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The Fracturing of the Oromo and the Return of the Law and Order State in Ethiopia

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Ethiopia’s delicate transition is under severe strain. A ferocious burst of communal violence in July, sparked by the murder of a popular Oromo singer, and which claimed more than 200 lives, underscores the grave conflict risks this populous Horn of Africa nation faces.

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The Fracturing of the Oromo and the Return of the Law and Order State in Ethiopia
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The unrest in Oromia is complex. Long-festering grievances, discontent with Prime Minister Abiy’s policies and a deepening fracturing of the Oromo, have combined to create a volatile situation. The escalating divisions, factionalism and contest for supremacy in Oromia packs enough destabilising power to upend PM Abiy’s transition.

Urgent steps must be taken to mend the intra-Oromo rift, improve inter-ethnic relations, and put regional and national politics on a less combustible course.

A mystery killing

The killing of the singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa on 29 June triggered a bout of violence and protest, the worst since Abiy came to power in April 2018. A week of communal clashes in Addis Ababa, the capital, and in Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest and most populous federal state, left close to 300 people dead. Protests engulfed much of Oromia and spread quickly to several cities with large Ethiopian diaspora communities in North America and Europe.

Businesses owned by non-Oromos were looted and shops torched. The government imposed a curfew, shut down the internet, rounded up dozens of opposition leaders and stepped up the brutal security crackdown in Oromia.

The deaths, mayhem and destruction were not inevitable; in hindsight, it is not too difficult to see how a measured, sensitive and less heavy-handed state response could have produced a different outcome.

By failing to institute an open and credible commission of inquiry into the death of Hachalu, coming out with inconsistent statements barely hours after the killings, and arresting opposition leaders, the government simply reinforced mistrust and inflamed sentiments.

The Ethiopian government has since lifted the internet ban and eased restrictions on movement. A semblance of normality is returning to many parts of Oromia. But tensions still remain high and ethnic relations are increasingly toxic.

Much of the current tense and ominous stand-off can be attributed to the series of missteps and knee-jerk responses by the federal authorities. But these factors, in of themselves, cannot explain the speed at which the situation deteriorated. Even without Hachalu’s death and the violent aftermath, a showdown seemed inevitable. To understand why, an analysis of the wider context is necessary.

From accommodation to coercive containment

The crisis in Oromia is emblematic of the inherent tensions, contradictions, and disjuncture between two forms of politics – the “vernacularised” and the national.

Oromia offers a fascinating case study on how Abiy’s posture and calculations changed over time; how the evolution from a policy of accommodation to one of coercive co-optation and containment is feeding the current unrest.

Prime Minister Abiy inherited a dysfunctional state that had run out of road and was desperate for a new direction. Years of rolling mass protests in Oromia and Amhara states had brought the nation to a political impasse.

Oromia offers a fascinating case study on how Abiy’s posture and calculations changed over time; how the evolution from a policy of accommodation to one of coercive co-optation and containment is feeding the current unrest.

The EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front), once a strong and progressive party, had run out of steam and ideas; deeply riven by factionalism and power struggles. These divisions mirrored wider cleavages in society and the resurgence of competing ethno-nationalisms.

The economy was on the ropes, done in by a combination of frenetic growth, expensive infrastructure modernisation and unsustainable debt. The treasury barely had enough foreign reserves to cover a month’s worth of exports.

The challenges before the new PM were both complex and difficult. Over and above the onerous task of consolidating power, stabilising the economy, reforming politics and putting the transition on a solid footing, Abiy had to grapple with the weight of public expectations.

Abiy’s administration in the first few months in office was characterised by a conspicuously Oromo theme. The premier ditched the suit for the flowing white cotton Oromo outfit. He treated visiting dignitaries to lavish banquets at which Oromo chefs laid out the finest of traditional cuisines. He gave away horses to special state guests.

This overt display of Oromo pride was deliberate and went down well in Oromia. Beyond winning the hearts and minds of his people, the strategy had the potential to help him build a solid ethnic, regional support base, which is crucial in an ethnicised political system.

But to establish credibility and earn the trust of his Oromo ethnic group, the PM needed to do more. He released political prisoners, among them prominent Oromo leaders. He appointed a record number of Oromos to key posts in the cabinet, the army and the security services. He unbanned the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), reached out to exiled activists and facilitated their return home.

Consolidating Oromo support proved more complicated for the PM. Despite his popularity, he had to contend with a diverse array of factions and personalities with local and national political ambitions, and, in some instances, with a large following and influence.

Roots of Oromo nationalism and discontent

The Oromo are the single largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, and make up roughly two-fifths (about 40 million) of Ethiopia’s total population of more than 100 million. They inhabit a vast geographical territory and are dispersed across much of south, central and western Ethiopia, as well as across the border in Kenya. Sub-families of the Oromo, such as the Boran, Gabra, Burji, Orma, live in the counties of Marsabit, Isiolo and Tana River.

However, this sheer demographic size did not translate into political and economic power. The Oromos’ history has been one of marginalisation and exploitation.

The large-scale uprisings in Ethiopia since 2012, largely driven by the Oromo, and which eventually thrust PM Abiy into power, made the Oromo a potent political force that cannot be ignored.

The Oromo are not monolithic. They are the most internally-diverse of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups, with sub-groups differentiated by significant linguistic, religious and cultural variations.

These factors in turn inflect political dynamics and ways in which communities respond to political pressures

Dispersal over vast territories, diversity and heterogeneity makes Oromo society uniquely pluralistic and the least insular of all the ethnicities found in Ethiopia. These traits have been a major source of strength but also weakness.

The large-scale uprisings in Ethiopia since 2012, largely driven by the Oromo, and which eventually thrust PM Abiy into power, made the Oromo a potent political force that cannot be ignored.

Religious pluralism, historically manifested in the peaceful cohabitation between different faith systems (Islam, Christianity and the ancestral faith, Waqqeffana), makes Oromo society the least prone to religious bigotry and militancy. It also explains why hard line strains of Salafi Islam have found Oromia unconducive to put down roots. This culture of tolerance is now under strain from evangelical proselytism and encroachment.

Divisive political co-optation tactics by state and rival political factions feed off these rich diversities within Oromo society and drive much of the tensions and fragmentations we are seeing today in Oromia.

No subject polarises Ethiopia today more than Oromo ethno-nationalism. The bloody violence and protests in the wake of Hachalu’s killing have made the debate even more heated, emotive and divisive.

To understand the drivers of Oromo discontent and nationalism, to untangle the underlying trends and dynamics, and to plot the potential future trajectory, it is critical for policy makers to widen their analytical lens and develop deeper contextual insights into its specificity.

Complexity

Oromo nationalism, not unlike other nationalisms, is complex and dynamic. It is fed by multiple streams, taps into a reservoir of potent, accumulated grievances and draws energy and sustenance from a rich repository of cultural memory and aspiration. The latter point is important, not least, because there is a misperception it is primarily/wholly driven by politics.

