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Kitui Coal Mining Project Is a Disaster in the Making

9 min read.

The decision by the government to support coal mining even as the world is fighting the effects of climate change and embracing renewable energies does not bear scrutiny.

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Kitui Coal Mining Project Is a Disaster in the Making
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The exploitation of coal, a hard black road made up of 65-95 per cent carbon that burns when set alight, has a long history going back thousands of years.

Prospecting for coal in Kenya started in 2000 and the discovery of large, commercial coal deposits in the Mui Basin in Kitui — a 500 square kilometre area about 270 kilometres east of Nairobi — was announced in 2010.

The government revealed during the recent budget reading that it has allocated funds for coal mining and there are plans to drill 20 more coal exploration wells.

Kenya is doing this just as the world is scaling down coal mining and rolling out plans to phase out coal and replace it with renewable energies. The government has already signed two concession agreements with investors and there are plans to supply coal to the proposed — and contested — 1050 MW Lamu coal plant 350 kilometres away, and to the proposed 960 MW coal plant to be established in Kitui County.

Approximately 100,000 people (more than 30,000 households), primarily small-scale farmers, will be displaced to make way for the coal mining operations.

The promoters of coal mining in the Mui Basin are the government, through the Ministry of Mining and Petroleum, and private investors. The government has already awarded concessions for the four blocks available in the Mui Basin. The first one was awarded to a Chinese company called Fenxi Mining in 2011, for blocks C and D, while the second, for blocks A and B, was awarded in 2015 to a consortium of two companies, HCIG Energy Investment Company and Liketh Investments Kenya Limited. The consortium also won the tender to construct a 960 MW coal plant in the eastern part of the Mui Basin under an Independent Power Producer (IPP) framework in 2015.

The case for coal 

The decision by the government to mine coal at a point when the world is fighting the effects of climate change and phasing out coal is quite surprising. Even though coal played a significant role in building the economies of many developed countries, this came at a high cost. Moreover, the technology to render renewable energy competitive was not yet available. Now it is.

So, why on earth would Kenya mine coal? The rationale is that Kenya will generate a lot of money in revenue, provide jobs, and aid manufacturing. But is this accurate?

Revenue generation

The Ministry of Energy and Petroleum estimates total coal deposits to be north of 1 billion tonnes valued at US$75 billion (about KSh7.5 trillion). So, on the face of it, one can understand why both the national government and the county government of Kitui are keen to proceed in haste to get the coal out the ground.

However, the proponents fail to mention that since coal exploration and extraction are expensive ventures (hence the concession agreements with foreign companies), Kenya will not be receiving all of the expected KSh7.5 trillion from the extracted coal. The mining companies have to recover their upfront costs (free of any royalties) before sharing the proceeds with everyone else (government, community, etc.). This is a problem that Kenya is already facing in Turkana following the discovery of oil reserves in the Lokichar Basin, where the government and Tullow Oil now disagree on US$2 billion in exploration costs for Tullow’s six years’ work in the Turkana oil fields.

The Mining Act, enacted in 2016, and the concession agreements signed in 2011 and 2015, detail how the royalties collected will be shared: 70 per cent for the national government, 20 per cent to the county government, and 10 per cent to the community. But since the concession agreements are yet to be made public, we can’t tell what percentage of the total revenues from the sale of the coal will be paid out in royalties. This is problematic.

Jobs 

Also causing excitement are the supposed job opportunities that the coal mining will provide. According to the census data released in 2020, 39 per cent of Kenyan youth are unemployed, four in every ten youth. The assumption is that there will be many opportunities for employment — direct and indirect — for this group.

Direct employment will be for those working in the mines, those hired to transport coal to the proposed coal plant sites in Lamu and Kitui, and those who will be fortunate enough to be employed in the power plants to process the coal.

Indirect employment will be provided by the manufacturing companies that will be created as a result of what the government and those supporting the coal project claim will be cheap and adequate power. All this is speculation.

We remain sceptical, particularly because most of these jobs, especially the high-paying ones, will be taken by expatriates from China since we lack expertise in coal mining and running coal plants.

Manufacturing

President Kenyatta has declared manufacturing one of his administration’s deliverables. The target is for manufacturing to contribute up to 20 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2022; it currently represents 9.2 per cent of GDP. It is common knowledge that manufacturing is energy intensive.

Most of these jobs, especially the high-paying ones, will be taken by expatriates from China since we lack expertise in coal mining and running coal plants.

Those pushing coal argue that we need to utilise our deposits to power our manufacturing dream and enjoy the economic benefits that will ensue. However, the country currently has an overcapacity in electricity and coal does not compare favourably with other sources such as geothermal. Therefore, having a coal industry in Kitui will increase the electricity tariff, thereby exponentially increasing electricity costs for manufacturers that will be passed on to the consumer of finished goods. Moreover, our manufacturing companies won’t be able to compete with imported products due to the high electricity tariffs they will face.

