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Conservation Vs “Development”? The Political Ecology of the Stiegler’s Gorge Dam and the Selous Game Reserve

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The up and downstream impact of the proposed Stiegler’s Gorge Dam depends on its completion, which is by no means guaranteed, but the Selous Game Reserve is already counting the costs.

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Conservation Vs “Development”? The Political Ecology of the Stiegler’s Gorge Dam and the Selous Game Reserve
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Wildlife tourism is one of Tanzania’s main foreign exchange earners and an important source of formal employment, but the sector’s survival is threatened by poaching, mineral exploration, and pressure from farmers and cattle-keepers to access farmland, fuel, pasture and protein in protected areas. For the Selous Game Reserve (SGR), the decision to build Africa’s largest dam across the Rufiji River adds a new and potentially devastating dimension to these existing threats.

Between a quarter and thirty per cent of Tanzania consists of national parks, conservation areas, game reserves, and controlled and protected areas. Until last year, the Selous was the world’s largest game reserve, covering an area of 50,000 sq. kms (larger than Denmark). In 1896, the area was designated a protected area by the Governor of Tanganyika Hermann von Wissmann, and it was made a hunting reserve in 1905. Last year’s gazetting of the 31,000 sq. kms Nyerere National Park reduced the SGR by sixty per cent, to about 20,000 sq. kms. President Magufuli justified this radical move as a means of reducing hunting tourism. “Tourists come here and kill our lions, but we don’t benefit a lot from these wildlife hunting activities”, Magufuli said. Slicing up the SGR will also complicate future negotiations over its status as a World Heritage Site, discussed below.

Exploration and mining concessions to Western and Russian oil, gas and uranium companies covering an estimated six per cent of Selous constitute a further challenge to the reserve’s integrity, and have been widely criticised by environmentalists. By 2017 there were said to be 48 prospective oil, gas and uranium concessions in the SGR (See Map 1), but for the moment, the government has put their development on hold. If and when the price of uranium reaches a certain threshold, we may expect mining to take off, with the attendant negative environmental consequences.

From the Selous’ killing fields…

The Selous once boasted Africa’s largest concentration of elephants and other megafauna. Waves of sustained ivory poaching reduced the elephant population from about 100,000 to only 13,000 in 2013. In 1982, SGR was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for protective purposes, and in 2014, it was added to UNESCO’s List of World Heritage Sites in Danger, by which time poaching, driven by the Asian ivory trade, was threatening to wipe out Tanzania’s entire elephant population, leading UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre (WHC) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to declare that: “there appears to be no coherent governmental response which could halt or even reverse the documented poaching trends”. Successive Tanzanian governments, politicians and officials, were widely considered complicit at best or, at worst, actively involved in facilitating the trade.

… to the Stiegler’s Gorge Dam…

In 2016, Stiegler’s Gorge Dam (SGD) was included in the Tanzania Power System Master Plan, and the project was finally underway. In the same year, the WHC expressed its “utmost concern about the ongoing project despite a high likelihood of serious and irreversible damage to the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the property”, that is, the Selous. In 2017, UNESCO stated bluntly: “The foreseeable impact of Stiegler’s Gorge Hydropower project is irreversibly damaging to the Outstanding Universal Value of the property and clearly not in line with the Committee’s position on the incompatibility of dams with large reservoirs inside a World Heritage property”. UNESCO consequently recommended that the Tanzanian government should “permanently abandon” the project.

… enraging the conservationists…

In addition to UNESCO and other UN agencies, conservationists and the wildlife tourism industry were dismayed by the proposed dam, as were bilateral agencies and NGOs supporting Tanzania’s conservation efforts. They complained that no robust social or economic impact analysis, environmental assessment or public consultations informed the decision to proceed with the dam. The brief Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) produced by the University of Dar es Salaam’s Consultancy Bureau in 2018 contained “hardly any quantitative predictions of positive or negative impacts” of the proposed dam. Conservationists further argue that, by disturbing annual water flow patterns, the dam will have a potentially devastating impact on farmers and fishers downstream from the dam, and on the vast mangrove forest in the Rufiji Mafia-Kilwa Marine Ramsar Site, another internationally protected area. The dam would trap sediment and organic matter normally transported to the coast and enriching downstream agriculture, fisheries and hatcheries. Interrupted water flows would lead to increased salination upstream from the delta.