In fact, the political manifestation of Oromo nationalism is fairly recent and comes off the back of decades of struggle for cultural freedoms. Key demands of the Oromo cultural revivalist movement included the right to accord Afaan Oromo the same official privileges as Amharic and the freedom to openly observe traditional rituals (such as Irreecha).

Pride in Oromo identity and the need to affirm it inspired generations of young people. Hachalu was, therefore, the spokesman of this new generation – a proud, unapologetic and self-confident Oromo. His popular song Jirra struck a chord because its lyrics encapsulated those aspirations in one simple and powerful line: We are here!

It is worth bearing in mind that all ethno-nationalisms are forms of myth-making, constructed around romanticised notions of the past and links with a self-defined ancestral homeland, and impelled by powerful emotions.

Narrative

The current debate about Oromo nationalism comes against the backdrop of an increasingly febrile and polarised political climate. The language of discourse, reflecting these tensions, is emotionally charged and adversarial; much of the discussions, invariably, are as simplistic as they are decontextualised. More disconcerting is the fact that public opinion is increasingly being shaped by misperception – a narrative of mutual “othering” and demonisation.

Current anti-Oromo sentiments are varied and cover a wide spectrum. The most dominant is a generalised fear of Oromo hegemony, sometimes laced with the perception that Oromos are prone to violence. This is especially the case among smaller ethnic groups that have borne the brunt of targeted violence.

The debate about the Oromo has assumed a reductionist dimension and is dominated by essentialism – a tendency to ascribe a category of problematic and negative “essences” to the ethnic group and its politics.

This strain of Oromophobia is now largely driven by an amorphous group of old elites, loosely described as neftegna. The term is controversial and contested. The animating force of the neftegna ideology is a set of exaggerated “patriotic” ideas that revolve around the imperative to preserve Ethiopia as a single, strong, centralised state. The Christian character of the Ethiopian state, though less accentuated, forms an essential part of the narrative repertoire.

Current anti-Oromo sentiments are varied and cover a wide spectrum. The most dominant is a generalised fear of Oromo hegemony, sometimes laced with the perception that Oromos are prone to violence.

Oromo discontent in recent months has been inflamed by perception PM Abiy has bought into aspects of the neftegna narrative. Even if not true, the PM’s rhetorical appropriation of Ethiopiawinet (Ethiopianness) and the strident airplay it is getting on state media is polarising. It is a divisive term; a throwback to the imperial age when it was instrumentalised to subjugate and control Oromos.

There is nothing exotic about Oromo nationalism and protest. The sense of alienation, disillusionment and grievances activists articulate have their roots in real material conditions. The primary engine feeds on long-festering socio-economic and political factors – massive unemployment, wealth and income disparities, elite-driven land grabs, corruption and youth aspiration.

Ethno-nationalism and violence

There is no doubt that violent ethno-nationalism constitutes Ethiopia’s gravest threat in the short to medium term.

The last two years saw a resurgence of volatile strains of ethnic identity politics in Ethiopia that ratcheted up inter-communal tensions and stoked violence.

The most serious of these conflicts were in Oromia-Somali Regional State (SRS) borders, Oromia-Afar regional state borders, the Guji Oromo-Gedeo community border areas, the Amhara-Gumuz regional state borders, the Oromo-Benishangul Gumuz regional state borders, and the Oromo special zones in Amhara region. Hundreds were killed and the violence triggered waves of fresh displacements, one of the worst in the country’s history, bringing the number of IDPs to over 3 million in early 2019.

The upsurge in violence is not surprising. While much of it could be attributed to the disruptive power of Abiy’s speedy dismantling and opening up of the old state, subsequent state response played a significant role in compounding the crisis.

State-driven violence is a major contributor to localised violence in Oromia. Aggressive and hostile policing, mass arrest of activists, and indiscriminate and disproportionate use of lethal force to quell protests have all combined to create a combustible environment of siege that stokes counter-violence.

Oromo fracture

Oromia is today more deeply divided and unstable than it has ever been in decades. The region is now both an incubator (generating destabilising currents outward) and a barometre (to gauge the undercurrents of unresolved tensions in PM Abiy’s transition).

That the worst fracturing of the Oromo is occurring in a state led by an Oromo prime minister is ironic, and, arguably, an indictment. But before delving into the causes, two general pointers are worth noting.

First, Oromo politics was, and is, never monolithic. The region’s politics have always had a distinctly localised flavour, influenced mostly by a whole host of “structural” factors: strong sub-group loyalties and identities, geography, and an inter-generational divide.

Second, a convergence of two powerful political homogenising trends – one driven by national imperatives, the other by a “vernacularised” politics of resistance – aggravates the situation.

The multiple splits in Oromia partly reflect old regional cleavages. The traditional regional rivalry (Gaanduumma) between Bale and Arsi Oromos (the latter predominantly Muslims) now appears more pronounced. The Bale-Arsi rivalry constitutes a potentially dangerous fissure, in large part because it is assuming religious dimensions and is likely to stoke sectarian tensions.

There is also an emerging three-way split, partly animated by traditional regional identity politics but also stoked by intra-elite contestation: the Wollaga (where Lemma Megersa is from); Shewa (the seat of the Oromia regional state), and Jimma (home region of PM Abiy).

Abiy-Jawar rivalry

The power struggle between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Jawar Mohammed, an Oromo activist and founder of Oromia Media Network, has in the last one year moved to the centre of Oromia’s unsettled politics. The intensifying battle for supremacy between the two men is the single most potent wedge factor currently feeding intra-Oromo fragmentation.

PM Abiy and Jawar were not always adversaries. Jawar’s media outlets and influential social media presence were instrumental in fomenting and directing the popular protests that eventually catapulted Abiy to power. The two men fell out quickly after Jawar returned from exile in the United States, began building his own political base and turned into the premier’s most vocal critic.

Abiy and Jawar share a common interest. They have national leadership ambitions and a desire to consolidate Oromo support ahead of the next elections. A solid ethnic constituency is a great advantage in an ethnicised political system, but even more crucial in competitive politics if it translates into votes.

Abiy and Jawar’s leadership styles are not too dissimilar. Both men are populists, relish playing to the gallery, have a penchant for exaggerated rhetoric, and rely more on the sheer force of charisma to win supporters.

Jawar seems to enjoy significant advantage over Abiy in the contest for Oromo hearts and minds. His popularity has soared since he teamed up with Bekele Gerba, a widely respected Oromo politician, to lead the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC). Unlike the PM, he is on the ground and not distracted by juggling competing priorities. He is more adept at grassroots politics and his “vernacularised” brand of politics has huge traction with a broad cross-section of Oromos disenchanted with state policies. This is especially true of the youth movement, Qeerroo.

