The global coronavirus pandemic has triggered worldwide panic as the numbers of victims explode and economies implode, as physical movement and social interactions wither in lockdowns, as apocalyptic projections of its destructive reach soar, and as unprepared or underprepared national governments and international agencies desperately scramble for solutions.
The pandemic has exposed the daunting deficiencies of public health systems in many countries. It threatens cataclysmic economic wreckage as entire industries, global supply chains, and stock markets collapse under its frightfully unpredictable trajectory. Its social, emotional, and mental toll are as punishing as they are paralysing for multitudes of people increasingly isolated in their homes as the public life of work spaces, travel, entertainment, sports, religious congregations, and other gatherings grind to a halt.
Also being torn asunder are cynical ideological certainties and the political fortunes of national leaders as demands grow for strong and competent governments. The populist revolt against science and experts has received its comeuppance as the deadly costs of pandering to mass ignorance mount. At the same time, the pandemic has shattered the strutting assurance of masters of the universe as they either catch the virus or as it constrains their jet-setting lives and erodes their bulging equity portfolios.
Furthermore, the coronavirus throws into sharp relief the interlocked embrace of globalisation and nationalism, as the pandemic leaps across the world showing no respect for national boundaries, and countries seek to contain it by fortifying national borders. It underscores the limits of both neo-liberal globalisation that has reigned supreme since the 1980s, and populist nationalisms that have bestrode the world since the 2000s, which emerged partly out of the deepening social and economic inequalities spawned by the former.
These are some of the issues I would like to reflect on in this essay, the political economy of the coronavirus pandemic. As historians and social scientists know all too well, any major crisis is always multifaceted in its causes, courses, and consequences. Disease epidemics are no different. In short, understanding the epidemiological dimensions and dynamics of the coronavirus pandemic is as important as analysing its economic, social, and political impact. Moments of crisis always have their fear-mongers and skeptics. The role of progressive public intellectuals is to provide sober analysis.
In the Shadows of 1918-1920
The coronavirus pandemic is the latest and potentially one of the most lethal global pandemics in a long time. One of the world’s deadliest pandemics was the Great Plague of 1346-1351 which ravaged larges parts of Eurasia and Africa. It killed between 75 to 200 million people, and wiped out 30 per cent to 60 per cent of the European population. The plague was caused by fleas carried by rats, underscoring humanity’s vulnerability to the lethal power of small and micro-organisms, notwithstanding the conceit of its mastery over nature. The current pandemic shows that this remains true despite all the technological advances humanity has made since then.
Over a century ago, as World War I came to an end, an influenza epidemic, triggered by a virus transmitted from animals to humans, ravaged the globe. One-third of the world’s population was infected, and it left 50 million people dead. It was the worst pandemic of the 20th century. It was bigger and more lethal than the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the late 20th century. But for a world then traumatised by the horrors of war it seemed to have left a limited impact on global consciousness.
Some health experts fear Covid-19, as the new strain of coronavirus has been named, might rival the influenza epidemic of 1918. But there are those who caution that history is sometimes not kind to moral panics, that similar hysteria was expressed following the outbreaks in the 2000s and 2010s of bouts of bird flu and swine flu, of SARS, MERS and Ebola, each of which was initially projected to kill millions of people. Of course, nobody really knows whether or not the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 will rival that of the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920, but the echoes are unsettling: its mortality rate seems comparable, as is its explosive spread.
The devastating power Covid-19 is wracking and humbling every country, economy, society, and social class, although the pervasive structural and social inscriptions of differentiation still cast their formidable and discriminatory capacities for prevention and survival. In its socioeconomic and political impact alone, Covid-19 has already made history. One lesson from the influenza pandemic that applies to the current coronavirus pandemic is that countries, cities and communities that took early preventive measures fared much better than those that did not.
Since Covid-19 broke out in Wuhan, China, in late December 2019, international and national health organisations and ministries have issued prevention guidelines for individuals and institutions. Most of the recommended measures reflect guidelines issued by the World Health Organization.
But the pandemic is not just about physical health. It is also about mental health. Writing in The Atlantic magazine of March 17, 2020, on how to stay sane during the pandemic one psychotherapist notes, “You can let anxiety consume you, or you can feel the fear and also find joy in ordinary life, even now”. She concludes, “I recommend that all of us pay as much attention to protecting our emotional health as we do to guarding our physical health. A virus can invade our bodies, but we get to decide whether we let it invade our minds”.
A Kenyan psychology professor advises her readers in the Sunday Nation of March 23, 2020, to cultivate a positive mindset. “Take only credible sources of information . . . Don’t consume too much data, it can be overwhelming. You may be in isolation but very noisy within yourself. Learn to relax and to convert your energy into other activities in order to nurture your own mental health . . . Such as gardening, learning a language, doing an online course, painting or read that book. Do the house chores, trim the flowers, paint, do repairs, clean the dust in those corners we always ignore . . . Exercise . . . Talk to someone if you feel terrified, empty, hopeless, and worthless. These are creeping signs of depression. This too will pass: Believe me that there will be an end to this”.
Scramble for Containment
Many governments were caught unprepared or underprepared by the coronavirus pandemic. Some even initially dismissed the threat. This was particularly the case among populist rightwing governments, such as the administrations of President Trump of the United States, Prime Minister Johnson of the United Kingdom, and President Bolsonaro of Brazil. As populists, they had risen to power on a dangerous brew of nationalist and nativist fantasies of reviving national greatness and purity, xenophobia against foreigners, and manufactured hatred for elites and experts.
To rightwing ideologues the coronavirus was a foreign pathogen, a “Chinese virus” according to President Trump and his Republican followers in the United States, that posed no threat to the nation quarantined in its splendid isolation of renewed greatness. Its purported threat was fake news propagated by partisan Democrats, or disgruntled left-wing labour and liberal parties in the case of the United Kingdom and Brazil that had recently been vanquished at the polls.
Such was the obduracy of President Trump that not only did he and his team ignore frantic media reports about the pandemic leaping across the world, but also ominous, classified warnings issued by the U.S. intelligence agencies throughout January and February. Instead, he kept assuring Americans in his deranged twitterstorms that there was little to worry about, that “I think it’s going to work out fine,” that “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA”.
Trump’s denialism was echoed by many leaders around the world including in Africa. This delayed taking much-needed preemptive action that would have limited the spread and potential impact of the coronavirus firestorm. In fact, as early as 2012 a report by the Rand Corporation warned that only pandemics were “capable of destroying America’s way of life”. The Obama administration proceeded to establish the National Security Council directorate for global health and security and bio-defense, which the Trump administration closed in 2018. On the whole, global pandemics have generally not been taken seriously by security establishments in many countries preoccupied with conventional wars, terrorism, and the machismo of military hardware.
In the meantime, China, the original epicenter of the pandemic took draconian measures that locked down Wuhan and neighbouring regions, a measure that was initially dismissed by many politicians and pundits in “western democracies” as a frightful and an unacceptable example of Chinese authoritarianism. As the pandemic ravished Italy, which became the coronavirus epicenter in Europe and a major exporter of the disease to several African countries, regional and national lockdowns were embraced as a strategy of containment.
Asian democracies such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore adopted less coercive and more transparent measures. Already endowed with good public health systems capable of handling major epidemics—which capability was enhanced by the virus epidemics of the 2000s and 2010s—they developed effective and vigilant monitoring systems encompassing early intervention, meticulous contact tracking, mandatory quarantines, social distancing, and border controls.
Various forms of lockdown, some more draconian than others, were soon adopted in many countries and cities around the world. They encompassed the closure of offices, schools and universities, and entertainment and sports venues, as well as banning of international flights and even domestic travel. Large-scale disinfection drives were also increasingly undertaken. The Economist of March 21, 2020 notes in its lead story that China and South Korea have effectively used “technology to administer quarantines and social distancing. China is using apps to certify who is clear of the disease and who is not. Both it and South Korea are using big data and social media to trace infections, alert people of hotspots and round contacts”.
Belatedly, as the pandemic flared in their countries, the skeptics began singing a different tune, although a dwindling minority complained of overreaction. Befitting the grandiosity of populist politicians, they suddenly fancied themselves as great generals in the most ferocious war in a generation. Some commentators found the metaphor of war obscene for its self-aggrandisement for clueless leaders anxious to burnish their tattered reputations and accrue more gravitas and power. For the bombastic, narcissistic, and pathological liar that he is, President Trump sought to change the narrative that he had foreseen the pandemic notwithstanding his earlier dismissals of its seriousness.
His British counterpart, Prime Minister Johnson vainly tried Churchillian impersonation which was met with widespread derision in the media. Each time either of them spoke trying to reassure the public, the more it became clear they were out of their depth, that they did not have the intellectual and political capacity to calm the situation. It was a verdict delivered with painful cruelty by the stock markets that they adore—they fell sharply each time the two gave a press conference and announced half-baked containment measures.
Initially, many of Africa’s inept governments remained blasé about the pandemic even allowing flights to and from China, Italy and other countries with heavy infection rates. Cynical citizens with little trust in their corrupt governments to manage a serious crisis sought comfort in myths peddled on social media about Africa’s immunity because of its sunny weather, the curative potential of some concoctions from disinfectants to pepper soup, the preventive potential of shaving beards, or the protective power of faith and prayer.
But as concerns and outrage from civil society mounted, and opportunities for foreign aid rose, some governments went into rhetorical overdrive that engendered more panic than reassurance. It has increasingly become evident that Africa needs unflinching commitment and massive resources to stem the rising tide of coronavirus infections. According to one commentator in The Sunday Nation of March 22, “It is estimated that the continent would need up to $10.6 billion in unanticipated increases in health spending to curtail the virus from spreading”. He advises the continent to urgently implement the African Continental Free Trade Area, and work with global partners.
Cynical citizens with little trust in their corrupt governments to manage a serious crisis sought comfort in myths peddled on social media
In Kenya, some defiant politicians refused to self-quarantine after coming from coronavirus-stricken countries, churches resisted closing their doors, and traders defied orders to close markets. This forced the government to issue draconian containing measures on March 22, 2020 stipulating that all those who violated quarantine measures would be forcefully quarantined at their own expense, all gatherings at churches, mosques were suspended, weddings were no longer allowed, and funerals would be restricted to 15 family members.
The infodemic of false and misleading information, as the WHO calls it, was of course not confined to Africa. It spread like wildfire around the world. So did coronavirus fraudsters peddling fake information and products to desperate and unwary recipients. In Britain, the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau was forced to issue urgent scam warnings against emails and text messages purporting to be from reputable research and health organisations.
The coronavirus pandemic showed up the fecklessness of some political leaders and the incompetence of many governments. The neo-liberal crusade against “big government” that had triumphed since the turn of the 1980s, suddenly looked threadbare. And so did the populist zealotry against experts and expertise. The valorisation of the politics of gut feelings masquerading as gifted insight and knowledge, suddenly vanished into puffs of ignoble ignorance that endangered the lives of millions of people. People found more solace in the calm pronouncements of professional experts including doctors, epidemiologists, researchers and health officials than loquacious politicians.
Populist leaders like President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson and many others of their ilk had taken vicarious pleasure in denigrating experts and expert knowledge, and decimating national research infrastructures and institutions. Suddenly, at their press conferences they were flanked by trusted medical and scientific professionals and civil servants as they sought to bask in the latter’s reassuring glow. But that could not restore public health infrastructures overnight, severely damaged as they were by indefensible austerity measures and the pro-rich transfers of wealth adopted by their governments.
When the coronavirus pandemic broke out, many countries were unprepared for it. There were severe shortages of testing kits and health care facilities. Many also lacked universal entitlement to healthcare, social safety nets including basic employment rights and unemployment insurance that could mitigate some of the worst effects of the pandemic’s economic impact. All this ensured that the pandemic would unleash mutually reinforcing health and economic crises.
The signs of economic meltdown escalated around the world. Stock markets experienced a volatility that run out of superlatives. In the United States, from early February to March 20, 2020 the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by about 10,000 points or 35%, while the S&P fell by 32%. In Britain, the FTSE fell by 49% from its peak in earlier in the year, the German GDAXI by 36%, the Hong Kong HSI by 22%, and the Japanese Nikkei by 32%. Trillions of dollars were wiped out. In the United States, the gains made under President Trump vanished and fell to the levels left by his nemesis President Obama, depriving the market-obsessed president of one of his favourite talking points and justifications for re-election.
There are hardly any parallels to a pandemic leading to markets crumbling the way they have following the coronavirus outbreak. They did not do so during the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic, although they fluctuated thereafter. Closer to our times, during the flu pandemic of 1957-1958 the Dow fell about 25per cent, while the SARS and MERS scares of the early 21st century had relatively limited economic impact. Some economic historians warn, however, that the stock market isn’t always a good indicator or predictor of the severity of a pandemic.
The sharp plunge in stock markets reflected a severe economic downturn brought about by the coronavirus pandemic as one industry after another went into a tailspin. The travel, hospitality and leisure industries encompassing airlines, hotels, restaurants, bars, sports, conventions, exhibitions, tourism, and retail were the first to feel the headwinds of the economic slump as people escaped or were coerced into the isolation of their homes. For example, hotel revenues in the United States plummeted by 75 per cent on average, worse than during the Great Recession and the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks combined.
