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The Mushrooming of Car Boot Sales in These Corona Times

11 min read.

Many middle class Kenyans are converting their car boots into mini fruit and vegetable markets. In these times of coronavirus, car boot sales have become an adaptation mechanism: they give people an opportunity to earn some hard cash and maintain their sanity.

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The Mushrooming of Car Boot Sales in These Corona Times
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Amos Waweru is your typical consultant: he always carries his laptop and speaks the language of consultancy – strategic objectives, writing proposals, project management, conducting feasibility studies, etc. An enterprise development consultant for the last 15 years, Waweru’s consultancy portfolio includes consulting for international NGOs, both in Kenya and abroad “but that is when the going was good”. Now, thanks to COVID-19, things are different. “It is really tough now and I have had to make adjustments,” said the consultant.

With three teenage children, all in high school, dwindling consultancy work in the last two years, and now the lockdown, which has halted his work to a near standstill for the last three months, Waweru had to make some tough decisions. One of them was converting his Japanese-made vehicle into a car boot sales market. “I stayed at home for one full month the whole of April, without work, with a lot of time on my hands, and simply immobile – three things that I was not used to having in plenty”.

Waweru, a resident of Ruiru, conducted preliminary research among the women who sell vegetables at Ruiru’s open-air market. “Where do they get their vegetables, what types of vegetables do people prefer, how are they priced, so that with this information, I could work out the logistics of starting my own little vegetable market from the boot of my car,” said the consultant. The coronavirus has taken everyone by surprise and upturned many people’s sources of income, throwing people completely off-balance, observed Waweru.

Waweru had cultivated the high-flier image of a successful consultant who occasionally travels abroad. So he was initially bothered by what his peers would think of him selling vegetables from his car off a busy thoroughfare. “I’m very well-known in my church community and in my residential area of Membley, to be truthful, I was a tad worried of my image and whether it wasn’t going to suffer. I was afraid my esteem among my community would diminish”, said the consultant.

When deciding which types of vegetables he should be selling, Waweru found that leafy green vegetables were most in demand. So the next thing he did was to look for a strategic location to park his vehicle and start his business. “I did a little feasibility study around my location and found a bustling stage where the Eastern bypass and Kamiti Road intersect. Already, there were other people selling foodstuff off their vehicles and I decided to join them.” (This intersection is popularly known as the “OJ Connection” – people drop off as others board boda bodas or matatus to their various destinations.)

Waweru had cultivated the high-flier image of a successful consultant who occasionally travels abroad. So he was initially bothered by what his peers would think of him selling vegetables from his car off a busy thoroughfare.

The leafy vegetables Waweru started with included indigenous vegetables like kahurura, kunde, managu, terere, thoroko and osuga. “The market women told me they buy the vegetables from some Ruiru farmers who farm along the Ruiru River. I didn’t know there’s a lot of vegetable farming specialising in indigenous vegetables going on around Ruiru town.” After his interest in vegetable farming was aroused, Waweru also discovered that on the fringes of Tatu City, the mega real estate project coming up on the outskirts of Ruiru town, “there are huge farms where some people have been growing tomatoes on a large scale”.

Waweru set up camp at OJ Connection, but not for long. “I was always looking for better strategic selling areas, because, somehow, I wasn’t persuaded OJ was the best location for me.” He found one at Kimbo, next to the General Service Unit (GSU) Recce Squad command post, on Kiganjo Road, off the Thika superhighway. (The Recce squad is a paramilitary force that is specially trained in dealing with terrorism and other security-related emergencies.) The consultant’s gut feelings on change of location paid off: “I’d been doing brisk business at OJ, but I began doing even brisker business at Kimbo.” Waweru’s image worries have dissipated; he is making some money “to basically pay my bills and fuel the car”.

The car boot sales allowed Waweru to deal with two things: “earn some little money, to be honest it’s really nothing – it is from car boot to mouth”, and even more critical, deal with the problem of staying idle at home. “It was driving me crazy and I found myself picking quarrels with everyone. I cannot remember the last time I was marooned in the house for this long. I needed to get out, meet my friends, have a drink and just be out there.” As he was accustomed to, he carries his laptop with him and keeps himself busy, working on business proposals to potential clients as he waits for his customers.

The Kimbo-Recce Squad junction has become a beehive of activity: We counted more than 20 car boot sales vehicles. “A new vehicle has been pitching camp every week since I came here,” explained Waweru. “Somehow, it has become a magnet for people with cars to experiment with selling a variety of foodstuff from the boots of their cars.” The consultant said that at first the paramilitary personnel were apprehensive about people bringing their cars so close to their camp, but they became more relaxed about it, but warned the car boot sellers not to encroach too near the camp’s gate.

“This coronavirus pandemic has driven people to try out different and several possibilities of finding coping mechanisms of staying economically afloat as they strive to deal with the bad times”, said Waweru. “Yet the crux of the matter is that the coronavirus has just been the catalyst: the economic downturn began with President Uhuru’s second term. I’ll be open with you – President Uhuru’s years have been the worst for my consultancy. I’ve suffered greatly because I cannot even begin to compare his tenure with President Kibaki’s. During Kibaki’s time, I made good money and built myself.”

Some of the additional 20 or so cars that have since followed Waweru to Kimbo belong to teachers, a travel consultant and two matatu owners. At Kimbo they have created a car boot sales mini-market, selling everything from arrowroots, cabbages, eggs, onions, rice (of the pishori type) and tomatoes.

