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Kenya’s War on Graft: Reasons to be Wary

10 min read.

Unwieldy prosecution strategies have in the past been used as a guise under which the government appears to prosecute corruption while simultaneously taking steps to guard the prosecuted from legal culpability. This article aims to examine current anti-corruption efforts in light of similar efforts in the past in order to glean lessons and hopefully see what can be expected of current initiatives.

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State Capture: The Institutionalisation of Impunity in Kenya
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More than 200 people, among them senior government officials, principal secretaries and CEOs of state agencies, have been arrested, arraigned in court and charged with diverse criminal offences as a result of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s renewed war on graft.

On 22 July 2019, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) ordered the arrest of and proffered charges against 28 senior government officials, among them Henry Kiplagat Rotich and Kamau Thugge respectively the Cabinet and Principal Secretaries of the National Treasury, the Principal Secretary of the Ministry of the East African Community, the Managing Director of the Kerio Valley Development Authority, a state corporation, and the Director of CMC di Ravenna, an Italian company. According to the DPP, investigations have established that the charged officials flouted procurement rules and abused their oath of office in awarding or otherwise ensuring that CMC di Ravenna secured the contract for the construction of the Arror and Kimwarer dams. The contractual amount is in the region of $600 million.

Prosecuting corruption in Kenya: A troubled past

From Kenya’s independence in 1963 to the establishment of the Kenya Anti-Corruption Authority in 1987, the duty to prosecute government corruption fell on the Office of the Attorney General (AG) who simultaneously happened to be the government’s chief legal advisor and chief legal defender. Requiring an office to prosecute its chief client yielded predictable results. Despite damning reports by the office of the Auditor and Controller General, as well as independent reports of the Parliamentary Public Accounts and Investment Committees, the AG remained resolutely intransigent towards bringing charges against government officials of any stripe, and outrightly protected senior government named in the reports.

In the Goldenberg scandal – an export compensation scam under the Daniel arap Moi regime that is estimated to have cost Kenya 10 per cent of her GDP – the AG at the time (and current Senator for Busia County), Amos Wako, failed to initiate proceedings for four years after the scandal came to light, and was only moved to do so by a suspension of International Monetary Fund (IMF) aid and the combined pressure of the Law Society of Kenya, donor nation governments and an increasingly outraged and assertive public.

Notwithstanding the said pressure, Wako used a variety of guises to impede the prosecution, including attempting to oust the jurisdiction of the High Court in the matter, numerous adjournments, withdrawing charges altogether and then being compelled by foreign pressure to reinstate them. The Minister of Finance at the time was never so much as charged and to date nobody has ever been convicted.

In the Goldenberg scandal, the AG at the time (and current Senator for Busia County), Amos Wako, failed to initiate proceedings for four years after the scandal came to light, and was only moved to do so by a suspension of IMF aid and the combined pressure of the Law Society of Kenya, donor nation governments and an increasingly outraged and assertive public.

Kenya then moved to break the prosecutorial monopoly of the AG. The Kenya Anti-Corruption Authority (KACA) was established in 1987 by the amendment of the Prevention of Corruption Act (Cap. 65) but was hampered by legal, administrative and budgetary constraints that appeared deliberate. Its first director, John Harun Mwau, was appointed 10 years after the establishment of KACA, for instance, and was shortly thereafter sacked by the president at the recommendation of a tribunal of inquiry after the director had obtained warrants of arrest against high ranking officials of the Treasury as well as the Kenya Revenue Authority.

It is noteworthy that Mwau was not conventionally qualified for his post nor was the process of his appointment subject to a transparent recruitment process. Indeed it is believed that the appointment was a quid pro quo in return for his dropping out as a presidential candidate. Nonetheless he was fired just as he appeared to make progress.

As such, whereas his successor Aaron Ringera was undoubtedly well qualified for the post, being a well-respected High Court judge, his appointment was nonetheless greeted with scepticism. Justice Ringera took office in 1997 and by 2000 KACA had been declared unconstitutional by the High Court before any of the cases it had instituted had been, the court finding that the existence of KACA infringed upon the constitutional powers of the offices of the Attorney General and the Commissioner of Police for two main reasons: first, that Justice Ringera, being a judge and simultaneously the head of an organ of the Executive, offended the doctrine of separation of powers; and second, that under section 26 of the Constitution (as it then was), the AG had the exclusive power to prosecute. The cases that KACA was handling were handed over to the AG. These cases were either not continued or ended up being dismissed by courts.

The demise of KACA led to widespread civic and international outrage. Following the general elections in 2002 – widely believed to be the first truly free elections of their kind in Kenya’s history – Mwai Kibaki was elected president on a broad reform mandate, key to which was fighting corruption. He established KACA’s successor, the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission (KACC) in April 2003 by way of the enactment of the Anti-Corruption and Economic Crimes Act. Exactly one year later, in April 2004, KACC was to face an acid test following the coming to light of what would prove to be the new administration’s nemesis, the Anglo Leasing Scandal (Anglo Leasing).

