On the right-hand corner at the top of Policing Lens, the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA)’s quarterly newsletter, two heavily padded policemen positioned inside the frame of a magnifying glass are holding shields branded ‘Police’. The duo have their baton-wielding fists raised in the air, poised to descend on a seemingly already subdued civilian lying motionless on the ground. This surreal image ushers one into IPOA’s world, a Freudian admission that the National Police Service (NPS) may not be as transformed from what it used to be when it was known as the Kenya Police Force – still deploying brawn in place of brain.
This disturbing yet at once candid logo subconsciously summarises IPOA’s statement of intent, which is that the statutory agency is not afraid of confronting the dark history and the not-so-squeaky-clean present day state of affairs within the police, an unflattering confession they are willing to make publicly. Conversely, the choice of IPOA’s optics could be (mis)construed as an act of concession, confirming that despite its far-reaching powers and mandate, IPOA, just like the overpowered civilian victim of police brutality, remains subdued by police excesses.
Yet the need for IPOA to live up to its full mandate cannot be gainsaid.
Waki, Alston and Ransley
During the 29 May 2009 United Nations Human Rights Council sitting in Geneva, Switzerland, Prof. Philip Alston, the then UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, faced a dilemma. Coming merely two months after his inaugural Kenya working tour, Prof. Alston was calling for the investigation of the Kenya Police Force in a case where it was suspected of involvement in the execution of two human rights defenders. But as he pushed for an investigation into the police, Prof. Alston regretted that as things stood at the time (and maybe as they still stand to date), it was impossible to investigate the police.
Prof. Alston wrote: ‘‘As there is, according inter alia to the report of the Commission of Inquiry into Post-Election Violence (CIPEV, pages 420-421), no existing independent unit capable of effectively and credibly investigating possible police misconduct in Kenya, we consider it imperative that an independent investigation be carried out with support from a foreign police force.’’
Prof. Alston was partly basing his observation on the October 2008 Commission of Inquiry into Post-Election Violence (CIPEV) report authored by Court of Appeal Judge Philip Waki, who chaired the CIPEV, otherwise referred to as the Waki Commission. Apart from pointing out the extent to which it was impossible to investigate the police for suspected police-inflicted deaths and injuries, the Waki Commission showed the extent to which the police were suspected of serious human rights violations during the 2007/2008 post-election violence, where one in every three of the 1,133 deaths documented by CIPEV were as a result of bullet wounds. These figures, though supported by morgue data, were disputed by the Commissioner of Police, Maj. Gen. Hussein Ali, who knew of only 616 deaths, emphatically telling CIPEV that only the police could give authoritative figures for those who died as a result of the post-election violence.
The Waki Commission showed the extent to which the police were suspected of serious human rights violations during the 2007/2008 post-election violence, where one in every three of the 1,133 deaths documented by CIPEV were as a result of bullet wounds.
It was under these circumstances that CIPEV recommended the establishment of an “Independent Police Conduct Authority” outside the police, with the legislative power and authority to investigate complaints against the police and police conduct. By the time Alston was suggesting international investigation of police killings, nothing had happened to implement CIPEV’s crucial recommendation, but his report now made it imperative to establish an independent police oversight agency to curtail future contemplation of seeking foreign investigative assistance.
As if pre-empting Prof. Alston’s May 29 presentation in Geneva on 7 May 2009, President Mwai Kibaki tasked Justice (retired) Philip Ransley to look into concerns raised by the other two Philips – Alston and Waki – by appointing him to chair the National Task Force on Police Reforms. Ransley’s Commission aimed ‘‘to examine existing policies and institutional structures of the police, and to recommend comprehensive reforms that would enhance effectiveness, professionalism and accountability in the police services.’’ Ransley was given 90 days, and in October 2009, having wrapped up his hearings, Ransley handed his report, which contained a whopping 200 recommendations, to the head of state.
Ransley asked for, among other things, terminological change seeking the establishment of the National Police Service (NPS), a change from the scandal-ridden Kenya Police Force. The idea was to shift the mindset of the police towards civilians, a change from always resorting to force in the course of duty to one of offering a professional service. This was to also influence civilians’ perception of the police, from that of antagonism to one of co-operation and collaboration. Ransley similarly asked for the setting up of the National Police Service Commission (NPSC), tasked with overseeing the human resource component of the NPS, starting from recruitment, appointments, promotions, and general welfare of the police, away from the Public Service Commission (PSC), which previously handled these responsibilities.
More importantly, and in responding to Alston’s and Waki’s concerns, Ransley recommended the establishment of the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), a civilian body mandated by law to keep the proposed NPS in check. In imagining an ideal scenario, Ransley envisioned an IPOA to watch over financial spending by the NPS; ensure the NPS adhered to international best practices in policing; receive and initiate investigations into complaints on police misconduct; monitor, review and audit police investigations; as well as coordinate other institutions on issues of police oversight, among other things.
That Ransley’s task force completed its work within 90 days and submitted its report soon thereafter came as a surprise to sceptics, including those within the diplomatic corps. This was evidenced in a WikiLeaks cable originating from the US embassy in Nairobi, which read:
‘‘…However, several prominent persons have expressed doubts about the government’s motives in establishing the PRC. They note that the PRC’s short 90-day mandate is far too little for such a massive task and that Police Commissioner Hussein Ali will act to thwart all but superficial reforms. We share some of these doubts, but will take a wait-and-see approach, recognizing that the PRC provides an opportunity – the only one at this time – for much-needed police reform. The UK shares our doubts, but will support the commission financially by paying for a UK and a Commonwealth police expert to serve on the PRC. If the GOK acts to implement real reform we are positioned to support the effort with funds….’’
The Americans and the British might have had valid reasons to second guess the intentions in setting up the Ransley task force, referred to erroneously in the WikiLeaks cable as the Police Reform Commission (PRC). A few months earlier, before the appointment of Ransley and his team on 7 May 2009, the then powerful Minister of State for Internal Security and Provincial Administration, Prof. George Saitoti, had placed a mischievous announcement in the Kenya Gazette, Notice Number 8144 of September 2008. The alert was about a Police Oversight Board, a proposed agency populated by presidential appointees, which the minister wanted domiciled in his ministry, and whose members – named in the gazette notice – the minister had powers to dismiss at will. This therefore meant that the mandate to oversee the police would remain within the state, under the same ministry as the police, a bad attempt at pseudo self-regulation. Prof. Saitoti’s actions seemed pre-emptive.
At around the same time, the non-statutory Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), among others, was busy singing the chorus of the establishment of a civilian police oversight body. In fact, the KHRC had gone as far as drafting a bill proposing the creation of the Police Oversight Board, a name and concept which the minister appropriated. The difference was that the KHRC was proposing an autonomous civilian agency, while the minister wanted to create an appendage of the police within his portfolio. It was these sorts of cat-and-mouse games that eroded credibility on efforts by the state towards police reforms, setting the stage for doubting Thomases as Ransley got working.
Further, in revelations contained in the aforementioned WikiLeaks cable, Prof. Saitoti was reported to have told the US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Johnnie Carson, that what was needed in police reform was ‘‘evolution, not revolution’’. The minister had also been quoted – utterances he denied having ever made – saying that only “normal reforms are required [like] looking into the welfare of officers, adequate facilities to increase the morale and efficiency” of the police. This strategy, of doing cosmetic reforms by focusing on the more bureaucratic end of things as opposed to delving into the more substantive questions of police violations, is one which would later be used to keep IPOA distracted from its core mandate.
The Inaugural Term
On 27 August 2010, almost a year after Ransley’s task force submitted its report to President Mwai Kibaki, Kenya promulgated a new constitution. With the new legal regime in place, and staying true to Ransley’s recommendations, Parliament passed the IPOA Act (Act No. 35 of 2011), legislation which paved way for the establishment of the Independent Police Oversight Authority (IPOA). This was a huge milestone. Other than South Africa’s Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), there remains no other policing oversight agency in Africa.
However, rather than looking to South Africa, IPOA heavily borrowed its architecture from the UK’s Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), formerly the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). This was possibly a direct result of the input by the British expert seconded to the Ransley task force, as explicitly intimated in the WikiLeaks cable. Consequently, IPOA’s objectives were outlined in Section 5 of the Act thus:
- a) Hold the Police accountable to the public in the performance of their functions;
- b) Give effect to the provision of Article 244 of the Constitution that the Police shall strive for professionalism and discipline and shall promote and practice transparency and accountability; and
- c) Ensure independent oversight of the handling of complaints by the Service.