High school teacher Njenga teaches at a school in Kalimoni. After staying at home for a month and after realising there might be no prospect of returning to school sooner, he started thinking of what to do with the extra time that had been created for him. “We are still getting our pay, so compared to other professionals who may have lost their jobs or face a pay cut, we teachers have so far been spared both,” commented the teacher.

“But not used to being idle and immobile, the coronavirus lockdown was driving me nuts – I’ve never stayed at home from morning till evening, day-in day-out, weeks on end. I felt I was beginning to lose my marbles and I needed to be active and breathe out.” As a day school teacher, he and his wife, who is also is a secondary school teacher, had started a side hustle (a popular Kenyan cliché to mean an income-generating project for extra cash). They had invested in a 1000-chicken hatchery. “Instead of waiting for customers to come and collect their eggs at home, we used our car to market the eggs and even attract new customers,” explained the couple.

For some people, the coronavirus pandemic could as well be a blessing in disguise. “From our car boot sale at Kimbo, we’ve been doing good business. In a just a short time, we’ve been pushing between 10 to 20 trays of eggs in a day,” said the teachers. “I mean, before coronavirus, we only depended on our traditional customary clients. Now we’ve created a new market and hope to expand it. A tray of eggs consists of 30 eggs, so, even on a bad day, the Njengas can sell upwards of 300 eggs from their vehicle. At between Sh280 and Sh300 per tray, the teachers can make up to between Sh2,800 and Sh3,000 a day. “If you remove our expenses, we can’t complain too much.”

The other teacher, a lady who also teaches in a high school, has also been selling eggs. “There are enough customers to share, so it’s not a problem that I and my fellow teachers are selling the same thing in the same place. It’s a market of varieties. Let the customers have their say”. She also keeps a poultry farm where she rears chickens for eggs. The pandemic, opined the teacher, had opened her eyes to pursuing an infinite possibility: of selling her eggs from her car. “Even after the crisis is over, I’ll not stop my car boot sale. I’ve already seen the future and I like what I’ve seen: the car boot sale is a niche I had not contemplated. I’m not letting it go”.

For some people, the coronavirus pandemic could as well be a blessing in disguise. “From our car boot sale at Kimbo, we’ve been doing good business. In a just a short time, we’ve been pushing between 10 to 20 trays of eggs in a day,” said the teachers.

Two things have worked in favour of the teachers: The fact that they teach in day schools, which means they don’t have to stay in school all day, and they have not been paying cess to Kiambu County Government. Depending on the nature of business and what you are selling, the county government levies between Sh25 and Sh100 per trader per day.

A county official told me that for now, during the pandemic, they had decided not to charge the car boot sales traders. “We’ve understood the prevailing extraordinary situation to mean that the people are trying make ends meet.”

Just further afield, from where Waweru’s car was, Ben Kungu’s Toyota Hiace, complete with the tracking aerial aloft, was full of fruits and vegetables. Kungu had plucked off the seats of the vehicle to free space for his new venture. A travel and tours consultant, Kungu was hit hard. “Everything ground to a halt and I couldn’t get jobs for my ‘Shark’ [what the Toyota Hiace is popularly called].” His van then was essentially grounded and Kungu was out of a job. What to do in the prevailing circumstances? He decided to go to Ruiru’s open-air market, buy foodstuffs in bulk and in wholesale for resale. “It was both to make some money to fuel the vehicle and for my sanity. I felt like I was going crazy staying at home all day with nothing to do.”

Next to Kungu’s “Shark” were two other vans: the long-distance matatu shuttles known as “Box” because of their shape. When President Uhuru pronounced the cessation of movement in April, many long-distance shuttles that travelled outside of Nairobi County found themselves locked out of work. The owners of these two shuttles said that instead of parking them, like some of their compatriots had done, they decided to convert them into car boot sales markets and sell mostly cabbages from south Kinangop. “Once the cessation ceases, we shall resume our shuttle travel work. For now, let us make use of the vehicles in the most practical way we know how.”

“It was both to make some money to fuel the vehicle and for my sanity. I felt like I was going crazy staying at home all day with nothing to do.”

In Uthiru, an old trading centre off Nairobi-Nakuru highway, I met John Ndung’u. Ndung’u was donning a blue coat, and dusting off sweet potatoes that were spread in the boot of his car. “These sweet potatoes are the best in the market because they are from Kisii – sweet potatoes from this region are good because they remain dry and tough and are not watery,” said the former taxi driver. “They are fresher because I catch them from my supplier before he deposits the load at Marigiti Market in the city centre.” Trucks full of farm suppliers from north and central Rift Valley and western region pass outside Uthiru.

People nowadays prefer sweet potatoes to bread in the morning, said Ndung’u. “Bread has become expensive, but more fundamentally, the sweet potato is nutritious, very fulfilling and is good for school-going children. And there are more than one ways of preparing the sweet potato: you can roast it, you can boil it, you can even fry it, more like potato chips, all to create different tastes of this tasty African tuber crop.”