The case against coal 

To make an informed decision about whether we should mine the coal that we have discovered in the Mui Basin, it is crucial that we look at what we have to lose if we go in that direction. Are there other means by which we could attain our ambitious goals?

Below are the reasons why the government should leave the coal in the ground.

Community opposition

Our laws are clear that any natural resources that are discovered should be utilised to benefit the people of Kenya. The Constitution of Kenya 2010 classifies minerals (such coal) under public land. Further, the law also elucidates that public land belongs collectively to the people of Kenya as a nation, as communities, and as individuals.

The community in the Mui Basin is vehemently opposed to coal mining in the region. The women in particular have raised concerns over informal land tenure rights. The community is pondering where they and their families will go when they abandon their ancestral lands to coal mining.

Women stand to lose the most if the community is evicted from the Mui Basin to give way to coal extraction. In Kenya, women traditionally have less control over land, with significant decisions being made mainly by men. They have had to resign themselves to enjoying only the user rights to the land (farming, grazing, fetching firewood, etc.)

Since the land in the Mui Basin is mostly without title, the project proponents have only sought the views of the heads of families, leaving out women who are important stakeholders and who stand to be severely affected by the proposed coal mining.

The community is pondering where they and their families will go when they abandon their ancestral lands to coal mining.

We need to ask ourselves whether development that separates families, friends and clans and evicts them from their ancestral homes qualifies as sustainable development. Should development improve and enhance the standard of living of the community in the Mui Basin or should it serve to sever family ties? Is it wise to move ahead with coal mining given the human rights concerns regarding the displacement of communities and the dispossession of residents, especially women, through the loss of their informal land tenure rights?

The jurisprudence on public participation under our 2010 Constitution is abundantly clear but the people of the Mui Basin, and Kenyans in general, have yet to exercise this fundamental right and value enshrined in our constitution.

Environmental impact

The coal in the Mui Basin is close to the surface, and therefore the default mining method will be open-cast mining (defined  as “a surface mining technique of extracting rock or minerals from the earth by their removal from an open-air pit”).

Inevitably, open cast mining will cause pollution, disrupt the area’s fragile ecosystem, contaminate groundwater, and cause unprecedented harm to local flora and fauna.

The Least Cost Power Development Plans 2017-2037 confirm that coal mining (open-pit) has significant environmental and social impacts and questions the decision to proceed with this venture given that the coal in the Mui Basin is of a lower quality than coal imported from other countries like South Africa.

Economic viability

It’s important to note that mining in Kenya is still a nascent sector, contributing a tiny fraction — about 1 per cent — of GDP.

Global coal prices have been fluctuating wildly due to a dwindling and unpredictable market and the global downward trend in coal financing and development. As a result, over 100 banks and financial institutions have announced their divestment from coal mining and coal power plants.

The Mui Basin coal is known to have a low calorific value and would thus attract a low price, making it less attractive than high-quality imported coal. It is unlikely that other coal users such as cement and steel manufacturers will find Mui coal attractive.

We need to ask ourselves whether development that separates families, friends and clans and evicts them from their ancestral homes qualifies as sustainable development.

Additionally, evacuating the coal in the Mui Basin for processing or export will require a significant investment. For instance, if the coal were to be utilised at the proposed Lamu coal plant, constructing the railway to the plant will cost north of  KSh290 billion, making the railway extension more expensive than building a coal plant in Kitui or Lamu.

In the most recently updated Least Cost Power Development Plans for 2017-2037, even the government doesn’t rank coal favourably over geothermal energy and hydroelectricity. The report concludes that the Lamu coal plant will be severely underutilised (only 0.9 per cent of the capacity to be realised with moderate growth in demand). Moreover, this will affect the coal mined in the Mui Basin, as it will have no market to supply.

The above factors make mining coal in Kenya a risky affair that will result in stranded assets and a substantial economic burden for Kenyans.

Health concerns

A plethora of toxic minerals and heavy metals are released into the soil, air and water bodies in the process of mining coal, posing significant health concerns. Among the health impacts of coal are diseases like Silicosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling silica dust. Black lung disease (known more formally as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis) is caused by inhaling coal dust and carbon that causes scarring in the lungs and impairs the ability to breathe.

Estimates show that 1,200 people in the US still die from black lung disease annually. According to a 2001 US study, there were higher than usual numbers of cardiopulmonary disease cases, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypertension, lung disease, and kidney disease among residents who live near coal mines.

The situation is even worse in developing countries like Kenya, where regulations are lacking, and those in place favour coal proponents. This means that the impact of coal mining on health among members of the Mui Basin community members will likely be higher than what we see in developed countries.

Pollution

Coal mining causes different kinds of pollution that cause environmental, health, and other concerns. These include noise, water and air pollution.