In adhering to the Act’s requirements on the hiring of the IPOA board, the president, through Kenya Gazette notices 6938 and 6939 of 22 May 2012, appointed IPOA’s inaugural chairman and the agency’s board members, who were all sworn in on 4 June 2012. Ransley’s team had outlined the composition of the board to include two persons with experience in public administration, alongside individuals with knowledge in financial management, corporate management, human rights, and one with experience in religious leadership. The board’s chairperson had to be someone qualified to be appointed a judge of the High Court of Kenya.
Further, in revelations contained in the aforementioned WikiLeaks cable, Prof. Saitoti was reported to have told the US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Johnnie Carson, that what was needed in police reform was ‘‘evolution, not revolution’’.
As fate would have it, Macharia Njeru, currently a member of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), who had served as a member of the Ransley task force, was picked as IPOA’s first chairman. One would have imagined that having been part of the Ransley team, Njeru would hit the ground running, having had the advantage of being one of the agency’s draftsmen. However, by the end of his board’s six-year term, Njeru’s team came under heavy criticism,for what was considered an utterly dismal performance, especially by victims of police excesses.
During its inaugural term, IPOA received an average of four serious complaints a day. As a result, the common refrain against the agency was that of the almost 10,000 cases of police misconduct reported to it, IPOA had only secured a paltry three convictions. These were: High Court Criminal Case No. 41 of 2014 (Republic Vs Inspector of Police Veronicah Gitahi and Police Constable Issa Mzee, and Criminal Appeal No. 23 of 2016 (Inspector of Police Veronicah Gitahi and Police Constable Issa Mzee Vs Republic), and High Court Case No. 78 of 2014 (Titus Ngamau Musila).
Pundits argue that strictly speaking, these were two convictions. In the first case, two police officers were convicted, thereafter appealing the ruling. They lost at the appellate court, a development which saw IPOA count the double loss by the officers as two wins on its part.
During its inaugural term, IPOA received an average of four serious complaints a day. As a result, the common refrain against the agency was that of the almost 10,000 cases of police misconduct reported to it, IPOA had only secured a paltry three convictions.
By 30 April 2018, when the inaugural board’s mandate was just coming to a close, the agency had received a total of 9,878 complaints. These were both from members of the public and from within the police service. Of these, 5,085 were classified as needing to be investigated. The rest, as per IPOA’s breakdown of the numbers, were referred to the Internal Affairs Unit of the National Police Service (748 cases), IPOA’s inspections and monitoring directorate (364 cases), the National Police Service (249 cases), the National Police Service Commission (319 cases), the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (41 cases), Officers Commanding Police Stations (370 cases), the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (289 cases), and another 312 cases were shared between the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, the National Land Commission, and the Commission of Administrative Justice (Office of the Ombudsman).
Of the 5,085 cases meant for investigations, 752 were reported to have been investigated and completed, 458 were closed preliminarily, 72 were still under investigation, 76 were under legal review by IPOA, 103 were forwarded to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, 11 were sent to the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, with 6 referred to the National Police Service. Furthermore, 459 complaints were dismissed as falling outside IPOA’s mandate, 1,642 cases were closed for what IPOA terms ‘‘withdrawal by complainants; matters before Court; not actionable; and insufficient information.’’ 64 cases were before the courts.
As of March 2019, the total number of cases reported to IPOA stood at 12,781, with 136 cases taken to court. In a mark of progress, three more convictions have been added to IPOA’s tally since the new board took office in September 2018. It goes without saying that the new board is to a large extent building on the groundwork done by their predecessors, meaning by the end of the six-year mandate, IPOA’s second board should have better figures in comparison.
By any account, IPOA’s 2012–2018 numbers are mind-boggling, its paltry three convictions not doing much in terms of building confidence within the aggrieved civilian population. As a matter of fact, naysayers will be forgiven for thinking the numbers being thrown around are all a well-choreographed game of smoke and mirrors, a case of motion without movement.
However, the question one may want to ask is, was IPOA set up for failure from the word go?
While listening to Macharia Njeru campaigning to be picked as the male representative of the Law Society of Kenya in the Judicial Service Commission, it became obvious that the one talking point IPOA’s inaugural chairman wouldn’t let go of was that he had successfully built an institution from scratch.
Njeru’s exit message as his term came to a close was on how much he, his board and IPOA’s senior staffers had worked in putting in place systems. There was talk of financial management awards, all bureaucratic shenanigans – not unimportant but neither were they IPOA’s core mandate. There was certainly need for institution building, but at what expense did this happen? Did Njeru’s team sacrifice IPOA’s primary oversight responsibility at the altar of corporatism, or was it a trap set for him from the word go – to keep him busy paper pushing and not allow his team adequate time and resources to focus on police misconduct?
When looking at IPOA’s founding financials – an annual budget of Sh96 million (US$ 960,000) in 2012/2013 – it is clear that from the beginning one of the ways the state wished to put the agency on a tight leash was by limiting its budgetary allocations. Seeing that the agency needed to build from the bottom up – hire premises, recruit and train staffers, establish regional offices, among other day-to-day operational logistics, it was evident that with a paltry financial allocation, the board would be kept busy micromanaging budget line items as police violations went through the roof. For instance, it is astonishing to note that in 2013, IPOA could only hire an initial staff of six people.
Possibly seeing that the agency had fallen into the institution-building-at-the-expense-of-its-core-mandate trap, IPOA’s budget eventually grew to Sh696 million in 2017/2018 and Sh800 million in 2018/2019, barely Sh1,000 (US$10) per complaint per day, and definitely an insignificant amount of money considering the scope of oversight expected of the agency. By the time Njeru’s team was leaving, IPOA had acquired a total of 27 motor vehicles – a number one might find laughable, seeing that IPOA’s operations needed to cover the entire country – and had a staff roster of a mere 143 employees. How was such an institution, even if perfectly structured, capable of overseeing a National Police Service that recruited an average of 10,000 police officers on an annual basis? Would IPOA ever be fit for purpose?
In 2014, the board developed a four-year strategic plan to coincide with its 2018 exit. The plan was built around four pillars, namely compliance by the police with human rights standards; restored public confidence and trust in police; improved detention facilities; a functional Internal Affairs Unit (IAU) of the National Police Service; and a model institution on policing in Africa. In its usual brick and motor state of mind, IPOA reported that ‘‘it is pleased that the National Police Service has secured an office for the IAU, and indications are that the Unit will be operational by August 2018.’’ Other than that, it is anyone’s guess as to whether any of the other targets were satisfactorily achieved under the strained circumstances the agency was operating under.
By all means, IPOA’s inaugural term had too many moving parts that kept the agency busy, thereby making it drop the ball on many occasions regarding delivery of its core mandate to civilians, who continue to suffer in the hands of rogue elements within the National Police Service. According to Wangui Kimari of the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC), and as has become a common refrain in Kenyan society today, vitu kwa ground ni different (reality bites). For starters, IPOA is not perceived as a friend of the civilians, thanks to its one-size-fits-all bureaucracies.
‘‘Victims of police brutality and families of those killed by the police in places like Mathare and Korogocho are weary of going to report their complaints to IPOA for many reasons,’’ Wangui told me when we met in Nairobi. ‘‘Some of them are broke, they cannot even afford bus fare, yet they are expected to go to IPOA’s intimidating head office to make a statement. Once at IPOA, the majority of the complainants, who are either illiterate or semi-literate, will always be harassed for either not filing their complaints properly or for leaving out crucial information. It is in filling these gaps that trusted grassroots organisations such as the social justice centers come into the picture, but even after lodging the complaints properly, the long periods of time which lapse before IPOA moves on the cases is discouraging to the victims and their families.’’
In a word, IPOA’s operations are not fit for purpose since its user experience remains wanting.
According to Gacheke Gachihi, an MSJC activist, IPOA needs to have its tentacles in places such as Mathare, which record some of the highest numbers of extrajudicial killings. It is public knowledge that informal settlements in Nairobi have well-known killer cops, some whom go as far as parading their past, present and future conquests on social media. To Gacheke, the fact that IPOA does not have outposts in places like Mathare shows its top-bottom approach to oversight, where instead of going to the ground, the agency keeps to its air-conditioned offices.
‘‘IPOA needs to come and be in the midst of the people who need it most,’’ Gacheke told me. ‘‘Their presence here can work as a deterrent to rogue police officers. If they think residents of Mathare flood their registry, they will be surprised at the many cases which go unreported.’’