Ndung’u is the chairman of the Muthiga taxi drivers association. Muthiga, which is seven kilometres from Uthiru, is a popular meat-eating and beer-drinking joint. It has become so popular that it is referred to as Nairobi’s Kikopey. Kikopey is the famous mouth-watering, meat-eating stop on the same highway, but 120km away in Gilgil, Nakuru County. Ndung’u told me the coronavirus crisis had caught his members completely off-guard. Patronised by the moneyed wannabe who live around Muthiga and the adjoining areas of Kinoo, Kikuyu, Magina, Muthure, Sigona and Uthiru, Muthiga is busiest in the evenings and at night, making taxi-driving a profitable venture.

With the president’s announcement of the quasi-lockdown and curfew, taxi drivers in Muthiga became redundant. They had to quickly think of what to do next, what with families to cater for. “We decided, for those who were interested, to temporarily convert our cabs into car boot markets, as we study the effects of this coronavirus and what those effects portended for our business in the coming days,” explained Ndung’u.

If you take a quick tour of the highway from Uthiru, all the way to Regen and Rungiri, you will see saloon vehicles parked besides the highway, with open boots selling all manner of foodstuffs. “Beginning from Corporation, 87, Kinoo, Muthiga, Regen, Rungiri, all the way to Kikuyu town, most of the vehicles you will see are taxi drivers of our association,” said Ndung’u. The cab driver said if the lockdown and the curfew are lifted tomorrow, he would immediately go back to what he knows best: taxi driving.

But Monica Wangari – who I found selling bananas, avocadoes, pineapples and pumpkins in Thindigwa, a splashy middle-class residential area off the busy Kiambu Road – was not sure whether she would go back to her old job. “I was an insurance agent, working for one of the biggest insurance companies in Nairobi. Then coronavirus happened. Heads of department were asked by the MD to select which people should be laid off. I happened to be one of the people who were picked,” said Wangari.

Her family type car is a Vox Noah. Now, she wakes up in the morning, goes to Marigiti Market in downtown Nairobi, buys her foodstuff and parks her Noah on the dusty road that cuts across Thindigwa. “I couldn’t stay in the house. I tried in the first few weeks. I thought I was going to run mad.” At first, she had sought to sell off her wares on the Eastern bypass on the way to Windsor Hotel, “but I found there were too many vehicles and the competition was very stiff, so I opted to park in my hood,” said Wangari.

If you take a quick tour of the highway from Uthiru, all the way to Regen and Rungiri, you will see saloon vehicles parked besides the highway, with open boots selling all manner of foodstuffs.

Not far from where Wangari was parked, I met Catherine Nyawira. A professional cateress, her outside catering business was doing fine until coronavirus come knocking. “My vehicle was for delivering supplies. Little did I know I would convert it to car boot market.” Like Wangari, she opted to sell fruits, but with a bias towards pumpkins. “My pumpkins are from Meru, they are best: they are sweet and dry. Good for mothers weaning their babies off breast milk and for babies generally.” The coronavirus had hit her business hard, said Nyawira. “This is the new reality and it’s survival of the fittest.”

For Kennedy Kiarie from Kiambu town, this new reality is very real. He had been working in the hospitality industry as a sales and marketing executive for a leading hotel in Nairobi. Then coronavirus came. Hotels and restaurants were forced to close down. It was only a matter of time before the workers were asked to go home. He was one of the many employees who was asked to leace. His teacher wife’s salary couldn’t take care of the family and so he decided to convert their family car into a car boot sale market. Unlike Wangari, he does not fear the competition on the Eastern bypass: he has been selling fruits and vegetables just after the roundabout on the road heading to Windsor Hotel since April.

As a full-time Uber cab driver, Kimondo had to contend with the ever-increasing competition from traditional taxi cabs as well from other taxi apps. Yet he was not prepared for coronavirus. When it landed in Kenya, it hit him real hard. He found that he could not cope anymore: his clients had dwindled to zero. “With people not travelling, many cab drivers were rendered jobless, I being one of them,” said Kimondo. Kimondo is now growing vegetables like sukuma wiki and spinach in his small plot in the Mushrooms area, just behind Thindigwa. “I didn’t need to think twice. Once my cab business tumbled, I turned to my car and went off to sell my wares on the Eastern bypass on your way to Windsor Hotel”.

In these times of coronavirus, car boot sales have become an adaptation mechanism: they give people an opportunity to earn some hard cash and maintain their sanity. One could also surmise that the car boot market has in the short-term become an integral part of the food distribution network, ensuring that people living under COVID-19 and curfew still get their food supplies.

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

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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An Unlikely Alliance: What Africa and Asia can teach each other

Once African and Asian leaders looked towards each other for guidance. What possibilities can a renewed cross-continental solidarity offer?

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An Unlikely Alliance: What Africa and Asia Can Teach Each Other
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When independent Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated in 1962, over 100,000 people protested in Beijing Workers’ Stadium. Thousands more protested in New Delhi and Singapore.

When Sudan lacked a formal plaque at the 1955 Bandung Conference, where the leaders of Asia and Africa declared the Third World project, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru wrote “Sudan” on his handkerchief, ensuring Africa’s then largest country a seat.

It was a time when Asia and Africa, home to almost 80 percent of humanity, found kinship in their shared trauma and conjoined destiny. Both were always spoken of in tandem. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” drew inspiration from what he saw overseas: “The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet like speed toward gaining political independence.”

Too often we forget that the most defining event of the 20th century was not World War II or the Cold War, but the liberation of billions in Asia and Africa between the 1950s and 1980s as citizens of almost 100 new-born countries.