In the United States, the gains made under President Trump vanished and fell to the levels left by his nemesis President Obama
Other industries soon followed suit as supply chains were scuppered, profits and share prices fell, and offices closed and staff were told to work from home. Manufacturing, construction, and banking have not been spared. Big technology manufacturing has also been affected by factory shutdowns and postponing the launch of new products. Neither was the oil industry safe. With global demand falling, and the price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia escalating, oil prices fell dramatically to $20.3, a fall of 67 per cent since the beginning of 2020. Some predicted the prospect of $5 oil per barrel.
The oil price war threatened to decimate smaller or poorer oil producers from the Gulf states to Nigeria. It also threatened the shale oil industry in the United States because of its high production costs, thereby depriving the country of its newly acquired status as the largest oil producer in the world, to the chagrin of Russia and OPEC. Many of the US shale oil companies face bankruptcy as their production costs are fourteen times higher than Saudi Arabia’s production costs, and they need prices of more than $40 per barrel to cover their direct costs.
Falling oil prices combined with growing concerns about climate change, dented the prospects of several oil exploration and production companies, such as the British company Tullow, which has ambitious projects in Kenya, Uganda, and Ghana. This threatened these countries’ aspirations to join the club of major oil-producing nations. In early March, 2020, one of Tullow’s major investors, Blackrock, the world’s biggest hedge fund with $7 trillion, made it clear it was losing interest in fossil fuel investment.
Such are the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic that 51 per cent of economists polled by the London School of Economics believe “the world faces a major recession, even if COVID-19 kills no more people than seasonal flu. Only 5% said they did not think it would.” According to a survey reported by the World Economic Forum, “The public sees coronavirus as a greater threat to the economy than to their health, new research suggests. Economic rescue measures announced by governments do not appear to be calming concern . . . The majority of people in most countries polled expect to feel a personal financial impact from the coronavirus pandemic, according to the results. Respondents in Vietnam, China, India and Italy show the greatest concern”.
51 per cent of economists polled by the London School of Economics believe the world faces a major recession
Many economies spiraled into recession. The major international financial institutions and development agencies have revised world, regional, and national economic growth prospects for 2020 downwards, sometimes sharply so. Estimates by Frost & Sullivan, a consultancy firm, show that world GDP which grew by 3.5% in 2018 and 2.9% in 2019, will slide to 1.7% if the coronavirus pandemic becomes prolonged and severe, and it might take up to a year or more for the world economy to recover. The OECD predicts that “Global growth could drop to 1.5 per cent in 2020, half the rate projected before the virus outbreak. Recovery much more gradual through 2021”.
The OECD Economic Outlook, Interim Report March 2020 notes,
Growth was weak but stabilising until the coronavirus Covid-19 hit. Restrictions on movement of people, goods and services, and containment measures such as factory closures have cut manufacturing and domestic demand sharply in China. The impact on the rest of the world through business travel and tourism, supply chains, commodities and lower confidence is growing.
It forecasts “Severe, short-lived downturn in China, where GDP growth falls below 5% in 2020 after 6.1% in 2019, but recovering to 6.4% in 2021. In Japan, Korea, Australia, growth also hit hard then gradual recovery. Impact less severe in other economies but still hit by drop in confidence and supply chain disruption”.
Compared to a year earlier, the once buoyant Chinese economy shrank by between 10 and 20 per cent in January and February 2020. The Economist states,
In the first two months of 2020 all major indicators were deeply negative: industrial production fell by 13.5% year-on-year, retail sales by 20.5% and fixed-asset investment by 24.5% . . . The last time China reported an economic contraction was more than four decades ago, at the end of the Cultural Revolution.
In the United States, the recovery and boom from the Great Recession that started in 2009 came to a screeching halt. Some grim predictions project that as businesses shut down and more than 80 million Americans stay penned at home unemployment, which had dropped to a historic low of 3.5 per cent, might skyrocket to 20 per cent. This spells disaster as consumer spending drives 70 per cent of the economy, and 39 per cent of Americans cannot handle an unexpected $400 expense.
This economic bloodletting removes the second boastful pillar of President Trump’s re-election strategy, the robust health of the US economy
Various estimates indicate that in the next three months the economy will shrink by anywhere between 14 and to 30 per cent, ushering in one of America’s fastest and deepest recessions in history. This economic bloodletting removes the second boastful pillar of President Trump’s re-election strategy, the robust health of the US economy.
UNCTAD has added its gloomy assessment for the world economy and emerging economies. Launching its report in early March, the Director of the Division on Globalisation and Development Strategies at UNCTAD noted that,
One ‘Doomsday scenario’ in which the world economy grew at only 0.5 per cent, would involve ‘a $2 trillion hit’ to gross domestic product . . . There’s a degree of anxiety now that’s well beyond the health scares which are very serious and concerning . . . To counter these fears, ‘Governments need to spend at this point in time to prevent the kind of meltdown that could be even more damaging than the one that is likely to take place over the course of the year’, Mr. Kozul-Wright insisted.
Turning to Europe and the Eurozone, Mr. Kozul-Wright noted that its economy had already been performing ‘extremely badly towards the end of 2019’ . . . It was ‘almost certain to go into recession over the coming months; and the German economy is particularly fragile, but the Italian economy and other parts of the European periphery are also facing very serious stresses right now as a consequence of trends over (the last few) days’.
The UNCTAD announcement continues,
So-called Least Developed Countries, whose economies are driven by the sale of raw materials, will not be spared either. ‘Heavily-indebted developing countries, particularly commodity exporters, face a particular threat’, thanks to weaker export returns linked to a stronger US dollar, Mr. Kozul-Wright maintained. ‘The likelihood of a stronger dollar as investors seek safe-havens for their money, and the almost certain rise in commodity prices as the global economy slows down, means that commodity exporters are particularly vulnerable’.
Africa will not be spared. According to Fitch Solutions, a consultancy firm,
We have revised down our Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) growth forecast to 1.9% in 2020, from 2.1% previously, reflecting macroeconomic risks arising from moderating oil prices and the global spread of Covid-19. While the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in SSA remains low thus far, African markets remain vulnerable to deteriorating risk sentiment, tightening financial conditions and slowing growth in key trade partners. The sharp decline in global oil prices resulting from the failure of OPEC+ to reach agreement on additional production cutbacks will undermine growth and export earnings in the continent’s main oil producers, notably Nigeria, Angola and South Sudan.
In Kenya, there were widespread fears that the coronavirus pandemic would bring the national airline carrier and other companies in the lucrative tourism industry to their knees. Similarly affected will be the critical agricultural and horticultural export industry. Aggravating the sharp economic downturns, some commentators lamented, is widespread corruption. Domestically, the ubiquitous matatu transport industry is groaning under new regulations limiting the number of passengers.
The economy was already fragile prior to the coronavirus crisis. In the words of one commentator in the Sunday Standard of March 23, 2020,
Companies were laying off, malls were already empty even before the outbreak and shops and kiosks and mama mbogas were recording the lowest sales in years. Matters are not helped by the fact that our e-commerce (purchase and delivery) does not account for much due to poor infrastructure and low trust levels.
Another commentator in the same paper on March 17, 2020 wrote, “It’s a matter of time before bleeding economy goes into coma”. He outlined the depressing litany: increased cost of living, gutting of Kenya’s export market, discouragement of the use of hard cash, producers grappling with limited supply, a bleeding stock market, irrational investor fears, and moratorium on foreign travel.
As the crisis intensified, international financial institutions and development agencies loosened the spigots of financial support. On March 12, 2020 the IMF announced,
In the event of a severe downturn triggered by the coronavirus, we estimate the Fund could provide up to US$50 billion in emergency financing to fund emerging and developing countries’ initial response. Low-income countries could benefit from about US$10 billion of this amount, largely on concessional terms. Beyond the immediate emergency, members can also request a new loan—drawing on the IMF’s war chest of around US$1 trillion in quota and borrowed resources—and current borrowers can top up their ongoing lending arrangements.
For its part, the World Bank announced on March 17 that,
The World Bank and IFC’s Boards of Directors approved today an increased $14 billion package of fast-track financing to assist companies and countries in their efforts to prevent, detect and respond to the rapid spread of COVID-19. The package will strengthen national systems for public health preparedness, including for disease containment, diagnosis, and treatment, and support the private sector.
On March 19, the European Central Bank announced,
As a result, the ECB’s Governing Council announced on Wednesday a new Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme with an envelope of €750 billion until the end of the year, in addition to the €120 billion we decided on 12 March. Together this amounts to 7.3% of euro area GDP. The programme is temporary and designed to address the unprecedented situation our monetary union is facing. It is available to all jurisdictions and will remain in place until we assess that the coronavirus crisis phase is over.
Altogether, The Economist states,
A crude estimate for America, Germany, Britain, France and Italy, including spending pledges, tax cuts, central bank cash injections and loan guarantees, amounts to $7.4trn, or 23% of GDP . . . A huge array of policies is on offer, from holidays on mortgage payments to bail-outs of Paris cafés. Meanwhile, orthodox stimulus tools may not work well. Interest rates in the rich world are near zero, depriving central bank of their main lever . . . What to do? An economic plan needs to target two groups: households and companies.
Some of the regional development banks also announced major infusions of funds to contain the pandemic. On March 18, “The Asian Development Bank (ADB) today announced a $6.5 billion initial package to address the immediate needs of its developing member countries (DMCs) as they respond to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic”.
On the same day, the African Development Bank announced “bold measures to curb coronavirus”, but this largely consisted of “health and safety measures to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus in countries where it has a presence, including its headquarters in Abidjan. The measures include telecommuting, video conferencing in lieu of physical meetings, the suspension of visits to Bank buildings, and the cancellation of all travel, meetings, and conferences, until further notice”. No actual financial support was stipulated in the announcement.
Trading Ideological Places
As the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic escalated, demands for government support intensified from employers, employees and trade unions. The pandemic is wreaking particular havoc among poor workers who can hardly manage in “normal” times. As noted above, across Kenya jobs were already being lost before the coronavirus epidemic. Those in the informal economy are exceptionally vulnerable because of the extensive lockdown the government announced on March 22, 2020.
Those earning a precarious living in the gig economy face special hurdles in making themselves heard and receiving support. With the lockdown of cities, couriers become even more essential to deliver food and other supplies, but they lack employment rights, so that many cannot afford self-isolation if they become sick. Customer service workers at airports and in supermarkets have sometimes been at the receiving end of pandemonium and the anxieties of irate customers.
The pandemic is wreaking particular havoc among poor workers who can hardly manage in “normal” times
The pandemic has helped bring political perspective to national and international preoccupations that suddenly look petty in hindsight. For example, as one author puts it in a story in The Atlantic of March 11, 2020, “It’s not hard to feel like the coronavirus has exposed the utter smallness of Brexit . . . Ultimately, Brexit is not a matter of life and death literally or economically. The coronavirus, meanwhile, is killing people and perhaps many businesses”.
The same could be said of many trivial political squabbles in other countries. In the United States, one observer notes in The Atlantic of March 19, 2020,
In the absence of meaningful national leadership, Americans across the country are making their own decisions for our collective well-being. You’re seeing it in small stores deciding on their own to close; you’re seeing it in restaurants evolving without government decree to offer curbside pickup or offer delivery for the first time; you’re seeing it in the offices that closed long before official guidance arrived.
The author concludes poignantly, “The most isolating thing most of us have ever done is, ironically, almost surely the most collective experience we’ve ever had in our lifetimes”. And I can attest that I have seen this spirit of cooperation and collaboration on my own campus, among faculty, staff, and students. But the pandemic also raises questions about how effectively democracy can be upheld under the coronavirus lockdowns. Might desperate despots in some countries try to use the crisis to postpone elections?
Also upended by the coronavirus pandemic are traditional ideological polarities. Right-wing governments are competing with left-wing governments or opposition liberal legislatures as in the United States to craft “big government” mitigation packages. Many are borrowing monetary and fiscal measures from the Great Recession playbook, some of which they resisted when they were in opposition or not yet in office.
In terms of monetary policy, several central banks have cut interest rates. On March 15, 2020, the US Federal Reserve cut the rate to near zero in a coordinated move with the central banks of Japan, Australia and New Zealand. The Fed also announced measures to shore up financial markets including a package of $700 billion for asset purchase and a credit facility for commercial banks. Three days later, as noted above, the European Central Bank launched a €750 billion Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme. These measures failed to assure the markets which continued to plummet.
The pandemic has helped bring political perspective to national and international preoccupations that suddenly look petty in hindsight
As for fiscal policy, several governments announced radical spending measures. On 20 March, the UK announced that the government would pay up to 80 per cent of the wages of employees across the country sent home as businesses shut their doors as part of the drastic coronavirus containment strategy. This followed the example of the Danish government that had earlier pledged to cover 75 per cent of employees’ salaries for firms that agreed not to cut staff.