In addition, critics argue, the dam’s reservoir will take years to fill and will be subject to increasing rates of evaporation as temperatures rise under global warming. Up-stream irrigated rice cultivation on the Kilombero River and sugar on the Great Ruaha have reduced the volume of water flowing into the Rufiji, and future unpredictable weather patterns could lead to crippling drought. Effectively, only the waters of the Rufiji will be filling the dam’s vast reservoir. A more optimistic scenario could see an increase in precipitation from the unpredictable effects of climate change on micro-climates.

New roads and power transmission lines and the arrival of contractors and workers on the dam site and attendant commercial activities will have a massive and uncontrolled impact on the local environment and encourage further poaching, say the project’s critics. The millions of tons of cement required to build the dam will stimulate the local cement industry, but at the cost of a massive carbon footprint (cement accounts for about eight per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions). Loggers have already cleared the dam site of vegetation, and the site of the projected 1,200 sq. kms. reservoir, containing nearly three million trees, awaits the same fate, with unknown effects on wildlife habitats and biodiversity. When the loggers entered the park in late 2018, one luxury lodge announced its imminent closure.

… and leading economists to wave a red flag

Not only conservationists have found fault with President Magufuli’s mega-project. Though the necessary data for a robust analysis are lacking, economists argue that the dam makes neither financial nor economic sense and that there are cheaper, smaller, less risky and more practical alternatives for increasing access to electricity. Joerg Hartmann, an independent consultant who undertook an economic feasibility assessment of the project, argues that: “Stiegler’s Gorge has become unnecessary, and would be a significant economic burden for Tanzania”. The dam is likely to cost a multiple of the present contract price, and take much longer to build than currently proposed. One recent estimate puts the total cost of the dam at nearly $10 billion, while the Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht estimated that it would take 9-10 years to complete, and not the three years claimed. At over 11 US cents per unit (kWh), SGD power would cost almost twice the current tariff, and a multiple of the cost of power from gas.

Currently, Tanzania has surplus power generation capacity of 280MW, and it is most unlikely that so much additional power would find a market. The project’s supporters claim that surplus power from the SGD will be exported. A 2018 World Bank technical appraisal for a power interconnectivity project between Tanzania and Zambia argued that internal demand for electricity was inadequate to justify the SGD, so that it could only be justified if exports were built into the project.

A final risk facing the planned dam is the apparent inexperience of the Egyptian contractors. According to Barnaby Dye, Arab Contractors, a state-owned company, worked on the giant Russian-built Aswan Dam in the 1960s, but only as one of many sub-contractors, while the second company, El Sweeny, builds transmission lines, not complex electro-mechanical systems.

President Magufuli defends his project

Defending the dam that he claims will power his ambitious industrialisation programme, President Magufuli claims that it will affect “just three percent” of the SGR, and will help combat deforestation across the country by providing citizens with a cheap alternative to charcoal and wood fuel. Ironic, therefore, that over 90,000 ha of miombo woodlands and forest risk losing an estimated 2.6m trees in the dam’s reservoir. For the moment, only the dam site has been cleared. President Magufuli says more power will be required for industrial growth, rural electrification and to run the Standard Gauge Railway, justifying one mega-white-elephant project in terms of the needs of another. Arguably, diesel power would be more economical than electricity given the probable low traffic density on the new railway, though this needs to be examined empirically.

Critics argue that the notion that rural Tanzanians will soon enjoy cheap hydropower via the national grid thanks to the SGD is highly unrealistic. The huge investments in transmission and distribution infrastructure required to make this work have not been costed, and the limited demand for electric power would make the required investment to reach Tanzania’s vast rural hinterland hugely expensive. Solar mini-grids have become widely popular and can be supplied at little cost to the state by commercial and social investors. Gas, not electricity, is the best (or least bad) alternative to unsustainable charcoal use for cooking in Dar es Salaam and other urban centres.

The President’s claim that “just three percent” of the SGR will be affected by the dam is also challenged by environmentalists, pointing to the downstream impacts and the likely negative effects of the dam’s construction on the Selous discussed above.

Past plans to dam the Rufiji came to nothing

Both colonial and post-independence governments explored the viability of damning the Rufiji River at Stiegler’s Gorge to produce power and develop irrigation agriculture. In the 1970s, Swedish aid financed dams at Kidatu and Mtera on the Ruaha River, a tributary of the Rufiji, upstream from Stiegler’s Gorge. At different times, detailed technical studies and construction designs by Japanese, American and Norwegian aid agencies and consultants led nowhere, while the World Bank concluded that, on the basis of demand projections and environmental concerns, a large dam was not feasible. Donors subsequently funded two more small- to medium-size dams, at Kidatu and Pangani.