It also marked the revival of an ancient, pre-European connection. Historically, Asia and Africa were enmeshed centers of wealth and knowledge and the gatekeepers of the most lucrative trade routes. The Roman Empire’s richest region was North Africa, not Europe. A severe trade imbalance with South Asia forced Roman emissaries to beg spice traders in Tamil Nadu to limit their exports.

Western Europeans left their shores in desperation, not exploration, in the 1500s to secure a maritime route to the wealthy Indian Ocean trading system that integrated Asia and Africa. Somali traders grew rich as middlemen transiting coveted varieties of cinnamon from South Asia to Southern Europe. The Swahili coast shipped gold, ivory, and wildlife to China. Transferring the world economy to the Atlantic first required Portugal’s violent undoing of the flow of goods and peoples between Asia and Africa.

In Bandung, Indonesia’s Sukarno declared “a new departure” in which peoples of both continents no longer had “their futures mortgaged to an alien system.”

Yet that departure became a wide divergence that is complex to comprehend. Over the last few years, I’ve shuttled between the megacities of Asia to East and Central Africa. I also grew up in four Asian countries—India, Thailand, Philippines, and Singapore—and lived through Southeast Asia’s exponential rise.

The gap between Africa and East Asia, including Southeast Asia, is perplexing because we share much in common—culture, values, spirit, and worldview. I’m reminded of this in Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, or Ghana, where I’ve felt an immediate sense of fraternity.

It’s now a familiar story: 70 years ago, African incomes and literacy rates were higher than East Asia, then an epicenter of major wars. But in one generation, East Asia achieved wealth, human development, and standards of living that rival a tired, less relevant Western world.

The shockingly inept response by many Western countries to a historic pandemic has only amplified calls for Africa to abandon the Western model and learn from its once closest allies. A new book titled Asian Aspiration: How and Why Africa Should Emulate Asia, hit stores this year, co-authored by former Nigerian and Ethiopian heads of state. An op-ed in Kenya’s Star newspaper even prior suggested Kenyans shift their gaze from the supposed advancement of Westerners to “the progress of our comrades in the East.”

The incessant idea that Africa’s future lies in models not of its own making can be patronising. But Africa can indeed learn from the successes and pitfalls of East Asia, the world’s most economically dynamic region also built from scratch, while imparting wisdom of its own.

Many who previously pondered this gap came up with multiple theories, but often ignored a simple reality: Africa’s geography. Like Latin America, Africa is bedeviled by a predatory power to its north that siphons capital, talent, labor, and hope. By contrast, East Asia, even with several U.S. bases, is an ocean away from the United States and a 12-hour flight from Western Europe.

Europe’s proximity to Africa also cultivated a perennial barrier to development: the Western aid industry. Whether I’m in Haiti or Chad, the sheer domination of Western NGOs, development agencies, aid convoys, and all manner of plunder masquerading as goodwill—$40 billion more illicitly flows out of Africa than incoming loans and aid combined—is something I never saw even 25 years ago in Southeast Asia. Industries look for growth opportunities. Developed societies with robust public systems in East Asia offer few for saviors. The streets of Bangkok and Hanoi are lined with Toyotas and tourists, not wide-eyed youths in armored vehicles guided by white burden. The development industry and most of its participants I’ve had the misfortune of meeting are toxic. Large swaths of Africa remain under occupation of a different kind.

For much of the 20th century, Africa also faced a virulent settler colony in its south which destabilized the region and was so hateful of Black Africans that its mercenaries set up a series of bogus health clinics to surreptitiously spread HIV under the guise of charitable healthcare.

East Asia’s settler colony, Australia, was never able to replicate South Africa’s belligerence. It did lay waste to Papua New Guinea (where it continues to imprison asylum-seekers) but Australia never invaded or occupied Indonesia or the Philippines.

Another fallacy explaining African inertia is poor leadership. Leadership is paramount, but Africa produced a generation of independence era leaders whose values and decency the world desperately needs today. All were killed or overthrown by the West—because Africa is a far deeper reservoir of resources than East Asia.

South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan are not resource rich. Thailand was never even colonized. An Asian country afflicted by similar conditions to Africa is mineral-rich Myanmar, closed to the wider world and progress for decades. Showcases of democracy aside, its kleptocratic, authoritarian political culture, like many African countries, was inherited from British rule. George Orwell’s less referenced book Burma Days, a recount of his time as a police officer in colonial Burma, called the British Empire “a despotism with theft as its final object.”

Resources prevented African leaders from towing a middle road that kept Western powers happy while investing in their society. The choice was resource nationalism or authoritarian acquiescence “with theft as its final object.” It was either Lumumba or Mobutu.

East Asian success stories worked within the global capitalist system and conducted deft diplomacy to placate Western superiority complexes while fortifying relationships with the rest of the global South. At independence, Singapore dispatched diplomats around the world, including several African countries, to build trade ties. Its manufacturing companies provided cassette tapes for Sudan’s then booming music industry. It hired Israeli advisors to train its military while staying in the good books of neighbors and Arab partners who stood with the Palestinians. These maneuvers are only possible when you aren’t sitting on $24 trillion worth of minerals.