In the United States, Congress began working on a $1 trillion economic relief programme, later raised to $1.8 trillion. The negotiations between the two parties over the proposed stimulus bill proved bitterly contentious. For President Trump and Republicans it was a bitter pill to swallow, given their antipathy to “big government”. It marked the fall of another ideological pillar of Trumpism and Republicanism. For some, the demise of these pillars marks the end of the Trump presidency, which has been exposed for its deadly incompetence, autocratic political culture, and aversion to truth and transparency. We will of course only know for sure in November 2020.
Might desperate despots in some countries try to use the crisis to postpone elections?
In Kenya employers, workers, unions and analysts have implored the government to undertake drastic measures to boost the economy by providing bailouts, tax incentives and rebates, and social safety nets, as well as increasing government spending. Demands have been made to banks to extend credit to the private sector and to the Central Bank to lower or even freeze interest rates for six months. The Sunday Nation of March 22 reported pay cuts were looming for workers as firms struggled to keep afloat, and that the government had scrambled a war chest of Sh140 billion to shore up the economy and avert a recession.
Home isolation is recommended by epidemiologists as a critical means of what they call flattening the curve of the pandemic. Its economic impact is well understood, less so its psychological and emotional impact. While imperative, social isolation might exacerbate the growing loneliness epidemic as some call it, especially in the developed countries.
According to an article in The Atlantic magazine of March 10, 2020, the loneliness epidemic is becoming a serious health care crisis.
Research has shown that loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. A lack of social relationships is an enormous risk factor for death, increasing the likelihood of mortality by 26 percent. A major study found that, when compared with people with weak social ties, people who enjoyed meaningful relationships were 50 percent more likely to survive over time.
The problem of loneliness is often thought to be prevalent among older people, but in countries such as the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, “The problem is especially acute among young adults ages 18 to 22”. Research shows that the feeling of loneliness is not a reflection of physical isolation, but of the meaning and depth of one’s social engagements. Among the Millennial and Gen Z generations loneliness is exacerbated by social media.
Several studies have pointed out that social media may be reinforcing social disconnection, which is at the root of loneliness. This is because while social media has facilitated instant communication and made people more densely connected than ever, it offers a poor substitute for the intimate communication and dense and meaningful interactions humans crave and get from real friends and family. It fosters shallow and superficial connections, surrogate and even fake friendships, and narcissistic and exhibitionist sociability.
Loneliness should of course not be confused with solitude. Loneliness can also not be attributed solely to external conditions as it is often rooted in one’s psychological state. But the density and quality of social interactions matters. The current loneliness epidemic reflects the irony of a vicious cycle, a nexus of triple impulses: in cultures and sensibilities of self-absorption and self-invention, some people invite or choose loneliness either as a marker of self-sufficiency or social success, while the Internet makes it possible for people to be lonely, and lonely people tend to be more attracted to the Internet.
Among the Millennial and Gen Z generations loneliness is exacerbated by social media
But technology can also help mitigate social distancing. To quote one author writing in The Atlantic on March 14, 2020, “As more people employers and schools encourage people to stay home, people across the country find themselves video-chatting more than they usually might: going to meetings on Zoom, catching up with clients on Skype, FaceTime with therapists, even hosting virtual bar mitzvahs”. Jointly playing video games, watching streaming entertainment, or having virtual dinner parties also opens bonding opportunities.
Besides the growth and consumption of modern media and its disruptive and isolating technologies, loneliness is being reinforced by structural forces including the spread of the nuclear family, an invention that even in the United States has a short history as a social formation. This is evident in sociological studies and demonstrated in the lead story in the March 2020 edition of The Atlantic.
The article shows that for much of American history people lived in extended clans and families, whose great strength was their resilience and their role as a socialising force. The decline of multigenerational families dates to the development of an industrial economy and reached its apogee after World War II between 1950 and 1975, when it all began falling apart, again due to broader structural forces.
One doesn’t have to agree with the author’s analysis of what led to the profound changes in family structure. Certainly, women did not benefit from the older extended family structures, which were resolutely patriarchal. But it is a fact that currently, more people live alone in the United States—and in many other countries including those in the developing world—than ever before. The author stresses, “The period when the nuclear family flourished was not normal. It was a freakish historical moment when all of society conspired to obscure its essential fragility”.
He continues, “For many people, the era of the nuclear family has been a catastrophe. All forms of inequality are cruel, but family inequality may be the cruelest. It damages the heart”. He urges society “to figure out better ways to live together”. The question is: what will be the impact of the social distancing demanded by the coronavirus pandemic on the loneliness epidemic and the prospects of developing new and more fulfilling ways of living together?
Coronavirus Hegemonic Rivalries
At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, China bore the brunt of being both the victims and the victimised. The rest of the world feared the contagion’s spread from China and before long the disease did spread to other Asian countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Iran. This triggered anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism in Europe, North America, and even Africa.
For many Africans, it was a source of perverse relief that the coronavirus had not originated on the continent. Many wondered how Africa and Africans would have been portrayed and treated given the long history, in the western and global imaginaries, of pathologising African cultures, societies, and bodies as diseased embodiments of sub-humanity.
Disease breeds xenophobia, the irrational fear of the “other”. Commenting on the influenza pandemic in The Wall Street Journal, one scholar reminds us, “As the flu spread in 1918, many communities found scapegoats. Chileans blamed the poor, Senegalese blamed Brazilians, Brazilians blamed the Germans, Iranians blamed the British, and so on”. One key lesson is that to combat pandemics global cooperation is essential. Unfortunately, that lesson seems to be ignored by some governments in the current pandemic, although like in other pandemics, good Samaritans also abound.
For many Africans, it was a source perverse relief that the coronavirus had not originated on the continent
As China, South Korea, and Japan gradually contained the spread of the disease, and Italy and other European countries turned into its epicenter, and as the contagion began surging in the United States, the tables turned. While the Asian democracies largely managed to contain the coronavirus through less coercive and more transparent ways, it is China that took centre-stage in the global narrative. As would be expected in a world of intense hegemonic rivalries between the United States and China, the coronavirus pandemic has become weaponised in the two countries’ superpower rivalry.
On March 19, 2020, China marked a milestone since the outbreak of the coronavirus when it was announced that there were no new domestic cases; the 34 new cases identified that day were all brought in by people coming from abroad. An article in the New York Times of March 19, 2020, reports,
Across Asia, travellers from Europe and the United States are being barred or forced into quarantine. Gyms, private clinics and restaurants in Hong Kong warn them to stay away. Even Chinese parents who proudly sent their children to study in New York or London are now mailing them masks and sanitizer or rushing them home on flights that can cost $25,000.
The Asian democracies largely managed to contain the coronavirus through less coercive and more transparent ways
Even before this turning point, as coronavirus cases in China declined, the country began projecting itself as a heroic model of containment. It anxiously sought to furbish its once battered image by exporting medical equipment, experts, and other forms of humanitarian assistance. Such is the new-found conceit of China that, to Trump’s racist casting of the “China virus” some misguided Chinese nationalists falsely charge that the coronavirus started with American troops, and scornfully disparage the United States for its apparently slow and chaotic containment efforts.
Another article in The New York Times of March 18, 2020, captures China’s strategy for recasting its global image.
From Japan to Iraq, Spain to Peru, it has provided or pledged humanitarian assistance in the form of donations or medical expertise — an aid blitz that is giving China the chance to reposition itself not as the authoritarian incubator of a pandemic but as a responsible global leader at a moment of worldwide crisis. In doing so, it has stepped into a role that the West once dominated in times of natural disaster or public health emergency, and that President Trump has increasingly ceded in his ‘America First’ retreat from international engagement.
The story continues,
Now, the global failures in confronting the pandemic from Europe to the United States have given the Chinese leadership a platform to prove its model works — and potentially gain some lasting geopolitical currency. As it has done in the past, the Chinese state is using its extensive tools and deep pockets to build partnerships around the world, relying on trade, investments and, in this case, an advantageous position as the world’s largest maker of medicines and protective masks . . . On Wednesday, China said it would provide two million surgical masks, 200,000 advanced masks and 50,000 testing kits to Europe . . . One of China’s leading entrepreneurs, Jack Ma, offered to donate 500,000 tests and one million masks to the United States, where hospitals are facing shortages.
Some analysts argue that the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating the decoupling of the United States from China that began with President Trump’s trade war launched in 2018. American hawks see the pandemic as bolstering their argument that China’s dominance of certain global supply chains including some medical supplies and pharmaceutical ingredients poses a systemic risk to the American economy. Many others believe Trump’s “America First” not only damaged the country’s standing and its preparedness to deal with the pandemic, but also to create the international solidarity required for its containment and control.
In the words of one author in The Atlantic of March 15, 2020,
Like Japan in the mid-1800s, the United States now faces a crisis that disproves everything the country believes about itself . . . The United States, long accustomed to thinking of itself as the best, most efficient, and most technologically advanced society in the world, is about to be proved an unclothed emperor. When human life is in peril, we are not as good as Singapore, as South Korea, as Germany.
Some commentators even go further, contending that the pandemic is facilitating the process of de-globalisation more generally as countries not only lock themselves in national enclosures to protect themselves, but seek to become more economically self-sufficient. It is important to note that throughout history, there have been waves and retreats of globalisation. The globalisation of the late 19th century, which was characterised by massive migrations, growth of international trade, and expansion of global production chains with the emergence of modern multinational and transnational corporations, retreated in the inferno of World War I and the Great Depression.
The globalisation of the late 20th century, engendered by the emergence of new information and communication technologies and value chains, the rise of emerging economies as serious players in the world system, among other factors, had already started fraying by the time of the Great Recession. The latter pried open not only the deep inequalities that neo-liberal globalisation had engendered, but also gave vent to a crescendo of nationalist and populist backlashes.
Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic is also throwing into sharp relief the bankruptcy of populist nationalism. It underscores global interconnectedness, that pathogens do not respect our imaginary communities of nation-states, that the ties that bind humanity are thicker than the threads of separation.
Universities Go Online
The coronavirus pandemic has negatively impacted many industries and sectors, including education, following the closure of schools, colleges and universities. However, fear of crowding and lockdowns has also boosted online industries ranging from e-commerce and food delivery to online entertainment and gaming, to cloud solutions for business continuity, to e-health and e-learning.
The coronavirus pandemic is likely to leave a lasting impact on the growth of e-work or telecommuting, and other online-mediated business practices. Before the pandemic the gig economy was already a growing part of many economies, so were e-health and e-learning.
According to the British Guardian newspaper of March 6, 2020, General practitioners (GPs) have been “told to switch to digital consultations to combat Covid-19”. The story elaborates,
In a significant policy change, NHS bosses want England’s 7,000 GP surgeries to start conducting as many remote consultations as soon as possible, replacing patient visits with phone, video, online or text contact. They want to reduce the risk of someone infected with Covid-19 turning up at a surgery and free GPs to deal with the extra workload created by the virus . . . The approach could affect many of the 340m appointments a year with GPs and other practice staff, only 1% of which are currently carried out by video, such as Skype.
Another story in the same paper also notes that supermarkets in Britain have been “asked to boost deliveries for coronavirus self-isolation”.
The educational sector has been one of the most affected by the coronavirus pandemic as the closure of schools and universities has often been adopted by many governments as the first line of defense. It could be argued that higher education institutions have even taken the lead in managing the pandemic in three major ways: shifting instruction online, conducting research on the coronavirus and its multiple impacts, and advising public policy.
Ever since the crisis broke out, I’ve been following the multiple threats it poses to various sectors especially higher education, avidly devouring the academic media including The Chronicle of a higher Education, Inside Higher Education, University Business, Times Higher Education, and University World News, just to mention a few.
Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic is also throwing into sharp relief the bankruptcy of populist nationalism
These papers and magazines alerted me early, as a university administrator, to the need to develop early coronavirus planning in my own institution. A sample of the issues discussed in the numerous articles can be found in the following articles in The Chronicle of a higher Education (see textbox below).
Clearly, if these fifty articles from one higher education magazine are any guide, the higher education sector has been giving a lot of thought to the opportunities and challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic. Some prognosticate that higher education will fundamentally change. An article in the The New York Times of March 18, 2020 hopes that “One positive outcome from the current crisis would be for academic elites to forgo their presumption that online learning is a second-rate or third-rate substitute for in-person delivery”. There will be some impact, but of course, only time will tell the scale of that impact.
Certainly, at my university we’ve learned invaluable lessons from the sudden switch to learning online using various platforms including Blackboard, our learning management system, Zoom, BlueJeans, Skype, not to mention email and social media such as WhatsApp. This experience is likely to be incorporated into the instructional pedagogies of our faculty.
But history also tells us that old systems often reassert themselves after a crisis, at the same time as they incorporate some changes brought by responses to the crisis. As the author of the article on “7 Takeaways” (see textbox below) puts it, “Many forces exerted pressure on the traditional four-year, bricks-and-mortar, face-to-face campus experience before the coronavirus, and they’ll still be there when the virus is conquered or goes dormant”.
It is likely that at many universities previously averse to online teaching and learning, online instructional tools and platforms will be incorporated more widely, creating a mosaic of face-to-face learning, blended learning, and online learning.