Anglo Leasing was a government procurement scandal in which a diverse array of fraudulent entities were secretly and unlawfully awarded large security contracts, and subsequently failed to deliver goods or services or grossly overcharged for them. In total it was estimated that there were at least 18 such contracts with a total value of $721 million.

The scandal reached the highest levels of government and was well-documented by the whistleblower John Githongo, who was then the Permanent Secretary for Governance and Ethics. Githongo was a former Executive Director of Transparency International in Kenya and was widely regarded as a person of integrity. Indeed his appointment was intended by Kibaki to signal his seriousness in the fight against corruption. Githongo’s report implicated the president himself, his vice president as well as various cabinet ministers and permanent secretaries.

The consequences were limited. The newly established KACC cleared three cabinet secretaries of obstructing the investigation using the novel and startling legal innovation that the whistleblower was not an investigator as defined by law. Far from playing the role of an independent prosecutor, KACC either did not investigate the most culpable, or when it did, it resorted to technicalities in order to defeat the very purpose it was formed to serve.

Anglo Leasing was a government procurement scandal in which a diverse array of fraudulent entities were secretly and unlawfully awarded large security contracts, and subsequently failed to deliver goods or services or grossly overcharged for them. In total it was estimated that there were at least 18 such contracts with a total value of $721 million.

In what is likely to exert a chilling effect on the exposure of government scandals, Githongo has recently had judgement entered against him personally in the amount of $270,000 for defamation in a suit brought by Dr. Christopher Murungaru who as Minister of Internal Security at the time of the coming to light of Anglo Leasing, was perhaps the leading figure under investigation in the scandal. This is the latest in a long series of legal setbacks which Githongo has faced since doing Kenya the immense service of bringing Anglo Leasing to light.

The Executive: Questionable tactics

Prosecution is no easy task. Prosecuting economic crimes such as corruption is even more so. These crimes tend to be characterised by a high degree of sophistication in terms of commission as well as concealment. Payments to those concerned, for instance, may be in the form of ‘commissions’ by shadowy organisations to multiple offshore jurisdictions, which are hard to trace and whose illegality is difficult to prove.

Unlike other crimes, a disproportionate amount of evidence tends to be in the hands of those who are already suspects. Gathering such evidence takes a great deal of time and expertise, involving teams of professionals applying specialised forensic techniques. The suspects themselves tend to be wealthy and powerful. They are able to hire large teams of lawyers who take advantage of every legal loophole, technicality, adjournment, appeal and delay in their client’s favour. They are able to apply pressure to witnesses and even to those working within the prosecution. Cases are likely to drag on for a long period of time and a government that wishes to see quick results in the war against corruption would be ill-advised to rely on prosecution as its primary and most visible strategy.

The DPP and the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) have conducted much of the war on corruption as a drama played out in the public eye. Press releases are issued and persons high and mighty are arrested with great fanfare. These persons are arraigned in court in vast numbers, and when bail is granted, the DPP cries foul. One of the major reasons that inform opposition to bail by the DPP is that the accused may interfere with investigations. This then implies that investigations were incomplete at the time suspects were arrested. This working methodology appears to essentially be a public relations exercise that fundamentally undermines successful prosecution.

Unlike other crimes, a disproportionate amount of evidence tends to be in the hands of those who are already suspects. Gathering such evidence takes a great deal of time and expertise, involving teams of professionals applying specialised forensic techniques.

Furthermore, those accused are often skilled political operatives, with established relationships within media. Charismatic and often able to appeal to ethnic loyalties, they can use the media as a tool to gain public sympathy and scuttle efforts at holding them accountable. In addition, early engagement of the media by the DPP as part of political theatre is likely to expose strategies and information prematurely, forewarning the accused. It must also be acknowledged that media organisations are corporate profit-making entities with interests of their own that may or may not align with the public interest.

Take for example the second National Youth Service (NYS) scandal. At one point there were 30 accused persons on one charge sheet in one case. Each was represented by at least one lawyer, and frequently by a team of lawyers. Each individual had to be put on their defence separately; each called and cross-examined their own witnesses. This takes about four days per witness. No country in the world can conduct a speedy trial, or even a fair one, under such circumstances. Even a matter as basic as a courtroom was a problem: there exists no courtroom in Kenya large enough to conduct this case, which had to be held in a ceremonial hall.

Unwieldy prosecution strategies have in the past been used as a guise under which the government appears to prosecute corruption while simultaneously taking steps to guard the prosecuted from legal culpability. During the Goldenberg scandal, the Attorney General, against the advice of his own Director of Public Prosecutions, framed more than 90 counts in one charge despite clear evidence that this would invalidate the charges, which is precisely what happened.

Given the difficulty of corruption investigation prosecution, cases should be restricted and prioritised based on pre-established criteria. Such criteria would include prosecuting the most senior figures, establishing judicial precedent and the probability of a successful outcome, for example, by targeting offences such as tax evasion that are relatively easier to prove.