Geography aided East Asia. Colonial borders, with a few exceptions, resembled some form of community that came before the nation-state. Consider both the Malay and Korean Peninsulas. Thailand’s borders, while amended as concessions to imperial powers, conformed largely to the cultural and linguistic boundaries of ancient Siam.

Africa’s artificial borders concocted nation-states with no experience as a community of any kind. The nation-state model creates fissures even in Europe, with the Yugoslav wars and constant, violently suppressed demands for statehood by the Basques and Catalans in Spain, not to mention a referendum by the Scots. Partitions across Africa, a special kind of cartographic violence, congealed animosity for generations.

So while Africans were marginally better off at independence than East Asians, structurally they actually did not have a head start. But Africa still thrived in the 1970s. It is only now reaching average income levels akin to half a century ago. To dismiss the continent’s record since independence as a perennial failure is a historically illiterate point of view. Its cultural output and musical dynamism were astonishing—arguably unrivaled—during this era. Liverpool and Manchester? Try Luanda and Mogadishu.

Africans were well aware of the right course but were thwarted more viciously than East Asia’s most developed states. Perhaps the West is more tolerant of Asian success because of racial hierarchies, just as the US parades Asian-American affluence as a symbol of the universality of the US-led Western model but violently responds to the smallest hint of actual wealth creation in Black-American communities.

Now, amid a precarious coming decade, East Asia indeed offers prescriptions for not only natural allies like Africans but societies worldwide seeking transformation in record time.

First off, it’s all about networks. Do the rules of your country facilitate local, regional, and international networks? A new Harvard study concluded that brisk business travel has the single biggest impact on building networks, diffusing knowledge, and birthing new industries. Europe’s own development benefited from its small land space, which tailored expansive, tight-knit networks that rapidly spread ideas revolutionizing everything from the sciences to football tactics.

Frequent trips to any major city in East Asia connect you to lucrative networks half a world away. Business travel (at least before the chaos of coronavirus) to East Asia is accessible, affordable, and hassle-free. The right infrastructure and laws—state-of-the-art airports, good accommodations, low-cost, high-speed telecommunications, rapid transportation links and whole scale visa liberalization—are needed to accommodate network-building travelers of every stripe and budget. African countries should follow suit, and streamline business travel, which would allow African travelers to build dense regional and continental networks—currently a tough ask when pre-pandemic flights from Nairobi to London were far cheaper than to neighboring capitals.

Since the 1980s, the Anglo-American West, ideologically intoxicated by deregulation, abdicated their society’s fate to self-interested individuals and free markets alone. East Asian countries enacted hardcore capitalist policies but never bought into this demented idea. The US and UK spent the last four decades dismantling their states; East Asian countries meanwhile reinforced their capacity with vast investments in education, telecommunication, and especially healthcare.

Thailand abandoned the neoliberal approach to healthcare in the early 2000s for a private-public model that guaranteed universal coverage and secured its place as the first country in Asia to eliminate HIV transmission from mother to child. Both Singapore and Hong Kong have the most efficient healthcare systems in the world. Sharply guided public health policies underwrote East Asia’s masterful management of COVID-19. Vietnam and Laos had zero deaths from coronavirus while Germany, somehow a celebrated success story in the Western press, has over 9,000 deaths.

Recently, Kenya sought Thailand’s expertise in revamping a typically price-gouged private healthcare system. Ethiopia invited Vietnamese telecommunication companies to make its systems reliable, fast, and, like much of Southeast Asia, affordable.

In the Nigerian and Kenyan corners of Twitter, “The Singapore Solution” resonates. People yearn for a Lee Kuan Yew figure. Lee once told an Indian audience that Singapore’s model cannot be adopted by India, which, according to him, “is not a real country…Instead it is thirty-two separate nations that happen to be arrayed along the British rail line.”

The same can be said about Nigeria and Kenya. Singapore is an entrepot state of a few million at the gateway to the Malacca Straits, the world’s busiest shipping lane, with deep ancestral ties to China and India, the world’s richest economies for 1,800 of the last 2,000 years.

Each country’s trajectory is highly contingent on a set of unique circumstances and should never be applied wholesale. With the immense benefit of hindsight, Africans can choose from the best, most fitting lessons from the region, while staying vigilant of and mitigating many pitfalls.

For every one of me, inheritors of East Asia’s boom, there are, like New York City and London in the early 1900s, millions trapped as cheap labor servicing endless growth, forced to compete over scraps in unforgiving cities. East Asian inequality is nauseating. South Korea has the highest elderly poverty rate in the OECD, with almost half of its senior citizens condemned to destitution rather than retirement. Only disparities that torture the soul can create award-winning films like Parasite.

This is a feature, not a bug, of East Asia’s rapid growth. Opening up to global capitalism inevitably instills hierarchies and racialized aspirations. When I see advertisements for new luxury condominiums, possibly the most prevalent hoardings in Southeast Asia, it’s an image of a white man with his East Asian wife and mixed-race child. The message is clear. As Frantz Fanon wrote, “you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.”

East Asia may not have the levels of violent, heartless racism on brazen display in Western societies, but the 1990s were a turning point. East Asians began to look down on those modernization taught them to distrust. You don’t go from mourning an assassinated Congolese leader by the thousands to treating African expatriates as diseased in one generation without a drastic, very recent shift.