According to Gacheke Gachihi, an MSJC activist, IPOA needs to have its tentacles in places such as Mathare, which record some of the highest numbers of extrajudicial killings. It is public knowledge that informal settlements in Nairobi have well-known killer cops, some whom go as far as parading their past, present and future conquests on social media.
In the opinion of some front line human rights aficionados who wished to remain anonymous – they do not wish to sanitise IPOA’s arrogance with a comment – IPOA’s biggest shortfall has been its opacity. They claim IPOA behaves as if it is ignorant of the fact that for it to succeed it needs to operate within an ecosystem comprising all kinds of stakeholders nurtured by trust. It is this sense of indifference from IPOA, they say, which has resulted in disengagement by human rights defenders, who are getting completely disinterested in IPOA’s work processes. ‘‘They never answer calls or reply to emails,’’ one of them told me. ‘‘It is a complete disgrace.’’
The other battle on IPOA’s plate is that of perception. Wangui told me that when she brought mothers and widows of victims of extrajudicial killings to IPOA’s open day, the majority of them did not want to come close, since they considered IPOA as part of the National Police Service. ‘‘They wouldn’t go to the IPOA stand,’’ Wangui told me, ‘‘because to them, hao ni polisi.’’
The Missing Repository
According to leading human rights lawyer Sam Mohochi – previously executive director of the Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU) and immediate former executive director of the Kenyan Section of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ-K) – any suspicious death, and particularly death at the hands of or while in the custody of the police or of a prison officer, should automatically trigger a Magistrate’s Inquest under Sections 386 and 387 of the Criminal Procedure Code. In Mohochi’s view, IPOA should therefore be the undisputed repository for all such cases in instances where the police are involved, such that IPOA either exonerates or implicates them.
‘‘All custodial deaths should result in an inquiry being instituted,’’ Mohochi told me in Nairobi. ‘‘But you will notice that as things stand, IPOA does not comply with provisions of the law.’’
‘‘If you look at most cases of extrajudicial killings in Kenya, unless the family or other actors complain, no automatic legal action occurs,’’ Mohochi told me. ‘‘But two, now bring in IPOA. All such cases are automatically expected to be referred to IPOA, directly, by the police. That then means that in IPOA’s progress reports, the agency should always indicate how many such cases have been forwarded to it, by the police. Unfortunately, if you look at IPOA’s progress reports, they are completely silent on that. Yet that would have been the repository where you could keep tally of extrajudicial killings, irrespective of whether investigations are complete or not. That way, there could be a credible tally of encounter killings by the police, reported by the police. What we mostly have are statistics of cases reported by victims, against the police.’’
In Mohochi’s opinion, the ideal situation in cases where police bullets have been used to either harm or kill civilians should be that the Officer Commanding Station (OCS) who is in charge of the police in a given jurisdiction should be the one to forward any suspicious police action to IPOA as a measure of accountability. This means that if the police abuse their powers in a locality and the OCS does not report it to IPOA, then the agency should have punitive measures in dealing with such a non-compliant OCS.
And if dealing with an OCS gets cumbersome – which should not be the case since IPOA has statutory powers – then IPOA should at the very least have its own investigators stationed at every police station in order for the agency to get first-hand accounts of police excesses, which are then forwarded to the agency’s legal and investigative units. Failure to do this, Mohochi says, will result in the majority of police violations to go unreported; even if they get reported, there will always be the evidential challenge since the police, in protecting each other, will neither secure the crime scene nor get witness statements of their own volition.
‘‘IPOA should issue a circular to all police stations,’’ Mohochi told me, ‘‘that should any case of extrajudicial killings occur, they need to be notified immediately. Failure to do so, even IPOA’s own investigators will not find it easy investigating a non-cooperative police service.’’
Further, Mohochi told me, what IPOA is doing – documenting police violations and prosecuting rogue officers – is something that was already being done by non-state actors. However, the establishment of IPOA was meant to scale things up in terms of convictions, something which is not happening. In Mohochi’s recollection, police officers have been jailed before IPOA came into place, but IPOA was meant to act as a bigger deterrent through higher conviction rates. If this is not attainable, Mohochi fears that IPOA will not be serving the purpose it was founded for.
The Evidence Puzzle
Over the years, and as intimated by Mohochi, insufficient evidence has remained one of the prominent bottlenecks in litigating against police violations in cases of extrajudicial killings. For the most part, aside from entities such as the Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU), who were for a long time the go-to place for independent, credible autopsies, especially in public interest cases, attempts to prosecute the police either by IPOA or other actors have run into headwinds for lack of admissible evidence on the cause and circumstance of death. As such, the passing of the National Coroners Service Act of 2017 came as a huge relief for both human rights defenders and evidence-based agencies such as IPOA. This meant that in the event of any suspicious deaths, then there would be a legally mandated entity which would take up the matter, preserve the evidence, institute an inquiry, after which prosecutorial steps can follow.
According to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) handbook on the Act, much as the Kenyan version of the coroner’s office will not be quasi-judicial, as an important starting point, the Act establishes a framework for investigations and determination of the cause of reported unnatural deaths in the country. Some of the anticipated quick wins are that obstruction of investigations, bearing false witness, and refusal to comply with directions from the coroner will be things of the past.
Further, the Act provides immunity from civil and criminal prosecution, or any other administrative action for that matter, for those who give evidence to the coroner. This is a huge improvement from the current reliance on Sections 385-387 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which provide for an inquest in cases of suspicious deaths, but does not have the sorts of far-reaching powers provided by the Act. Unfortunately for IPOA and its civilian complainants, and in that typical Kenyan self-sabotage fashion, since the signing of the Act into law in July 2017, it remains gathering dust, and is still not operationalised.
The Recruitment Charade
However, after everything is said and done, one of IPOA’s persisting headaches remains the almost always scandalous police recruitment exercise. It goes without saying that if the National Police Service keeps filling its ranks with individuals not suited for policing, then no matter what interventions IPOA resorts to, its in-tray will forever remain full of cases of police misconduct by rogue officers, persons who were never fit to be part of the service from the word go. To date, no matter what IPOA or other statutory watchdog agencies like the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) do, the problem of shoddy police recruitment has kept recurring, courtesy of the now perfected selective application of recruitment guidelines.
For starters, recruitment of police officers is the sole prerogative of the National Police Service Commission (NPSC), as recommended by the Ransley task force. However, the law allows the NPSC some discretion, through which it can delegate this responsibility to the Inspector General of Police. This, however, should not be a recipe for subpar recruitment, because the recruitment process should be strictly guided by the NPSC’s Legal Notice No. 41 of 2015. The legal regulations contain general provisions, recruitment categories, gender, regional and ethnic balance requirements, functions of the NPSC in the recruitment, advertising timelines and positions to be advertised for, contents of the advertisement, composition of recruitment panels, calendar of activities for the entire recruitment process, determination of successful candidates, disqualifications, a complaints management system, training schedule and issuance of certificates upon appointment, and submission of the recruitment report to Parliament.
More importantly, Regulations 11-15 of the Legal Notice prescribe a two-tier recruitment process, where in the initial stage, interested candidates submit applications to the NPSC, which having considered education qualifications, gender and ethnic balance, et cetera, is then required to shortlist three times the number of prospective officers it wishes to enlist at each of the recruitment centers. These names are then meant to be shared with the public so that any objections about the recruitment of any individual can be brought forth. Thereafter, the NPSC is supposed to conduct verification of documents as well as medical and physical aptitude examinations. Taking into consideration how rigorous the process should be, from the time of advertisement of vacancies to when the new recruits report to training, Regulation 17 of the Legal Notice provides for a 90-day period for completion of the recruitment cycle.
Unfortunately, the NPSC and the Inspector General of Police have continued practising their traditional one-day recruitment exercises, where they focus not on intellectual aptitude, as the two-tier processes envisions, but give prominence to physical attributes. Aside from that, flawed advertisement processes, lack of public participation, cases of bribery and patronage, and the locking out of observers – who are mandated by law to have access to the entire recruitment process – continue to be the order of the day.
In July 2014, the newly established IPOA took a bold step by taking the NPSC to court after it observed incidents of corruption, fraud and massive irregularities during recruitment. IPOA sought for nullification of the entire exercise, prayers which were granted by the High Court. On appeal, IPOA’s victory was upheld by the Court of Appeal under Petition No. 390 of 2014 and Civil Appeal No. 324 of 2014 (The Recruitment Decisions). According to those in the know, the government did not look at IPOA’s actions favourably, resulting in reported cases of not-so-subtle intimidation, with strong attempts at creating factions within the IPOA board.