Moreover, strategies such as plea bargaining and summary proceedings have proven useful in other jurisdictions as a means of shortening litigation and also gathering evidence of criminal activity that would otherwise be unavailable or require an enormous expenditure of surveillance and forensic resources.

The President

Prosecuting corruption amounts to locking the stable door after the horse has bolted. Prevention is by a huge margin the better strategy, a large responsibility that lies with the Executive headed by the President. That we are experiencing corruption at all means that the Executive has failed to stop it and must now rely entirely on prosecuting those whom it has allowed to raid public coffers.

The Executive does not appear to have a coherent professional strategy to fight corruption. In the recent past, buildings on riparian land were brought down in a flurry of activity. Now there is sudden silence. This work has not been completed. Also forgotten is NYS 1, in which the central figure is now a governor. There needs to be a demonstrated professional understanding of corruption in Kenya and its underlying causes that drives the war on corruption; absent that the process will appear ad hoc and susceptible to being interpreted as a platform to selectively seize and exploit the weaknesses of political opponents.

The Executive does not appear to have a coherent professional strategy to fight corruption. In the recent past, buildings on riparian land were brought down in a flurry of activity. Now there is sudden silence.

Furthermore, the close relationship between the presidency and prosecutorial agencies is problematic. Factual independence of prosecutorial agencies from members of government is crucial towards the effectiveness of prosecution as an anti-corruption strategy. Components of factual independence include stable and widely applied legal foundations for the prosecution of crimes. As such, prosecutions ideally should emanate from an independent office exercising a constitutional and legal mandate independently, rather than following directions from any one office, however well meaning. Trust in the war on corruption and the legitimacy of the ruling regime as a whole could be undermined if it is perceived that those closely aligned to State House are unlikely to be prosecuted.

The blame game: The Judiciary

The Judiciary has been accused of granting bail with alarming ease to the high and mighty, while simultaneously denying the same benefits to ordinary citizens. Chicken thieves are subject to incarceration while those who have stolen millions roam this land free and unburdened.

The President himself, on the occasion of his Jamhuri (Republic) Day speech on December 12 2018, accused the Judiciary of granting “ridiculously low bail terms”. The Judiciary has been accused of misunderstanding the presumption of innocence and equating it with a presumption of virtue, being divorced from the aims of society in general and in particular being insensitive to the scourge of corruption. Indeed political actors have not shied away from accusing the Judiciary of outright collusion with accused persons. Individual judges have also been mentioned adversely in social media in ways ranging from the mildly disturbing to the downright scandalous.

It is germane to the President’s comments on “ridiculously low bail” that in the preceding week, top officials of the Kenya Pipeline Company (KPC) and the National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF), including Joe Sang, the Managing Director of KPC and Geoffrey Mwangi, CEO of NHIF, had been charged with abuse of office leading to the theft of billions of shillings. They were released on a bail of Sh2 million each. In July 2018, top officials of the Kenya Power Company, including the CEO Ken Tarus, his predecessor Ben Chumo and senior managers were similarly charged and released on bail terms of Sh1 million.

Where the Judiciary has been criticised for giving bail, no evidence has been proffered of the compelling reasons against it that the Judiciary ignored. Suspects have presented themselves to police stations and have attended court proceedings voluntarily. The purpose of bail is to secure attendance, not to act as some sort of premature punishment prior to conviction by its denial.

Conclusion

While it is still too early to pass definitive judgement on the effectiveness of this new wave of prosecution against corruption there is a key historical hurdle that Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration will have to overcome. The prosecution or lack thereof of Anglo Leasing suspects in a scandal that was enormously well-documented leads us to the inevitable presumption that that those crucial to the campaign of the next general election in 2022, either by dint of being sufficiently wealthy and willing to fund the election campaign or perceived as being able to guarantee key ethnic loyalties, will not be successfully prosecuted and that after the dust and fanfare settles those most culpable will not be held accountable. Shifting the blame to other institutions has already begun and is likely to continue.

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Chege Waitara is a legal practitioner and commentator based in Nairobi.

Politics

For J.M’s Ten Million Beggars, the Hustler vs Dynasty Narrative is a Red Herring

Hon. William Ruto’s hustler vs dynasty narrative is a shrewd way of redefining Kenyan identity politics in order to avoid playing the tribal card in his quest for the presidency.

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For J.M’s Ten Million Beggars, the Hustler vs Dynasty Narrative is a Red Herring
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Stifling the “hustler” vs “dynasty” debate will not save us from the imminent implosion resulting from Kenya’s obscene inequalities. While the debate is a welcome distraction from our frequent divisive tribal politics, leaders in government and society are frightened that it might lead to class wars. Our sustained subtle, yet brazen, war against the poor has made class conflict inevitable. If only we had listened to Hon. J. M. Kariuki, the assassinated former Member of Parliament for Nyandarua (1969-1975), and provided the poor with the means to develop themselves, perhaps the prospect of revolt would now be remote.