Abiy and Jawar’s leadership styles are not too dissimilar. Both men are populists, relish playing to the gallery, have a penchant for exaggerated rhetoric, and rely more on the sheer force of charisma to win supporters.

More important, Jawar’s initiatives to repair Oromo divisions and to intervene in easing localised tensions and conflicts endeared him to many Oromos. This contrasted with Abiy’s top-down approach and co-optation strategies that catalysed divisions. The PM’s use of mass arrests and draconian security crackdowns to undermine Jawar’s support base have, so far, not only been unsuccessful, but have also generated widespread resentment.

Their differences have progressively widened in recent months, but whether they have solidified into an organic ideological and policy split is debatable.

Federalism

The ethnic federalism model in Ethiopia still remains hugely popular. Bigger ethnicities see it as a system that protects their interests and privileges; the smaller ones see it as the only viable route out of marginalisation.

Much of the disenchantment with the system in recent years is driven by perceptions that it had become hollowed out, conferred no meaningful autonomy, bred its own inequities and stoked inter-ethnic tensions and violence. Yet, the preference, it would seem, of many, is reform, not dismantlement.

PM Abiy’s ambivalent and initial mild aversion to ethnic federalism seems to have hardened – rhetorically, at least – in the last one year. The PM is instinctively a centralist and the recent lurch into the traditional default narrative of his predecessors did not come as surprise. There was always an implicit anti-federalism tenor to his rhetoric and a bias for a centralised state.

But what alienates Oromos more than the PM’s views on federalism is the strident patriotic messaging that now accompanies it – on the imperative for a united and strong law and order state. This type of discourse tends to be associated, rightly or wrongly, with the “assimilationist nationalism” of the past.

The prime minister’s dissenting views on the issue of ethnic federalism seem not to have evolved much since 2018. In practice, his approach has shifted, somewhat. Whether due to electoral calculations, realism and political opportunism (understandable in an election year), he does appear more accommodating than many had expected.

The creation of Sidama Regional State, Ethiopia’s 10th ethnic federal state, in late 2019 may lend credence to this tentative “softening”, even though it is worth pointing out that the process to establish the state has been in train for many years.

Abiy’s anxiety about Jawar stems, partly, from awareness of his vulnerability on the ethnic federalism question. By being strong on federalism and making it a central plank of his national campaign, Jawar was in effect signaling intent to leverage his competitive advantage to the maximum.

Arrest

Jawar is loved and loathed in equal measure. Despite his huge popularity in Oromia, he has struggled to develop an appealing national profile and support base. His critics continue to exploit some of his past incendiary rhetoric and links with the Qeerroo to paint him as a narrow ethno-nationalist bigot wedded to violence.

His potential to grow into a national leader and his electoral prospects ought not to be discounted. He was beginning to develop links with opposition groups beyond Oromia. Crucially, his strong focus on federalism attracted national attention and galvanised important ethnic constituencies.

The arrest of Jawar on 30 June, and his trial, which is likely to last months (and possibly years if he is convicted), gives the Ethiopian prime minister the space and time, potentially, to reconfigure Oromo politics. This is a prospect almost certain to be complicated, if not likely to fail.

First, Jawar’s popularity has not waned; if anything, it has increased. Second, the massive security clampdown and campaign of mass arrests of opposition activists and leaders has dented the PM and tilted Oromia into a less sympathetic political terrain.

OLF splits

The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), its ambitions, and, increasingly, radical brand of politics, adds another volatile and complicated layer to the fractured politics and insecurity in Oromia. The ex-insurgency’s combatants and commanders returned home in September 2018 under a general amnesty and negotiations facilitated by Eritrea. A botched integration process served as the initial spark that ignited open dissent against the regional and national government. This quickly morphed into a low-grade conflict, pitting regional troops supported by federal troops against armed factions of the OLF in late 2018.

The OLF’s swift transition from an ally of the Abiy government to an adversary can be attributed to several factors. The amnesty deal negotiated in Asmara was vague and done in haste. Important issues were either overlooked or not properly addressed. As a result, trust broke down quickly. Disputes over the troop integration process and the latitude of political freedoms allowed to its the leadership soon became problematic wedge issues.

A series of failed talks, peace pacts and mediation led by deeply-riven traditional Abba Gadda councils between November 2018 and April 2019 tipped the stalemate into a full-blown crisis and put the ex-insurgency on a fatal collision course with the federal government.

The decision by the OLF leader, Daud Ibsa, to join other opposition politicians and the youth movement, Qeerroo, and coalesce around a common Pan-Oromo platform under the umbrella of the Oromo Federalist Congress (led by Jawar Mohamed and Bekele Gerba) was deemed especially threatening to both regional and national governments.

In response, Addis deployed heavy fire power to subdue the OLF dissidents. This made a bad situation worse, fomented the further breakup of the OLF into small competing splinter factions, made engagement and peaceful settlement difficult and compounded the overall security situation.

Regional spillover

There is a regional dimension to the crisis in Oromia. A protracted and serious conflict in Oromia could spill over into much of northern Kenya because Oromia’s politics and conflict dynamics are closely intertwined with those of northern Kenya. The immediate risk is massive displacement and a new humanitarian crisis in the Kenyan districts of Moyale, Marsabit and Isiolo.

It is also likely that conflict fragmentation in Oromia could lead gradually to proliferation of armed criminal syndicates. There are already many armed smuggling syndicates operating on the border between Ethiopia and Kenya.

There is a regional dimension to the crisis in Oromia. A protracted and serious conflict in Oromia could spill over into much of northern Kenya because Oromia’s politics and conflict dynamics are closely intertwined with those of northern Kenya.

Kenya worries in particular about the possibility of Oromia’s serious rifts sowing divisions within sub-groups of its own large Boran population.

Recommendations

The crisis in Oromia is complex, serious, and multi-layered, and its causes and drivers are varied. Left to fester, it certainly will become intractable, result in large-scale violence and undo PM Abiy’s wobbly transition.

The federal government, the Oromia regional administration, traditional authorities, political parties and civil society need to take concerted urgent action to defuse the crisis.