Unfortunately, the NPSC and the Inspector General of Police have continued practising their traditional one-day recruitment exercises, where they focus not on intellectual aptitude, as the two-tier processes envisions, but give prominence to physical attributes.
In a sad turn of events, neither the NPSC nor the Inspector General of Police seemed to have learnt their lesson. Two years later, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) released a comprehensive report titled ‘‘DisService to the Service: Report of the Monitoring of the 2016 Recruitment of Police Constables to the National Police Service’’, in which it extensively observed that police recruitment continued being marred with serious irregularities characterised by interference from the executive arm of government and a total disregard of the two-tier process, which is meant to attract a higher calibre of trainee officers.
In one of its pleadings, the KNCHR wrote, ‘‘The continuous lack of adherence to follow the two-tier process means that achieving professionalism within the National Police Service will remain a pipe dream. The recruitment process serves as the point of entry into the service, and thus any attempts at professionalising the service should begin at this level.’’
Therefore under the prevailing circumstances, where regulations are ignored at will by the highest organs of the state, IPOA will remain a lame-duck mitigating force inside a garbage-in garbage-out setup.
This report is a criminal human rights reporting project of Africa Uncensored and the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).
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John Magufuli: The Death of a Denier-in-Chief
Late president John Magafuli never was the anti-corruption saviour international media claimed.
Tanzania, a country that produced Julius Nyerere, is a country tottering on the precipice of a pandemic catastrophe. The philosopher-president ruled for 23 years and put the nation on the international map as a frontline state that stood up to Apartheid South Africa and helped liberate modern Uganda by ridding it of Idi Amin.
With the abrupt death of its populist president John Magufuli on March 17, 2021, ostensibly from a COVID-19 related ailment, Tanzania finds itself at a crossroads, insofar as tackling the devasting disease is concerned. Magufuli who was the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, became the denier-in-chief of COVID-19. The disease has decimated scores of Tanzanians, including top government officials.
Magufuli was hailed as a tough anti-corruption crusader, as he entered state house in 2015. Ordinary Tanzanians initially saw him as their saviour in the fight against institutionalised state corruption. The international media also saw him as a man keen on tackling state corruption, “but Magufuli was all about optics,” said a Tanzanian journalist. “He wasn’t fighting state corruption pers se, what he was doing was to get rid of Jakaya Kikwete’s (immediate former president) networks in the government and replace with his own. So, it was just a matter of time before Tanzanians and the world realised Magufuli was just interested in musical chairs.”
Magufuli was re-elected on October 28, 2020 in one of the most controversial post-Nyerere’s Tanzania elections with a whopping 84 percent. His “true colours” revealed themselves after Benjamin Mkapa’s death in July 2020. After mourning the ex-president, Magufuli turned his attention to the business of crippling the opposition.
Magufuli was a protégé of Mkapa who served as president between 1995–2005. It was Mkapa, who in 2015, prevailed on the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM, ‘Party of the Revolution’) national executive council (NEC) to pick newcomer Magufuli as its flagbearer for what was to be a hotly contested general election in October 2015. Magufuli was then primed to run against Edward Lowassa, a CCM stalwart, who had bolted to Chama Cha Democrasia na Maendeleo (CHADEMA), after not clinching the CCM ticket, in which he was touted as one of the hot favourites.
The “true colours” was the ruthlessness with which Magufuli pursued the opposition in the lead-up to the presidential elections. That massive victory came in the backdrop of President Magufuli’s continuous campaigns since being inaugurated as the fifth president in 2015. “Magufuli never stopped campaigning,” said a Tanzanian journalist: “He rode on the wave of populism – dishing out money and favours to select supporters and well-choreographed individuals wherever he went.”
The 2020 Magufuli campaigns were a mirror-image of his mentor’s similar campaigns in 2000. Just like Mkapa’s mission was to presumably pulverize the nascent opposition, Magufuli’s mission 20 years later was similarly to ensure that the “irritating” opposition is no more and is, literary ran out of town. Mkapa in the October 2000 elections unleashed so much violence on the opposition that many of its supporters sought exile in neighbouring Kenya, after the elections.
Mkapa’s use of unmitigated force by Jeshi la Polisi (Tanzania has a police force, as opposed to a police service) and Field Force Unit (FFU), a paramilitary outfit much like Kenya’s dreaded General Service Unit (GSU) was unprecedented in Tanzanian politics. Just like Magufuli, it seems Mkapa’s “true colours” were revealed only after his mentor’s death the previous year on October 14, 1999. Mkapa was a protégé of the founding father Julius Kambarage Nyerere.
It was Nyerere who held Mkapa’s hand in 1995, after influencing his nomination by CCM, and single-handedly campaigned for him throughout the country. Tanzania held its first multiparty general elections in 1995, pitting CCM against a disparate opposition for the first time since its formation in 1977.
He dished out money and favours to select supporters.
Revisiting this unparalleled violence orchestrated on fellow Tanzanians, Mkapa, the former journalist-turned-diplomat-turned-president in his memoirs: My Life, My Purpose – A Tanzanian President Remembers published in January 2019, regretted the 2000 election ordeal. To some Tanzanian journalists and political analysts, Mkapa and Magufuli are today referred to as the chief advocates and perpetrators of state violence in post-independent Tanzania.
Both the presidential elections of 2000 and 2020 happened under a cloud of America’s own election problems: In 2000, it was the “Florida fiasco.” Florida was then governed by the Republican’s presidential candidate, George Bush’s brother, Jeb Bush. Bush was running against the Democratic Party’s Al Gore. Jeb was allegedly accused of rigging on behalf of his elder brother.
Like the Americans say, the electoral college vote was too close to call: the vote was not only going to determine who was going to be the winner of the states’s 25 votes, but the next president after Bill Clinton. A recount was called by the Democrats and for a brief moment, the democrats believed they had taken it, only for the Republicans to also ask for their own recount. Bush won with a razor thin win vote. The democrats were not persuaded. To cut a long story short, the sunshine state’s case found itself in the supreme court, where the republican-led court declared George Bush the eventual winner.
In 2020, with both the Tanzania and US elections being held days apart, America once again came under the world spotlight after the “Pennsylvania problem”, in which President Donald Trump claimed his votes had been tampered with and paid for a recount. The MAGA Republican Party candidate was defending his seat against “sleepy Joe” a derogatory tag given by Trump to Joe Biden.
The citing of both examples here is to emphasise that America in 2000 and 2020 could not claim a moral compass to the Tanzania government’s excesses in its elections. Covering the 2000 elections, I remember in Dar es Salaam, a CCM top official telling us journalists that America could not lecture Tanzania on matters election – “they should first deal with their own election rigging in Florida, before accusing us of unleashing violence and rigging the islands’ results.”
Nyerere had always been opposed to the twin islands of Pemba and Zanzibar’s divorce with the mainland Tanganyika – a sticking sore thump between the mainland and the islands, since the republic turned to plural politics. But he never advocated state violence, instead, he sued for dialogue and persuasion.
Magufuli was determined to put the opposition in its place this time round: In a parliament of 261 members, the opposition only won seven. “By the time I’m through with Tanzania, there’ll be no opposition in the country,” said the deceased in one of his campaign rallies.
There is not a doubt that he loathed the opposition, so much so that he warned the regional commissioners and election officials, “I don’t pay you so that you can allow opposition to win.” Tume la Uchaguzi (National Election Commission) flatly refused any presidential debates and told the opposition it could debate among itself if it so wished.
“In Tanzania, CCM ni tasisi,” a local journalist reiterated to me. Literary it means the ruling party CCM is an institution. Figuratively it means, CCM is Tanzania and Tanzania is CCM. Anybody going against the “wishes of the party” would be crushed. The CCM’s propaganda machinery against the leading opposition figure Tundu Lissu of CHADEMA was geared to pulverize all his efforts of running a successful campaign. “He was being hunted down like a wild animal,” said the journalist.
Magufuli claimed Lissu was a supporter of LGBTQ and that he was a tool of the West being used to campaign for mashoga, homosexuals’ rights. Several African presidents during their re-election campaigns have turned the hot-button issue of LGBTQ, their favourite bogeyman: In the terribly conservative African societies, nothing evokes emotions of antipathy like suggesting gay-ism could be mainstreamed. Yoweri Museveni has done it, John Magufuli did it, just like Robert Mugabe did it before him.