Increasing power shortages and rationing under Presidents Mkapa (1995-2005) and Kikwete (2005-15) led the government to seek private investors through power purchasing agreements. South African, Canadian and Chinese companies came forward with hydropower proposals, but the main interest came from Brazil’s giant Odebrecht corporation, which in 2012 signed an MOU with the Rufiji Basin Development Authority (RUBADA).The MOU specified a seven-year timeline to finish the first phase and a further three years to complete the project. But the project preliminaries had not been finalised before the corruption scandal known as Operation Carwash” made Odebrecht a household name for serial bribery in Brazil and internationally, and led to the imprisonment of three former Brazilian presidents. President Magufuli disbanded RUBADA in 2017 and the SGD’s client is now Tanzania’s power utility TANESCO under the supervision of the Ministry of Energy.

Not even China, Africa’s premier source of concessional finance for big infrastructure projects, including dams, has shown any interest in financing this one. As of 2015, Chinese contractors were involved in dam building projects in over twenty African countries, from Angola to Zimbabwe. Though estimates vary, Deborah Brautigam and her team identified Chinese-financed dam projects in 17 African countries in 2013, financed by concessional loans from China’s Exim Bank worth nearly US$7 billion.

Finally, no private investors could be found to finance a dam on a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) basis. Globally, private developers are increasingly reluctant to invest in large dams for power production or irrigation. Human rights activists condemn forced population displacements while the economics of large dams are increasingly questionable. No forced population movements are involved in the SGD project, however.

What has changed to make this project viable?

After so many years of aborted plans to build a dam, what has changed to make Stiegler’s a viable project? The answer is: nothing. If anything, the project is even less viable now than it was a decade ago, before Tanzania’s huge gas deposits off its southern coast began to be exploited. The risks attached to continued upstream-irrigated agriculture and siltation increase with time, bringing the additional risk that the dam’s reservoir could fail to provide the volume of water required to run the facility at a capacity level that would justify the huge investment involved.

For sixty years, no bilateral development agency nor the World Bank has been willing to finance a dam at Stiegler’s Gorge, though these agencies have funded numerous medium-size dams over the years on tributaries of the Rufiji River, which regularly dry up during the dry season and are increasingly vulnerable to unpredictable rains. A study titled Structural adjustment and sustainable development in Tanzania reported that siltation was a common feature of small dams in Arusha, Kilimanjaro, Dodoma, Tanga and Rukwa regions. Falling water levels due to the degradation of water catchment areas rendered the potential of hydropower “doubtful”.

Beware of the mega-dam syndrome

If completed, the 700m long by 130m high SGD would be one of Africa’s largest dams by installed capacity, equal to Egypt’s Aswan High Dam (2,100MW) and Mozambique’s Cahora Bassa (2,075MW). A rapid review suggests that SGD will generate few of the benefits but suffer most of the costs normally associated with large dams. A study titled Megaprojects and risk: An anatomy of ambition lists four typical flaws of mega-projects, including dams: “underestimated costs, overestimated revenues, undervalued environmental impacts and overvalued economic development effects”. All four appear to apply in the case of the SGD. The study argues that: “Megaprojects are systematically subject to “survival of the unfittest”, the worst projects get built instead of the best”. Big dams are inherently high-risk. In a 2014 study, researchers from Oxford University concluded that: “In the vast majority of cases . . . megadams are not economically viable”.

Map 1: Selous Game Reserve

Map 1: Selous Game Reserve. Source DW

Note: The map shows the SGR before the creation of the Nyerere National Park in 2019.

Dams per se are not the issue, but mega-dams. Though it is by no means true that dams are carbon-neutral, hydro is still by far the most common source of renewable power worldwide, accounting for around 90 per cent of renewable energy generation. The main problems with mega-hydro highlighted in the literature are population displacement, often accompanied by inadequate compensation, and the up- and down-stream impacts on local eco-systems discussed in this report. Despite mega-dams’ bad reputation, a number of countries are investing heavily in mega-hydro, including Ethiopia, Brazil, Pakistan and China. The SGD does not involve population displacements.