 As coal is mined, the noise can be heard from a distance of up to 10 miles (about 16 km). While one could argue that noise pollution is the least harmful environmental effect of coal mining, it causes discomfort to communities living near the coal mines and those working in the mines.

As far as water pollution is concerned, acid mine drainage — highly acidic runoff from coal stocks and handling facilities — infiltrates waterways, contaminating the local water supply. This makes the water unsafe for consumption and affects the PH balance of surrounding water bodies such as lakes and streams.

Open-cast mining will cause pollution, disrupt the area’s fragile ecosystem, contaminate groundwater, and cause unprecedented harm to local flora and fauna.

Kitui County, where the Mui Basin is located, is a semi-arid region that is highly dependent on groundwater for domestic use. Once the water becomes unsafe for consumption through contamination, the residents will be severely affected. They will end up paying a fortune for clean water (by either purchasing filtered water or walking long distances to find safe water) or continue to use the now contaminated water at the expense of their health.

What is worse is that the effects of acid mine drainage sources can be felt years after the coal mine has closed and the proponents of the project have moved on to other interests.

Air pollution 

One of the by-products of coal mining is coal dust, which is dirty and smells unpleasant. It is dangerous if inhaled, especially over a prolonged period. Prolonged exposure to coal dust puts one at risk of contracting “Black lung disease”, leading to lung cancer, pulmonary tuberculosis, and heart failure if left untreated.

Acid rain 

One of the biggest concerns of coal mining is acid rain. The high acidity of the mine drainage remains in the water supply, even through evaporation and condensation, eventually coming down in the form of “acid rain”, thus perpetuating the cycle of pollution.

Accidents

We also can’t rule out accidents; coal mines do collapse (both accidentally and due to nature-induced reasons). Collapsing mines cause thousands of deaths; China experienced 4,600 deaths from coal mine accidents in 2006. We could also experience coal fires that fill the atmosphere with smoke containing carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxides, and other greenhouse gases and fly ash.

Kitui County, where the Mui Basin is located, is a semi-arid region that is highly dependent on groundwater for domestic use.

The above reasons are a cause of grave concern; Kitui County could lose countless lives to collapsing coal mines, and if coal fires were to occur, the county would stand to lose vast tracts of farmland, affecting food security.

Access to information 

The belief is that coal will give a big boost to the country’s development. However, the secrecy surrounding the project makes this is doubtful; in effect,  the government and the investors that have mining rights in the Mui Basin have yet to make public the concession agreements they have already signed.

The community in Kitui, and Kenyans in general, have been left to speculate over the contents of the concession agreements. It is concerning that both the government and the project proponents are reluctant to make the agreements public, if indeed they are in the public interest.

Our verdict 

After separating the wheat from the chaff and carefully examining the pros and cons of mining coal in Kenya, we have concluded that it would be unwise for us as a country to continue down this path. If we do go ahead with the coal project, we will be left with stranded assets and a substantial burden to add to an already struggling economy.

China is dismantling its coal plants and is likely to sell them to Kenya as new. This will happen because we have yet to see a “sweetheart” deal between our corrupt government and China that is free of corruption.

Common sense demands that we count our coal losses and move towards sustainable renewable energies that are greener and more cost-competitive.

We as a country must resist this project by all legal means necessary. It is the only patriotic thing to do.

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Willy Mutunga (@WMutunga), Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court, Republic of Kenya, 2011-2016. Omar Elmawi (@OmarElmawi) is a lawyer and the coordinator of the deCOALonize campaign in Kenya.

Politics

Moving or Changing? Reframing the Migration Debate

The purpose of the mass and civilizational migrations of Western Europe was the same as now: not simply to move from one point to another, but also from one type of social status to another, to change one’s social standing in relation to the country of origin.

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Moving, or Changing?
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Do we move to change, or do we move to stay the same?

That seems to depend on who we were, to begin with. In most cases, it seems we move in an attempt to become even more of whatever we think we are.

A good Kenyan friend of mine once (deliberately) caused great offense in a Nairobi nightspot encounter with a group of Ugandans he came across seated at a table. There were six or seven of them, all clearly not just from the same country, but from the same part of the country.

“It always amazes me,” he said looking over their Western Uganda features, “how people will travel separately for thousands of miles only to meet up so as to recreate their villages.

He moved along quickly.

“Most African Migration Remains Intraregional” is a headline on the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies website:

Most African migration remains on the continent, continuing a long-established pattern. Around 21 million documented Africans live in another African country, a figure that is likely an undercount given that many African countries do not track migration. Urban areas in Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt are the main destinations for this inter-African migration, reflecting the relative economic dynamism of these locales.

Among African migrants who have moved off the continent, some 11 million live in Europe, almost 5 million in the Middle East, and more than 3 million in America.

More Africans may be on the move now than at any time since the end of enslavement, or perhaps the two large European wars. Even within the African continent itself. They navigate hostilities in the cause of movement—war, poverty and environmental collapse.