CCM being Tanzania and Tanzania being CCM, not even the bravest of private media would dare report on the opposition or against Magufuli and CCM. “There was total blackout on the opposition by the media. All what Tanzanians could read and listen to, on politics, was on the ‘indefatigable Magu’ and his infrastructural developments,” said my Tanzanian journalist friend. Hence, Tanzania media did not report on politics – it reported on Magufuli, the person.
By the time I’m through with Tanzania, there’ll be no opposition in the country
Being heavy users of social media, Tanzanians turned to VPN – virtual private network. Found as an app in many smart phones, it protects one’s communication from snoopers like government agencies and hackers. What VPN does when activated is to bypass the conventional internet service providers (ISP) when connecting to the internet. In the case of Tanzania’s government shutting down its ISP, tech savvy Tanzanians resorted to VPN to access facebook and especially Twitter, to fend off the states’s eavesdropping.
This is the reason why Magufuli ordered all social media outlets shut, said the journalist. All what the Tanzania Communication Authority needed was a nod from Magufuli. A consumer of foreign news outlets, Tanzanians also resorted to BBC, Deutsche Welle (Sauti ya Ujerumani) and VOA, to stay informed on their country’s politics. “This is how many of them were informed and kept tabs on Lissu’s campaigns,” said the journalist.
Even after being sworn-in for the second term, President Magufuli pursued the browbeaten opposition. Chief opposition figure Lissu had to escape the country a second time. “Run or be run over, these people are not joking,” Lissu was ostensibly warned by his intelligence team. In September 2017, Lissu had survived an assassination attempt in Dodoma, that saw his vehicle sprayed with bullets by “unknown” assailants, as he left parliament for his house for lunch. On November 7, 10 days after the elections were over, he hid at the German embassy, then onwards to Brussels, where he had been recuperating for three years after treatment in Nairobi.
The former MP for Arusha Urban Godbless Lema also skipped the country and sought refuge in Kenya after claiming government people were after him. Lema, with his family was granted asylum in Canada.
Nyerere’s CCM may have operated in the one-party era during the cold war, but many Tanzanians of the post-independent generation remember those days with nostalgia. “The party was more democratic and free, unlike today,” said a former CCM mkereketwa (party diehard).
Magufuli’s populism was laced with autocratic tendencies. He told fellow Tanzanians msinijaribu mimi ni jiwe (don’t try me, I’m as tough as a rock), meaning he prided himself in being tough-headed.
“Magufuli’s CCM in the era of multiparty brooks no dissent, is dictatorial and dangerous, while Nyerere’s CCM preferred a palaver type of democracy where party issues were discussed until it arrived at a consensus,” said a University of Dar es Salaam don.
South Africa: A New Politics From the Left?
Assuming today’s socioeconomic crisis benefits the Left is folly. That will only happen if we have the political vision to make class the fault line of social polarisation, and for that we need to face the challenge of constructing a new party.
Over the last decade, the Left in a number of Western countries has undergone a historic transition from “protest to politics,” to borrow the words of the late Canadian Marxist Leo Panitch and his frequent co-author Sam Gindin. From Podemos in Spain to Sanders in the United States, a new wave of parties and electoral coalitions have emerged and made rapid gains. Despite setbacks and defeats, Panitch and Gindin’s indispensable analysis of these events in The Socialist Challenge Today, casts them in an unambiguously positive light. None of the examples they study offer formulas for resolving the vexing dilemmas facing the socialist movement in our globalised present.
But in their determination to take state power seriously they constitute an unmistakable step forward, after decades in which the Left’s confinement to episodic instances of mobilisation left the electoral field wide open to the parties of business. Part of this “new new” Left’s success stems from a willingness to shake free of its own past. Building a viable socialism of the 21st century, they argue, requires dispensing with the outmoded parts of the Leninist model, like its wager on insurrection, while retaining that which still holds value, like its internationalist spirit.
These developments hold important lessons for us on the South African Left. Just under a decade ago it seemed that we were on the verge of effecting a similar transition “from protest to politics.” During the first decade and a half of democracy, a socialist opposition had found a locus in the so-called “new” social movements—like the Anti-Privatisation Forum—which grew in reaction to various parts of the ruling African National Congress’ neoliberal agenda.
These waged a number of important defensive struggles and scored a few key victories but fundamentally did nothing to loosen capital’s grip on policymaking. By the end of the 2000s most were a spent force. It became clear to a growing segment of the Left that lasting gains would not be achieved unless social agitation were more effectively linked with efforts to seise governing power. The ability to think these more ambitious terms received a major boost when the National Union of Metalworkers South Africa (NUMSA), the nation’s largest manufacturing union, appeared to redraw the political map of the country by breaking from the ANC, amidst a wave of working class militancy.
Of course for the “official” left which NUMSA represented there had never been any turn away from politics as such. But decades of compromise had bred a form of politics that had become completely unmoored from the guiding thread of class antagonism. NUMSA’s move thus constituted a kind of mirror image transition—from a back-room corporatism to a politics more grounded in the methods and spirit of “protest”. This is what imbued the “NUMSA moment” with such hope—it promised to re-connect the two sides of South Africa’s bifurcated Left, and supply the strategic elements that had been missing from each. By matching the militancy and class-independence of the social movement Left with structural and organisational might of the “official” Left, it seemed possible that a mass socialist movement could be rapidly brought into being.
That was not to be. From today’s vantage it’s impossible to regard the NUMSA moment as anything but an abject failure. The political party which eventually issued from it is the farthest cry from the unifying force that so many had hoped for. While the international left has been able to advance by breaking with its shibboleths, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) has fallen back on a slavish appropriation of Bolshevik ideology, almost comical in its extremes.
Despite enormous resources, a large part supplied by a US-based billionaire, the party ran a dismal general election campaign in 2019 where it failed to get even a tenth of NUMSA’s own membership to vote for it (it ultimately only amassed 25 000 votes nationally, below the threshold to obtain one seat in Parliament). It’s since never recovered, joining a host of other failed socialist parties on the margins of political life. Marginality seems in turn to have degraded the internal culture of the party, which now resembles closely the Stalinism of the ANC-aligned South African Communist Party in all its worst aspects.
The floundering of the NUMSA moment is a terrible blow. But the setback inflicted on us will far greater if we fail to draw the correct lessons from it. Perhaps the most worrying outcome is that it precipitates a slide back into movementism, and shuts the window that we’ve had to execute the transition from “protest to politics.” Party politics acquired a bad name during the era of “protest” in South Africa, and many on the Left already feel that the SRWP’s example vindicated their worst suspicions.
But what the SRWP actually reveals to us is are not flaws inherent in the party-form as such, so much as the limits of a certain kind of party, one founded on a hidebound Leninism. If the Left were to abandon party building altogether there would, quite simply, be no socialist future. All visions of radical change that eschew parties and an active takeover of the state suffer from a principal defect in that they misconceive the nature of class formation—the process by which individuals become aware of their class position and begin to articulate their politics through it. This is presented as a quasi-automatic effect of the capitalist class structure.
But history offers no support for such a view. Class is impactful because it frames the options we have over so many major decisions in our lives—but not so narrowly as to make resistance to one’s employer, or the system behind him, inevitable. Indeed, the extreme vulnerability of workers under capitalism means that individualised modes of coping tend to be more commonplace than collective action. That’s why socialist consciousness has been the exception rather than the norm in the global history of capitalism, and exceedingly rare in the absence of a well-organised party. As Panitch argued with the force of a life’s work—parties make classes as much as they are made by them.
Thankfully, an outright repudiation of the party-form is not really where we are at in South Africa. The variant of movementism which took hold here, and which has revived in the aftermath of the NUMSA moment, was not really this more extreme kind, which denies the ultimate need for a party. Rather what it advocates is a downgrading of the role of party building or its deferral to some indefinite future.
What seems to be the common premise for this position is that party building can only succeed when perfectly timed to the right “objective conditions” —conditions which are only likely to form in the wake of a rupture moment defined by intensified street-level mobilisation. Only the transformation of mass consciousness brought about by such an episode of struggle can furnish the base for a party. Moreover, efforts to “impose” a party on the working class before this are liable to be rejected by its most conscious and active layers. Cut off from nourishing energy of grassroots movements, they are likely to grow in authoritarian directions. The task of socialists in the present, therefore, is devote ourselves to strengthening movements, and hope that a party may gestate from within them in some future context.