Could this be the angry ghost of J.M. Kariuki coming back to haunt us? Listen to his voice still crying from the grave, as did his supporters at a rally in 1974: “We do not want a Kenya of ten millionaires and ten million beggars. Our people who died in the forests died with a handful of soil in their right hands, believing they had fallen in a noble struggle to regain our land . . . But we are being carried away by selfishness and greed. Unless something is done now, the land question will be answered by bloodshed” (quoted by Prof. Simiyu Wandibba in his book J.M. Kariuki). Fired by this speech, his followers set ablaze 700 acres of wheat on Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s farm in Rongai and slaughtered cattle with malice. Thus did J.M. invite his death.

What Hon. William Ruto propounds in his hustler vs dynasty debate is a shrewd way of redefining Kenyan identity politics. Ruto is re-directing the political narrative from the “us” vs “them” of tribalism, to one characterised by the poor and desperate (hustlers) who have seen subsequent governments betray their hopes for a better life, pitted against “them”, Ruto’s rivals, the offspring of politicians born to unfair and unearned privilege.

Wycliffe Muga, the Star newspaper columnist, has eloquently described them as the “sons of a hereditary political elite who absorbed all the benefits that came with independence, leaving ‘the rest of us’ destitute and having no choice but to beg for the crumbs under their table.” By opting for an alternative approach, Ruto hopes to avoid playing the tribal card to attain the presidency. For, besides his own, he would need the support of at least one other of the five big tribes who often reserve support for their own sons unless there is a brokered alliance. But even then, the underlying logic of Kenyan politics remains that of identity politics, which creates a binary narrative of “us” against “them”.

Meanwhile, Ruto has not only radicalised the poor, but he has also hastened the country’s hour of reckoning — judgement for the years of neglect of the poor — and this may ignite the tinder sooner we imagine.

In their article in The Elephant, Dauti Kahura and Akoko Akech observe that, “Ruto might have belatedly discovered the great socio-economic divide between the walala-hoi and the walala-hai in Kenya”. Ruto has galvanised the poor and their plight around the banner of the “hustler nation”, a nation aspiring to erase the tribal or geographical lines that have kept Kenyans apart. As a result the poor are restless as they compare their state with the ease of the lives of the affluent. But Ruto is not organising to awaken class-consciousness among the exploited.  ‘As Thandika Mkandawire, citing Karl Marx, observed, “The existence of class may portend class struggles, but it does not automatically trigger them. It is not enough that classes exist in themselves, they must also be for themselves”’, Kahura and Akech further reiterate.

The problem kicks in immediately he points to the “dynasty”. In juxtaposing the hustlers and dynasty, the poor find a target of hate, an object of their wrath. This situation can easily slide into violence, the violence emerging only when the “us” see themselves as all good and the “them” as all evil.

I worry this controversy has led us to that radicalisation stage where the poor see themselves as the good children of light fighting evil forces of darkness. In our case, the so-called hustler nation believe they are against the deep-state which doesn’t care about them but wants to give to the dynasty that which is due to them. They believe that this collusion between deep-state and dynasty is preventing them from reaching prosperity and so they blame their situation on those who they perceive to be the cause of their wretchedness. Interestingly, the colonial state always feared the day when the masses would rise up and topple it. Unfortunately, Ruto is using the crisis of the underclass created by the colonial state and perpetuated by the political class for political expediency and for his own self-advancement.

By declaring himself the saviour of the hustlers from the dynasties, Ruto — who is devoid of any pro-democracy and pro-suffering citizens political credentials — is perceived to be antagonising the Kenyatta family’s political and financial interests. He has with precision stoked the anger of the poor against particular political elites he calls dynasties and the Odingas, the Kenyattas, the Mois and their associates have become the hustler nation’s enemy. So, one understands why President Uhuru Kenyatta considers Ruto’s dynasty vs hustler debate “a divisive and a major threat to the country’s security”, which he fears may degenerate into class warfare.

Hon. Paul Koinange, Chairman of the Parliamentary Administration and Security Committee errs in his call to criminalise the hustler vs dynasty narrative. If this is hate speech, as Koinange wants it classified, then neglect of the poor by their government is a worse form of hate speech. The application of policies favouring tender-preneurs at the expense of the majority poor, landless and unemployed will incite Kenyans against each other faster than the hustler vs dynasty narrative. The failure to provide public services for the poor and the spiralling wealth of the political class must be confronted.

We have been speeding down this slippery slope for years. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) data released in December 2020, only 2.92 million Kenyans work in the formal sector, of which 1.34 million or 45.9 per cent earn less than Sh30,000. If we accept that the informal sector employs another 15 million Kenyans, an overwhelming majority (71 per cent) would be in micro-scale enterprises or in small-scale enterprises (which make up 26 per cent). This implies that 97 per cent of our enterprises are micro or small, and these are easily wound up. The situation is exasperated by the opulence at the top. The UK-based New World Wealth survey (2014) conducted over 5 years paints a grim picture of wealth distribution in Kenya. Of the country’s 43.1 million people then, 46 per cent lived below the poverty line, surviving on less than Sh172 ($2) a day.