Below are some of the key areas where sensible and pragmatic policy interventions and change could make a big difference and mitigate risks:

  1. Put ethno-nationalisms on a benign course
    Oromo nationalism is inflamed and risks becoming virulent. It feeds off Oromia’s mass disillusionment, acute grievances and multiple fracturing. But the single biggest aggravating factor risking to radicalise it and put it on a violent course is state response (a self-fulfilling prophecy). To mellow Oromo nationalism, the following steps are worth considering:
  • A Pan-Oromo conference to de-escalate tensions, repair social cohesion, rebuild trust and address the roots of fragmentation;
  • A follow-up inclusive national conference with representatives from all ethnicities to improve relations, foster dialogue, and end mutually hostile narratives, demonisation.
  1. Invest more in conflict resolution and peacebuilding
    Ethiopia’s disappointing record in resolving and managing localised conflicts in Oromia highlights a number of crucial lessons. First, the state-driven, top-down conflict-resolution model is ineffective, and often conflict-inducing. It bureaucratises peacebuilding, diminishes local buy-in, sows social divisions, and imposes unsustainable settlements.Second, traditional councils of elders, when given sufficient autonomy and not co-opted by the state, are the most effective agencies with credibility to mediate and resolve conflicts. To improve outcomes, the federal government ought to:
  • Reduce its role, allow influential grassroots groups to take lead in local peacebuilding initiatives, allocate resources to sustain them;
  • Promote greater inclusivity in peace councils by encouraging credible elders, faith leaders to join;
  • Establish a national conflict advisory to monitor local unrest, improve knowledge on conflict drivers and provide early warning to regional and national governments.
  1. End state violence and repression
    Prime Minister Abiy has turned the crisis in Oromia into a law and order problem. His pursuit of lethal force to suppress Oromo dissent, the draconian curbs on media freedom and free expression, internet shutdowns, and mass arrests have put the region and the whole country on a perilous course. Unless there is a fundamental shift in Abiy’s current posture and renewed efforts to promote pluralism, inclusivity, civil liberties, and dialogue in Oromia, the situation will worsen. In concrete terms the government must:
  • Free all political prisoners arrested recently;
  • Pull out troops from Oromia and end all military operations;
  • Stop aggressive and hostile policing, and invest more in training police on de-escalation techniques.
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Rashid Abdi is an analyst and researcher who specialises in the Horn of Africa.

Politics

Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance

Malawi can alleviate poverty and become a model for development and democracy by investing in and improving the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions.

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The Tonse Alliance that made history in June by winning the rerun of the presidential election, the first time this has happened in Africa. It represented a triumph of Malawian democracy, undergirded, on the one hand, by the independence of the judiciary, and on the other, by the unrelenting political resilience and struggles of the Malawian people for democratic governance. In short, we can all be proud of Malawi’s enviable record of political freedom. However, our democratic assets are yet to overcome huge developmental deficits. Our record of economic development and poverty eradication remains dismal, uneven, and erratic.

Malawi’s persistent underdevelopment does not, of course, emanate from lack of planning. In 1962, Dunduzu Chisiza convened “what was perhaps the first international symposium on African Economic Development to be held on the continent”. It brought renowned economists from around the world and Africa. In attendance was a young journalist, Thandika Mkandawire, who was inspired to study economics, and rose to become one of the world’s greatest development economists. I make reference to Chisiza and Mkandawire to underscore a simple point: Malawi has produced renowned and influential development thinkers and policy analysts, whose works need to be better known in this country. If we are to own our development, instead of importing ready-made and ill-suited models from the vast development industry that has not brought us much in terms of inclusive and sustainable development, we have to own the generation of development ideas and implementation.

I begin, first, by giving some background on the county’s development trajectory; and second, by identifying the three key engines of development – the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions – without which development is virtually impossible.

Malawi’s development trajectory and challenges

Malawi’s patterns of economic growth since independence have been low and volatile, which has translated into uneven development and persistent poverty. A 2018 World Bank report identifies five periods. First, 1964-1979, during which the country registered its fastest growth at 8.79%. Second, 1980-1994, the era of draconian structural adjustment programmes when growth fell to 0.90%. Third, 1995-2002 when growth rose slightly to 2.85%. Fourth, 2003-2010, when growth bounced to 6.25%. Finally, 2011-2015, when growth declined to 3.82%. Another World Bank report, published in July 2020, notes that the economy grew at 3.2% in 2017, 3.0% in 2018, an estimated 4.4% in 2019, and will likely grow at 2.0% in 2020 and 3.5% in 2021.

Clearly, Malawi has not managed to sustain consistently high growth rates above the rates of population growth. Consequently, growth in per capita income has remained sluggish and poverty reduction has been painfully slow. In fact, while up to 1979 per capita GDP grew at an impressive 3.7%, outperforming sub-Saharan Africa, it shrunk below the regional average after 1980. It rose by a measly 1.5% between 1995 and 2015, well below the 2.7% for non-resource-rich African economies. Currently, Malawi is the sixth poorest country in the world.

While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension. Women and female-headed households tend to be poorer than men and male-headed households. Most of the poor live in the rural areas because they tend to have lower levels of access to education and assets, and high dependency ratios compared to urban dwellers, who constitute only 15% of the population. Rural poverty is exacerbated by excessive reliance on rain-fed agriculture and vulnerability to climate change because of poor resilience and planning. In the urban areas, poverty is concentrated in the informal sector that employs the majority of urban dwellers and suffers from low productivity and incomes, and poor access to capital and skills.

While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension.

The causes and characteristics of Malawi’s underdevelopment are well-known. The performance of the key sectors – agriculture, industry, and services – is not optimal. While agriculture accounts for two-thirds of employment and three-quarters of exports, it provides only 30% of GDP, a clear sign of low levels of productivity in the sector. Apparently, only 1.7% of total expenditure on agriculture and food goes to extension, and one extension agent in Malawi covers between 1,800 and 2,500 farmers, compared to 950 in Kenya and 480 in Ethiopia. As for irrigation, the amount of irrigated land stands at less than 4%.

Therefore, raising agricultural productivity is imperative. This includes greater crop diversification away from the supremacy of maize, improving rural markets and transport infrastructure, provision of agricultural credit, use of inputs and better farming techniques, and expansion of irrigation and extension services. Commercialisation of agriculture, land reform to strengthen land tenure security, and strengthening the sector’s climate resilience are also critical.

In terms of industry, the pace of job creation has been slow, from 4% of the labour force in 1998 to 7% in 2013. In the meantime, the share of manufacturing’s contribution to the country’s GDP has remained relatively small and stagnant, at 10%. The sector is locked in the logic of import substitution, which African countries embarked on after independence and is geared for the domestic market.

Export production needs to be vigorously fostered as well. It is reported that manufacturing firms operate on average at just 68 per cent capacity utilisation. This suggests that, with the right policy framework, Malawi’s private sector could produce as much as a third more than current levels without needing to undertake new investment.

After independence, Malawi, like many other countries, created policies and parastatals, and sought to nurture a domestic capitalist class and attract foreign capital in pursuit of industrialisation. The structural adjustment programmes during Africa’s “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s aborted the industrialisation drive of the 1960s and 1970s, and led to de-industrialisation in many countries, including Malawi. The revival and growth of industrialisation require raising the country’s competitiveness and improving access to finance, the state of the infrastructure, the quality of human capital, and levels of macroeconomic stability.