Some Westerners, like washed up drunks screaming profanities at a bar, might be tempted to repeat the mantras falsely underlining their sense of superiority to make preposterous demands of such young countries pieced together overnight. They might ask, “Well what of democracy? Human rights? Freedom of the press? Free markets?” These are all wonderful things, if they actually existed.

Not a single Western country was a democracy during its development. Western Europe had a fascist government in Spain until 1975. France and Britain fought horrific wars to deny Algeria and Kenya independence even after defeating Nazism. You can’t be a democracy when you deny democracy to others. European colonies were run as totalitarian dictatorships and lasted well into the late 20th century.

Freedom of the press? Try criticizing Israel in the mainstream US or German media.

Human rights? Europe lets migrants drown by the thousands in the Mediterranean. Australia has offshore camps for asylum seekers where abuse and rape are rampant. The US has kids in cages and its cops murder young Black men for sport.

Free markets? Both the US and Britain were viciously protectionist societies that relied on massive state intervention, and overwhelming military force, to mint its corporations.

The marriage of free markets to supposedly liberal democracy gave us Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, India’s Narendra Modi, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, and kept war criminal Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s longest serving leader. The Western liberal order, Indian writer Pankaj Mishra meticulously reveals, is an “incubator for authoritarianism” because it’s premised on fairy tales.

An open society, a vibrant marketplace, and a respect for human dignity are of course worthy and necessary goals. More representative forms of government, hopefully devised by us rather than imported from Cornwall, England, will arrive. We need not be “Jeffersonian Democrats”; we can surely do better than a system championed by slave owners. As Deng Xiaoping said when China opened up after its century of humiliation, “Let some people get rich first,” which should be interpreted as a call to enrich societies as a whole before succumbing to obnoxious Western moralizing about values they rarely practice themselves.

Advancement need not only be predicated on economic growth and democratic politics and Africa need not only be the student and Asia the mentor. Asia has much to learn from Africa’s grand investments in culture in its earliest days. Aside from Vietnam, whose communist government funded the arts, and South Korea, which subsidized its K-Pop industry, most East Asian countries pay little attention to their cultural prowess on the world stage.

When kids in Djibouti listen to songs on their phone, it’s Somali music or Nigerian hits. Hop in a taxi in Accra or Khartoum and you hear that country’s sound. Africans listen to their own music. Southeast Asia does not. The richest music is derided as a pastime of lower classes, unfit for well-heeled urban elites. Talent gets lost in the never-ending roster of cover bands for top 40 American pop.

In Jakarta’s many behemoth malls, “you will not hear Indonesian music,” wrote journalist Vincent Bevins. “You will not hear Japanese music, or anything from Asia… It will all have been packaged and sold in the USA.” It’s the same story anywhere in the region.

This may seem trivial, but a country’s image is vital to any lasting progress. In a world no longer able to “identify with, let alone aspire to, Hollywood’s white fantasies of power, wealth and sex,” wrote Fatima Bhutto in New Kings of the World: Dispatches from Bollywood, Dizi, and K-Pop, “a vast cultural movement is emerging from the global South… Truly global in its range and allure, it is the biggest challenge to America’s monopoly of soft power since the end of the Second World War.”

African countries laid the foundations in the ‘70s to fill this vacuum. Their image will be defined in the next decades by their stellar music, set to be in our lifetimes the global staple and standard. Independent labels and corporate players like UMG and Sony, now with headquarters in Lagos and Abidjan, have ensured unprecedented international access to Africa’s abundance of music, past and present.

African literary festivals have also blossomed, adding to an impressive six percent growth in the industry. It’s only a matter of time before small and multinational publishing houses scout a new cadre of young African writers to make household names, as they did in South Asia. Africa hosts over 35 annual literary festivals, even in struggling cities like Mogadishu, while East Asia only enjoys 21.

Economic engines inevitably slow. Southeast Asia in particular must emulate African pride in its own music and related expressions of culture to seize on openings left behind by a once omnipotent cultural hegemony in full retreat. South Korea understood this early and enjoys a powerful, beloved global brand molded by pop music and films, not per capita income.

Even if Africa and Asia swap carefully selected approaches, ultimate success is only possible from a unity akin to the 1955 Bandung Conference. When we again mingle and ally, when we mourn each other’s dead, when we scribble names on napkins as acts of solidarity, we will again realize our lasting success. The final phase to complete the process of decolonization will have to be done jointly, in unison, or never at all.

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Fear and Loathing in Kenya’s Parliament

Parliament’s failure to enact laws to bring women into elected national leadership has only exposed its soft underbelly, revealing a combination of narcissism and incompetence.

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Fear and Loathing in Kenya’s Parliament
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A month before Chief Justice David Maraga advised the president to dissolve parliament, legislators were toying with plans to delete the constitutional requirement that would include women in national political leadership.

“You cannot compel citizens to elect either men or the other gender,” said Justin Muturi. Speaking at a parliamentary retreat, the Speaker of the National Assembly appeared to have lost whatever empathy he previously harboured for affirmative action legislation to promote women’s participation in elected leadership in June 2016.

Following the CJ’s September 21 advice, Muturi mobilised the Parliamentary Service Commission, which he chairs, to mount a court challenge against it. He remarked: “The clamour to pass legislation to ensure [the] two-thirds gender principle potentially violates the sovereign will of the electorate at least to the extent that such legislation will demand top-ups or nominations of women”.