Whither the Future
Moments of profound crisis such as the one engendered by the coronavirus pandemic attract soothsayers and futurists. The American magazine, Politico, invited some three dozen thinkers to prognosticate on the long-term impact of the pandemic. They all offer intriguing reflections. For community life, some suggest the personal will become dangerous, a new kind of patriotism will emerge, polarisation will decline, faith in serious experts will return, there will be less individualism, changes in religious worship will occur, as well as the rise of new forms of reform.
The coronavirus pandemic is likely to leave a lasting impact on the growth of e-work or telecommuting, and other online-mediated business practices
As for technology, they suggest regulatory barriers to online tools will fall, healthier digital lifestyles will emerge, there will be a boon for virtual reality, the rise of telemedicine, provision of stronger medical care, government will become Big Pharma, and science will reign again. With reference to government, they predict Congress will finally go digital, big government will make a comeback, government service will regain its cachet, there will be a new civic federalism, revived trust in institutions, the rules we live by won’t all apply, and they urge us to expect a political uprising.
In terms of elections, they foresee electronic voting going mainstream, Election Day will become Election Month, and voting by mail will become the norm. For the global economy, they forecast that more restraints will be placed on mass consumption, stronger domestic supply chains will grow, and the inequality gap will widen. As for lifestyle, there will be a hunger for diversion, less communal dining, a revival of parks, a change in our understanding of “change”, and the tyranny of habit no more.
In truth, no one really knows for sure.
- American Colleges Seek to Develop Coronavirus Response, Abroad and at Home, January 28, 2020. Focuses on limiting travel to China and preparing campus health facilities.
- Coronavirus Is Prompting Alarm on American Campuses. Anti-Asian Discrimination Could Do More Harm. February 5, 2020. Focuses curbing anti-Asian xenophobia and racism on campuses.
- How Much Could the Coronavirus Hurt Chinese Enrollments? February 20, 2020. Focuses on the possible impact of the coronavirus on Chinese enrollments the largest source of international students in American universities.
- Colleges Brace for More-Widespread Outbreak of Coronavirus, February 26, 2020. Focuses on universities assembling campuswide emergency-response committees, preparing communications plans, cautioning students to use preventive health measures, and even preparing for possible college closures.
- Colleges Pull Back From Italy and South Korea as Coronavirus Spreads. February 26, 2020. Self-explanatory.
- An Admissions Bet Goes Bust: For colleges that gambled on international enrollment, now what? March 1, 2020. Focuses on the dire financial implications of the collapse in the international student market because of the coronavirus crisis.
- The Coronavirus Is Upending Higher Ed. Here Are the Latest Developments. March 3, 2020. Focuses on universities increasingly moving classes online, asking students to leave campus, lobbying for stimulus package from government, imposing travel restrictions, and worrying about future enrollments.
- CDC Warns Colleges to ‘Consider’ Canceling Study-Abroad Trips. March 5, 2020. Self-explanatory.
- Enrollment Headaches From Coronavirus Are Many. They Won’t Be Relieved Soon. March 5, 2020. Focuses on the financial implications of declining prospects for the recruitment of international students.
- The Face of Face-Touching Research Says, ‘It’s Quite Frightening’. March 5, 2020. Highlights research on the difficulties for people not to touch their faces, one of the preventive guidelines against the coronavirus.
- U. of Washington Cancels In-Person Classes, Becoming First Major U.S. Institution to Do So Amid Coronavirus Fears. March 6, 2020. Self-explanatory.
- How Do You Quarantine for Coronavirus on a College Campus? March 6, 2020. Provides guidelines on who should be quarantined, what kind of housing should be provided for quarantined students, the supplies they need, and what to when students fall ill.
- As Coronavirus Spreads, the Decision to Move Classes Online Is the First Step. What Comes Next? March 6, 2020. Provides advice on making the transition to online classes.
- With Coronavirus Keeping Them in U.S., International Students Face Uncertainty. So Do Their Colleges. March 6, 2020. Provides guidelines on how to help with the travel, visa, financial and emotional needs of international students.
- Going Online in a Hurry: What to Do and Where to Start. March 9, 2020. Provides guidelines on how to prepare for course online assignments, assessment, examinations, course materials, instruction, and communication with students quickly.
- Will Coronavirus Cancel Your Conference? March 9, 2020. Self-explanatory.
- What ‘Middle’ Administrators Can Do to Help in the Coronavirus Crisis. March 10, 2020. Provides advice to middle managers in universities on how to community with their people, be more responsive and available than usual, convene their own crisis response teams, and keeping relevant campus authorities informed of major problems in your unit.
- Communicating With Parents Can Be Tricky — Especially When It Comes to Coronavirus. March 10, 2020. Provides advice on how to provide updates to parents some of who might oppose the closure of campus.
- Are Colleges Prepared to Move All of Their Classes Online? March 10, 2020. Notes that this is a huge experiment as many institutions, faculty members, and even students have little experience in online learning and provides some guidelines.
- Why Coronavirus Looks Like a ‘Black Swan’ Moment for Higher Ed. March 10, 2020. Offers reflections on the likely impact of the move to online teaching in terms of prompt universities to stop distinguishing between online and classroom programs.
- Teaching Remotely While Quarantined in China. A neophyte learns how to teach online. March, 11, 2020. A fascinating personal story by a faculty member of his experience with remote teaching while living under strict social isolation, which has gone better than he expected.
- When Coronavirus Closes Colleges, Some Students Lose Hot Meals, Health Care, and a Place to Sleep. March 11, 2020. On the various social hardships campus closures bring to some vulnerable students.
- How to Make Your Online Pivot Less Brutal. March 12, 2020. Offers advice that it’s OK to not know what you’re doing and seek help, keeping it as simple and accessible as you can, expect challenges and adjust.
- Preparing for Emergency Online Teaching. March 12, 2020. Provides resources guides for teaching online.
- Academe’s Coronavirus Shock Doctrine. March 12, 2020. Discusses the added pressures facing faculty because of the sudden conversion to online teaching.
- Shock, Fear, and Fatalism: As Coronavirus Prompts Colleges to Close, Students Grapple With Uncertainty. March 12, 2020. Reports how college students are reacting to campus closures with shock, uncertainty, sadness, and, in some cases, devil-may-care fatalism.
- As the Coronavirus Scrambles Colleges’ Finances, Leaders Hope for the Best and Plan for the Worst. March 12, 2020. Reflects on the likely disruptions on university finances from reduced enrollments and donations.
- What About the Health of Staff Members? March 13, 2020. Discusses how best to ensure staff continue to be healthy.
- As Coronavirus Drives Students From Campuses, What Happens to the Workers Who Feed Them? March 13, 2020. Discusses the challenges of maintaining non-essential staff on payroll during prolonged campus closure.
- 2020: The Year That Shredded the Admissions Calendar. March 15, 2020. Self-explanatory.
- How to Lead in a Crisis. March 16. Insightful advice from the former President of Tulane University during Hurricane Katrina.
- Colleges Emptied Dorms Amid Coronavirus Fears. What Can They Do About Off-Campus Housing? March 16, 2020. Reports on how some institutions have taken a more aggressive approach to limiting the spread of the virus in off-campus housing.
- How to Quickly (and Safely) Move a Lab Course Online. March 17, 2020. The author discusses his positive experiences to move a lab course quickly online and still meet his learning objectives through lab kits, virtual labs and simulations.
- University Labs Head to the Front Lines of Coronavirus Containment. March 17, 2020. Discusses how university medical centers have taken the lead in coronavirus research and due to the national shortage of testing kits used tests of their own design to begin screening patients.
- Hounded Out of U.S., Scientist Invents Fast Coronavirus Test in China. March 18, 2020. An intriguing story of how the US’s crackdown on scholars with ties to China has triggered a reverse brain drain of Chinese-American scholars to China inadvertently promoting China’s ambitious drive to attract top talent under its Thousand Talent program. It features a scholar and his team that are leading the race to develop coronavirus treatment.
- Coronavirus Crisis Underscores the Traits of a Resilient College. March 18, 2020. Discusses the qualities of resilient institutions including effective communication, management of cash flow, and investment in electronic infrastructure.
- Coronavirus Creates Challenges for Students Returning From Abroad. March 18, 2020. Self-explanatory.
- As Coronavirus Spreads, Universities Stall Their Research to Keep Human Subjects Safe. March 18, 2020. Self-explanatory.
- The Covid-19 Crisis Is Widening the Gap Between Secure and Insecure Instructors. March 18, 2020. Self-explanatory.
- Here’s Why More Colleges Are Extending Deposit Deadlines — and Why Some Aren’t. March 18, 2020. Discusses how some universities are changing their admission processes.
- How to Help Students Keep Learning Through a Disruption. March 18, 2020. Provides guidelines on how to keep students engaged in learning and support instructors throughout the crisis.
- As Classrooms Go Virtual, What About Campus-Leadership Searches? March 19, 2020. Discusses how senior university leadership searches are being affected and ways to handle the situation by reconsidering the steps, migrating to technology, and staying in touch with candidates.
- If Coronavirus Patients Overwhelm Hospitals, These Colleges Are Offering Their Dorms. March 19, 2020. Discusses how some universities are offering to donate their empty dorms for use by local hospitals.
- As Professors Scramble to Adjust to the Coronavirus Crisis, the Tenure Clock Still Ticks. March 19, 2020. Discusses how at many universities junior faculty remain under pressure to meet the tenure timelines despite the various institutional disruptions.
- ‘The Worst-Case Scenario’: What Financial Disclosures Tell Us About Coronavirus’s Strain on Colleges So Far. March 19, 2020. Reports the financial straights facing many universities and that Moody’s Investors Service issued a bleak forecast this week for American higher education.
- As the Coronavirus Forces Faculty Online, It’s ‘Like Drinking Out of a Firehose’. March 20, 2020. Recorded video interviews with four selected instructors by The Chronicle to collect their thoughts on how they are managing the sudden change.
- A Coronavirus Stimulus Plan Is Coming. How Will Higher Education Figure In? March 20, 2020. The article wonders how universities will fare under the massive stimulus package under negotiation in the US Congress. It notes “Nearly a dozen higher-education associations have also asked lawmakers for about $50 billion in federal assistance to help colleges and students stay afloat” and an additional $13 billion for research labs.
- Covid-19 Has Forced Higher Ed to Pivot to Online Learning. Here Are 7 Takeaways So Far. March 20, 2020. The takeaways include the fact that “What most colleges are doing right now is not online education,” “Many of the tools were already at hand,” “The pivot can be surprisingly cheap,” “This is your wake-up call,” The pandemic could change education delivery forever…”, “… but it probably won’t”
- ‘Nobody Signed Up for This’: One Professor’s Guidelines for an Interrupted Semester. March 20, 2020. An interesting account on how one faculty changed his syllabus and communicated with his students.
- The Coronavirus Has Pushed Courses Online. Professors Are Trying Hard to Keep Up. March 20, 2020. Makes many of the same observations noted above.
Kenya’s Elusive Digital Driving Licenses: Who Pays and Who Profits
Leaked documents from Belgian biometrics company point to inflated pricing and political influence in license contracts.
Boniface Gikunda struggled to pay his bills even more than usual under Kenya’s COVID-19 restrictions. Some days, the professional driver went without a single customer call from the three driving app services that dominate Nairobi: Uber, Taxify, and Little Cab.
But what weighed heaviest on his mind was a government mandate that required him to get a new driving license by July 1. The digital license costs 3,000 Kenyan shillings (around US$30), double the previous fee and, according to this investigation, potentially double the cost of production.
“Three thousand shillings for a Kenyan like me?” Gikunda asked rhetorically. “It’s just ridiculous for a normal driver.”
He estimates that in ordinary times, after covering the fees he pays to the driving apps and the car’s owner, plus expenses like fuel and parking, he takes home roughly KSh 500 to 800 a day. The cost of the new license could cover a week of food for him, his wife, and their son, who live in a small one-bedroom home on the outskirts of Nairobi. In his native Meru County, near Mount Kenya, the fee could cover three months of rent.
“We survive by the grace of God,” Gikunda told reporters.
To afford the license, he said he is considering borrowing money from Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB), despite its personal loan interest rate of 13 percent. “At that point,” he said, “you’re desperate.”
Gikunda didn’t know that part of the money for his license fee is also likely going to KCB. Last year, the bank bought the National Bank of Kenya (NBK), which unexpectedly won the latest government tender to produce digital driving licenses.
The Kenyan government has been attempting to roll out the new licence for over a decade. A similar tender was previously awarded to Semlex Group, a Belgian biometric solutions firm, in 2008. That contract fell apart due to political wrangling.
A trove of leaked Semlex emails and documents analysed by Africa Uncensored, The Elephant, and OCCRP shed light on the politicised procurement process behind the digital driving license tender. The documents reveal how the individuals involved in the contract planned to personally make millions of dollars — including Semlex CEO Albert Karaziwan, his Kenyan broker Mujtaba Jaffer, and unidentified consultants — at the expense of ordinary Kenyans. Moreover, internal deliberations regarding production costs and profits indicate the price of the current digital driving license may be significantly inflated.
Reporters did not find evidence of illegal activity.
Semlex Group was no stranger to Africa when it set its sights on Kenya.