The last 500 years have seen the greatest expression of the idea of migration for the purpose of staying the same (or shall we say, becoming even more of what one is). The world has been transformed by the movement of European peoples, who have left a very visible cultural-linguistic stamp on virtually all corners of the earth. It is rarely properly understood as a form of migration.

It took place in three forms. The first was a search for riches by late feudal Western European states, in a bid to solve their huge public debts, and also enrich the nobility. This was the era of state-sponsored piracy and wars of aggression for plunder against indigenous peoples. The second form was the migration of indentured Europeans to newly conquered colonial spaces. The third was the arrival of refugees fleeing persecution borne of feudal and industrial poverty, which often took religious overtones.

Certainly, new spaces often create new opportunities, but only if the migrants concerned are allowed to explore the fullness of their humanity and creativity. The historical record shows that some humans have done this at the expense of other humans.

A key story of the world today seems to be the story of how those that gained from the mass and civilizational migrations of Western Europe outwards remain determined to keep the world organised in a way that enables them to hold on to those gains at the expense of the places to which they have migrated.

We can understand the invention and development of the modern passport—or at least its modern application—as an earlier expression of that. Originally, passports were akin to visas, issued by authorities at a traveler’s intended destination as permission to move through the territory. However, as described by Giulia Pines in National Geographic, established in 1920 by the League of Nations, “a Western-centric organization trying to get a handle on a post-war world”, the current passport regime “was almost destined to be an object of freedom for the advantaged, and a burden for others”. Today the dominant immigration models (certainly from Europe) seem based around the idea of a fortress designed to keep people out, while allowing those keeping the people out to go into other places at will, and with privilege, to take out what they want.

Certainly, new spaces often create new opportunities, but only if the migrants concerned are allowed to explore the fullness of their humanity and creativity.

For me, the greatest contemporary expression of “migration as continuity” has to be the Five Eyes partnership. This was an information-sharing project based on a series of satellites owned by the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Its original name was “Echelon”, and it has grown to function as a space-based listening system, spying on telecommunications on a global scale – basically, space-based phone tapping.

All the countries concerned are the direct products of the global migration and settlement of specifically ethnic English Europeans throughout the so-called New World, plus their country of origin. The method of their settlement are now well known: genocide and all that this implies. The Five Eyes project represents their banding together to protect the gains of their global ethnic settlement project.

In the United States, many families that have become prominent in public life have a history rooted, at least in part, in the stories of immigrants. The Kennedys, who produced first an Ambassador to the United Kingdom, and then through his sons and grandsons, a president, an attorney general, and a few senators, made their fortune as part of a gang of Irish immigrants to America involved in the smuggling of illicit alcohol in the period when the alcohol trade was illegal in the United States.

Recent United States president Donald Trump is descended from a German grandfather who, having arrived in 1880s America as a teenage barber, went on to make money as a land forger, casino operator and brothel keeper. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States was the paternal grandson of a trader named Warren, a descendant of Dutch settlers who made his fortune smuggling opium into China in the 1890s.

While it is true that the entire story of how Europeans came to be settled in all the Americas is technically a story of criminality, whether referred to as such or not, the essential point here is that many of the ancestors of these now prominent Americans would not have passed the very same visa application requirements that they impose on present-day applicants.

The purpose of migrations then was the same as it is now: not simply to move from one point to another, but also from one type of social status to another. It was about finding wealth, and through that, buying a respectability that had not been accessible in the country of origin. So, the point of migration was in a sense, not to migrate, but to change one’s social standing.

And once that new situation has been established, then all that is left is to build a defensive ring around that new status. So, previously criminal American families use the proceeds of their crime to build large mansions, and fill the rooms with antiques and heirlooms, and seek the respectability (not to mention business opportunities) of public office.

Many of the ancestors of these now prominent Americans would not have passed the very same visa application requirements that they put to present-day applicants.

European countries that became rich through the plunder of what they now call the “developing world”, build immigration measures designed to keep brown people out while allowing the money keep coming in. They build large cities, monuments and museums, and also rewrote their histories just as the formerly criminal families have done.

Thus the powers that created a world built on migration cannot be taken seriously when they complain about present-day migration.

Migration is as much about the “here” you started from, as it about the “there” you are headed to. It is not about assimilating difference; it is about trying to keep the “here” unchanged, and then to re-allocate ourselves a new place in that old sameness. This is why we go “there”.

This may explain the “old-new” names so common to the mass European migration experience. They carry the names of their origins, and impose them on the new places. Sometimes, they add the word “New” before the old name, and use migrant-settler phrases like “the old country”, “back east”. They then seek to choose a new place to occupy in the old world they seek to recreate, that they could not occupy in the old world itself. But as long as the native still exists, then the settler remains a migrant. And the settler state remains a migrant project.

To recreate the old world, while creating a new place for themselves in it, , such migrants also strive to make the spaces adapt to this new understanding of their presence that they now seek to make real.