Jeremiah Kioni, who chairs the Constitution Implementation Oversight Committee, told the parliamentary retreat that politicians only agreed to include the clause on the inclusion of women in elective leadership in the 2010 constitution “to stabilise the country and cool tempers”.

Unknown to many at the time of the retreat debate, the Speakers of the National Assembly and the Senate had received an August 3 letter from Chief Justice David Maraga informing them that he was considering six different petitions asking him to advise the president to dissolve parliament as provided for in the constitution. The letter followed up on a 25 June 2019 one inquiring about the progress made by Parliament in enacting laws to increase women’s participation in leadership.

In August, Muturi cautioned members of parliament that there was a real risk of dissolution over failure to enact the law on including women in leadership, but since Maraga delivered his coup de grâce on September 21, the Speaker has gone on the warpath.

Although the constitution – which was passed by 68.6 per cent adult suffrage in August 2010 – gave parliament independence, it contains a suicide clause giving the president the power of dissolution should it fail to enact laws that bring the constitution into application. The clause kicks in if the High Court certifies and declares that parliament has failed to pass a law within the required timelines.

The constitutional provision requiring that no gender should constitute more than two thirds of any elective or appointive body has been successfully implemented in county assemblies, but it has remained a sticking point at the national level. Elections for the National Assembly and the Senate in 2017, and the subsequent allocation of special seats, gave women only 23 per cent of the share of legislative leadership at the national level – a 9 per cent improvement on the 2013 elections.

A 2018 National Democratic Institute survey of gender participation in politics found that “[w]omen who had served in specially nominated positions, for example, were more likely to win an election than those who had never held office at all”.

A combination of political chicanery, slothful self-interest and duplicitous male chauvinism has repeatedly thwarted efforts to create an inclusive national legislature. The laws required to cash the promissory note given to women when the country passed the Constitution have never been passed because neither the National Assembly nor the Senate has been able to muster the two-thirds quorum required to debate a constitutional amendment.

The National Gender and Equality Commission documents the Journey to Gender Parity in Political Representation, noting the four floundering attempts to enact laws that would increase the number of women in national legislatures.

In each instance, the bills proposed to become law had already been developed off-site, complete with a costing of what each option would mean for the taxpayer, and all that was required of MPs was for them to show up and make the quorum for the bills to come under consideration.

The last effort at passing the gender law had been stepped down from the order paper in November 2018 over fears that there would be lack of quorum to consider it since it touched on the constitution. The bill was the product of painstaking negotiation, bargaining, and deal making involving over 50 organisations and that had lined up President Uhuru Kenyatta, political party leaders Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka.

When the proposed law was put to the National Assembly in February 2019, the headcount came in at 174 MPs – 59 short of the 233 required to consider a law relating to the constitution. Earlier, under the hammer of the High Court in 2016 to pass a similar law, Speaker Muturi innovated a way to get round the requirement for constitutional amendment law proposals to wait 90 days, fast-tracked the bill through the 11th Parliament – only for it to fail because there was no quorum to consider it.

Frustrations over the repeated failure to pass laws that promote women’s increased participation in elective politics have triggered a record number of court petitions. The most consequential of these is the petition filed by the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness, from which the High Court issued a declaration that parliament had indeed failed to perform its duty to enact a law to promote the participation of women in national elective leadership.

The Speaker of the National Assembly lost an appeal against the 2017 High Court decisionordering parliament to enact the law providing for inclusive leadership within 60 days.

Last year, on 5 April, the Court of Appeal observed that the repeated failure to get a quorum to pass the law “does not speak of a good faith effort to implement the gender principle”, noting that Parliament had already exhausted the option of extending for a year the deadline for enacting the gender law.

That decision confirmed parliament’s failure to perform its duty, and within two months inspired five petitions requesting the Chief Justice to advise that it be dissolved. The Law Society of Kenya lodged its petition with the Chief Justice in June this year.

Ken Ogutu, who teaches law at the University of Nairobi, analogises the current dilemma to a construction project where the main contractor has completed the main structure of a new house and a subcontractor is then left to do the finishing to ensure the house is completed to the required standards. “The main contractor gives the subcontractor a schedule of the finishing he must do and by when, and if the subcontractor fails to complete these tasks within the specified timelines, he is fired and a new one hired to do the work”.

Parliament has argued that it has passed all the other laws and should not be punished for not enacting the gender inclusion laws.

The Chief Justice’s advice to dissolve Parliament will likely expose the institution’s hidden weaknesses. Its failure to enact laws to bring women into elected national leadership has only exposed its soft underbelly, revealing a combination of narcissism and incompetence.

Beneath the shining veneer of success, evident in the passage of 47 out of the 48 laws required to implement the constitution as outlined in its Fifth Schedule, there is plenty of evidence that parliament is still stuck in the old constitutional order. Some argue that parliament has been the weak link in turning Kenya into a constitutional democracy.

Since 2011, Kenya Law Reports has documented 48 statutes or amendments to the law that the courts have struck down for being unconstitutional. Eight of the controversial laws struck down by the High Court or the Court of Appeal relate to the management of competition in elections.

Judges sitting singly or in panels of three in the High Court, or in the Court of Appeal, have struck down parliament’s attempts at power grabs by avoiding public participation and making laws that violate the constitution. It is even more worrying that the 48 are only those laws that citizens or organisations have challenged, meaning that there could be a great deal of unconstitutionality hidden in other laws.