The Belgium-based company had already won tenders to provide biometric products in the Comoros Islands, Guinea-Bissau and Madagascar, by making friends in high places. So, when it came to bidding for the contract to produce Kenya’s new digital driving licenses in 2008, Semlex CEO Albert Karaziwan made sure he had his local brokers in place from the start.
One of them was Sheila M’Mbijjewe, then a Central Bank of Kenya committee official and now the state bank’s deputy governor. At the same time she was also a director in two obscure Kenyan companies owned by the powerful Mombasa-based tycoon, Mohamed Jaffer, and his son Mujtaba Jaffer.
M’Mbijjewe was an effective fixer and coordinator, who appeared to work through unnamed connections in the Ministry of Transport to ensure that the ministry’s driving license tender was awarded to Semlex. Then Mujtaba Jaffer took a leading role as the broker between Kenyan officials and the Belgian company, emails indicate.
In addition to M’Mbijjewe, other Kenyan brokers involved in the tender were also directors in the Jaffers’ nominee companies, Computer Source Point Ltd. and Infocard Africa Ltd:
- Brown Ondego, who was previously the head of Kenya Ports Authority and at the time executive chairman of the controversial Rift Valley Railways consortium. He is listed as a director of two other Jaffer companies, Grain Bulk Handlers Limited and African Gas and Oil Ltd.
- Kung’u Gatabaki, a corporate director who appears on the board of over a dozen companies owned by the late politician Njenga Karume. Soon after the Semlex tender he became chairman of the powerful Capital Markets Authority. Gatabaki is still listed as marketing director at Grain Bulk Handlers Limited, though he told reporters he is retired and keeping a low profile.
- Sailesh Savani, the CEO of CompuLynx, Semlex’s technical partner on the tender. Savani was also on the board of the supermarket chain Nakumatt as well as the Kenya Bureau of Standards technical committee.
M’Mbijjewe, Ondego, Gatabaki and Savani did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Mujtaba Jaffer said Computer Source Point and Infocard Africa are no longer active.
In one email, Jaffer — who regularly referred to the Semlex CEO as “brother” — referenced a late-night meeting with the Minister of Transport. In another, he gave Njenga Karume, one of Kenya’s longest-serving and most influential former MPs, his “blessing” to make decisions on his behalf about the contract.
Jaffer told Africa Uncensored that the powerful politician was “an acquaintance of the family,” and denied any improper influence in the procurement process.
“I cannot recall every meeting as some time has elapsed since these events but I can confirm that any meeting with state officials would have centred around technical consultations,” he wrote in an email.
All of the communications between the Kenyan brokers and the Belgian firm went through Grain Bulk Handlers Limited, the Jaffers’ flagship company known for its decades-long monopoly over Kenya’s bulk grain imports, allegedly with the assistance of friendly politicians. Another family company, African Gas and Oil Ltd. (AGOL), reportedly handles and stores three-quarters of the country’s Light Petroleum Gas imports.
Jaffer said the media’s characterization of his family as political financiers who benefit from lucrative government contracts in return is unfair. “We have not openly come out backing any political party or candidate. On the contrary our business concerns have been vital to the Kenyan economy and the ordinary mwananchi [citizen],” he wrote in an email.
When the Semlex driving license contract was derailed by an apparent rivalry between officials at the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Finance, it was Jaffer’s company that drafted a letter to then Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, for Semlex to send. At the time, the Finance Ministry, which refused to co-sign the contract, was headed by Odinga’s main political rival, the current President Uhuru Kenyatta.
This time, Semlex’s political connections weren’t enough. Internal documents show numerous attempts to force the Finance Ministry to add their signature to the contract, to no avail.
The Semlex consortium sued the Ministry of Transport for breach of contract in 2012, but the government argued that the contract was never finalised.
That year, the responsibility for issuing driving licenses was handed over to the newly-formed National Transport and Safety Authority. Kenyatta was elected president in 2013, and the tender was relisted through NTSA the following year.
Leaked internal documents reveal the gap between what the biometrics company and its brokers expected to earn, well above the KSh 2.8 billion ($35 million) awarded by the government.
Documents show the company expected to produce 2.5 to 3 million digital driving licenses over five years, at a 15 percent profit. This means the cost of production for each driving license, profits included, would amount to $11-14 — less than half the fee being charged to drivers like Gikunda today.
Despite this breakdown, a draft agreement between Semlex and the Ministry of Transport states the company actually expected to collect $20 for each card. With 2.5 to 3 million licenses issued, Semlex would have collected $50-60 million.
The same agreement states that Semlex would reimburse the government anything above $20 per card. With today’s licence fee — the Ministry of Transport would have collected $25-30 million from the arrangement.
But an internal profit-sharing agreement drafted in January 2009 revealed even higher expectations. It stated that the “actual costs” of the project would not exceed $17 million, and earmarked an additional $4.4 million for unnamed “consultants.” According to the agreement, Semlex CEO Karaziwan and Grain Bulk CEO Jaffer would split the remaining profit which, from the government award alone, would amount to $6.8 million each. The agreement stipulated that they would also split “any additional bonuses.”
The unexplained consultant fee is so substantial that a transparency expert who reviewed the terms of the deal, but requested not to be named, said it could have “no conceivable” legitimate justification.
Semlex did not respond to requests for comment, and Jaffer denied that the payment was allocated for kickbacks. He declined to provide an explanation, however, saying he was “bound by confidentiality not to discuss certain matters.”
“Companies like Semlex that have been implicated in corruption around Africa work in deniable ways, through consultancy fees that cannot be explained and the like,” said Alvin Mosioma, head of Tax Justice Network Africa.
“The narrative of corruption reduces actions to individuals but the reality is that the entire government policy machinery has been captured by corrupt elites in collusion with private entities who see the public purse as the most lucrative avenue to loot and plunder. In Kenya, the network of corruptivity revolves around these ‘tenderprenuers’,” Mosioma added.
The New Players
The selection of the National Bank of Kenya as the winner of the NTSA’s re-listed digital driving licence tender in 2015 was unexpected, especially when its competitors included international biometric giants.
Even before the NTSA announced the winner, the bank’s selection as a finalist was challenged on the basis that it was both the bidder and its own financial guarantor, in potential violation of Kenya’s procurement regulations. The Commercial Bank of Africa — co-owned by President Kenyatta and his family — stepped in to guarantee the NBK bid and secure its contract.
There were questions about the bank’s qualifications to produce biometric documents, as well as its reputation. NBK was infamous for using taxpayer money to make up for unpaid loans handed out under shady circumstances. Regulators also cited the bank’s board members and senior managers for allegedly misrepresenting financial statements and embezzling funds.
NBK’s technical partner — a little-known startup called Pesa Print Ltd. — also had no experience in producing biometric documents. The company was started by two obscure Kenyan firms: EyeSeeYou Communications and Kenya Twelve Ventures.
Two individuals who appeared on EyeSeeYou registration documents had also worked for Njenga Karume, the late politician who appeared in the Semlex deal. According to the founders, EyeSeeYou and Pesa Print parted ways around the time of the driving license contract was won. The owner of both Kenya Twelve Ventures and Pesa Print, David Njane Ruiyi, said the contract was won competitively.
The finalists that NBK had beat out included the previous winner Semlex, French biometrics company Gemalto S.A., and the established Kenyan ICT provider Symphony Technologies, which lost to NBK by less than one percent.
Njane, Pesa Print’s co-owner, told Africa Uncensored that NBK’s qualifications came from the entire consortium, which included two European companies with technical expertise: X Infotech, headquartered in Latvia, and Austria Card, based in Vienna. Both companies cited Pesa Print as the primary contractor in the consortium.
When NBK’s competitor, Symphony Technologies, launched a legal complaint against the government’s selection of the winner in the driving license tender, Pesa Print paid the company KSh104.5 million (about $1 million) to drop the challenge.
According to court documents, Pesa Print borrowed part of that money from companies reportedly owned by Meru County Senator Franklin Linturi. The senator reportedly borrowed the money from a bank patronized by his girlfriend, Marianne Kitany, who at the time was chief of staff to Deputy President William Ruto.
Pesa Print, the court documents said, was due to repay the loan within 48 hours of NBK receiving the first tender payment from the government. But things got messy and ended up in arbitration, where the documents were produced describing the payoff arrangement.
Symphony ceded the contentious contract to NBK. “We agreed to drop the case as a settlement was agreed and for public good (to avoid vendor issues that cause many government project delays and lengthy court processes),” Symphony told reporters in an emailed statement.
Pesa Print confirmed the payment, and said the financial arrangement with Linturi was purely transactional. The senator could not be reached for comment.
According to Njane, Pesa Print has already delivered the technology and base printed cards to the NTSA. However, one party in the consortium told reporters that card production had stalled even before government agencies shut down during COVID, and that the company was shopping around for new technical partners.
NBK did not respond to questions, but its parent company KCB Group told reporters in an emailed statement that “NBK, as the contracting party is executing its obligations and the covenants of the NTSA driving license contract as required.”
It’s unclear when the long, storied journey of Kenya’s digital driving license will be fulfilled. With the terms of the current KSh2.1 billion contract a secret, it’s also unclear exactly how much the government and the companies — as well as any politically connected brokers — stand to earn.
Meanwhile drivers like Gikunda will pay the price.
“I don’t know why the government had to come [up] with such a figure,” said Gikunda, lamenting the KSh 3000 cost of the digital license. “I don’t know what’s so special about the card.”
Out of America or How I became a Marxist
Becoming a Marxist made me realise that there was a wider context for my existence, that the conditions that I found myself in as a woman or as an African were historical.
I went to study in the United States in the 1980s in the time of what was to me the inexplicable presidency of Ronald Reagan. It was an enigmatic presidency for me for two reasons. First, at my university and amongst the mostly left-leaning circles that I hang out with, I never came across anybody who had voted for him. The second reason was that, for me, Reagan was clearly challenged on the intellectual front. I could not believe that a nation with all that maendeleo, all that development we in Africa so covet, would tolerate some folksy guy who might have come from a darker and more ignorant century. Certainly, the cool left-leaning students at C University had no time for Reagan.
In my two years in the US the only person I came across who would publicly admit to having voted for Reagan was a 65-year-old black man in Albany, Georgia, my cousin’s father-in-law. Pops, as his children called him in that quintessential African American manner, would routinely loudly proclaim his love for President Reagan to people in the presence of his children. He showed me his Republican Party membership card, much to the mortification of his children who muttered that the old man was finally going senile. When he whipped out the letter from Reagan, they teased him saying that he had only received it because he was special, being the only black Republican on the planet.
Pops challenged two beliefs I had had held about voting patterns in America. First, that black people were not members of the Republican Party and, second, that they always voted for the Democratic Party.
War and America’s presidents
Eight months into America, I had imbibed the paranoid conspiracy theories of my Marxist circle and lost my African ease. Late one night I turned on the television to find President Reagan ranting and raving in the most alarming manner about the “evil empire”. He was referring to the former Soviet Union, America’s mortal enemy of the Cold War days. And you thought “Axis of evil” was original? Do you see a pattern here? This is clearly the language of America’s dumb dumb presidents.
There is a moment in the deep night when reality becomes suspended and we become susceptible to our original lurking primeval selves. In this night moment, assorted distorted demons and night creatures with names like Linani, banshees, ghosts and ghouls rule as reality twists and turns, changing shape and resonance. The howl of a dog conjures up a werewolf. On the Kenyan coast, that night moment brings with it all manner of djins and mermaids, prowling in their woman-shape to steal the souls of victim men. Mating cats evoke the screams of damned souls burning in a Christian hell. It is easy to believe the bizarre. (I am setting up my excuse for what happened next.)
It was at such a moment in the night that I found Reagan’s ranting so aggressive that as I listened I became convinced that I had only missed the first part of his speech, in which he had finally gone over the edge and declared war on the Soviet Union. That night I went to bed terrified, in the grip of my imaginary world war. Before I fell into erratic sleep, I obsessed about how I would not be able to get out of the US before the actual war started and that I would die alone in a foreign land. The next morning I was relieved and abashed to find that all was normal and there was no sign of impeding war.
Twenty years later, as I watched the elections that brought another dumb dumb, unfathomable US president to power, George W. Bush, I realised that my vantage point, with its emphasis on linear “development” or maendeleo, had warped my thinking. Until that instant, I had thought development also brings with it highly enlightened people who would not lie about the presence of weapons of mass destruction to bring pain and destruction to innocent women and children many miles away in another country. For what? For oil (I can’t believe that), to get revenge for daddy (that’s too weird), to get their way (what way, the American way in Baghdad?), to be right about a perspective? (Probably the only right answer, outrageous as it may seem).
For us in this part of the world, things like technological advancement, elimination of hunger, industrial development, foreign vacations, microwaves, one doctor per 100 people, four-lane highways, $30,000 per capita income, a new car every two years, pensions, social security, all of which come with development, also lead to progress, to maendeleo. And ultimately to enlightment, the cherry on top of the development cake. We think, surely in America or Europe there must be such enlightenment that people, ordinary people everywhere, must have become immune to the baser human urgings like fear, malice, jealousy, racism, intolerance, corruption, violence, the need to declare war for dubious reasons, religious fanaticism?