Over the last two decades, Malawi has improved its global competitiveness indicators, but it needs to and can do more. According to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business, which covers 12 areas of business regulation, Malawi improved its ranking from 132 out of 183 countries in 2010 to 109 out of 190 countries in 2020; in 2020 Malawi ranked 12th in Africa. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, a four-pronged framework that looks at the enabling environment – markets, human capital, and the innovation ecosystem – Malawi ranked 119 out of 132 countries in 2009 and 128 out of 141 countries in 2019.

Access to finance poses significant challenges to the private sector, especially among small and medium enterprises that are often the backbone of any economy. The banking sector is relatively small, and borrowing is constrained by high interest rates, stringent collateral requirements, and complex application procedures. In addition, levels of financial inclusion and literacy could be greatly improved. The introduction of the financial cash transfer programme and mobile money have done much to advance both.

Corruption is another financial bottleneck, a huge and horrendous tax against development. The accumulation of corruption scandals – Cashgate in 2013, Maizegate in 2018, Cementgate and other egregious corruption scandals in 2020 – is staggering in its mendacity and robbery of the county’s development and future by corrupt officials that needs to be uncompromisingly uprooted.

Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales; 40.9% of the firms have been forced to have generators as backup. The country’s generating capacity needs massive expansion to close the growing gap between demand and supply. Equally critical is investment in transport and its resilience to contain the high costs of domestic and international trade that undermine private sector development and poverty reduction.

Digital technologies and services are indispensable for 21st century economies, an area in which Malawi lags awfully behind. According to the ICT Development Index by the International Telecommunications Union, in 2017 Malawi ranked 167 out of 176 countries. There are significant opportunities to overcome the infrastructure deficits in terms of strengthening the country’s transport systems through regional integration, developing renewable energy sources, and improving the regulatory environment. Developing a digitally-enabled economy requires enhancing digital infrastructure, connectivity, affordability, availability, literacy, and innovation.

Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales.

The services sector has grown rapidly, accounting for 29% of the labor force in 2013 up from 12% in 1998. It is dominated by the informal sector which is characterized by low productivity, labor underutilization, and dismal incomes. The challenge is how to improve these conditions and facilitate transition from informality to formality.

Enablers and drivers of development

The challenges of promoting Malawi’s socio-economic growth and development are not new. In fact, they are so familiar that they induce fatalism among some people as if the country is doomed to eternal poverty. Therefore, it is necessary to go back to basics, to ask basic questions and become uncomfortable with the county’s problems, with low expectations about our fate and future.

From the vast literature on development, to which Thandika made a seminal contribution, there are many dynamics and dimensions of development. Three are particularly critical, namely, the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions. In turn, these enablers require the drivers embodied in the nature of leadership, the national social contract, and mobilisation and cohesiveness of various capitals.

The quality of human capital encompasses the levels of health and education. Since 2000, Malawi has made notable strides in improving healthcare and education, which has translated into rising life expectancy and literacy rates. For the health sector, it is essential to enhance the coverage, access and quality of health services, especially in terms of reproductive, maternal, neonatal, and early child development, and public health services, as well as food security and nutrition services.

The introduction of free primary education in 1994 was a game changer. Enrollment ratios for primary school rose dramatically, reaching 146% in 2013 and 142% in 2018, and for secondary school from 44% in 2013 to 40% in 2018. The literacy rate reached 62%. But serious challenges remain. Only 19% of students’ progress to Standard Eight without repeating and dropout rates are still high; only 76% of primary school teachers and 57% of secondary school teachers are professionally trained. Despite increased government expenditure, resources and access to education remain inadequate.

Consequently, in 2018 Malawi’s adult literacy was still lower than the averages for sub-Saharan countries (65%) and the least developed countries (63%). This means the skill base in the country is low and needs to be raised significantly through increased, smart and strategic investments in all levels of education. Certainly, special intervention is needed for universities if the country, with its tertiary education enrollment ratio of less than 1%, the lowest in the world, is to catch up with the enrollment ratios for sub-SaharanAfrica and the world as a whole that in 2018 averaged 9% and 38%, respectively.

Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend. Critical also is accelerating the country’s demographic transition by reducing the total fertility rate.

As for infrastructure, while the government is primarily responsible for building and maintaining it, the private sector has an important role to play, and public-private-partnerships are increasingly critical in many countries. It is necessary to prioritise and avoid wish lists that seek to cater to every ministry or constituency; to concentrate on a few areas that have multiplier effects on various sectors; and ensure the priorities are well-understood and measurable at the end of the government’s five-year term. Often, the development budget doesn’t cover real investment in physical infrastructure and is raided to cover over-expenditure in the recurrent budget.

The quality of institutions entails the state of institutional arrangements, which UNDP defines as “the policies, systems, and processes that organizations use to legislate, plan and manage their activities efficiently and to effectively coordinate with others in order to fulfill their mandate”. Thus, institutional arrangements refer to the organisation, cohesion and synergy of formal structures and networks encompassing the state, the private sector, and civil society, as well as informal norms for collective buy-in and implementation of national development strategies. But setting up institutions is not enough; they must function. They must be monitored and evaluated.

Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend.

The three enablers of development require the drivers of strong leadership and good governance. Malawi has not reaped much from its peace and stability because of a political culture characterised by patron-clientelism, corruption, ethnic and regional mobilisation, and crass populism that eschews policy consistency and coherence, and undermines fiscal discipline. Malawi’s once highly regarded civil service became increasingly politicised and demoralised. Public servants and leaders at every level and in every institutional context have to restore and model integrity, enforce rules and procedures, embody professionalism and a high work ethic, and be accountable. Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.

Also critical is the need to forge social capital, which refers to the development of a shared sense of identity, understanding, norms, values, common purpose, reciprocity, and trust. There is abundant research that shows a positive correlation between the social capital of trust and various aspects of national and institutional development and capabilities to manage crises. Weak or negative social capital has many deleterious consequences. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this devastatingly clear – countries in which the citizenry is polarised and lacks trust in the leadership have paid a heavy price in terms of the rates of infection and deaths.

Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.

The question of social capital underscores the fact that there are many different types of capital in society and for development. Often in development discourse the focus is on economic capital, including financial and physical resources. Sustainable development requires the preservation of natural capital. Malawi’s development has partly depended on the unsustainable exploitation of environmental resources that has resulted in corrosive soil erosion and deforestation. Development planning must encompass the mobilisation of other forms of capital, principally social and cultural capital. The diaspora is a major source of economic, social and cultural capital. In fact, it is Africa’s largest donor, which remitted an estimated $84.3 billion in 2019.

In conclusion, Malawi’s development trajectory has been marked by progress, volatility, setbacks, and challenges. For a long time, Malawi’s problem has not been a lack of planning, but rather a lack of implementation, focus and abandoning the very basics of required integrity in all day-to-day work. Also, the plans are often dictated by donors and lack local ownership so they gather the proverbial bureaucratic dust.

Let us strive to cultivate the systems, cultures, and mindsets of inclusion and innovation so essential for the construction of developmental and democratic states, as defined by Thandika and many illustrious African thinkers and political leaders.