The report shows that nearly two-thirds of Kenya’s Sh4.3 trillion ($50 billion) economy is controlled by a tiny clique of 8,300 super-wealthy individuals, highlighting the huge inequality between the rich and the poor. Without a clear understanding of these disparities, it is difficult to evaluate the currents that are conducive to the widening of this gap not to mention those that would bridge it. Hon. Koinange should be addressing these inequalities that the masses are awakening to rather than combatting the hustler narrative. Our government must be intentional in levelling the playing field, or live in perpetual fear like the British colonials who feared mass revolt across imaginary ethnic lines.

In Kenya, past injustices have yielded gross inequalities. In Reading on inequality in Kenya: Sectoral Dynamics and Perceptions, Okello and Gitau illustrate how state power is still being used to perpetuate differences in the sharing of political and economic welfare. Okello further observes that: “In a country where for a long time economic and political power was/has been heavily partisan, where the state appropriated for itself the role of being the agency for development, and where politics is highly ethnicised, the hypothesis of unequal treatment has been so easy to build.”

This, and not the euphoria of the hustler nation, is the pressure cooker that is about to explode. The horizontal manifestation of inequality stemming from the failure of state institutions and policies that have continued to allow inequalities to fester is what should be of concern to the state. How can the government not see the risk such extreme economic disparities within the population pose for the nation’s stability?

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Politics

We Didn’t Make It for You: Vaccine Nationalism and the West’s Claim to the COVID-19 Jab

Wealthy nations are actively hoarding pre-orders of the multiple vaccines, and the pharmaceutical giants from which they sprang are largely avoiding sharing their advancements with the developing world.

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We Didn’t Make It for You: Vaccine Nationalism and the West’s Claim to the COVID-19 Jab
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The sun dipped over the Nile in Jinja on New Year’s Eve. Shots were thrown back, toasts were raised, beer glasses clinking against each other. The night almost seemed like the usual run-of-the-mill end-of-year celebration, with the noticeably big exception that people kept their distance and the gates were locked to keep out roving members of the army looking to catch any reveler dumb enough to wander out mask-free past curfew and slam them with a myriad of charges until bribes were produced.

Now 2021 seems to be little more than the continuation of the cavalcade of horrors that kicked off the new decade. And once again the cynicism is proving justified. For the last couple of months, in various social settings, over various libations, statements of optimism had sprung forth regarding COVID-19 vaccine developments. These were invariably met with knowing laughter from someone at the table, an individual almost certainly all out of damns to give and sick of starry-eyed statements of global equity in these desperate and turbulent times.

And now, as if from some unexpected remnant of colonial history, it trickles out (not as a leading headline amongst the upstanding Western press) that the wealthy nations of the world are actively hoarding pre-orders of the multiple vaccines, and the pharmaceutical giants from which they sprang are largely avoiding sharing their advancements with the developing world.

It is not just the typical candidates that are guilty of this. By typical candidates I am pointing the finger at the United States, Britain, China, and France. But also at countries like Canada, which has pre-ordered enough vaccines to inject its population an estimated five times over. Are they also trying to stop the pandemic from affecting two generations of their ancestors and the local polar bear population? In fact, by mid-December last year, only 700 million doses had been secured for the entire “underdeveloped” world. That number is laughably low. Politics is being played well above people’s heads once again. Nothing has been learned, and mega-corporations are in lockstep with the very same austerity-measure-loving members of the Western political elite.

In essence, this means that pencil-pushing cheapskates in the big conference rooms of places with organizational titles like NATO, the UN and the EU are fully content to once again screw the developing world over if it doesn’t add a couple of hundred million euros to western coffers. Bailouts and massive pushes for research were fine for the good, upstanding, and largely white citizenry within their own borders. International cooperation to ensure worldwide immunity? Well, that might be a problem for those who pull the purse strings.

The only surprise with such behaviour is that there is any surprise at all within the global South. Is this not a continuing theme spread across years, regimes, decades, centuries? 2020 certainly didn’t shape up to be a boring year, dreadful though it was. It was almost enjoyable (albeit in a deeply perverse way) to watch the bullshit come flying from the mouths of nearly everyone in charge, including the deep tones of patriarchal condescension from powerful nations directed disdainfully at sub-Saharan African countries, even as their own fell into disrepair and chaos.

And isn’t it interesting that the entire global market and economic conditions truly were a series of well-constructed lies this entire time? Let me expand. In saying that the global state of affairs was a lie, it is a finger pointed squarely at the West. With a special round of kudos to the United States.