It is easy to believe that if we were to invent a machine that would test our level of enlightenment we would find that those with more development have more enlightenment. This would render them immune from making decisions driven by those unenlightened aspects of being human like uncertainty and fear of tomorrow, fear of the other, the dictates of their religion, what the Bible says, what the Koran says, what the mullahs say, what the priest says. But finally I understand that this is not the case; just because you have more stuff doesn’t mean you are more enlightened.
I now realise of course that although human beings may have made huge technological advances such that they can send men to the moon or invent the Internet, they will still rely on some form of magic, juju or alchemy to manage their lives. The advances have not created certainty. In fact, they create even more uncertainty which can drive people deeper into the bosom of their juju side.
From Nairobi to America
Before I went to America, I was a student of the biological sciences at the University of Nairobi. Someone had put the University of Nairobi on the then outskirts of town. But this had not been far enough. By the 1970s, the outskirts were already part of the central business district and students would make their grievances felt by literally pelting the central business district with sticks and stones. It was a rioting student’s paradise. During my time, there were numerous riots, demonstrations and campaigns, many with echoes of Marxism or some left-leaning ideology with students shouting slogans like “Down with the bourgeoisie! The proletariat rules!!!” as they battled the police in the streets.
Somehow, throughout these riots I was able to remain largely free of any ideological infection. Which is incredibly surprising because we were sent home on at least four occasions over three years because of some issue with ideological overtones. In total, we spent about seven months at home. The male students had to report to their local chief every week but the women were not perceived to be a threat so we did not have to.
The only time I was absolutely certain about what we were striking for was the time we went on strike over food. We were all tired of the strange cuisine. The final provocation came when even the minced meat had weevils in it. Weevils will infest beans, legumes, rice, maize, but none feed on meat. So I could never get it; how did the weevils get into the minced meat? We half-joked that they must have used them as seasoning.
It was always those unserious arts students at main campus who started the riots. With our 36 hours a week schedule, we science students had no time for such frivolous pursuits. Also, we had no ideology to spur us to action and were so out of touch with current issues that we had no idea that our politicians were up to no good and that we should care. No science lecturer was ever caught in the political crosshairs, at least not during my time.
With their 8 hours a week lecture schedule which we sneered at, the arts students had plenty of time for ideologies such as Marxism and for the political issues they cared about, and they had lecturers with a death wish to egg them on. To get us to join their strike the arts students had to use threat and force; when a strike started we would be the first target and rather than face the wrath of our fellow students we joined in. Soon we were caught up in the excitement of the moment and forgot our original reluctance.
We ran around town in our jeans and sneakers being chased by the police, stoning unsuspecting motorists in an orgy of anarchy that was surprisingly heady even when the consequences could be a beating or rape by the police and the paramilitary (at the time they did not use live ammunition) and expulsion from university. I took part in the running around town but I didn’t want to take part in the stoning of motorists in case one of those motorists was my mother or father or one of their friends.
Twenty years later, I almost became one of the nameless motorists we used to talk so casually about, the one who lost her eye, (“Oh, how sad”), the one who died (uncomfortable silence), the one whose car was set ablaze and had her leg broken when she tried to jump over a six-foot fence hotly pursued by angry students shouting “down with the bourgeoisie, workers unite!” (loud laughter at the image of the heavyset woman trying to jump a six-foot fence).
That scene from a long time ago came to me as I came face to face with a young man about to hurl a stone at my windscreen. Time stood still. I had driven into the midst of rioting university students. Have you ever had one of those moments of danger when your life hangs in the balance under the specter of deadly violence? I live in Africa so I have had several. For me these moments always come with a loud metallic screeching/whistling sound. A sound that crystallises danger itself.
From nowhere the moment was interrupted; a student stepped in and stopped the young man at the last possible moment, for no reason that I can fathom, except that my day had not yet come. “Drive away!” he shouted urgently at me. I reversed and drove like the devil escaping my moment.
Being cold in America
I arrived in America in the dead of winter never having experienced winter in my life. I also went to a Marxist university only having been vaguely aware of this ideology or the concept of ideologies for that matter, so I was green on many fronts. If my father had known, and then been able to believe, that he was sending me to America to a Marxist university, would he have so happily taken me to the airport with such pride, giving me one of his gems to take with me? I repeated it later to my new boyfriend, starry-eyed, in a “behold the wisdom of my father, I want to share it with you” moment, only to find that it was Confucius who originated it. You can guess the one: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”. I remember laughing and not being embarrassed by the busting of my father’s “original” gem. You must understand that I had once believed that my father could speak Russian.
It was the cold that almost got me first. It was February, the dead of winter. On my sixth day there, I looked out of the window and the sun was shining off the pristine snow. I felt joyful at the prospect of warm sunshine on my skin. I dressed and walked the one kilometre to the university campus. Only I got colder and colder. Sunshine did not equal warmth here. The light coat and sweater I had put on were no defense against the bitter winter cold. Twenty minutes later I was sitting in the reception room of the University admission block, feeling sorry for myself, trying not to cry as my ears, toes and fingers painfully thawed. I would have gone back home that second if my ticket had not been one-way.
A party in America
I eventually settled in, made some friends and was soon invited to my first party. The word “party” should mean the same thing wherever you are, right? For me at that time it meant dressing up in something sexy and provocative, make-up, jewelry (I still secretly believe that it was I who introduced the whole bling concept to the US), high heels and looking forward to dancing and meeting gorgeous and dateable guys. I marvel today at how many eligible men there were to choose from back then at any party, I was always spoilt for choice.
So of course I arrive at the party Kenyan style, dressed to the nines and fashionably late, to make my entrance and to envelope myself in the “whose that girl” factor. The cachet in being remembered translated directly into the attention of at least three of the hottest guys at the party. And then the routine. Open the door of the crowded room, stop, framed by the door, hold pose as if looking for someone while what you are actually doing is allowing them to look at you, and then step into the room sure of the impression you have created.
I went into routine mode and nearly gagged as I realised just what an overdressed spectacle I was. One woman was still in the droopy old t-shirt that she had used when we went jogging that morning. The only difference now was that the widening sweat marks under her armpits were not because of the jogging but because of the heat in the room. I couldn’t believe it! The other students were similarly dressed in old jeans, t-shirts, sweats and ill-fitting sweaters. I was now embarrassed as all eyes turned on me just as I had intended but retreat would only have made me even more conspicuous. I held my head up and, deciding to brazen it, walked into the room. This was only the beginning of my introduction to party etiquette in America.
Did I mention that I was a geek from University of Nairobi? I soon learned a new definition of geek because a Nairobi University geek took time out to party and one of our rules was that you never talked about anything remotely related to the courses you were taking during party time. I don’t remember what we talked about but what we did at parties was dance like mad, and tune and be tuned. But here at university in the US life was one continuous seminar without end.
I joined a group of friends and my face lit up in a smile anticipating delicious banter with that cute guy I had the hots for. As I stood there awhile, I realised that I needed to quickly disappear the smile; it was clearly inappropriate during a discussion about historical materialism, Hegel, Marx, Gramsci… After 15 minutes looking for an opportunity to make an impression I gave up. I knew the language. English. But if you had held a gun to my head and asked, “Tell me what they are talking about or I shoot,” I would have had to let you shoot my brains out. I had no idea. I moved to another group of my friends and found them similarly engaged in what can only be referred to as deep intellectual discourse and again I could not understand them. My frustration was growing; you can understand what this was like for a loud and voluble person. This is my only point in mitigation for what happened next. The third group held some promise. There was a word I found familiar, and as I write what I said, my toes still curl up in embarrassment twenty years on. The word was “reactionary”. I had to seize the moment and make my intellectual mark. “Oh!” I said, “President Moi is a reactionary, he always reacts to everything.” I looked around at the upturned faces with pride at this insight.
And then I launched into a story about President Moi and his reactions, by way of illustration you understand. “One time when we were at the university, President Moi had gone to India on a state visit. By the time he returned it was a week before JM Day, the day on which a populist member of parliament called J.M. Kariuki had been assassinated 10 years before. The students always marked the day with demonstrations which soon deteriorated into riots and running battles with the police. The university was always closed after the fracas. This year though, we students had gone against the grain and decided that we would mark the day by doing good in the community. We had decided to establish a J.M. Kariuki Foundation and to clean up slum areas and donate to poor people. So when we heard the president’s declaration even before he set foot on Kenyan soil that all third-year students would be expelled and ‘the nation would feel nothing if we dared riot on this year’s J.M. Kariuki Day’, we were so outraged that we were simply provoked into action. We rioted. And funnily enough, for the first time he did not react for the first week. We then decided that we would riot until he sent us all home. So we did.”
Many years down the road, I am still grateful that they did not burst out laughing. Instead, someone politely said one word “yes, that’s an interesting perspective to the word reactionary, you are quite right President Moi is a reactionary”, and the conversation continued seamlessly.
Going home a feminist
I soon got used to the American party style, so much so that when I came back home I had a hard time adjusting to the Kenyan approach. More so because I had come back with a head full of ideologies that did not mix well with the oglefest that is the Kenyan party. I took years to get back on track, spending time at parties skulking in corners with one or two other like-minded people, a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, both habits picked up in America and now used to camouflage my despair at the lack of opportunity for rigorous intellectual discourse at these Kenyan affairs.
Of all the ideologies I picked up abroad, the most incompatible with my country was my hardcore feminism. It was not just any ordinary feminism, but one that looked for converts with the fanaticism of a born-again Christian from the American Bible Belt out to capture souls in Africa. And I never missed a chance to advance my mission. I was a one-woman missionary determined to be martyred at the altar of feminism.
Like red flags to a bull, statements that would spur me into action were endless. “Oh you know women are like that” or “Oh you know women are their own worst enemy.” Back then my country was still so innocent that it did not know that it should hide its chauvinism from view, at least in public. There were many sexist and misogynist statements made in my hearing by men and women on a daily basis.
Just so that there would be no room for speculation, I would declare my feminism openly on introduction. It wasn’t quite, “Hi my name is Sitawa and I am a rabid feminist who is vigilant and looking for opportunities to spring into action in defense of women everywhere by lecturing you into submission for any anti-woman statement that I may detect”. But it might as well have been. How I actually introduced myself was “Hello my name is Sitawa and I am a feminist”, I said, looking them straight in the eye, daring them to make a joke of my declaration.
Just in case you might be misled into thinking that there was any irony here and maybe laugh out loud because you found the introduction funny, the clothing and demeanor completed the picture. I wore a uniform of black jeans, shapeless t-shirts and sneakers, the drab universal uniform of feminists — in the US at least. “Appreciate my mind not my behind” is what I meant to say with my whole presentation to protect myself from another little trait I had picked up in the US, an aversion for unsolicited male attention.
All my friends were innocents. After I had lectured three or four of them for half an hour each on separate occasions I soon found myself alone. I wore my aloneness like a badge of honour, seeing it as the inevitable price paid by any champion of a cause who sticks their neck out. Thank goodness I had seen the film “The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner”; I could use the image conjured by the title to console myself when I felt like giving up.
In an act of rebellion against my society, I smoked openly even in front of my father. This particular statement was especially effective in establishing my rebel credentials to no one in particular. When my friends gasped and questioned this particular act as going too far, I had another lecture prepared for them. “My aunts,” I would say from my imaginary soapbox. “Upcountry, in the rural areas, women smoke and drink so why shouldn’t I?” In the western part of Kenya women can smoke cigarettes. Some of my aunts smoke cigarettes but with the lit end inside their mouths. I have never seen a man smoke in this fashion and I don’t know why. I have one particular aunt who is hard-smoking and hard-drinking, who has always gone drinking with her husband, so I just don’t understand the sanctions levied against the so-called modern African woman, the city woman.
I have long since quit all those habits I picked up in America. I gave up picking on everybody around me because I realised that I had mistaken being constantly angry and fighting with people who did not agree with my opinion with championing a cause. Besides, it was alienating and exhausting and no one wanted to hang out with me because I was so intense. When my friends could talk to me again they told me that they had run away from me because I was just plain boring.
Impressions of the American South
I went to visit my cousin’s in-laws in the American south in Albany, Georgia for a week and discovered I could not hear so I took to endless grinning and nodding my head. I left those people thinking I was simple in the head. But I couldn’t understand them and I soon got tired of asking them to repeat themselves so I withdrew into an African grin of protection and lost my reputation in the process. They speak English in the south so it wasn’t the language, but there was still a language barrier. The long dragged out words that go on seemingly forever lost my short attention span. I found that my mind had wondered before the end so I never heard the finish. “Caaaahhhn aaaaah speeeek to Eyyyyd Coooook” is what I thought I overheard a woman in a bank asking. It was shocking to hear, like somebody caricaturing an American. I tried not to laugh and asked my cousin-in-law what the woman was saying. And she translated, “Can I speak to Ed Cook?”
I visited my first flea market during that visit to the south. A large African-like market selling what we call mitumba in Kenya; old clothes and shoes, kitchenware, furniture, as well as more specialised things like vintage clothing (read very old mitumba) and stuff that was ordinary people’s artistic expressions of themselves. My cousin-in-law introduced me to a little old black woman at a stall selling miscellaneous mitumba as her cousin from Africa.