This article is the author’s keynote address at the official opening of the 1st National Development Conference presided by the State President of Malawi, His Excellency Dr. Lazarus Chakwera, at the Bingu International Convention Centre, Lilongwe, on 27 August, 2020.

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Kenya’s Gulag: The Dehumanisation and Exploitation of Inmates in State Prisons

Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. And like their colonial predecessors, they are also sites of forced labour.

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The influx of the Mau Mau transformed the prison population in Kenya from one predominantly made up of recidivist petty criminals and tax defaulters to one composed largely of political prisoners, many of whom had no experience of prison life and who brought with them new forms of organisation.

Prison life was harsh, with its share of brutalities and fatalities. Between 1928 and 1930, about 200 prisoners in Kenya died. According to British historian David Anderson, “Kenya’s prisons were already notably violent before 1952 [when the Mau Mau uprising began], more violent than other British colonies.”

However, the incorporation of prisons and detention camps into the “Pipeline” (the system developed by the colonial state to deal with the Mau Mau insurgents and to try and break them using terror and torture) inevitably led to the institutionalisation of the methods of humiliation and torture.

As Anderson notes, “Most of the staff in both the Prison Service and in the [Mau Mau] detention camps were Africans. Some were even Kikuyu. They certainly ‘learned’ these methods during their periods of early employment.” He goes on to say that “those who ran the service by the 1960s and early 1970s were all men who had been recruited and trained during the Mau Mau period”. He thinks it “very likely that these individuals practiced what they had learned as cadets and trainees in the 1950s…I think the Mau Mau experience certainly hardened Kenya’s prison system and introduced a greater range of punishments and harsher treatment for prisoners as a consequence of the conditions off the Emergency”.

Compare, for example, this account of the treatment of Mau Mau detainees in the 1950s published in Caroline Elkins’ book, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya:

Regardless of where they were in the Pipeline (the system of camps established for deradicalizing Mau Mau detainees and prisoners), roll call meant squatting in groups of five with their hands clasped over their heads. The European commandants would then walk through the lines, counting and beating the detainees. “The whole thing was just so ridiculous,” recalled one former detainee from Lodwar. “Whitehouse [the European in charge] would just count us over and over again.”

It bears stark similarities to this account published in the Daily Nation about conditions in Kenyan prisons 65 years later:

Omar Ismael, 64, a former Manyani inmate who served nine years till his exoneration in 2017, says he woke up at 5am, despite his advanced aged. They then squat in groups of five to be counted and checked by guards. “My knees are still hurting to date. I have a joint problem too as a result,” he says. He says they had at least six head counts per day. The first one at 5am, followed by 10am, noon, 4pm, 6pm and 7pm.

Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and, along with the police and military, scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. They are places of dehumanisation, abandonment and retribution. And like their colonial parents, they prefer to employ the least educated. (At present, out of a staff complement of 22,000, the Kenya Prison Service only has about 700 graduate officers.) As of 2015, according to the World Prison Population List prepared by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Kenya has incarcerated more of its citizens per 100,000 population than any other country in Eastern Africa with the exception of Rwanda and Ethiopia.

Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent. By comparison, the median proportion of pre-trial prisoners in Africa is 40 per cent and nearly 30 per cent globally. In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees than Kenya. As in colonial times, pre-trial detention is driven by two factors – the need to extract resources from the populace and the subjugation of the native through criminalisation of ordinary life.

In 1933, submissions to the Bushe Commission provided some flavour of how the threat of arrest and imprisonment was ever-present among the natives.

Relates one Ishmael Ithongo:

Once I was arrested by a District Officer on account of my hat because I did not see him approaching. He came from behind and threw it down. I asked him why because I did not know him. He called an askari and asked for my name. It was in a district outside. He asked me, “Don’t you know the law here that you should take off your hat when you see a white man?” Then he asked me, “Have you got your kipandi?’ I said “No, Sir.” So I was sent to prison… When an askari thinks that you look smart he asks if you have your kipandi. I have seen natives who are going to church in the morning who have changed their coat and forgotten their kipandi. They meet an askari. “Have you got your kipandi?” “No.” “Ah right” and they are marched off to prison.

This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention by the National Council on the Administration of Justice found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends. Most releases from police custody also happened over the weekend with no reason recorded for two-thirds of those releases. Further, only 30 percent of all arrests actually elicited a charge, the vast majority for petty offences. This implies that most police detentions today are something of a catch-and-release programme designed to create opportunities to extract bribes rather than labour.

However, for those who get incarcerated, matters are somewhat different. The exploitation of prisoners’ labour continues. Like the Mau Mau detainees, they are required to work for a token amount determined by the government, which, unlike its colonial ancestor, does not even pretend that the 30 Kenyan cents per day is meant as a wage, with the Attorney-General declaring in court that “prison labour is an integral component of the sentence”. The courts have held that it is entirely compatible with the protection of fundamental rights for the Prison Service to do this as well as to deny convicts basic supplies such as soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and toilet paper. Apparently, the conditions the convicts are experiencing cannot be called forced labour and servitude because, the strange reasoning goes, “the Constitution and the Prisons Act do not permit forced labour or servitude”.

Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent…In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees.

Like in colonial times, the beneficiaries of this prison industrial complex are the state and those who control it. Remandees and convicts are liable to be put to work cleaning officials’ compounds and there have been persistent rumours of them being compelled to provide free labour for the private benefit of prison officers and other well-connected government officials, as is the case in Uganda.

While in 1930 earnings from convicts’ labour accounted for a fifth of the total cost of the Prisons Department, the official goal today, as declared by the Ministry of Interior, is for the Department to transform into a “financially self-sustaining entity”. To achieve this, President Uhuru Kenyatta has created the Kenya Prisons Enterprise Corporation with the aim of “unlocking the revenue potential of the prisons industry” and to “foster ease of entry into partnership with the private sector”.

This basically entails deeper exploitation of prisoners’ labour. And even though Kenyatta speaks of improving remuneration, it is notable that this is not a free exchange. Whatever the courts might say, it is clear that the state and its owners feel entitled to the labour of those they have incarcerated, much like their predecessors (the colonial regime and the European settlers) once felt entitled to African labour.

This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention…found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends.

In this regard, the attitude is very like that of the white settler in Kiambu, Henry Tarlton, who told the 1912 Native Labour Commission regarding desertion by African workers that “this is my busiest season and my work is entirely upset, and it is hardly surprising if I am in a red-hot state bordering on a desire to murder everyone with a black skin who comes within sight”. Another white settler, Frank Watkins, in a letter to the East African Standard in 1927 boasted of his “methods of handling and working labour”, which included “thrash[ing] my boys if they deserve it”.