Related but distinguishable from this, is an ingrained hostility on the South African Left towards electoral politics. This view tends to draw a sharp line between the electoral arena and movements. While movements unlock popular power by sensitising their participants to their potential for collective action, elections offer no such platform for consciousness-raising. Instead, they tend to reproduce the atomisation of liberal democracy, and to fortify the myth that progress is possible within it. Moreover, movements which take the electoral road subject themselves to debilitating pressures. The logic of getting the vote tends to conflict with the logic of grassroot mobilisation, and all too often to overwhelm it.
Movementist positions contain many insights. It is wise, for example, to be attuned to the importance of ruptural breaks—the likelihood that we will ever get to a mass party simply through a molecular accretion of our ranks is slim. But the contention that movement building alone is the best way to prepare for such a rupture fails to take seriously the inherent weaknesses of social movements.
Of the numerous movements which sustained the first era of “protest” in post-Apartheid South Africa virtually none remain (barring one major exception). New ones have of course cropped up, and a tide of less organised community protests has continued unabated across the country. But these show equally little likelihood of autonomously cohering into anything bigger or more resilient.
It’s now very hard to avoid the conclusion that their failures resulted from internal rather than external factors. The model underpinning them rested on localised mobilisation around immediate demands, while actively eschewing efforts to politicise a leadership layer. Some of their more excitable proponents portrayed them as crucibles of anti-capitalism, in which the mere experience of collective decision making offered a form of political education beyond what traditional forms of Left organisation could hope to match.
But in doing so they exhibited the same fallacious thinking about class formation that informs all ventures aimed at “changing the world without taking power.” Much less a break with capitalism, it’s not clear that social movements even succeeded in getting most of their members to question their loyalty to the ANC. That left them prone to demobilisation and disorganisation when circumstances changed, when defeats where incurred or when key individuals drifted off or were co-opted.
One strategic upshot of this critique is that the trade-off between movement and party building posited by movementists is a false one. It’s likely that there is no winning formula for transforming single issue mobilisations into lasting, mass organisations without NGOifying them. But what we can do is to ensure that the small advances made by movements each time they arise are not dissipated. After all—the notion that struggle develops consciousness is not a false, what movementists get wrong is overstating the extent to which it does so organically. Virtually every movement throws up militant leaders, who stand to become tribunes for socialist politics if they can be identified, recruited and supported appropriately. This is work that a party is best suited to undertake.
But facing up to the limits of social movements should lead us to even stronger conclusions than this. It should lead us to question the overwhelming strategic significance that they have been accorded in the politics of the “independent left.” If movements are tough to sustain and to politicise, they may not be the vehicles best suited to bringing about a political rupture or ensuring that it outcome favors the Left.
Of course this was a strategic orientation that was largely foisted on us by circumstance. The stranglehold that the Tripartite Alliance (whose third member is the Congress of South African Trade Unions) exercised on organised labour and mass politics generally left little room for an alternative. But the situation has changed. The factionalisation of the ANC, the split in COSATU and the emergence of its rival, the South African Federation of Trade Unions, have created an opening for a more militant socialism to regain a foothold in organised labour. This ought to be the clear priority of socialists.
For all its infirmities, the union movement still presents a much more promising site for grounding socialist politics in a mass base. Although this may not hold for much longer, unions remain mass membership organisations with considerable resources. Most importantly, and most differently from social movements, they have access to structural power (i.e, the power to withdraw labour and shut down the economy). Here is one insight of Leninism which time has not invalidated– that our project will most likely fail unless that structural power is at its center.
If organised labour is once again to become our strategic focal point, this strengthens the case for not consigning the party to an intangible future. The synergies between party-building and organisation building are arguably stronger in the case of unions than social movements. At a fairly abstract level, one reason for this is that union building (or revitalisation) typically relies on a few individuals being prepared to take bold action out of moral conviction. Marxists have often argued something very different—that shopfloors collectivise as soon as workers wake up to their material interests. But narrow self-interest is unlikely to ever motivate someone to take the first steps towards organising their co-workers, since doing so incurs enormous risks but yields no extra benefit—the essence of the “free-rider” problem.
Thus, it’s not a coincidence that so often in history, socialists of various stripes have been significantly overrepresented among the “militant minority.” The values that draw people to the banner of socialism are often the same as those that move them to action against workplace injustices. It’s also not a coincidence that a militant minority is more likely to take shape when socialist ideas are more prominent in the public realm.
Arresting the decline of South African unions, and returning them to their proud history of worker control and grassroots democracy will require a herculean organising effort. At the simplest level this is why we need an organisational vehicle that at least broadly resembles a party. Without one we have no real means of translating strategic debates into action—of coordinating our energies towards the tasks most likely to yield long-term gains.
There’s therefore a case for not delaying in building a fighting organisation, that tries to cohere leading militants from workplace and community struggles around a socialist program. But such an organisation should do more. As soon as it has the numbers needed, it should seek to involve itself in elections. In all likelihood it would have to start at the local level, and logic would dictate that it seeks out community and social movement partners in doing so. But as quickly as possible is should seek to graduate to the national stage. South Africa’s unusually proportional representation electoral system (which was in fact designed to provide space for smaller parties), makes this a reasonable short-term goal.
Arresting the decline of South African unions, and returning them to their proud history of worker control and grassroots democracy will require a herculean organising effort. At the simplest level this is why we need an organisational vehicle that at least broadly resembles a party.
The first thing that sceptics of this strategy tend to get wrong is that they overstate, or misunderstand, the legitimacy problem facing formal political institutions. The SRWP seems to think that any worker with lingering attachments to electoral politics is suffering from “false consciousness.” But in our current circumstances, there is nothing the least bit irrational about remaining invested in the electoral arena, even while recognising the severity of its class bias. The simple reason for that, is that there is no existing social force capable of challenging state power while remaining entirely outside its institutions, nor does one show any prospect of coming into being in any foreseeable horison. Worker organisations in SA are locked a desperate defensive struggle—not preparing to set up a parallel state.
It’s not a failure of dialectical imagination that causes people to conflate politics with elections, but an appraisal of our situation that is more accurate than the one provided by the apostles of imminent revolution.
It’s thus not surprising that despite the tremendous alienation produced by decades of neoliberalism, electoral movements in the West have been able to engineer a political realignment that was much deeper than what post-2008 movements were able to achieve on their own. Their location within the domain of mainstream politics provided both visibility but also a kind of credibility—they promised to take over the institutions in front of us, rather than replace them with ones we can’t see and can’t yet imagine. Several of these examples stood the movementist model on its head. Rather than an electoral breakthrough growing out of a period of intensified movement activity, it was the electoral arena itself that has delivered the rupture moment, the energy from which can then be filtered down to social and labour struggles.
In the process they challenged another fallacy of movementism—that the electoral arena is entirely inimical to a politics of struggle. Sanders, Corbyn, and others imbued their campaigns with a spirit of insurgency that succeeded in appealing to many otherwise turned off by politics, particularly among younger generations. Rather than sucking energy from the streets, these examples provided a renewed model of “class struggle elections” —not their own invention but one that had faded from the Left’s repertoire during the era of movementism.
Class struggle elections seek to deliberately leverage electoral campaigns, and political office itself, to bolster movements. They use every platform available to raise awareness of, and encourage solidarity with, labour and social struggles. In doing so they try to inculcate the understanding that radical policies can only be won with an inside-outside strategy, in which legislators are supported and pushed forward by powerful movements. At the same time they use campaigns as tools of organisation building.
They recruit and deploy a mass of activist to spread a socialist message, and simultaneously try to develop those activists by building political education into their activities. Done properly, this can bridge the gaps that supposedly separate movement from electoral organising, infusing the latter with a powerful sense of collectivity. That’s why so many thousands of young Americans (to pick a recent example), were politically activated through their involvement in the Sanders campaign, which became a gateway to organising in their workplaces, campuses and communities.
Note that this is completely different to the SRWP’s narrowly propagandistic approach to elections which didn’t promote social struggles so much as fantasies of revolution, whilst denouncing ‘bourgeois democracy’ as a sham and doing nothing to actually win. After a predictably disastrous outcome, the party chose to compound the embarrassment, and feed into a profoundly dangerous trend by denouncing South Africa’s independent election management body and claiming the result was rigged.
