In Uganda, evictions of the poor from land by the dominant economic class have been common in the last two decades. They have mainly been classified under the broader rubric of land grabbing. Land evictions are a microcosm of Uganda’s political economy and offshoots of lapses in land governance and the unending land reform processes.
Eviction scenes are usually characterised by the following: a group of people (most often hired goons) destroying crops; a grader destroying structures or debris from already destroyed structures; victims trying to salvage their belongings from the debris (usually basic household items such as overused mattresses, plastic plates, cups, and clothing); stick-wielding victims voicing their frustration in front of media microphones/cameras, affirming their claim to the land and calling on a powerful agency or a politician to intervene (at times these calls to intervene are directed at the government using the popular Luganda phrase, “tusaba gavumenti etuyambe” (we are begging for the government’s intervention/help); women crying profusely, pacing around the scene, asking rhetorical questions (usually concerning their dire helplessness as widows/sole providers for their families and wondering how they will pay off that loan or feed the children now that the food is destroyed); and people in uniform wielding guns and court papers purportedly authorising the eviction.
This description of evictions is a metaphorical representation of the actors, powers, agendas, and interests at play in land contestations. It is usually the face of other invisible forces deeply rooted in the letter of the law, power play, and asserted by a court of law through interpretation or misinterpretation. The scene can be appropriately captioned “noise verses uniforms, guns and court papers”. The poor can only amplify their voices of dissent by wielding sticks, while the instruments of state authority (uniforms, guns and court papers) remain in the hands of their tormentors.
The scene also presents a number of dichotomies: a class struggle between the underclass/poor and the dominant economic class, between the powerful and the subordinated/oppressed, citizens and subjects. The constitutional notion of citizenship bestows upon all Ugandans the right to state protection. Land conflicts have however presented a dynamic where the rich and powerful are more of citizens than others, for they can use the law and state institutions to assert their “entitlement” against the underclass/poor. Those who lose their land in this context become “subjects” whose claims are dismissed as merely an annoyance rather than “rights” worth defending. The “subjects” can only cry out for help as a privilege rather than a right. This is evidence that the most recent land law reforms of 1995, 1998 and 2010 have not yet benefited the majority of victims of land evictions. Their social-economic existence is destabilised. To them, the law is a powerful tool in the hands of the economically and politically dominant group.
The Constitution of Uganda recognises four tenure systems: mailo, freehold, customary and leasehold. Evictions have taken place on land held under all four tenure systems across the country. Not every eviction is unlawful, but unlawful evictions abound in Uganda’s history, and have intensified in recent times. They cause land conflicts, destabilise society, retard land-based production and curtail free marketability of land. Debates on land reform are frequent and the country is currently debating another range of reforms on the mailo system of land tenure.
There is need to understand the dialectic views about the need for reforms in this area, and I offer some discussion here. I take a teleological approach, avoiding the polemic debates on how we got here and focussing instead on what we could learn from and do about the sticking issues in the land reform processes in Uganda. I also explore the pro-commercialisation and other efforts aimed at land restitution in other countries, as well as the politics of the “entangled” interests on mailo land in Uganda, and how this shapes the efforts and politics of disentanglement. Land law has been used as a tool in the politics of entanglement and disentanglement. I argue that the law is not the magic bullet; it rarely addresses the underlying intersectional quandaries of a social, economic and political nature that normally converge in the spaces of the poor/underprivileged. Law should be coupled with other legitimate efforts aimed at disentangling the convergence of the issues referred to above and understanding the roles played by the various actors in land conflicts and their resolution.