“What!” proclaimed the little old black woman, “But you real pretty, I thought Africans were dark black with kinky hair and big fat noses and mouths but you real fine,” she declared in amazement.
I was equally astonished at the casual black-on-black racist stereotype that she spewed, blithely unaware that she should hide it or at least not say it straight to my face. But she was simply the first of many to air such views. During my two-week sojourn in the south, I soon grew accustomed to hearing from black people similar guileless declarations about some African stereotype that I didn’t fit. From questions about where I learnt to dance like that (I can dance!), to where I had learnt to speak “so proper”, to my dress sense and on and on.
Virtual segregation in the American South
The other big thing that I experienced for the first time in the US was hardwired virtual segregation. There were no signs designating white and black zones anywhere in Albany that I saw. Indeed, on the surface all seemed well in terms of race relations. But even my cousin’s Republican father-in-law made sure he hid his de-segregated business to keep up appearances. He was in business with a white person because the partnership allowed him to get white business. But to keep that lucrative white business he had to keep his partnership hidden and so he passed himself off as a worker in the business. I realise the logic is challenging.
The two groups occupied the same physical spaces, they ate at the same restaurants, entered all buildings and transport from the same entrance, sat anywhere on buses. And yet my foreigner’s eyes quickly saw through this façade and identified the fault lines of virtual segregation. The new apartheid still did not allow the twain to commune freely even as they congregated. I could feel the barriers as soon as I stepped into those spaces. There was a sense of forced togetherness. If the gap between the two races could speak it would say, “Ok, we have to share this same physical space but we are not giving up our right to be separate. They can take away our right to segregation but they can’t take segregation out of our hearts”. It was in what was missing in the interaction between black and white. There was no ease, peacefulness, insignificance, silence, freedom, love.
What existed in that gap was tension, a hateful watchfulness and worst of all an embryonic violence that was always ready to grow into fully-fledged adulthood. You could feel it. This violence ebbed and flowed and hung around like a dark threat. When I was amongst black people everyone was relaxed, very laid back, but in the presence of a group of white people in the segregated spaces there was an all round tensing alertness, an expectation of something unpleasant.
Black and white people occupied those common public spaces differently too. White people seemed to strut and begrudge black people’s presence. It was white people who still seemed to be the bona fide owners of the space. Black people were the interlopers, but they had no choice, they had to occupy the spaces, otherwise they risked recreating segregation by their absence. But the sense of threat in those spaces implied that black people occupied those spaces at their peril. Desegregation had been about pulling down the limits placed on the existence of black people. It was not white people who were fighting to sit in the seats reserved for black people on buses or to use the blacks-only entrances. Desegregation demands that white people cede the space and privileges that define their superior place in society.
Race in the north
My experience of race in the American north was not one of absence but rather that the north was racially clandestine, a state I much preferred. It gave me freedom to spend many more hours in a day being just another human being. The colour of my skin was not a constant conscious presence foisted on me by open racial hostility. Thank you but I am not black, I really am just a person. I am an African living in Africa so although I have many identities, being black is not my premier identity. That is the advantage of growing up black in Africa.
When I brought this to the attention of my southern black relatives-in-law they made that claim that always bemuses me. “I like the south,” they said, “the boundaries are clear, people here are not hypocrites like in the north. I know where I stand with them here”.
“I know where I stand?” What the hell is that? What I understand from that telling statement is an admission on the part of black people that it’s OK for there to be limits on a black person’s existence. I never heard a white person say things like that, only black people. For a person to know where he or she could go and what he or she could expect from their world simply because of the hue of their skin. In other words there was a limit of possibility which means that there was no possibility at all. And it was fine for white people to have veto powers over the dreams, the scope of existence of black people. You can dream so much and no more. You can aspire so far and no further, these are the limits on your movement. And black people accepted this proscribed world and were happy that they knew their place in this controlled world. That world was a banned dream which they passed on to their children and this was done with the active connivance of black people.
I understand how dangerous the world in which black people live in the south is. I imbibed a small part of that fear many thousands of miles away from movies and media reports of the Ku Klux Klan. So much so that I arrived in America terrified. For four days I refused to leave my sister’s apartment because I was sure the Ku Klux Klan were going to gun me down. Living with that dreadful history can skew anyone and the wonder is that black people have lived to step out of the shadow of such terrors and nightmares. The journey has had its negative impact such that sometimes their ability to see beyond the boundaries of their terror has been compromised.
This is where Africans can lend their sight when dreams have been extinguished. We have the same racial reality because our existence in the world gives us the same reference points. Yet we live in our own homes largely amongst our own people. We are not vested only in a racial reality. Our human reality predominates. We can fly above “black person negatives” and separate fact from damaging fiction.
A person exposed to these negatives on a daily basis for most of their life will lose their perspective. Such an environment can beat down the most thick-skinned, sanguine, optimist man and woman and create an oversensitive “defensive human” who can no longer see the forest for the trees and perceives racism under every bush. Such an environment can leave people severely embattled and debilitated. The centuries of actual and virtual lynching that black people have been subjected to in the US will do that.
Psychologically I am rather sensitive. I found the race issue to be intrusive enough in the north where it was not so in-your-face.. I found myself engaged from time to time in what manifested as flash-back-filled bouts of mother-less-child weeping. The kind of crying that was inconsolable, with heaving and copious tears. The kind that is only done in hiding. The first time it happened I did not understand what was going on. From nowhere came floods of tears. At first they were quite frequent, every three months or so. Soon the stretch between one bout and another grew and they finally stopped. I had stopped expecting more out of this country.
What were they? They were silent tears of rage and despair at the seemingly unseen-with-the-naked-eye accumulation of incidents of racism that I encountered on a daily basis. My mother has always told me that I am too thin-skinned, I let things get too easily under my skin. And it’s true. I just let the incidents seep into my subconscious. I never could speak out at them. I had no skills to deal with them in the moment. The moment of action would be long past before I recognised what had happened. And some were subtle, only discernable in the pattern my subconscious registered as I remained preoccupied with the hunt for that cut price designer shoe that I desired and could afford on my student stipend only if I bought it in a bargain basement-type store. It wasn’t until it had long happened, again and again, from store to store, in a single day, that I finally recognised what had been going on. The only black person in the group of friends being singled out for kindly help, again and again.
So what about the Marxism?
So what about the Marxism itself? I know that many people will find it surprising that I became a Marxist in America but it was common knowledge back then that you were likely to become Marxist, or at the very least end up leaning way to the left ,if you did your studies in the US. The reverse held true if you went to study in the USSR, you turned irrevocably capitalist and probably ended up holding some extreme rightwing perspectives. Certainly, I found many of my friends and relatives who went to study in the USSR ideologically bereft. For both groups it was shopping that did it. According to my friends who went to the USSR, the empty shelves turned them to the right.
In the US the shopping experience couldn’t have been more different. Walk into a supermarket, any old supermarket, not even some hypermarket, and there were shelves and shelves of different brands of detergents. Twenty different brands of dog food. Try buying toothpaste and you had to choose from a row of thirty brands. I was confused about what parameters to base my choice on, and offended at the waste. As a consumer, I had to ask myself why would I need thirty varieties of toothpaste to choose from? What’s funny is that back home the thought of such a long list of western goodies had always sounded delicious. Back then, western goodies were in short supply and some were not available in real time. You did not expect to keep up with trends in music or fashion in real time for example. There was a genuine difference between the third and first worlds largely based on time.
This time difference meant that at home there was a premium to being ahead of the pack. I still remember the cachet of being one of the first to own those skin-tight Jordache jeans that were not going to hit the Nairobi streets for another two years at least, the first to wear the latest lip gloss, the really glossy kind. This particular trend might become extinguished before it’s existence is even heard of in Nairobi, and there I was wearing it because I had made a trip to New York city. With some of these more transient trends there was always the danger that no one ever got to even hear about them and decide that they were a “must have” fashion item. The extreme third world trendoid ran the risk of simply looking strange and eccentric rather than enviably trendy. Sometimes I thought that it would have been useful to wear a T-shirt reading, “This thing that I am wearing really is the latest trend in London, New York, Milan.”
The road to my becoming a Marxist was littered with hardship though, and I almost didn’t make it. First, it was clear that I had a problem, I was the problem. When I stepped into the graduate class at C University, I was the first African for over ten years. And I was the first African woman in more years than that. I am Kenyan, which back then had a baffling specialness. I still remember the whispers as I walked past fellow students during the first few weeks. Later, when I made friends, I found out that my arrival had been announced and was anticipated, “Class we will have a real Kenyan woman”. I was used to being taken for granted much more at home. For a while I basked in this adulation. Soon enough it was rudely interrupted. Apparently it had come to everyone’s attention that I was bourgeois. This according to the Marxists made me a criminal. It was my political class in Africa that kept the peasants downtrodden while my economic class exploited the workers. I was held personally culpable for the ills of the continent. I kid you not; when the lecturers talked about the problem the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie presented in Africa, my fellow classmates turned round and looked at me with accusing eyes.
And it gets worse; I had servants. This particular thing was treated like some sort of character flaw. A friend of mine captures the dangers of being found out as an employer of servants by left-leaning elements in the US at that time. She was doing the bleeding-heart liberal thing, working in one of those poorly paid jobs while learning at the feet of some feminist guru. One day she was called into the boardroom where the head feminists were meeting. The interrogation revolved around questions of whether she had servants at home. She turned red (she is a Kenyan of a hue that can blush) and fidgeted violently, giving her discomfort away. She realised she was on the horns of a dilemma. What was she to do? If she admitted that she had servants she could be fired. But she realised her behaviour had given her away so an outright lie was out of the question. She chose to limit the potential damage by making a partial admission.
“Yes we have servants”, she admitted with her fingers crossed, “But only part-time.” Many years later we roared with laughter at how much we lay down at the feet of little tyrants just because they were supposed to be ideologically sound.
To be honest, although I would have chewed razorblades before I admitted this back then, the logic of my fellow students escaped me, but I was still intimidated into silence. This is what I would have told them had I been able to speak up. “Any African attending university is by definition no longer a peasant, a worker or a proletariat even if they are a direct descendent of any of these preferred classes. A real worker is out there being just that, a worker, not attending graduate school in the USA. Not all Africans are guilty of oppressing their brothers and sisters back home. Heck, Africans have the right to not be poor, peasants or workers. We can be anything.” This is what has always been so intriguing for me. The attitudes of my fellow students were not strange. Africans are allowed only to be poor. It seems to me that the logic that follows is that then they can be saved or rescued from their conditions by kindly Westerners. There is no place for Africans who can look after themselves in the psyche of the West. And interestingly, there appears to be no scenario for what happens when the “helping” has worked. The logic seems to suggest that for Africans there must be no rainbow.
News of a coup
In 1982 news of a coup in my country was met with all round gloating. A fellow student whom I considered a friend broke the news of the coup with words to this effect:
“You Kenyans have been the darlings of the West and now finally you have fallen!” he announced with glee.
He was not simply being mean, he was just being a Marxist. Others joined in, expressing joy at the collapse of this false citadel that was often touted as a capitalist success story by the West much to the chagrin of the leftist elements in the same West. Today that Kenya seems too good to be true. A few years earlier, in 1975, a World Bank report had noted that “Kenya is now in the second year of its second decade as an independent nation. Behind it lies a record of sustained growth in production and income that has rarely been surpassed by countries in Kenya’s stage of development”. These are some of the statistics that offended people: In 1975 27 per cent of Kenya’s population was living below the poverty line. GDP grew at a rate of 6.6 per cent. It is true that by 1982 things were beginning to collapse as the post-Kenyatta regime that we like to call the “Moi error” began to slash at the progress made in the first decade of the country’s independence.
Today Kenya is very different; World Bank statistics reveal a country deeply mired in poverty. Poverty levels are at 57 per cent and, between 1997 and 2002 GDP has reached a low of 1.1 per cent. Although it is doing much better now, it is literally digging itself out from a deep hole. Is Kenya today a Marxist’s wet dream? I don’t know, all I can say that it is uncomfortable to live in the midst of all this poverty. And now, many years later, we know that extreme poverty does not a revolution make. From examples everywhere, it can lead to a total implosion as a country sinks into civil war or worse.
My response to the coup
Whilst my fellow students celebrated back then, all I could think of was the safety and security of my family and friends. Beyond that I didn’t know what else to think. We Kenyans had grown used to the idea that we were special, not like other African countries which we saw as prone to coups and other forms of violent unrest and crazy despotic leaders. Our leaders were mild in comparison. With this mindset, I was simply unprepared. Over the next four days, my alarm grew when I was unable to get through to my parents when I tried to reach them by phone. I eventually got through and confirmed that all my family were safe. One of the symbols of our success was an efficient telephone system. I could always get through. What is amazing is the accuracy of some of the stories I heard about what happened to people I knew thousands of miles away. I heard about a guy whom I knew getting shot while looking at the unfolding coup through the window of a second-floor apartment and I came home to find this story to be true; he had indeed died in exactly the way it had been described to me.