This brutality, especially directed towards African males, was paired with forced labour from the very onset of the colonial experience. (Brett Shadle, Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Virginia Tech, notes that the settlers were much more reticent about their violence on African women, which tended to be sexual in nature.) These settlers were already pushing the colonial state to institute unpaid forced labour on public works projects in the reserves (which it eventually did) as a means of driving Africans to wage employment for Europeans.

But it was within the prison system and Mau Mau detention camps that the practice of forced labour found its full expression. According to Christian G. De Vito and Alex Lichtenstein, “Conditions inside the detention camps created in Kenya in the 1910s and 1920s and in the prison camps opened in 1933 depended on the assumption that forced labour, together with corporal punishment, could actually serve as the only effective forms of penal discipline.” The influx of Mau Mau detainees, they explained, overwhelmed the system “since police repression by far exceeded the capacity of the already overcrowded prisons, and the colonial government decided to establish a network of camps, collectively called the ‘Pipeline’, characterized by violence, torture, and forced labour.”

These are the footsteps in which the Kenyan state is walking. Nelson Mandela once said that a nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but by how it treats its lowest ones. By that measure, the current Kenyan state is no different from its colonial predecessor.

“It is also worth thinking about what happens to the prison at the end of colonialism,” says Prof Anderson. “There is no movement for prison reform in Kenya after 1963 – rather the opposite: the prison regime becomes harsher and is even less well funded than it was in colonial times. By the end of the 1960s, Kenya is being heavily criticised by international groups for the declining state of its prison system and the tendency to violence and abuse of human rights within the system.”

Prof Daniel Branch stresses that “post-colonial prisons urgently need a history. The Mau Mau period rightly gets lots of attention, but there’s very little by scholars on the post-colonial period”.

It is critical, as Kenya marks a decade since the promulgation of the 2010 constitution, that we keep in mind Mandela’s words and ask whether, if at all, it has changed how those condemned by society – “our lowest ones” – are treated. That will, in the end, be the true measure of our transformation.

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The Myth of Unconditionality in Development Aid

Based on interviews and ethnographic fieldwork in Western Kenya, Mario Schmidt argues that local interpretations of Give Directly’s unconditional cash transfer program unmask how the NGO’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ obscures structural inequalities of the development aid sector. Schmidt argues that in order to tackle these structural inequalities, cash transfers should be ‘ungifted’ and viewed as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.

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The New York Times praises the US-American NGO GiveDirectly (GD), a GiveWell top charity, for offering a ‘glimpse into the future of not working’ and journalists from the UK to Kenya discuss GD’s unconditional cash transfer program as a revolutionary alternative in the field of development aid. German podcasts as well as international bestsellers such as Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists portray grateful beneficiaries whose lives have truly changed for the better since they received GD’s unconditional cash and started to invest it like the business people they were always meant to be. At first glance, GD indeed has an impressive CV.

Since 2009, the NGO has distributed over US$160 million of unconditional cash transfers to over tens of thousands of poor people in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, the USA and Liberia in an allegedly unbureaucratic, corrupt-free and transparent way. Recipients are ‘sensitized’ in communal meetings (baraza), the cash transfers are evaluated by teams of internationally renowned behavioral economists conducting rigorous randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and the money arrives in the recipients’ mobile money wallets such as the ones from Mpesa, Kenya’s celebrated FinTech miracle, without passing through the hands of local politicians.

In 2015 and after finalizing a pilot program in the Western Kenyan constituency Rarieda (Siaya County), GD decided to penetrate my ethnographic field site, Homa Bay County. On the one hand, they thereby hoped to enlarge their pool of potential beneficiaries. On the other hand, they had planned to conduct further large-scale RCTs (one RCT implemented in the area, studied the effects of motivational videos on recipients’ spending behavior). To the surprise of GD, almost 50% of the households considered eligible for the program in Homa Bay County refused to participate. As a result, the household heads waived GD’s cash transfer which would have consisted of three transfers amounting to a total of 110,000 Kenyan Shillings (roughly US$1,000).

In order to understand what had happened in Homa Bay County and why so many households had refused to participate, I teamed up with Samson Okech, a former field officer of Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) who had conducted surveys for GD in Siaya. Samson had been an IPA employee for over ten years and belongs to the extended family I work with most closely during fieldwork. During our long qualitative interviews with recipients of GD’s cash transfer and former field officers as well as Western Kenyans who refused to be enrolled in the program, the celebratory reports by journalists and scholars were replaced by a bleaker picture of an intervention riddled with misunderstandings and problems.

Before I offer a glimpse into what happened on the ground, I want to emphasize that I am neither politically nor economically against unconditional cash transfers which, without a doubt, have helped many individuals in Western Kenya and elsewhere. It is not the what, but the how against which I direct my critique. The following two sections illustrate that a substantial part of Homa Bay County’s population did not consider GD’s intervention as a one-time affair between themselves and GD. In contrast, they interpreted GD’s program either as an invitation into a long-term relationship of patronage or as a one-time transfer with obscured actors.

These interpretations should make us aware of ethical problems entailed in conducting social experiments (see Kvangraven’s piece on Impoverished Economics, Chelwa’s and Muller’s The Poverty of Poor Economics or Ouma’s reflection upon GD’s randomisation process in Western Kenya). They can also crucially encourage us to think about ways of radically reconfiguring the political economy of development aid in Africa and elsewhere.

Instead of framing relations between the West and the Rest as relations between charitable donors and obedient recipients, in my conclusion I propose to ‘ungift’ unconditional cash transfers as well as development aid as a whole. Taking inspiration from rumors claiming that Barack Obama, whose father came from Western Kenya, has created GD in order to rectify historical injustices, I suggest rethinking cash transfers as reparations or debts repaid. Consequently, recipients should no longer be used as ‘guinea pigs’ but appreciated as equal partners and autonomous subjects entitled to reap a substantial portion of the value produced in a global capitalist economy that, historically as well as structurally, depends on exploiting them.

Why money needs to be spent on ‘visible things’

Those were guidelines on how to use the money. It was important that what you did with the money was visible and could be evaluated’, William Owino explained to us after we had asked him about a ‘brochure’ several other respondents had mentioned. One of the studies on the impact of GD’s activities in Siaya also mentions these brochures. In order to ‘emphasize the unconditional nature of the transfer, households were provided with a brochure that listed a large number of potential uses of the transfer.’ 

When being asked which type of photographs and suggestions were included in these brochures, respondents mentioned photographs of newly constructed houses with iron sheets, clothes, food and other gik manenore (‘visible things’). When we inquired further if the depicted uses included drinking alcohol, betting, dancing or other morally ambiguous goods and services, the majority of our respondents dismissed that question by laughing or by adding that field officers had also advised them against using the money for other morally dubious services such as paying prostitutes or bride wealth for a second or third wife.