Land reforms elsewhere
Land reforms elsewhere are characterised by scenes where (just like in Uganda) voices of protest confront forces wielding state authority sanctioned through law reforms, the poor pitted against the economically empowered in the struggle over land. A number of African countries have undertaken land reforms in the recent past, achieving—according to official supporting discourses—a constellation of gains ranging from correcting historical flaws, improving tenure security, promoting the capital value of land, and protecting indigenous communities, among others. South Africa and Zimbabwe stand out in the Southern Africa region. South African reforms have included a broader agenda to annihilate the dangers associated with the land dispossessions perpetrated against the black population during the apartheid era. Debates about racial inequalities, and restitution and/or compensation have been current in addition to communal land tenure policy initiatives aimed at vesting land in tribal authorities and streamlining its use and access within that traditional body politic. Expropriation without compensation is another hot debate in the South African context.
Land law has been used as a tool in the politics of entanglement and disentanglement.
In Zimbabwe, a number of land reforms took place in turbulent fashion in the early 2000s (of course there were efforts at land reform in the 1980s). Like in South Africa, reforms involved reversion of land from white to black farmers (put simply). The views about these reforms have been divergent with some believing that they have helped the small-scale farmer to gain ground in the agricultural market economy, while others see the initiatives as disastrous and unsustainable in economic and human rights terms (if all, both black and white, are considered citizens).
Next door in Kenya, the most recent reforms were heralded by the inauguration of the 2010 Constitution followed by the new land law of 2012 and the Community Land Act of 2016, among others. As elsewhere, the reforms were justified on a number of bases including inequitable distribution of land, historical injustices, landlessness among the poor, increasing trends of land grabbing, and the need to streamline communal land use. In her recent book, The Struggle for Land and Justice in Kenya, Ambreena Manji argues that one of the problems with reform in Kenya is the parochial view of “land reform” as reform of land law that leads to focus being placed on reforms within the land management and administration institutions that are pivotal to the exercise of bureaucratic power.
This approach diverts attention from the broader questions of access, land justice for the poor and unequal distribution. Manji further believes, “We must attend to insurgent knowledge and ideas of change.” In essence, any reform programme should aim at deeper and broader change beyond legal reforms in order to address the plight of the subaltern poor caught up in contestations over land. Such an approach questions the dominant but rather rhetorical narratives of the state as the protector of rights and people, to address situations where symbols of state power (uniforms, guns and court papers) are ironically applied to entrench a skewed power position to intimidate and dispossess victims in land conflicts/evictions.
The Uganda case
Public debate in Uganda has recently been dominated by discussions on the reform of the mailo land tenure system, with views varying from those that believe it needs to be reformed (and may be abolished) to those that believe that the mailo system does not need to be reviewed. Uganda has gone through a series of land reforms over the course of the country’s history, with each reform influenced by the political, social and economic factors prevailing at the time. In 1975, President Idi Amin abolished all perpetual land ownership tenure systems and vested all land in the state, which granted periodic leases to land users. The post-1995 land law reforms re-vested land back in the citizens to hold by virtue of the revived tenure systems (mailo, freehold, customary, in addition to leasehold). Unlike in the past, the post-1995 period saw heightened contestations over land and witnessed classic evictions.
Any reform programme should aim at deeper and broader change beyond legal reforms in order to address the plight of the subaltern poor.
Reforms are not new. The question is why haven’t they delivered on their agenda to address the so-called “land question”? Can reforms focusing on the mailo land tenure (mainly in central Uganda) address all the problematic land issues at a national level or those associated with other tenure systems such as the vast customary tenure predominant in the north? Are we asking the right questions to guide reform processes? Are we addressing the right problems? Does the operating environment allow for clear and focused reforms? Can focus on “law reform” (to refer to Manji’s conceptualisation) without addressing the underlying social-political issues resolve the multifaceted nature of challenges encountered in the mailo system?
All these questions have one answer. Land is a part of the political repertoire and therefore efforts to bring about land reforms involve managing politics, society, and the economy, yet the balance is not easy to strike. Although cumbersome for some, the unresolved land issues are exploitable “stock”’ for others. Beneficiaries of the “stock” would therefore not opt for approaches that resolve the problem once and for all, since that would not be just a trifling inconvenience but a big loss.