Megaprojects are systematically subject to “survival of the unfittest”, the worst projects get built instead of the best

But the dam’s power generation capacity is also questionable. The figure of peak generation capacity of 2,100MW was based on a 25-year old feasibility study, since when the Rufiji River’s average volume is said to have fallen by as much as a quarter. Upstream agriculture and (possibly) climate change are responsible. Experts see the effects of climate change (more droughts, storms, floods) as a threat to the viability of hydropower globally. According to Clemente Prieto of the Spanish Committee on Large Dams: “Climate change is having a remarkable impact on hydropower generation and it increases the challenge of managing hydro plants”. Though the effects of climate change are difficult to predict, the increasing intensity of extreme and unusual climatic events is well documented. 

A dysfunctional aid relationship

UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, prominent wildlife and nature conservation bodies, including the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), numerous donors and a substantial number of private philanthropies dealing with specific animals and issues (hunting, poaching, wildlife trafficking, forestry, water), have commented negatively on the SGD initiative, so far to no avail. Germany, one of the most vocal critics of the project, has been at the forefront of wildlife conservation efforts in Tanzania since colonial times. Over many years, Germany has financed the Tanzanian government, technical experts, the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) and others to promote conservation efforts in the Selous. After a heated debate in the German Bundestag in early 2019, a proposal that future Germany aid should be made conditional on Tanzania abandoning the dam was rejected, while it was agreed that Germany should assist Tanzania in finding an alternative source of power. This offer was not pursued.

Climate change is having a remarkable impact on hydropower generation and it increases the challenge of managing hydro plants

Critics wonder why, given the Tanzanian government’s refusal to enter into a substantive dialogue with its main long-term advisor/financier on conservation issues, while constantly ignoring its own international conservation commitments and policies, Germany continues to fund conservation efforts in Tanzania. In late 2018, a group of German experts was refused permission to enter the Selous to check on progress in anti-poaching. A German source commented: “International nature conservation organizations are increasingly wondering about the German policy of ‘paying and keeping their mouth shut’’. An expert from KfW (Germany’s state development bank) resigned after two years, during which the GOT restricted his visits to Selous (his work site). Underlying the protracted stand-off is the widespread belief that the rapid decimation of Tanzania’s elephant population—a two-thirds decline from about 109,000 in 2009 to about 43,000 in 2014—was facilitated by the active participation of elements within the Tanzanian state. The slow release of a 2018 aerial survey of wildlife in the Selous fuels suspicions that poaching is still an issue. It took two years to release the report, which the German government had financed. According to Henry Mwangonde, the number of elephants had stabilised at just over 15,000, more or less the number counted in 2014, suggesting little or no recovery.

Comment is free … and punishable

Once the government launches a major project, its implementation is declared “inevitable” and beyond discussion, and any internal criticism is deemed “unpatriotic” and “treasonable”, while development prospects. Magufuli accused “some” CSOs and NGOs “of being used by ‘foreigners’” to push the latter’s agenda. In May 2018, both ruling party and opposition MPs challenged the decision to proceed with the SGD project in advance of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), and the premature issuing of licences to clear-fell the site of the dam’s future reservoir.

International nature conservation organizations are increasingly wondering about the German policy of ‘paying and keeping their mouth shut’

These mild criticisms were met with an impassioned threat from environment minister Kangi Lugola, who told parliament: “. . . the government will go ahead with implementation of the project whether you like it or not. Those who are resisting the project will be jailed”. Since then, apart from praise-singing, local commentary has been muted, while external critics have focused more on the conservation aspects of the project than on its economic and financial implications, though the two are related. No academic economist, Think Tank or newspaper editorialist has commented negatively on the project, while social media sources have featured both critical and pro-Magufuli commentary, albeit with little insight into the underlying issues. It is striking that no advocacy group or alliance in or outside Tanzania has challenged the SGD through public interest litigation, as happened in the case of the proposed road across the Serengeti.

Conservation versus “development”: a zero-sum game?

Rapid population growth is fueling increasing conflicts between farmers and cattle-herders over land. Both groups face off against conservationists, big-game hunters and the safari tourism industry in what is increasingly becoming a zero-sum game. Attempts for more than two decades to “empower” villagers to protect rather than harvest wildlife and forest reserves have largely failed. Last year, President Magufuli ordered the deregistration of a number of “idle” forest and game reserves totaling over 700,000ha for “redistribution to wananchi for residential and farming uses”. Subsequently, the government announced the creation of three new national parks, including one near President Magufuli’s home district of Biharamulu. In addition, the government has recently legalised the hunting and sale of game meat, a move that conservationists see as opening the door to the widespread slaughter of wildlife. The wildlife survey mentioned above reported a 72 per cent decline in the number of wildebeest in the Selous between 2013 and 2018. According to Mwangonde, the numbers for buffalo and antelope have not been released, but there are thought to have been significant decreases. Lastly, though the President justified the creation of Nyerere National Park in terms of stopping hunting tourism, the ban on commercial hunting that was imposed in 2015 has been partially lifted.