I once witness a most ridiculous fight between three Ugandan immigrants in the UK. It took place on the landing of the social housing apartment of two of them, man and wife, against the third, until that moment, their intended house guest. As his contribution to their household, the guest had offered to bring a small refrigerator he owned. However, when the two men went to collect the fridge in a small hired van, the driver explained that traffic laws did not permit both to ride up front with him – one would have to ride in the back with the fridge. The fridge owner, knowing the route better, was nominated to sit up front, to which his friend took great and immediate exception; he certainly had not migrated to London to be consigned to the back of a van like a piece of cargo. After making his way home via public means, and discussing his humiliation with his good wife, the arrangement was called off – occasioning a bitter confrontation with the bewildered would-be guest.

There must have been so many understandings of the meaning of their migration to Britain, but like the Europeans of the New World, the Ugandans had settled on replicating the worst of what they were running from in an attempt to become what they were never going to be allowed to be back home.

A good case in point is the ethnic Irish communities in Boston and New York, whose new-found whiteness—having escaped desperate poverty, oppression and famine under British colonial rule on what were often referred to as “coffin ships” —saw them create some of the most racist and brutal police forces on the East Coast. They did not just migrate physically; they did so socially and economically as well.

It starts even with naming.

The word “migrant” seems to belong more to certain races than to others, although that also changes. When non-white, normally poor people are on the move, they can get labeled all sorts of things: refugees, economic migrants, immigrants, illegals, encroachments, wetbacks and the like.

With white-skinned people, the language was often different. Top of the linguistic league is the word “expatriate”, to refer to any number of European-origin people moving to, or through, or settling in, especially Africa.

According to news reports, some seven million Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion were absorbed by their neighboring European countries, most of which are members of the European Union. Another 8 million remain displaced within the war-torn country.

This is an outcome of which the Europeans are proud. They have even emphasized how the racial and cultural similarities between themselves and the Ukrainian refugees have made the process easier, if not a little obligatory.

This sparked off a storm of commentary in which comparisons were made with the troubles earlier sets of refugees (especially from the Middle East and Afghanistan) faced as the fled their own wars and tried to enter Western Europe.

And the greatest irony is that the worst treatment they received en-route was often in the countries of Eastern Europe.

Many European media houses were most explicit in expressing their shock that a war was taking place in Europe (they thought they were now beyond such things), and in supporting the position that the “white Christian” refugees from Ukraine should be welcomed with open arms, unlike the Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians before them.

Human migration was not always like this.

Pythagoras (570-495 BC), the scholar from Ancient Greece, is far less well remembered as a migrant and yet his development as a thinker is attributable to the 22 or so years he spent as a student and researcher in Ancient Egypt. The same applies to Plato, who spent13 years in Egypt.

There is not that much evidence to suggest that Pythagoras failed to explain where he got all his learning from. If anything, he seems to have been quite open in his own writing about his experiences, first as an apprentice and later a fellow scholar in the Egyptian knowledge systems. The racial make-up of Ancient Egypt, and its implications, was far from becoming the political battleground it is today.

Top of the linguistic league is the word “expatriate” to refer to any number of European-origin people moving to, or through, or settling in, especially Africa.

Classic migration was about fitting in. Colonial migration demands that the new space adapt to accommodate the migrant. The idea of migrants and modern migration needs to be looked at again from its proper wider 500-year perspective. People of European descent, with their record of having scattered and forcibly imposed themselves all over the world, should be the last people to express anxieties about immigrants and migration.

With climate change, pandemic cycles, and the economic collapse of the west in full swing, we should also focus on the future of migration. As was with the case for Europeans some two to three hundred years ago, life in Europe is becoming rapidly unlivable for the ordinary European. The combination of the health crisis, the energy crisis, the overall financial crisis and now a stubborn war, suggests that we may be on the threshold of a new wave of migration of poor Europeans, as they seek cheaper places to live.

The advantages to them are many. Large areas of the south of the planet are dominated physically, financially and culturally, by some level of Western values, certainly at a structural level. Just think how many countries in the world use the Greco-Latin origin word “police” to describe law enforcement. These southern spaces have already been sufficiently Westernized to enable a Westerner to live in them without too much of a cultural adjustment on their part. The Westerners are coming back.

This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.

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Politics

The Iron Grip of the International Monetary System: CFA Franc, Hyper-Imperial Economies and the Democratization of Money

Cameroonian economist Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi died in 1984, either poisoned or by suicide. His ideas about the international monetary system and the CFA franc are worth revisiting.

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The Iron Grip of the International Monetary System: CFA Franc, Hyper-Imperial Economies and the Democratization of Money
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Despite being one of Africa’s greatest economists, Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi is little known outside Francophone intellectual circles. Writing in the 1970s, he offered a stinging rebuke of orthodox monetary theory and policy from an African perspective that remains relevant decades later. Especially powerful are his criticisms of the international monetary system and the CFA franc, the regional currency in West and Central Africa that has historically been pegged to the French currency—at first the franc, and now the euro.