The “miles” of “entangled” land
Any attempt at reforming the mailo system requires a broader approach using multiple lenses to disentangle the various legal and social-political issues that characterise its structure and practice. Broadly, the mailo system is entangled in class, religion, culture, politics, etc. Specifically, it is first entangled in history, conjuring historical rationales and claims that are also embedded in culture/traditions whose contemporary relevance may come into question. Who was who and who is who in terms of control of the centres of power. Does the new generation embrace the shifts (if at all) in the power centres? Second, the mailo system is entangled in the argument about the fairness of land distribution under the 1900 agreement and its contemporary relevance in debates about the classes of “victims” and “beneficiaries” in the mailo land tenure system.
Third, mailo system is entangled in the geopolitical imperative to promote registration and free marketability of land as a part of the broader goal of promoting a neoliberal model of development. In Uganda – The Dynamics of Neoliberal Transformation, the country is described as an exemplar of African countries that have fully embraced neoliberal restructuring that has resulted in significant economic growth, but also in inequality, concentration of wealth, corruption, and privileging production paradigms (as opposed to others of social value). Neoliberalism has also influenced land reforms by commodifying land and placing it in the markets, by increasing the relationship between land and commerce, and by changing the exchange value of land.
Fourth, mailo land is also entangled in the national political agenda on land reform, officially presented as a pro-poor logic; reform the land laws to strengthen protection of land occupants against land title holders. Fifth is the cultural issue where talk of mailo land evokes debate about the monarchy of Buganda and its power over land (mainly the official mailo land), considered trust land held by the King in trust for the people of Buganda. Crucially, land in Buganda is currently occupied by people/social groups from all over the country, including the powerful, and “foreign investors”.
Land is a part of the political repertoire and therefore efforts to bring about land reforms involve managing politics, society, and the economy.
Understanding these entanglements is invaluable in debates on mailo land reforms. One should take a microscopic view of them all in order to decipher them; use them as a guide to identify the actors to engage with; transcend blemished determinist economic views in the rationalisation of the purpose of reforms; promote debate and constructive engagement; avoid ideational and discursive hegemonic approaches shaped by subjectivities in perspective.
With the above, the law may indeed not be the silver bullet. It contains positive initiatives that would go a long way to solving the problem, but at the same time, it has contributed to the stalemate thereby further entangling the mailo tenure system. The reforms have largely not delivered emancipation for the oppressed, or corrected the power imbalances and the resulting injustices.
Beyond the law
The Constitution and the Land Act aim to “streamline” the “relationship” between the landlord and the tenant. This presupposes continuation of the dual/conflicting rights on the same piece of land for title holders and tenants/occupants, with some changes in the reciprocal rights and obligations for both, and amicable social co-existence. The land by implication remains entangled in the dual claims of the landlord and the tenant, albeit in a regulated manner. There are a number of initiatives in the Land Act aimed at regulating the landlord/tenant relationship, a few of which are highlighted here.
First, the tenant is guaranteed security of occupancy and protected against eviction on condition that s/he pays rent to the landlord. The rent is “nominal”/“non-commercial”, fixed through government bureaucracies with the resulting “coercive security of occupancy” for the tenants. The landlords are obliged to receive the rent (even against their will) and refrain from evicting the tenants.
This has elements of imposing “edifice” since market forces are locked out in the determination of rent and the social good of the tenant is considered to be of paramount importance. It is believed that such approaches of regulating rent entrench the social aspects of the landlord/tenant relationship in recognition of the historical dimension of the mailo system of land holding. The tenants can occupy the land as long as they pay the nominal rent to the landlords, which sustains the existence of dual rights on the same piece of land.
Second, the tenant can apply for certificate as evidence of his/her occupancy with the consent of the landlord. This is then registered as an encumbrance on the landlord’s title. It is ironical to expect that the landlord will accept to further entangle the land, and limit its application in the market.
Third, the landlord and tenant can jointly hold the land or equally agree to share it such that each can exclusively hold and occupy a portion. The skewed power patterns between landlord and tenant most times hinder the possibility of an amicable and fair agreement/outcome.