This lie has been easy to spot in media narratives, as they make little mention of smaller, less powerful nations rolling out their vaccine plans or how such goals will be attained. No. Instead, if the narrative remains that the powerful countries have defeated the virus, then it has been defeated. The rest of the issue can be quickly swept under the carpet. Out of sight, out of mind. What will the next phase look like? Will immigration restrictions on citizens of African countries get even more stringent? Will the song now be: “Well you have not been immunised against the pandemic, so surely how can you be allowed around our citizens who have?”

A darker-minded conspiracy theorist than I would almost view such a series of actions as intentional moves to quicken the crippling of “developing” nations from attaining that aspiration. Of course, citizens of such developing nations are still having their rights stripped back, curfews violently enforced, and media freedoms curtailed seemingly daily. Meanwhile, there are rumours that Kenya’s and Uganda’s rich and powerful are having their vaccines flown in on private planes. These claims are, of course, entirely unsubstantiated.

In the age of COVID-19, such governments have the perfect excuse to call on their darker nature and have their nations more fully in their grip, the economy be damned. In fact, this seems the likely option as during the daylight hours, most aspects of daily life seem to grind on utterly unimpeded. There is little logic to the current 9 p.m. curfew especially since bars, movie theaters and indoor restaurants are all allowed to keep their doors open and are largely operating as normal. With the pandemic however, one must be incredibly careful not to overstep the mark, unless they wish to face fines, jail, or more sinister off-the-record consequences.

Now, as the West and other wealthy countries stumble around in the dark in their own vaccination campaigns, one must ask, when exactly does this end for the unlucky “other” countries of the world? Are all others simply doomed to an endless half-decade of dodging curfews, watching the development wave recede and roll back and feeling the iron hand of whichever government figure decides to come down on them for breaking a newly rolled out “rule”?

Such arguments may sound like the ramblings of a conspiracy theorist but make no mistake, this is a serious issue that needs addressing. A year into the pandemic, and many world governments have not exactly done much to shield their citizens from the vast hardships that come along with lockdowns, closures, and social distancing. It seems reasonable to bet that they will not figure it out any time soon. In some instances, it seems that the efforts can be viewed as a sort of willful ignorance. To be sure, the global healthcare system will drastically change for the better in the fallout from COVID-19, but the rate at which access to future advancements will trickle down to the developing world is unclear. It seems as though many actors chosen the more protectionist and nativist camps, abandoning the spirit of “global unity” that the NGO world likes to make bumper stickers about.

With vaccination campaigns seemingly starting in earnest (and some countries such as Israel already having vaccinated 12 per cent of the population as of 3 January 2021) one could be forgiven for rolling their eyes. This seems a familiar narrative: the vaccines are being distributed to some countries while leaving others well out of the scheme. Sure, the pandemic affects all the people of the world equally, but now that there is a solution within grasp, some people are proving to be much more equal than others. Most African nations now find themselves in the unenviable position of waiting around for the West to quit dawdling and get their act together.

The US for one seems to be stumbling from one rollout hurdle to the next, a hodgepodge of state governments interacting with federal, bad, and incompetent actors. The US vaccination effort had set a target of 20 million people having received their first injection by the end of 2020. The reality? Between three and six million, at most just thirty per cent of the number targeted. It isn’t too unreasonable to predict that the US will spend the whole of 2021 trying to grab the reins and steer the COVID-19 response back into a series of workable solutions. Even while putting the US campaign to shame, several other nations’ efforts aren’t exactly stellar either. The UK, home to arguably the world’s best healthcare system, reported issues with distribution in the latter part of 2020. All these factors slow down the efforts to get the vaccine distributed globally – if that was ever part of the plan to begin with.

In the future, it will become clear that there is some blame to be laid at the feet of East African governments as well, given their dubious relationships with foreign nations and their murky tendering procedures. In the years to come, when the many trials and errors regarding vaccine distribution in sub-Saharan Africa come to light, I’m willing to put money down that at least one country will fall drastically behind in the vaccination effort, having thrown its lot in with a questionable tender worth several hundred billion shillings, only for it to emerge that all that money went to the Sinovac vaccine made by China that only has a 50.4 per cent efficacy rate.

It is yet to be seen how exactly African state actors (and their respective publics) will react to this period of global chaos, whether they will start to move away from the neo-colonial overreach of Western governments considering their bungling of the pandemic or if the old guard will remain and carry on down this new decade. As I have mentioned in previous pieces for this publication, the pandemic has illuminated something to the youth within the United States; that all the systems that they were told to comply with were built on lies. A similar sentiment seems to be taking root within several developing countries; that the current guard isn’t really in charge of anything and that the systems need to be overhauled and made more equitable if they are to last. The vaccine buy-up by the West is just a symptom of a larger disease.

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Politics

Death By Compromise: Will the Biden Administration Do What People Actually Want Or Play Politics?

If the Biden presidency is making excuses and is handicapped before even it has begun, especially during this time, then maybe it is the modern Democratic Party that is truly in jeopardy.