Pouemi was born on November 13th, 1937, to a Bamiléké family in Bangoua, a village in western Cameroon. After obtaining his baccalaureate and working as a primary school teacher, Pouemi moved to France in 1960, where he studied law, mathematics, and economics at the University of Clermont-Ferrand. Pouemi then worked as a university professor and policy adviser in Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire. In 1977, he joined the IMF but quit soon after, vehemently disagreeing with its policies. He returned to Cameroon and published his magnum opus, Money, Servitude, and Freedom, in 1980. The recently elected president of Cameroon, Paul Biya, appointed Pouemi head of the University of Douala in August 1983—then fired him a year later. On December 27th, 1984, Pouemi was found dead of an apparent suicide in a hotel room. Some of his friends and students argue he was poisoned by the Biya regime (which still governs Cameroon), while others believe that harassment by Biya’s cronies drove Pouemi to suicide.

International Monetary System

Writing in the turbulent 1970s after the breakdown of the Bretton Woods regime of fixed exchange rates, Pouemi anticipated the three “fundamental flaws” with the international monetary “non-system”: one, using a national currency, the US dollar, as global currency; two, placing the burden of adjustment exclusively on deficit nations; and, three, the “inequity bias” of the foreign reserve system, which makes it a form of “reverse aid.” All three issues have been highlighted by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Long recognized as a problem, the challenges with using the US dollar as the world’s currency have once again become apparent. Low- and middle-income countries (which include essentially all African countries) have to deal with the vicissitudes of the global financial cycles emanating from the center of the global capitalist system. As the Federal Reserve raises interest rates to combat inflation by engineering a recession—because if borrowing costs rise, people have less money to spend and prices will decrease—they are increasing the debt burden of African governments that have variable-rate loans in US dollars. Already, the World Bank has warned of a looming debt crisis and the potential for another “lost decade” like the 1980s. Moreover, higher interest rates in the US lead to the depreciation of African currencies, making imports more expensive and leading to even higher food and oil prices across the continent.

Pouemi viewed the IMF’s attempt to create a global currency through the 1969 establishment of the special drawing rights (SDR) system as an inadequate response to the problems created by using the US dollar. The issuance of SDRs essentially drops money from the sky into the savings accounts of governments around the world. The IMF has only issued SDRs four times in its history, most recently in August 2021 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With African governments dealing with falling export earnings and the need to import greater amounts of personal protective equipment—and, eventually, vaccines—there was a clear need to bolster their savings, i.e., foreign reserves. The problem is that the current formula for allocating SDRs provides 60% of them to the richest countries—countries that do not need them, since they can and have borrowed in their own currencies. Of the new 456 billion SDR (approximately US$650 billion), the entire African continent received only 5% (about US$33 billion).

Decades ago, Pouemi had slammed SDRs as “arbitrary in three respects: the determination of their volume, their allocation and the calculation of their value.” Instead, Pouemi advocated for a truly global currency, one that could be issued by a global central bank in response to global recessions and that prioritized financing for the poorest countries. Such a reorientation of SDRs could provide a way of repaying African nations for colonialism and climate change.

Secondly, unable to get the financing they need, African governments with balance-of-payments deficits (when more money leaves a country than enters in a given year) have no choice but to shrink their economies. Pouemi strongly criticized the IMF, which he dubbed the “Instant Misery Fund” for applying the same “stereotypical, invariable remedies: reduce public expenditures, limit credit, do not subsidize nationalized enterprises” regardless of the source of a country’s deficits. Devaluing the currency is unlikely to work for small countries that are price takers in world markets and instead improves the trade balance by lowering domestic spending. The IMF has become “a veritable policeman to repress governments that attempt to offer their countries a minimum of welfare.” The current international monetary non-system then creates a global “deflationary bias,” since those countries with balance-of-payments deficits must reduce their spending, while those with large surpluses—like Germany, China, Japan, and the Netherlands—face little pressure to decrease their surpluses by spending more.

The third major issue with the current international monetary non-system is that developing countries have to accumulate foreign exchange reserves denominated in “hard” currencies like US dollars and euros, which means they are forced to transfer real resources to richer countries in return for financial assets—mere IOUs. Pouemi claimed that “if the international monetary system was not ‘rigged,’ reserves would be held as other goods like coffee or cocoa, gold for example. But the system is ‘rigged’; coffee reserves are quantified as dollars, pound sterling or non-convertible francs.” Instead, in the late 1970s, governments like that of Rwanda effectively lent coffee to the United States by using export earnings to purchase US treasury bills, whose real value was being quickly eroded by high inflation in the US. Hence, we live in a world where developing countries like China and Brazil lend money to rich governments like that of the US. As Pouemi explains: “The logic of the international monetary system wants the poor to lend to—what am I saying—give to the rich.”