For example, commenting on the attempt to sinecure seats for political party leaders in the election law, appellate judges Festus Azangalala, Patrick Kiage and Jamilla Mohammed wrote in their judgment: “[F]ar from attaining the true object of protecting the rights of the marginalized as envisioned by the constitution, the inclusion of Presidential and Deputy Presidential candidates in Article 34(9) of the Elections Act does violence to all reason and logic by arbitrary and irrational superimposition of well-heeled individuals on a list of the disadvantaged and marginalized to the detriment of the protected classes or interests”.

Other judges have described some of the legislative attempts as “overreach” or “no longer [serving] any purpose in the statute books of this country”. Judge Mumbi Ngugi, commenting on the anti-corruption law passed by parliament, remarked: “The provisions […], apart from obfuscating, indeed helping to obliterate the political hygiene, were contrary to the constitutional requirements of integrity in governance, were against the national values and principles of governance and the principles of leadership and integrity in . . . the Constitution . . . [and] entrenched corruption and impunity in the land”.

The low quality of laws emanating from parliament since the promulgation of the constitution in 2010 arises from several factors, among them competence gaps and self-interest, and despite the inclusion of an entire chapter on integrity in the constitution, the country’s politics is weighed down by poor political hygiene. Similarly, the law on qualification for election as a member of parliament sets a very low threshold while the one for recalling elected leaders is impossible to apply.

Data aggregated from the parliamentary website shows that 72 per cent of all members of the National Assembly are university graduates, but many of the qualifications listed appear to be shotgun degrees from notorious religious institutions acquired in the nick of time to clear the hurdle for election. The modest intellectual heft of members in the National Assembly especially makes the institution unsuited for the task of navigating a Western-style democracy in the design of the constitution.

Some 40 MPs have law degrees, but the Kenya Law Reform Commission, the Attorney General’s office, and various interest groups carry out much of the legislative drafting. Parliament is then often left with the duty of playing rubber stamp.

At moments of national crisis, legislative initiative has tended to emanate from outside parliament, whose members are then invited to endorse whatever deal has been agreed. Cases in point from recent history include the resolution of the stalemate over changing the composition of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission in 2017, and the political détente in the aftermath of the putative 2017 presidential election.

In a global first of game-warden-turned-poacher, the Public Accounts Committee, Kenya’s parliamentary watchdog, was disbanded over allegations of corruption. The Conflict of Interest Bill was only published last year and is yet to reach the floor of parliament. It was not the only instance of members of parliament literally feathering their nests. Legislators have been most voluble in defending the benefits they feel entitled to, and clinging onto the control of the constituency development fund, which they have turned into a pot of patronage.

The constitution refashioned parliament as an independent institution with law-making, oversight and budgeting powers. The institution has not acquitted itself in watching over public institutions and spending, often playing catch-up with reports of the Auditor General. Its lax fiscal management and oversight has resulted in the country’s debt stock growing from Sh1.78 trillion in 2013 to the current Sh6.7 trillion. Only this year, the Sh500 billion contract for the construction of the standard gauge railway using Chinese loans was found to have been illegal.

Its review of the annual reports from the judiciary and the 14 constitutional commissions has been lacklustre, with the worst case being the parlous state of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission. One of the concerns raised about dissolving parliament is around the readiness of the commission to undertake nationwide parliamentary elections, given that four of the seven commissioners have resigned and have not been replaced, and that the institution does not have a sufficient budget to undertake its work.

Another anxiety around the dissolution of parliament has been that the electorate would not cure the gender imbalance in the national legislature through an election. That anxiety is a misapprehension.

On 20 April 2017, in deciding a case filed by Katiba Institute, Justice Enock Mwita ordered that political parties formulate rules and regulations to bring to life the two-thirds gender principle during nominations for the 290 constituency-based elective positions for members of the National Assembly and the 47 county-based elective positions for members of the Senate within six months. He added that if they failed to do so, the IEBC should devise an administrative mechanism to ensure that the two-thirds gender principle is realised within political parties during nomination exercises for parliamentary elections.

The August 2017 High Court judgment requires the IEBC to ensure that party lists contribute to the realisation of the gender principle. The decision has not been appealed or vacated. Given the parliament’s proclivity to pursue the interests of its members in increasing their pay even when not allowed to do so, it is not unlikely that MPs, detained by their own fear of political competition, have refused to see how affirmative action legislation would increase women’s participation in politics.

For now, the Chief Justice’s advice to the president to dissolve parliament has been challenged in court by two citizens, with Judge Weldon Korir certifying that the case raises constitutional questions that need to be adjudicated by an uneven number of judges. It is not unlikely that the matter could go all the way to the Court of Appeal, meaning that the earliest a final position could be settled is February next year.

The dissolution saga will likely highlight the distance yet to be covered in realising the parliament Kenyans wanted to establish through the constitution. Although parliament has a five-year term, it can be extended in times of war or emergency for a period of one year each time, for a maximum of one year. The corollary is that its term can be shortened if it fails to live up to constitutional expectations.

Bereft of any real power or competence and unable to cut the umbilical cord binding it to the executive, parliament will be President Uhuru Kenyatta’s poodle waiting on his charity. And as the president concludes the political calculation of the costs and benefits of dissolving parliament, the country will be assessing its legislature’s performance not just on gender but on everything else.

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