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Death By Compromise: Will the Biden Administration Do What People Actually Want Or Play Politics?
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The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Trump’s inherent flaw is that he failed to tap into his own political potential. Yes, he is an uncouth racist who harbours American isolationist instincts and is hell-bent on division. It would be a mistake, however, to ignore the fact that his greatest attraction was due to the economy. In essence, the real situation of many working people in the US had grown so difficult that out of desperation they threw in their lot with a two-bit huckster who claimed that he could make all their empty-wallet woes disappear into the ether of history. Now upper middle class liberals in places like Seattle, Washington, Madison, Wisconsin and the suburbs of New York City are scratching their heads and wondering just how, how could so many millions still vote for this abomination after all that has happened during his time in the White House?

There has been an outright refusal by many on the left to acknowledge that the Trump base are anything but hidden racists, now magically freed to unmask themselves by some sort of Orange Pied Piper. Now as the Trump camp closes shop and flies away from the White House in shame, Biden is beginning his presidential term under deeply bizarre circumstances. The election victory, the transition and the first few weeks of the Democratic administration were met with some jubilation, but overall the response to Biden’s victory was rather tepid, especially when compared to the response that greeted Obama.

So why the underlying feeling of trepidation? It could have something to do with the well-deserved hand-wringing coming from the left wing of the party, seemingly left out in the cold for the last several months (at least since they were largely locked out of the Democratic National Convention last August). They had been promised a seat at the table, but that chair appears to have been lost in the move. What does this mean exactly?

Well, the Biden team and cabinet is being packed with the same type of lobbyists, centrists, supporters of the Iraq war and even billionaire Democrats disenchanted with the Obama administration who helped to turn the tide against Hillary Clinton during the 2016 race. One Washington insider quipped that the cabinet picks for the Biden administration looked like a guest list for a bourgeois dinner party in the upper crust Washington DC neighbourhood of Georgetown. It includes some of the same minds that helped to walk back the Obama White House from a more progressive agenda. Already Democrats are walking back the very promises that brought them to power — such as promising US$2000 cheques and now floating “hopefully US$1400, because the US$600 sent in early January and the new round of US$1400 would equal US$2000”. This goes against Occam’s razor principle, where the simplest solution is usually the right one. In this instance, the smart thing to do would be to send the full amount immediately, because a desperate public doesn’t give a damn about technocratic reasoning and austerity measures. In America’s skewed political structure, the prospect of the Democrats staying in long-term control of the US government is tenuous at best.

For example, in a year absolutely stuffed to the brim with progressive sentiments and activism across the US, why did the Democrat-controlled House actually lose seats (narrowing their majority)? As projections were touted across the media for months on end, and innumerable polls read the tea leaves to project an utterly massive Democratic win in the US Senate, the forecasts proved utterly wrong. In the end, the Democrats took the Senate by flipping Georgia’s two seats in January, but back in November several infamous Republicans, projected as vulnerable, held onto their seats by wide margins of victory.

Now Biden is already falling into the trap of being too bipartisan — a concept that doesn’t yield results and doesn’t truly affect anyone’s day-to-day lives. Republicans sure as hell don’t do bipartisan. In fact, Mitch McConnell, the controversial Senate minority leader from the state of Kentucky, had given himself the awkward moniker of the Grim Reaper during the Obama years, focusing solely on killing off any legislation that the Democratic Party brought forward, resulting in stagnation, political fallout and economic destitution for millions — and all that was before the scourge of COVID-19 revealed America’s system to be a mere façade of a true empire.

If this is the way forward, then the US is truly in dire straits and Biden may easily face another Trump-esque arch-conservative again in four years, or perhaps even Trump himself; he seems intent on positioning himself as a media figure, holding continuous rallies, never admitting that he truly lost, and then riding down another escalator some time in June of 2022. If the Biden presidency is making excuses and is handicapped before even beginning, especially during this time, then maybe it is the modern Democratic Party that is truly in jeopardy.

To put it bluntly, there are absolutely massive problems facing the US right now, ones that could well put an end to its status as a global leader and reputation as a democracy. This winter has thrown tens of thousands into starvation, cast millions into poverty and consolidated power further in the tentacled grasp of a corporate elite. COVID-19 killed over 100,000 Americans during the month of January 2021 alone. Now the status quo has returned to Washington DC, but the Democratic elite are acting as though that is a good thing, not seeing that the writing on the wall has been there since the financial crisis of 2008, a groundswell of populism that will soon be hard to ignore.

Rather than doing away with archaic filibuster and trying to confer statehood on DC and Puerto Rico and instead immediately passing a massive economic stimulus package, the Democrats are dithering and posturing with austerity-tinged deals and half measures that accord Republicans some sort of input. There could be very serious repercussions for the left wing and the right wing in two years if political action is not taken to get both the economic crisis and the pandemic under control within the next few months.

Looking ahead, however, it seems as though once again the youth will be blamed for whatever future is to come in the political landscape. It will be claimed that they will not have voted in large enough numbers (despite the rates being similar for nearly every single election amongst voters under 30 since the 1950s). They’ll be called lazy, entitled, ignorant, and the argument will be made for incremental change by an assortment of millionaire octogenarian figures within the Democratic leadership.