CFA franc

Pouemi was also a harsh critic of the CFA franc, since maintaining the fixed exchange rate to the euro implies abandoning an autonomous monetary policy and the need to restrict commercial bank credit. Pouemi also argued that the potential benefits and costs of currency unions are different for rich and poor countries, and that therefore it is inappropriate to analyze African monetary unions through a European lens. His thoughts are especially relevant at a moment when the future of the CFA franc and West African monetary integration are up for debate.

In theory, by fixing the exchange rate to the euro, the two regional central banks that issue the CFA franc—the Banque centrale des états de l’Afrique de l’ouest (Central Bank of West African States) and the Banque centrale des états de l’Afrique centrale (Central Bank of Central African States)—have relinquished monetary policy autonomy. They have to mimic the European Central Bank’s policy rates instead of setting interest rates that reflect economic conditions in the CFA zone. The amount of CFA francs in circulation is also limited by the amount of foreign reserves each regional central bank holds in euros. Therefore, “the solidity of the CFA franc is based on restricting M [the money supply], a restriction not desired by the states, but one proceeding from the very architecture of the zone.” As a result, the economies of the CFA franc zone are starved of credit, especially farmers and small businesses, hindering growth and development. In Pouemi’s words, “There is no doubt, the CFA remains fundamentally a currency of the colonial type.”

When discussing the possibilities for a single currency for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Pouemi stressed that the potential benefits and costs of currency union are different for rich and poor countries. “There is not only a difference of perception of the mechanisms of cooperation” between Europe and Africa, “there’s a difference of the conception of common life. Economic cooperation as it is conceived in the industrialized West is the Kennedy Round, North-South dialogue, the EEC, etc.—in other words, essentially ‘customs disarmament’ or common defense; armament is the rule, disarmament the exception.” In Africa, however, economic cooperation is a positive-sum game. Conventional economic theory argues against monetary integration among African countries, since they trade little with each other. But to Pouemi, the goal of monetary integration is precisely to get these countries to trade more with one another. He also questions the view that monetary integration should come last, following the same sequence as the European Union from free trade zone to customs union to common market and, finally, to currency union. “This view is not only imaginary, it is practically non-verified; we have seen examples. Theoretically, it is indefensible: a 10% decrease in tariffs could be … offset by a devaluation of 10%.”

Pouemi also dismissed arguments that Nigeria would dominate the proposed ECOWAS single currency as another example of the classic colonialist tactic of “divide and conquer.” While he acknowledged that “monetary union between unequal partners poses problems,” these are “only problems, open to solutions.” They do not make monetary integration unviable. Such integration need not limit sovereignty. In a regional or continental African monetary union, no “currency would be the reserve of others. Each country would have its own central bank, free to conduct the policy that best suits the directives judged necessary by the government. The only loss of sovereignty following such a union would be the respect of the collective balance. It would not be appropriated by anyone; it would be at the service of all. It would be, for that matter, less a loss of sovereignty than the collective discipline necessary to all communal life.”

Pouemi advocated for an African monetary union with fixed exchange rates between members, the pooling of foreign reserves, and a common unit of account—like the European Currency Unit that preceded the euro. He thought that the debate over whether the CFA franc is overvalued is misguided, since there is no a priori reason for its members to have the same exchange rate. Fixed but adjustable exchange rates—as in the Bretton Woods system or European Monetary System—would allow each nation greater monetary and exchange rate policy autonomy. Settling payments using a common unit of account instead of foreign exchange reserves would help economize on the latter. Moving toward the free movement of capital, goods and labor—as envisioned by the African Continental Free Trade Area—would help diffuse shocks through the monetary union. Finally, such a union would need to have a common policy on capital controls or at least collective supervision of international capital flows.

As Pouemi so eloquently lamented: “History will hold on to the fact that all of [Africa’s] children that have tried to make her respected have perished, one after the other, by African hands, without having the time to serve her.” We do not know what Pouemi could have accomplished had he had the time to serve Africa for longer. All we can do is heed his call that “in Africa, money needs to stop being the domain of a small number of ‘specialists’ pretending to be magicians.”

This post is from a 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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The Post-colonial Kenyan State: The Thorn in Our Flesh

The lesson from political economist Rok Ajulu’s academic work and activism: it’s not enough to change the “tenants,” but fight to change both the “state” and all of its houses.

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The Post Colonial Kenyan State: The Thorn in Our Flesh
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In early May 2022, with almost three months to the August election, Kenya had close to 50 presidential candidates, and 5,000 people running for the 1,500 Member of County Assembly (MCA) positions. Ultimately, not all of these aspirants will be cleared by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) (more like “blunder commission” judging from the 2017 elections and its lack of preparedness for the August 2022 poll), but the question remains—one that the political economist, Rok Ajulu, asked in his 2021 book Post-Colonial Kenya: The Rise of an Authoritarian and Predatory State: what is it about the post-colonial state in Africa that makes so many people want to control it?