It’s not a failure of dialectical imagination that causes people to conflate politics with elections, but an appraisal of our situation that is more accurate than the one provided by the apostles of imminent revolution.
Contrast its subsequent marginalisation with the early trajectory with the Economic Freedom Fighters (now South Africa’s third-largest party), which leveraged the electoral know-how of its ex-ANCYL cadre and Malema’s media savvy to run an enormously successful first campaign. It then built on the success, steadily expanding its vote share each cycle, while using parliamentary office to bolster its national profile. Sadly it drifted off the orbit of the Left along the way. But the two diverging cases provide an obvious lesson: if elections are to be useful to us, we have to show that we are capable of succeeding in them. If we can’t, how on earth will we convince anyone that we’re capable of transforming society from its roots up?
None of this is to suggest that the concerns movementists raise about electoral politics are meritless. Its unquestionably true that electoral competition imposes its own logic, which can be ruinous if it totally subsumes the party’s strategic purview. We can trace the decline of many a worker’s party, at least proximately, to misguided efforts to capture middle-class votes by abandoning a politics of class antagonism. But all socialist strategising in our dismal conjuncture is the consideration of perilous alternatives. Far better for us to confront the dangers of succumbing to a narrow electoralism than the near certitude of permanent marginalisation should we choose to abstain from mainstream politics altogether.
The NUMSA moment may have come and gone. But the many elements of the broader conjuncture which produced it, and which seemed to augur a new direction for socialist politics, persist. The Alliance coalition is in the doldrums. Expecting its inevitable demise is of course a pastime of which we “independent leftists” should now be wary. But the material facts this time really are different. The state faces a fiscal crisis that President Cyril Ramaphosa has neither the wherewithal nor the institutional tools to escape from. His factional opponents preach a “radical economic transformation” that offers nothing whatsoever to workers.
Social strains look set to keep accumulating. But assuming that any crisis they produce will automatically redound to the Left’s benefit would be folly. That will only happen if we have the political vision and the organisational capacity to ensure that class becomes the fault line of social polarisation. And for that we need to face up to the challenge of constructing a new party.
Is a Plutocratic America in Terminal Decline?
We may not be aware of it yet, because of the hold the nation has on global media, but America’s decline appears to be terminal.
As President Joe Biden begins to get comfortable in the White House, there are those who might say that America, under a democratic system of government, has once again allowed the voice of her people to be heard, and that they have elected a new leader into office. Some might go so far as to say that the world’s most affluent democracy has once again proved that government of the people, by the people, for the people is alive and well.
But just below the surface, there are questions deserving of a deeper examination. One is how narrow the margins of victory were. For while it is true that President Biden won the highest number of votes in American electoral history, it is also true that President Trump won the second-highest number of votes in American electoral history; 10 million more people voted for President Trump in 2020 than did so in 2016. Mr Biden’s margin of victory in Georgia was 0.48 per cent, while that in Arizona was 0.63 per cent. Further, even as the Democrats belatedly won a majority in the Senate, again by the finest of margins, the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives actually narrowed. Why, if the choice was so clear, were margins so narrow?
The regrettable truth is that the US is not a democracy – not merely because true democracy has never existed, but because even that imperfect form of democracy that characterises modern politics long perished in America. The United States today is in fact a corporatocracy; mega-corporations rule the country, a polite way of saying that that nation is now a plutocracy. This development is not really new – wealth has always, eventually, determined leadership, in America and elsewhere.
This article attempts – colossally log-in-eye, and at a distance of thousands of miles, admittedly – to furnish proof of the existence of this plutocracy; to demonstrate the effects of this plutocracy on American life and politics; and to establish whether there is any way out of the present morass.
That America is a plutocracy
A total of US$14 billion (KSh1.4 trillion) was spent on campaigns in the US this year, twice as much as in 2016. Where is this money coming from?
In 2010, the US Supreme Court handed down a decision called Citizens United that allowed unions, corporations and associations to spend unlimited amounts in elections provided they would not coordinate their efforts with a candidate. As a result, political action committees (or PACs – private organisations established to raise money in support of a candidate or an issue) morphed into Super PACs that could receive unlimited amounts of money for campaign purposes. The effect was immediate: in 2012 non-party outside spending tripled 2008’s total and topped US$1 billion for the first time. Of that amount, Super PACs spent more than US$840 million.
The regrettable truth is that the US is not a democracy.
Yet the amounts spent in 2012 pale in comparison with spending during the 2020 campaign; in October 2020 alone, outside spending by super PACs and other big-money groups totalled nearly US$1.2 billion. President Joe Biden alone raised US$1.6 billion. President Trump raised US$596 million, itself a significant haul. Given the closely fought nature of the presidential election, it would not be wrong to conclude that money helped tip the scales in favour of the new president. Nor was this true only of the presidential race; it was true across the ballot. Eighty-nine per cent of House races and 71 per cent of Senate races were won by the better financed candidate. The conclusion is clear: money – corporate money – wins American elections.
The effects of the plutocracy on American life
It is all very well and good to conclude that corporate money runs and wins American elections. The issue is what the effect of all this money is on American life. If corporate hegemony is harmless – even beneficial – arguments can be made that it should be left alone. If it is not, however, then that fact should be exposed, and reform commenced.
The American mega-corporation has achieved a number of victories (from a corporate standpoint) that have constituted assaults on the wellbeing of the American people and populace. For example, these corporations have been allowed to outsource American manufacturing jobs to China and other nations. The iPhone, signature product of America’s second largest company by market valuation (Apple), is assembled in Shenzhen. Nike began outsourcing manufacturing in the 1970s; today it has plants in Vietnam and South Korea as well as China. IBM now has more workers in India than in the US. As of April 2012, Walmart’s supply chain included some 30,000 Chinese factories, producing an estimated 70 per cent of all of the goods it sells. This trend has gone on so long that there now exists a portion of the northeastern US, formerly known as the Manufacturing/Steel/Factory Belt, that is now known as the Rust Belt, owing to industrial and economic decline occasioned by outsourcing and the automation of jobs.
Meanwhile, for those jobs that have escaped being shipped overseas, the average wage has been stagnant for 40 years. A generation has now arisen in America that will be the first in modern American history to end up poorer than their parents. To make up for stagnant incomes, American citizens are drowning in private debt (US$14 trillion worth) including mortgages (US$9.44 trillion) and student loans (US$1.5 trillion). Indeed, absolute US household debt was higher in November 2019 than prior to/during the great recession, although the debt-to-income levels during the great recession were higher than the 2019 levels (83 per cent to 73 per cent). High house prices, supported as they are by mortgage lending, coupled with student loans, together mean that new graduates are experiencing “failure to launch”, i.e. the inability to leave one’s parents’ home and start one’s own family.
(We should pause here to note, parenthetically, that the level of any nation’s private debt, and America’s in particular, is a very important metric. The level of private debt was the key indicator that enabled Professor Steve Keen, one of the Bezemer 12, to predict the North Atlantic financial crisis of 2007-8, a prediction mainstream/neoclassical economics, quite criminally, failed to make.)
The US$14 trillion of private debt that American citizens owe is owed to the very same mega-corporation class whose wage stagnation has necessitated the need for lending (since the early 1970s, the hourly inflation-adjusted wages received by the typical worker have barely risen, growing only 0.2 per cent per year). Most unfortunately, this wage stagnation is not uniform: the ratio of CEO-to-worker earnings has soared from 21-to-1 in 1965 to 320-to-1 in 2019.
A generation has now arisen in America that will be the first in modern American history to end up poorer than their parents.
Has the American mega-corporation been censured by the political class for these excesses? Hardly. In fact, the large American corporation, while using American infrastructure, using some degree of American labour and selling to Americans, is allowed to pretend that it operates outside America, by invoicing from nations with low tax rates, such as Ireland, thereby avoiding paying federal taxes on its income. From 2009-2018, for example, Amazon paid an effective federal tax rate of 3 per cent on profits totalling US$26.5 billion. In 2018 alone, the company received a tax relief of US$129 million dollars on profits of US$11.2 billion. Such is the scale of tax avoidance by American corporations that by 2016 a staggering US$2 trillion in untaxed corporate profits was stashed outside the US, according to the New York Times. (What makes this doubly lamentable is that the Internal Revenue Service tells the American citizen in unambiguous terms that “Your worldwide income is subject to U.S. income tax, regardless of where you reside.”)