The progressive wing has already been blamed by the more conservative elements of the party for it not being a wide enough victory, with Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger of Virginia (who used to work for the CIA and represents some of the richest people in America) stating in a taped conference call in the days after the November general election that if progressive ideals (or the specter of socialism) are put on the ballot, then Democratic candidates will get “fucking torn apart in the 2022 election”. This despite the fact that it was the more centrist candidates who faced tougher competition in their election bids, and the further to the left a candidate was, the better they performed overall.

So why would a multitude of people vote in the next midterm elections in 2022 or the next presidential election in 2024? The phrase “getting turned on” inherently means that some effort has been made, something has turned you on to that idea or cause to propel you to join or vote for it. Such are the problems that the current party is grappling with. It is bogged down in partisan signaling and identity-based politics, while not actually advancing any progressive agenda, blaming the youth and the far left that could save them from their underperformance in the United States congressional races, and refusing to negotiate meaningful stimulus packages to revive a US economy that has been in the COVID-19-drenched economic doldrums since 2020.

The Democrats have pigeonholed themselves as a middling, tedious political entity, one that turns people off in droves and panders to the wealthier coastal suburbanites. The numbers don’t lie; while they had projected that adding Kamala Harris to the vice presidential slot would bolster their bloc amongst minorities, this didn’t play out, and Latinos, Blacks and Asian Americans voted for Biden at a lower rate than they did for Clinton in 2016. The question goes unanswered: could voters be more concerned about their economic standing during a pandemic-induced depression than about the racial makeup of the candidate on the ticket? Such thoughts can easily get one removed from the good graces of the current Democratic establishment, even as the possibility of rallying their base seems to diminish by the day.

For starters, anyone vaguely on the left already despises Donald J. Trump, and felt that way even before the last 11 disastrous months. The Democratic Party didn’t need to convince anyone here, but the Biden team spent most of the primaries solely attacking Trump for being the useless self-obsessed goon that he is. They then proceeded to not hammer him nearly hard enough when the disaster truly arrived, instead leaning back into the tropes of tired-eyed neo-conservatives from the George W. Bush era (some of the same talking heads who pushed messaging for the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars) and continuously beaming over advertisements coming from anti-Trump Republicans like the “Lincoln Project”. More centrist media outlets like MSNBC fawned over these “high-minded idealists” and simultaneously ridiculed left-wing figures for questioning if this would truly be a progressive administration.

This is an avoidable issue, but as the leadership within Congress (House Majority leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer) can’t be moved from their messaging, this slow-moving car is heading for a cliff. Biden can either push the pedal down to the floor and drive off to an untimely death or pull the emergency brake and change course.

Democrats could have run on the progressive economic policies that they tip-toed around during this last horrifying year. They could have at least pretended to embrace a sweeping set of policies unseen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. If they had, there is a very real possibility that their lead in the House would have increased and they would have at least been able to flip the Senate. They didn’t. Instead they bowed to outside interests and fucked around politically, even leaving stimulus on the table. Now, the same crowd that pushed for bombing Libya under Obama is back into the fold, all within the same umbrella of a “well needed return to normalcy”. Normal sucks in America.

The real middle class has been dying for a long time, but it seems the Biden administration can’t actually wrap their heads around this fact. Instead, it seems as though they’ll be content to simply reverse some of Trump’s uglier policies and call it a winning formula. In fact, that’s exactly what Biden did on day one of his administration instead of passing executive orders regarding COVID-19.

So, if the Democratic Party continues on the trajectory they are on, who exactly do they intend to turn on? If anything, millions have been utterly turned off by the state of politics in the United States, and if an individual doesn’t stand to actually benefit, what is the benefit of supporting a political party? Back to normal shouldn’t have been the banner of the Democratic party in 2020; it should have been like the title of a horror movie to be run away from as quickly as can be messaged by PR officials in the corridors of the United States capitol.

Tragedies earn their names by reflecting the failures that weren’t overcome although they could have been. In years to come, the fear shouldn’t be Trump himself per se — he was much too incapable to be an outright authoritarian, and too big a coward to really make such moves anyway. It should be the fear of those for whom Trump was the unwieldy flagbearer.

The worry should really be: who will come after Trump? With all of the so-called “rising stars” on the right wing in the US right now, someone will crawl out of the primordial ooze to usurp an aging Donald Trump. Could such a figure manage to turn on a large enough swath of Millennial and Generation Z voters distraught at the economic conditions brought on by previous generations, and in less than four years from now sweep to a landslide victory over Joe Biden/Kamala Harris/another middling Democrat who doesn’t inspire?

What if the next one is some kind of ultra-conservative Evangelical someone with all of the idealism of a Vice President Mike Pence and none of the soul-sucking lack of charisma? What kind of irreversible damage could such a figure actually do? Not all totalitarians are useless, some are altogether efficient.

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