For your information, the government will go ahead with implementation of the project. . . Those who are resisting the project will be jailed

With or without a functioning dam, the SGR has taken an additional hit. While ivory poaching may have been curbed for the moment, and uranium mining and oil and gas exploration are on hold, the disruptions caused by the SGD contractors and the impending clear-felling of the dam’s imagined reservoir only add to these and other threats to the (now much smaller) SGR’s long-term survival. A gloomy but realistic prognosis is that further population growth and the impact of climate change will eventually put an end to conservation and wildlife tourism in the Selous and throughout the continent. According to Kenyan conservationist Richard Leakey, as a result of climate change: “. . . the problems we all face now are far beyond the power of individual conservationists to cope with”.

Alhough many conservationists would challenge this view, it is difficult to see how fences and armed wardens can ward off climate change even if they can prevent “trespassing”, illegal hunting and grazing, or how farmers and pastoralists can be “empowered” to conserve rather than degrade forests and grasslands in the absence of an effective state that can legislate, coordinate and regulate the management of natural resources effectively and efficiently in the public interest. Even without the gathering storm clouds of climate change, and the obscenities of ivory poaching and wildlife trafficking, population growth and competition over finite resources are likely to lead us inexorably towards a comprehensive tragedy of the commons.

Resource misallocation and delays

Beyond conservation issues, however, is the question of resource misallocation, which economists now treat as a major explanation of why some economies and firms perform better than others. Though universal, the issue of systemic resource misallocation is particularly devastating in poor countries, where investible savings are by definition limited, and where prestige projects, white elephants and poor policy analysis and implementation commit huge amounts of capital to non-performing ventures, at enormous opportunity costs. Africa is littered with examples of leaders’ vainglory, extravagance and incompetence.

President Magufuli is pinning his legacy on what he terms “strategic” infrastructure projects, perhaps reflecting, in Flyvbjerg’s words, “The rapture politicians get from building monuments to themselves and their causes, and from the visibility this generates with the public and media”. But the success of the strategy depends on the success of the projects. If they succeed, the leader’s legacy is assured. If they fail, so does the legacy.

Wildlife trafficking, population growth and competition over resources are likely to lead us inexorably towards a comprehensive tragedy of the commons

President Magufuli’s penchant for multi-billion-dollar infrastructure projects is stretching Tanzania’s finances to the limit, consuming an ever-larger part of the national budget and growing the national debt. Since coming to power in 2015, he has: initiated a 2,500km, $14.2 billion standard gauge railway (SGR) to replace the narrow gauge line and extend it to neighbouring countries; revived the country’s airline Air Tanzania Company Ltd (ATC) with new aircraft, including four Airbus A220-300s and two Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners; signed off on a three-kilometre, $260m bridge across the Mwanza Gulf on Lake Victoria, and launched a number of other costly projects.

It is most unlikely that the SGD will be commissioned before the end of President Magufuli’s second term in 2025, given the typical delays and cost overruns in mega-dam construction, leaving the unfinished project as a potentially costly embarrassment for the next government to deal with. Hopefully, ongoing investments in gas-fueled power plants, bottled gas for urban consumers and off-grid solar for rural areas will assure adequate power and help control deforestation in the likely event of an aborted Stiegler’s Gorge Dam.

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Mr Sarokin is an independent researcher based in Arusha, Tanzania.

Politics

No War, No Peace: Life and Death in Eritrea

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

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

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

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

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

Border dispute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace Agreement with Ethiopia and its aftermath

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

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

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

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

Ailing health sector

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

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

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

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

Poor COVID-19 response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Search for a Puppet Chief Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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African Continent a Milking Cow for Google and Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brick and mortar

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

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

‘Their revenue comes from me’.

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

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

Facebook revenue by user geography

Facebook revenue by user geography

Irish Double

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

Moustapha Cisse, Africa team lead at Google AI

Moustapha Cisse, Africa team lead at Google AI

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

Google Ghana is an ‘artificial intelligence research facility’.

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

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

Cash-strapped countries

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

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

Cost to public

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

‘A tax paying people is a questioning people’

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

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

Interior view of the Facebook office in Johannesburg, South Africa

Interior view of the Facebook office in Johannesburg, South Africa

Waiting for the Finance Minister

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

This article was first published by our partner ZAM Magazine.

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