Corporations, therefore, enjoy egregious advantages. It is in order to keep them that they are so willing to fund political campaigns. In other words, corporations will do everything to avoid paying the taxes that would improve American infrastructure and healthcare (to their own benefit) but spend billions on political campaigns to inoculate themselves from losing the unfair advantages they have carved out for themselves.
The effect of the plutocracy on American politics
The shock election of President Donald Trump in 2016 can be seen as a response to the deleterious effects of corporate hegemony on the American political and economic life. Candidate Trump campaigned as an outsider, promising to “drain the swamp”, even though, ironically, he was himself a self-styled billionaire who shipped jobs to China and paid very little in taxes. America was suffering economically. He claimed that the blame for this could be placed squarely on the shoulders of China and immigrants. In an illuminating two-part, three-and-a-half hour 2019 interview with PBS, key Trump campaign advisor Steve Bannon (who was arrested for fraud and then pardoned by President Trump on his last full day in office) stated that the cost of the 2008-09 bailout was loaded onto the American middle class, and that American gig economy millennials are nothing but 19th-century Russian serfs. Many may disagree with Mr Bannon’s political views, but his statement had its finger on the pulse of post-bank-bailout America. The genius of the Trump campaign was its ability to identify these pain points; to incorrectly but convincingly blame foreigners – locally (immigrants) and abroad (China) – for what were and continue to be the excesses of the plutocracy; to identify the existence of a swamp in Washington and characterise Hillary Clinton as the personification of these ills; and to ride that wave all the way to the White House. The lesson – a lesson seemingly yet unlearned by mainstream politics – is that it actually worked.
Candidates however, campaign in poetry; rulers, on the other hand, govern in prose. During Trump’s presidency Faustian bargains, in Steve Bannon’s words, were made; here again the power of the corporatocracy made itself felt. One of the early indicators of the direction and tenor a presidency will take is a president’s cabinet picks; Steven Mnuchin, yet another ex-Wall Street executive, was placed in charge of the Treasury. While President Trump did not drag the US into another war – in spite of the assassination of Iranian Major-General Qassim Soleimani – his presidency did not up-end Washington in ways meaningful to the nation’s citizenry. Readers may recall the US$2 trillion of untaxed corporate profits mentioned earlier; President Trump’s signature legislative achievement was to open new windows for tax rebates for major corporations, reducing taxes on the wealthy. This legislation resulted in the repatriation of US$777 billion in 2018, but the Federal Reserve noted that “the strongest effect of repatriation was on share buybacks” by corporate America. This particular episode is a textbook example of the plutocracy at work.
Trump does not greatly differ in this way from the way in which Candidate Obama contrasts with President Obama. Candidate Obama campaigned on Change We Can Believe In. Yet, once elected, he bailed out the banks (the abiding question on this, some wonder, is why citizens did not retain their houses if the banks’ losses were made good). Obamacare, a very significant advance in the fight for decent healthcare for Americans, did not include a public option although it could have. Nor did President Obama succeed in extricating himself from American warmongering abroad: in a particularly sad and tragic episode he helped end the Libya Gaddaffi had created. Libya under Gaddaffi was a nation that had free university education, free healthcare, no external debt and reserves of US$150 billion – all ideals that America, ironically, declares it wants but has yet to achieve despite its claim to being the richest nation in history. Allied “intervention” replaced that Libya with today’s bombed-out nation, in which incessant internecine strife went on for a decade. This in Africa, the land of Obama’s fathers. Only two years previously, at a location just two hours from Benghazi by air, the new President had given his “A New Beginning” speech in Cairo, which speech contributed to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize later that year.
In these two presidencies, we see, microcosmically, the effects of the plutocracy at work: the lofty ideals of the campaigning candidate and the searing needs of the masses, once office is assumed, are replaced by a kind of neutered, ineffective pragmatism, as far as the wellbeing of American citizens is concerned, and a sly and insidious effectiveness where corporate welfare is concerned.
The 2020 campaign
Perhaps the defining characteristic of the 2020 campaign is that it took place against the backdrop of a global pandemic. The cost of this pandemic – in the gruesome currency of American lives – has been more than 500,000 dead Americans and counting, nearly 10 times the number of US soldiers who died in the Vietnam War, and more than the number of American lives lost in World War II.
Uniquely among developed nations, the structure of America’s healthcare system is such that very often one only has healthcare if one is employed. So that when 44 million Americans filed for unemployment during the pandemic, they lost their medical cover at precisely the time they most needed it. The pandemic therefore threw into sharp focus the critical importance of having a healthcare system that is not based upon employment.
(Nor is the state of health insurance all that is wrong with American healthcare – in several tragic articles it has been reported that American diabetics have been driving to Canada in caravans to buy insulin – some driving up to 5 hours one way. Price-gouging by pharmaceutical companies means that the drug is ten times cheaper in Canada than it is in America.)
The bipartisan response to the pandemic was to pass the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that – while it gave individuals with less than US$99,000 a year annual income a check of US$1,200 a month – also gave further tax cuts to the wealthy. According to the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, just 43,000 individual tax filers covered by one of the Act’s provisions would see their tax liability fall by a combined US$70.3 billion in 2020 (or about US$1.7 million each). This is the America that corporatism has created.
And yet, mid-pandemic, was healthcare on the national ballot? How, when pharmaceutical and health product industries have spent a total of US$4.7 billion on lobbying the federal government, US$877 million on state candidates and committees, and US$414 million in the 20 years to 2018? Indeed, by the time he won the nomination, Joe Biden had already said he would veto a Medicare for All bill if it landed on his desk (a colossal if, it must be said), proposing a public option instead.
So what was on the ballot? Democrats, choosing to characterise Trump’s presidency as the problem, instead of seeing it as the natural consequence of the decades of wage stagnation, high healthcare costs, inordinately high levels of private debt, etc., campaigned on the platform of “restoring the soul of America”. The president’s narrow margins of victory perhaps find an explanation here: the problems Americans face were not really on the ballot. And they were not on the ballot because the corporations that stump up the money to fund electoral campaigns benefit from providing privatised solutions to the problems Americans face.
Is there hope?
There is an American constituency that is in broad agreement on the issues raised above: a Fox News exit poll, for example, showed that 72 per cent of Americans were at least somewhat in favour of changing to a government-run healthcare plan. Florida, a state President Trump won, voted to increase the state’s minimum wage to US$15 an hour.
However, it is unlikely that this broad constituency will be allowed to unite under the current political system. The reality is that the US is a de facto one-party state. If that party were to be honestly named, it might be named the Megacorp Party, or, slightly more genteelly, the Corporatist/Establishment Party. It has two wings: a supposedly left-leaning Democratic wing and a supposedly conservative Republican wing. Under the framework of Citizens United these two wings will continue to swap power ad infinitum. Yet, even as the presidency bounces from party to party, a president from one party will bomb Iraq; the next president, from the other party, will campaign on the platform that he never voted to go to war in Iraq, only to subsequently bomb Libya. These tragic contradictions find their resolution in the fact that this war activity happens at the behest of the military-industrial complex.
Political consultants will keep finding new, misleading ways of “framing the political argument,” creating false choices and developing narratives such as restoring the soul of the nation. Meanwhile, the money that pays them will continue to fortify itself against the needs of the people; the rich will get richer, the poor will get poorer and power will remain with the wealthy.
As long as this continues, we can expect two outcomes. The first is that the issues that Americans need solved will not be solved. (We are now reading, for example, that the US$15 dollars/hour minimum wage President Biden promised (during a presidential debate), is unlikely be included in the US$1.9 trillion-dollar stimulus package President Biden intends to bring to Congress.) The second is that, as a result of the failure to resolve these issues, America will, in the words of Robert Reich, continue to produce candidatures like Donald Trump’s as far as the eye can see. The American political system does not contain within itself the mechanism to correct the current malaise. As a result, money will continue to win out: it will continue to select which issues are on the ballot, and it will continue to choose which candidates win. America’s long decline, therefore, is likely to continue.
The corporations that stump up the money to fund electoral campaigns benefit from providing privatised solutions to the problems Americans face.
We may not be aware of it yet, because of the hold the nation has on global media (the concentration of media ownership in America is yet another triumph of the plutocracy), but America’s decline appears to be terminal.
I return to the beginning – this article is written colossally log-in-eye. As a Kenyan I know we have major, pressing domestic issues to resolve. If or as we make a detour to examine the American political situation, let our contemplation resemble our use of a mirror, and let our aims be those of helping us to avoid the problems others have experienced, in order to more wisely and speedily resolve our own.
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