In this impressive compendium, Ajulu chronologically and exhaustively mapped out the authoritarian turns of the Kenyan post-colonial state. In doing so, he documented the predatory nature of the colonial regime and how three successive African governments— headed respectively by Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel Arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki—have built on this legacy and, in addition, weaponized ethnicity at specific junctures to consolidate control and accumulation. And not just any accumulation: predatory and parasitic hoarding—in the sum of trillions of dollars and with many detrimental effects for the population—that is only possible when steered, despite declarations to the contrary from the top.

While he charts the oscillating, often moderate and neo-imperial allegiances of actors such as Jomo Kenyatta (the late father of outgoing president, Uhuru), Tom Mboya and Moi—none of whom were great fans of the Mau Mau—Ajulu’s focus is on how the state “becomes brazenly the instrument of the dominant political elite. This type of regime gravitates towards authoritarian dispensation of power precisely because economic mobility and expansion of the new elite is largely tied to their continued control of state-power.”

This thesis, while not unique to Ajulu and recognized in everyday discourse, is anchored here in a prolific and comprehensive archive, which also makes evident, as does the author, that the predatory pursuits of politicians are not unencumbered, even against the heavy-handed authoritarian implements (read political assassinations, state sanctioned ethnic clashes) they use to entrench them. Although Ajulu does not dwell on protests or resistances  to this authoritarian rule over four decades(please read this powerful book by Maina wa Kinyatti for that), and focuses primarily on party politics and the trajectories of (in)famous politicians to narrate the incremental creation of an authoritarian state in Kenya, the constant tug and pull of class tensions and the heterogeneous actions of supposedly homogeneous ethnic populations are always on the horizon.

Who is this man Rok Ajulu? In the short film about him called Breakfast in Kisumu, his daughter, the filmmaker Rebecca Achieng Ajulu-Bushell, documents his academic and political labors dating to his exile from Kenya in the early 1970s. Oriented around interviews she had with him—and it is his narrations that piece together the diverse landscapes that are the visuals for this film (we actually, interestingly, barely see Ajulu)—his voice takes us through his life as a student, political activist  and academic, in a journey that spans Bulgaria, Lesotho, the UK and South Africa. The evocative images of these countries where Rok Ajulu lived, while recent, anchor this narrative that accounts for a life of political praxes in academia and beyond. Though his sojourns mainly pivot around academic pursuits, we also hear about his labors as an agricultural worker in Bulgaria, a pirate taxi driver in Fulham, London and, importantly, as an organizer with the Committee for Action and Solidarity for Southern African Students (CASSAS) while at the National University of Lesotho in the late 1970s and early 1980s (for this work he was imprisoned for three weeks).

It is, perhaps, this period as an anti-apartheid organizer in Lesotho that created the path to a life in South Africa from 1994. Here he taught at Rhodes University and married Lindiwe Sisulu, the current Minister of Tourism (and one of the aspirants vying to succeed Cyril Ramaphosa as South Africa’s next president), and daughter of renowned anti-apartheid activists Walter and Albertina Sisulu. Consequently, it is in South Africa, rather than Kenya, where his influence was more extensive, even as Kenya appears to have been the primary focus of his academic scholarship.

Ajulu-Bushell’s poetic film demonstrates that her father’s life was not ordinary. But it is perhaps the internationalist and pan-African paths he chose that led her to recognize him, as she does in this film, as a “father” but not a “parent.” Her bid to understand her father’s life as an adult and, simultaneously, to document his political praxes, appear to be what has prompted this documentary. While the style of the film may not be for everyone—there are a few seemingly gratuitous appearances of the filmmaker—Breakfast in Kisumu is an important tribute to a father, and one who is representative of a generation who endured many unanticipated and painful exiles for nations and lands which did not always claim them, but for which they gave their lives.

As the final book Ajulu wrote before he died of cancer in 2016, Post-Colonial Kenya: The Rise of an Authoritarian and Predatory State is informed by questions that, likely, the author grappled with throughout his life.

Against the impending 2022 Kenya general elections that are not cause for much inspiration —with the male dominated alliances, handshakes, intrigues and elite contestations that characterize it—Ajulu’s thesis still rings true: that the state is the primary vehicle for accumulation and thus engenders a predatory authoritarianism by those who want to control it.

After years in an exile(s) documented by Ajulu-Bushell’s film, I’m not sure how optimistic Ajulu was for our Kenyan future, for he wrote in his final book: “Besides the change of tenants at the state house, not much really changed. The mandarins who used to lord it over the hapless rank and file remained in their same old places.”

At the very least, this generation can turn to the histories Rok Ajulu has documented in his book, as well as those he lived, to reflect on how, for this election and the next, we are not just going to change the “tenants,” but will fight to change both the “state” and all of its houses.

This post is from a 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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