialised hospital that has left the country in debt.

The State House scholarships scheme could yield further savings. Under this scheme, students whose primary and/or secondary education has been paid for by the State are often sent overseas for post-graduate studies. Elections expense for the incumbent are another diversion of funds from productive expenditure. As with elections before them, the 2021 polls are being preceded by huge billboards, vinyl banners, cash and other handouts, such as Shs.80 billion ($21,544,040.00) worth of hoes for distribution – all paid for from the public purse. (Ugandan farmers clamour for much – seeds, fertilisers, herbicides, irrigation, information, advice, post-harvest technologies, feeder roads and access to markets – but there has been no shortage of hoes since the post-war period.)

The lack of political will to conserve scarce resources is evident in other areas, as a recent review of the cost of political appointees by the Daily Monitor shows. There are now 170 presidential advisors – up from four in the 1990s – whose annual wage bill is Shs.29 billion ($7,817,689.00)…

The unrest at Makerere is the fruit of the wider patronage economy and its untenable strictures. Public financial mismanagement and fraud lead to unforeseen and unnecessary austerity being visited on various sections of the community, including hospital patients, primary school children, farmers, road users etc. University students are in the best position to highlight this systemic injustice because unlike the general population at the receiving end of governance deficits, they are a homogenous group able to agree on a way forward, and the best equipped to analyse the issues. Striking Makerereans speak for all Ugandans.

State brutality

As is the norm, what began as a peaceful demonstration with perhaps a dozen women carrying placards immediately attracted the full retribution of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces, which had been camping on campus since late 2018 when the People Power movement gained national prominence. True to form, the method of work is to instill terror by attacking not only striking students but also firing tear gas canisters into the closed windows of halls of residence and hostels. There were night raids in which students were dragged out of their rooms, brutalised and their property vandalised. The partially sighted and deaf were not spared and their press conference was stopped by the Uganda Police, a de facto division of the army.

Initial reports on the night of 22nd October were from citizen journalists. The professional media was largely absent (which is understandable given recent threats of shut-downs to those covering “opposition” activities). Of those journalists that did attend, at least three have been hospitalised with injuries and a similar number have been arrested.

The most valiant efforts of government sympathisers to demoralise the students on chat shows and social media by branding them drug abusers were unable to stigmatise the students as “entitled” young people making a nuisance of themselves. Also new, a journalist accused of biased reporting (not for the first time) was heckled off campus by irate students.

The Uganda Journalist’s Association is boycotting all police pressers and other events, this time asking media house heads to join them, a major development in protest. Still, the repeated night raids amply demonstrated the extremes to which Uganda’s kleptocracy is willing to go to preserve itself. Student leaders continue to be suspended as they are identified. The police is visible everywhere on campus and Lumumba Hall was completely sealed off at the time of writing. The army is to be replaced on campus by 2,000 police officers.

If the military was predictable so was the president, his ministers and the diplomatic corps to whom Ugandans appeal during spates of state brutality. After the usual interval of a few days, the United States ambassador played her customary role, publicly expressing concern for the affront to freedoms of assembly, speech and expression guaranteed by Uganda’s constitution. After a further few days during which the public was fully appraised of his impunity, President Yoweri Museveni, the Commander-in-Chief, withdrew the army from the university, stating that he was unaware they were camped there (for a year) in the first place. He faulted the military approach to addressing the issue, saying the young people only needed guidance.

Initial reports on the night of 22nd October were from citizen journalists. The professional media was largely absent (which is understandable given recent threats of shut-downs to those covering “opposition” activities). Of those journalists that did attend, at least three have been hospitalised with injuries and a similar number have been arrested.

France’s ambassador remained focused on cementing relations with Gen. Kainerugaba, the president’s son who is responsible for the SFC, safe houses, #Arua33 and other atrocities. He hosted him at his residence at the height of the troubles. A French company is in negotiations for an oil concession. The European Union and other European members of the diplomatic corps then weighed in, saying much the same as the Americans, only to be contradicted hours later by the Minister for Security, General Tumwine, who advised students that strikers would be beaten and to ignore statements to the contrary.

The latest developments are that Gulu University’s peaceful march in solidarity with Makerere was intercepted by police and four students were arrested for the public order offences of illegal assembly and incitement to violence.

The Minister of Education and First Lady has not appeared before Parliament to make a statement on the unrest. Instead she wrote a long letter to “the children who call me Mama by choice” in which she compared Makerere’s fees with the higher fees charged by a private university. She then claimed that the strikers were mainly non-students hired to riot: “Next time you are tempted to point a finger at corrupt people, if you are guilty of any of the above, know that you too are corrupt; begin with yourself.” The minister finished with an elaborate exegesis of the Scriptures on the origin of authority and why we must submit to it.

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