One of our respondents in Homa Bay took the issue of gik manenore to its extreme by expressing the opinion that GD’s money must be used to build a house with a fixed amount of iron sheets and according to a preassigned architectural plan so that GD, in their evaluation, would be able to identify the houses whose owners had benefited from their program quickly and without much effort. Such practices of ‘anticipatory obedience’ are also implicitly at work in the rationalizations of another respondent. He expected that GD’s field officers who had asked him questions about what he intended to do with the money during the initial survey – questions whose answers had, in his opinion, qualified him to receive the cash transfer – would one day return to see if he had really used the money according to his initially stated intention. The logic employed is clear: The ‘unconditional’ cash transfers needed to be spent on useful and, if possible, visible and countable things so that GD would return with further funds after a positive evaluation.

Recipients understood the relation with GD not as a one-off affair, but as an entrance into a long-term relation of fruitful dependency. In contrast to GD which, like most neoliberal capitalists, understands unconditional cash as a context-independent techno-fix, the inhabitants of Homa Bay framed money as an entity embedded in and crystallizing social power relations.

From such a perspective, free money is not really free, but like Marcel Mauss’ famous gifts, an invitation into a ‘contract by trial’ which has the potential to turn into a long-term relationship benefitting both partners if recipients pass the test and reciprocate with obedience. While some actors framed the offer of unconditional cash as a test that could lead into an ongoing patron-client relationship between charitable donors and obedient recipients, others, the majority who refused to accept GD’s offer, interpreted it as a direct exchange relation with unseen actors.

Why money is never free

‘People in the market and those I met going home told me it is blood money’, Mary, a 40-year old mother remembered. After she had been sampled, Mary had never received money from GD but failed to understand why and believed the village elder had ‘eaten’ her money. She further told us that rumors about ‘blood money’ circulated in church services and funeral festivities. ‘Blood money’ refers to widespread beliefs that accepting GD’s cash implied entering into a debt relation with unknown actors such as a local group sacrificing children or the devil.

Comparable rumors playing with the well-known anthropological trope of money’s (anti)-reproductive potential circulate widely in Homa Bay: Husbands who wake up only to see their wives squatting in a corner of the room laying eggs, a huge snake that lives in Lake Victoria and vomits out all the money GD uses, mobile phones that can be charged under the armpit or find their way into the recipient’s bed if lost or thrown away (many people allegedly threw their phones away in order to cut the link to GD), money that replenishes automatically or a devilish cult of Norwegians that abducts Kenyan babies and transports them to Scandinavia where they are adopted into infertile marriages.

All of these rumors, which are epitomized in a phrase some recipients considered to be GD’s slogan, Idak maber, to idak matin – (‘You live well, but you live short’) – revolve around the same paradox: Money initially offered with no strings attached, but whose reproductive potential will soon demand blood sacrifice or lead to a fundamental change in one’s own reproductive capacities.

Local attempts to ‘conditionalize’ GD’s unconditional cash as well as rumors about tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil undermine GD’s assumption that their cash transfers are perceived by recipients as unconditional. This has two consequences. On the one hand, it questions the validity of studies trying to prove that the program was successful as an unconditional cash transfer program. On the other hand, it urges us to focus on the unintended consequences caused by GD’s intervention. While Western Kenyans who have given consent to participate in the intervention invested their hopes in an ongoing charitable relation with GD, those who have refused to participate – as well as some who did – have been haunted by fear and anxiety triggered by situating GD’s activities in a hidden sphere.

All this raises ethical and political questions about GD’s intervention in Homa Bay County. Did GD, an actor that is neither democratically elected nor constitutionally backed up, have the right to intervene in an area where almost 50 % of the population refused to participate? Did the program really reach the poorest members of society if accepting the offer depended on understanding the complex networks of NGOs that constitute the aid landscape? Should it not be considered problematic that a US-American NGO uses whole counties of an independent country as laboratories where they experimentally test the feasibility of unconditional cash transfers in order to assure their donors that recipients of unconditional cash ‘really’ do not spend donations on alcohol and prostitutes?

Apart from raising these and other ethical and political questions, the reactions of the inhabitants of Homa Bay County can be understood as mirrors reflecting a distorted but illuminating image of the development aid sector. Narratives about women laying eggs and satanic cults sacrificing children exemplify an awareness of the fact that, on a structural level, the development aid sector is shot through with inequalities and obscure hierarchical power relations between donating and receiving actors. At the same time, recipients’ anticipatory obedience to use the cash on ‘visible things’ unmasks a system that appears overwhelmed by the necessity to constantly evaluate projects in order to secure further funding.

By ‘conditionalizing’ cash transfers as long-term patronage relations or tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil, inhabitants of Homa Bay unmask GD’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ and thereby relocate GD into the wider development aid world in which they have never been equal partners.

Why we must ‘ungift’ development aid

‘I think it was because of Obama’, a former colleague of Samson who had administered the surveys of GD in Siaya County told me while we enjoyed a meal in a restaurant along Nairobi’s Moi Avenue after I had asked him why the rejection rates of GD’s program in Siaya had been so low. According to rumors that circulated widely during GD’s first years in Siaya, Barack Obama, whose father came from a village in Siaya County, had teamed up with Raila Odinga, an almost mythical Luo politician, in order to channel US-American funds ‘directly’ to Western Kenya, i.e. without passing through the Central Kenyan political elite who had – in 2007 as well as 2013 – ‘stolen’ the elections from Raila.

As a consequence, at least some recipients did not agree with interpretations of the cash transfers as market exchanges with shadowy actors or invitations into long-term relationships of patronage. Rather, they conceptualized the transfers as reparations originating in Obama’s attempt to recoup losses accumulated by the Luo community due to political injustices provoked by the actions of what many consider to be a corrupt Kikuyu elite. This conjuring of a primordial ethnic alliance between Obama and Western Kenyans might strike many as chimerical.

Be that as it may, we should acknowledge that the rumor of Obama’s intervention situates the cash transfers in a social relation between two equals who accept their mutual indebtedness and act accordingly by putting things straight. By reinterpreting GD as a clandestine operation invented by their political leaders, Barack Obama and Raila Odinga, inhabitants of Siaya portray themselves as belonging to a community of interdependent equals whose members are entitled to what the anthropologist James Ferguson has called their ‘rightful share’.

How would development aid look like if we dared to transfer this idea of a community whose members acknowledge their equality and mutual indebtedness to our global economic system? One way to redeem the fact that we all live in a highly connected capitalist economic system spanning the whole globe and depending on exploiting a huge portion of the global community would be to follow in the footsteps of the inhabitants of Siaya and rebrand cash transfers as reparations being paid for historical and structural injustices.

By way of conclusion, I want to suggest the idea of ‘ungifting’ development aid, i.e. to reframe it as a duty and to accept that recipients of cash transfers have the right to receive their share of the value produced by the global capitalist economic system. Consequently, cash transfers should be considered as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.


Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.

This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy.

Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.

 

 

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