Fourth, under the Land Act, the tenant may request the landlord for a mailo title, freehold (resulting in subdivision of land and grant of exclusive ownership to the tenant on agreed terms), or a lease. Considering the fact that the majority of tenants are financially constrained, yet land is of high value and in high demand on the open market, it is unlikely that such negotiations would yield in the interest of the tenant. Offering the land on the competitive market is normally a more viable option. In some instances, the lack of assistance from a third party to participate in the negotiations exposes the tenant to exploitation by the landlord. In essence, unless the Land Fund provided for in the law is capitalised and applied to facilitate land acquisitions by tenants on mailo land, land will remain unaffordable to many.
The reforms have largely not delivered emancipation for the oppressed, or corrected the power imbalances and the resulting injustices.
Fifth, the law allows either landlord or tenant to sell their interest to the other or in case of a sale on the market, to consider the other as the one with priority to purchase. A 2016 study that I conducted for the Public interest Law Clinic of Makerere University finds that realities on the ground render many of the initiatives above mere perceptions of protection that fall short of the lived experience of people in a landlord/tenant relationship on private mailo land.
A 2010 amendment to the Land Law allows the landlord to sell the encumbered land to a new person who steps into the landlord/tenant relationship with the tenant(s), yet the tenant who sells in violation of the law (offering first to the landlord) commits a criminal offence punishable by law. This change (in favour of the landlord) perpetuates the entangled situation of the mailo system, which at times leads to evictions by new landlords.
The big question remains: how can the layers of entanglement be disentangled? To eradicate the dual and overlapping rights (of landlords and tenants) on the same land, the best two options are, first, mutual agreements to share land such that both landlord and tenant get (exclusive) registered title and, second, grant of leaseholds by landlords to tenants. The law makes provision for government support to acquire registered interest in land through the land fund. The law is to some extent confirming Manji’s argument, since it has not yet delivered on its promise. A lot more needs to be done in order to achieve the promises set out.
The dangers associated with the unintended consequences of going too far back in history outweigh the benefits.
Addressing the issues using the already existing initiatives is advantageous in many ways, and the assumption is that they are a product of consensus. This is more a from–now–onwards approach to the problem, conveniently avoiding peeling the discursive frames rooted in history to establish right and wrong. Remedying historical wrongs can be important, but some scholars (such as Jenna Thompson in Taking responsibility for the past: Reparations and Historical Injustice commenting about the choice between restitution and compensation) have argued that at times the dangers associated with the unintended consequences of going too far back in history outweigh the benefits.
For Uganda, the dual and overlapping rights to mailo land—with landlords holding registered title and tenants claiming occupancy rights—is a product of historical events heralded by the 1900 agreement. This situation perpetuates land conflicts and evictions. To resolve it, it will be necessary to ensure the active involvement/agreement of all those who are affected (landlords and tenants, and other actors). Also needed is government support to ensure that such agreements do not overly burden the weaker party (the tenant with occupancy). This will be facilitated by the gathering of information on the amount of land that is currently under the mailo system, how many landlords and tenants there are, how many are absentee, the location of the land, how much mailo land is without tenants, etc. This will fill the information gap and facilitate the reform process. Reform processes should provide a platform to discuss the problematic land issues in the whole country beyond the central region, by all citizens beyond the Kabakaship and the presidency.
In the meantime, rampant evictions are an indicator of the law’s and the system’s failure to address the sticky issues regarding mailo land. Yet land remains an arena for the entrenchment of class differentiation, portrayal of power and fear of the pro-commercialisation reforms that may lead to loss of land. The fact that mailo land is entangled has not stopped the rich and investors from evicting the poor. The entangled nature of the tenure is a “mess” that is exploited by the evicting class with impunity. Disentangling the tenure through provision of clear interests/proprietary rights (leases or mailo titles) could equip the disenfranchised tenants with the tools to assert their rights. If not, the metaphorical scene described here will remain the hallmark of land relations in Uganda.
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Moving, or Changing?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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