This meanness not withstanding, Marxism gave me a huge measure of freedom by giving my mind options to go beyond. It gave me alternatives to understanding how life works. I came to appreciate that the conditions that I found myself in as a woman or as an African were historical and that there was a wider context for my existence. As for Ronald Reagan, he unwittingly played his part in expanding my mind and making sure that I had to step out of the shadow of ideas of America as the land of salvation for myself or my continent. For two years, I watched this man behave as if he had come from a village in the dark ages and I gave up all my notions of the West as the source of wisdom, hope and help for my continent.
Kenya Should Get Out of Somalia and Negotiate With Al Shabaab
For decades, Somalia regarded Kenya as a neutral arbiter, unlike Ethiopia, where long-standing resentments against Somalia have endured. Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia in 2011 and its meddling in the country’s internal affairs have ruined Kenya-Somalia relations and emboldened Al Shabaab.
Kenya’s military should leave Somalia. The 2011 intervention was billed as quick and short, but instead, it has metastasised into an almost decade-long occupation.
Kenya should depart Somalia for three specific reasons. One, the military campaign designed to “destroy” and “defeat” Al Shabaab, and keep Kenya and Kenyans safe has instead increased the group’s attacks on Kenya and Kenyans. Two, the need for a more robust domestic counterterrorism response to Al Shabaab’s attacks has led to egregious violations of human rights, and in the process, torpedoed the nascent police reform project. Three, the intervention also upended Kenya’s relations with Ethiopia, a vital partner in the Horn of Africa. It eviscerated soft power with Somalia, severely hamstringing Kenya’s diplomatic leverage in the region.
I. Operation Lindi Nchi
Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia took many Horn watchers and me by surprise because this was the first time Kenya undertook an independent military operation outside the United Nations Peacekeeping Operation. Intriguingly, the government provided little public information regarding Operation Linda Nchi (Operation Defend the Country).
But to any discerning person with a passing interest in the Horn of Africa’s history and politics, Kenya’s strategy, operation, the tactic, and geopolitical goal of the mission was at best foggy.
I was a young Horn of Africa analyst when the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) crossed the border and entered Somalia in November 2011. To make sense of the intervention, I sought the views of three individuals. The first was the then military spokesperson, Major Emmanuel Chirchir. I sat down with him, not to understand the precise reason for the intervention, but to tap into the thought process that preceded it and the exit strategy.
The meeting left me deeply worried. The useful major failed to provide coherent answers to my questions. Later, his press briefings and Twitter engagements fortified my worries. His meetings descended into a series of amateur performances. In one incident, Major Chirchir shared these photos on his Twitter handle.
The Associated Press published these photos, which were later published in the Daily Mail on Dec. 15, 2009. Major Chirchir was roundly pilloried for using the report to criticise Al Shabaab. This confirmed that public information management, a critical component of any military campaign, was being done on the fly, or not taken seriously. The lack of general information and ill-thought out communications campaign remained features of the army.
The second person whose insight I sought was Bethwel Kiplagat. The late ambassador was Kenya’s envoy during the 30-months marathon Somalia peace process in Kenya from 2003 to 2005. I was keen to glean any insight he could share. Kenya had to intervene to stop Al Shabaab because they posed a security threat to Kenya, Kiplagat told me. He said the political process could not go ahead if Al Shabaab threatened the fragile government in Mogadishu.
Next, I looked for Retired General Lazarus Sumebiyo, the IGAD’s special envoy for the South Sudan Peace Process. The general told me that entering Somalia was the “dumbest thing” the government could have done; shorter, well-calibrated strikes targeting Al Shabaab, rather than a protracted ground intervention, could have done the job better. He alluded that the invasion marked a deviation from Kenya’s policy of regional diplomacy that has served the country so well in the past.
The general told me that entering Somalia was the “dumbest thing” the government could have done; shorter, well-calibrated strikes targeting Al Shabaab, rather than a protracted ground intervention, could have done the job better.
Almost a decade into the intervention, the “dumbest thing” continues with no end in sight. Instead of defeating and destroying Al Shabaab, the campaign has ruptured relations with Ethiopia, for decades, the nation’s most significant partner in the region.
II. Botched Military Campaign
Major Chirchir’s failure to answer some of the fundamental questions spoke to a much larger problem with the intervention: the military intervention was never approved by the National Assembly as required by the Constitution. Article 95(6) of the Constitution states: “The National Assembly approves declarations of war and extensions of states of emergency.” The Somalia intervention was announced by the Minister for Internal Affairs, George Saitoti, instead of the Minister for Defence, Yusuf Haji.
As a measure of how little strategic thinking went into the military campaign, the intervention was launched in October, a rainy season in Somalia, like in other countries in the Horn and East Africa region. Immediately after the attack started, most of the mechanised units got stuck in mud.
History is littered with significant and powerful armies humbled in battlefields by weaker opponents, especially in low-intensity conflicts. Fighting an unconventional militant group using a conventional method was always bound to fail in the long run. Al Shabaab has time on its side while a traditional army must go by the clock. They can outwait any traditional command, and forgetting this basic principle comes with a steep cost. But the Kenyan military seems to have learned little from their Somalia experience. The KDF has also maintained a domestic military operation against Al Shabaab in Lamu’s Boni Forest. This operation, like the operation in Somalia, has predictably stalled.
The Kenyan military’s initial media briefing was full of the bravado indicative of a short military campaign. It did not take long for assumed quick victory to recede from view; by June, less than eight months after the intervention, Kenya’s military ‘rehatted‘ by joining the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
Resigned cynicism has long replaced the early days of jingoism. The campaign has faded into background noise except for occasional media mention when the military suffers casualties. Its low priority in the collective Kenyan consciousness has insulated the leadership, including Parliament, from any form of accountability.
Although Kenya’s military intervention was during retired President Mwai Kibaki’s reign, President Uhuru Kenyatta has been an enthusiastic supporter. President Kenyatta, speaking about the intervention, said, “And in pursuance of this objective and that of the international community, our troops will continue being part of AMISOM until such time that our objective has been achieved.” However, there is little ground to suggest AMISOM, first deployed on 9 January 2007, is anywhere near achieving its goal. In military campaigns, an open-ended campaign without clear military and political goals invariably leads to mission creep.
III. Kenya and Terrorism
Kenya has been a target of international terrorist groups, but the attacks focused primarily on Western interests in Kenya because of the country’s perceived close alliance with the West. The first major terrorist attack on Kenyan soil occurred on New Year’s Eve in 1980, retribution for Kenya’s assistance to Israeli Defence Forces in Operation Entebbe. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine bombed the Norfolk Hotel, an upscale hotel frequented by foreign diplomats and in the past by the occasional head of state, such as Winston Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt. Most of the twenty fatalities and nearly 100 injured were not Kenyan.
On August 7, 1998, Al Qaeda in East Africa attacked the United States embassy in Nairobi, killing 213 and injuring more than 4,000 people. A simultaneous attack on the United States embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killed 11 and wounded more than 100. Somalia’s connections to Al Qaeda were instrumental in planning and carrying out these attacks.
Four years later, on December 28, 2002, Al Qaeda in East Africa attacked the Paradise Hotel, an Israeli- owned hotel in Kikambala, Kenya, killing 15 and injuring 80. The same day, the group attempted but failed to bring down Arkia Airline’s flight 582 from Mombasa’s Moi International Airport to Tel Aviv.
Following Kenya’s intervention in Somalia, Al Shabaab launched an unprecedented number of attacks on Kenyan soil, with most of their attacks focused on Kenyan interests and Kenyan citizens. These attacks occurred throughout the country, forming an arc across Northern Kenya, the Kenyan coast, and Nairobi. The violent response visited upon local communities in the name of counterterrorism complicated the problem.
The region has always been susceptible to spillovers from Somalia’s internal conflicts due to the long shared borders with Kenya and Ethiopia. Kenya’s ethnic Somali and other Muslim minorities experience festering contemporary disenfranchisement and historical marginalisation. The marginalisation is despite the decentralisation of power and resources in 2010 under the new constitution. Al-Shabaab took full advantage of Kenya’s vulnerabilities and porous border to tap into these grievances.
Al Shabaab also started attacking international aid workers, government officials, and military targets, while fueling tensions by specifically killing non-Muslim civilians. The most significant Al Shabaab attack to date in Kenya occurred on April 2, 2015, in Garissa County when shooters stormed Garissa University. During the attack, 147 Kenyans, mostly students, died and 79 were wounded. Five hundred people escaped the attacks, which witnesses say singled out Christians before shooting.
Inside Somalia, the KDF was not safe either. On the morning of January 15, 2016, Al Shabaab fighters attacked and overran an AMISOM forward operating base garrisoned by KDF troops from the 9th Rifle Battalion in the Battle of El Adde. By the end of the day, an estimated 141 Kenyan soldiers were dead. That figure would make the single most considerable loss for Kenya’s military since independence. Slightly over one year after the El Adde attack, on 27 January 2017, Al Shabaab took KDF’s military base briefly before being dislodged. In both incidents, the Kenyan government did not release the exact number of casualties; instead it played catch-up while disputing figures released by Al Shabaab.
Domestic attacks spurred the government to launch a strong response. Unfortunately, the choice of action came at a critical transitional moment. After decades of human rights violations, the Kenya police were finally undergoing structural transformation buttressed by provisions in the 2010 Constitution.
IV. Police Reform and Counterterrorism
As a response to deteriorating internal security, Kenya instituted a raft of legal, policy, and administrative moves. Parliament passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), established a new Anti-Terror Police Unit (ATPU), and launched counterterrorism operations across Eastleigh, coastal Kenya, and North- Eastern, all areas where Al Shabaab is active. These operations led to egregious human rights violations, disregard for due process of law, and resulted in extrajudicial executions and disappearances of suspected Al Shabaab members.
Several human rights organisations and the media have documented these violations. It is not just suspected Al Shabaab members who were targeted, human rights groups documenting government agencies’ violations were also targeted through legal and bureaucratic suffocation that paralysed their daily operations. This included closing their offices, taking away their computers, using Kenya Revenue Authorities to question their tax compliance, and freezing their bank accounts.
Domestic attacks spurred the government to launch a strong response. Unfortunately, the choice of action came at a critical transitional moment. After decades of human rights violations, the Kenya police were finally undergoing structural transformation buttressed by provisions in the 2010 Constitution.
However, the Kenya Police’s human rights violations documented by the media and human rights organisations within the context of counterterrorism operations are not an exception but rather a continuation of an established trajectory. The Kenya Police has a documented history of human rights violations and impunity. The Executive’s appointment of senior police leadership without oversight from the state’s arms before the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution made the Kenya Police malleable to the Executive’s demands. It conferred the impunity to intimidate political opponents.
There have been sustained efforts to reform the police in the past. The latest followed the eruption of violence following the 2007-2008 national elections. As part of the mediation process, the African Union (AU), under the auspices of a Panel of Eminent African Personalities, established a mediation team led by the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. As part of the diagnosis, the panel advocated that the government undertake security sector and other reforms to rein in the police.
As part of the mediation, the panel formed the Commission of Inquiry into Post-Election Violence (CIPEV), also known as the Waki Commission (named after the chairman of the commission, Justice Philip Waki). According to the Waki’s Commission, a total of 1,133 people died as a result of post-election violence, and gunshots accounted for 962 casualties and 405 deaths. This represented 35.7% of the fatalities, making gunshot the single most frequent cause of deaths during the post-election violence.
The Waki Commission recommended that “the Parties shall initiate urgent and comprehensive reform of the Kenya Police and the Administration Police. A panel of policing experts shall undertake such reforms”.
President Mwai Kibaki, in May 2009, established the National Task Force on Police Reform, also known as the Ransley Task Force (named after the chair of the commission, Justice Philip Ransley).
Chapter 14 of the 2010 Constitution further codified police reforms. The reforms sought to create a “visible” change to the police leadership in three ways. The law established: (1) the position of Inspector General of the Police (IGP) who is appointed by the President with Parliament’s approval; (2) a civilian oversight mechanism through the Independent Policing Authority (IPOA) and National Police Service Commission (NPSC); and, (3) bring the administration police and the regular police under a single IGP and two separate Deputy IGPs – the latter designed to enhance a clear line of command, control, and communications.
Collectively, these changes meant greater independence of the police from the Executive. But the invasion and the insurgents’ response to it created an environment that was not conducive for implementing the reforms. The need for a robust domestic response against Al Shabaab’s attacks on Kenyan soil saw the Kenya Police commit multiple human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions during counterterrorism operations in Muslim majority regions inside Kenya. The Police resorted to the tried and tested collective responsibility and intimidation methods in the form of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.
These violations were enabled via the loosening of legal safeguards against police violations. The upshot of the Kenyan police’s human rights violations was not only derailing the police reforms but was also providing Al Shabaab with propaganda material that they used to recruit further.
Those supporting the police’s response advance three main arguments.
One, terrorism is an extraordinary crime, and thus requires an exceptional response. This argument privileges security over liberty, creating a false, if not simplistic, choice. While not perfect, the Prevention of Terrorism Act provides a legal framework within which to fight terrorism. Additionally, there is no empirical evidence that policing that violates human rights leads to a decline in crime. On the contrary, it engenders distrust in the police among the affected community, thus making policing more difficult.
The second argument is the “a few rotten apples” theory – that there are only a few police officers committing human rights violations. The problem with this argument is that even if a few police officers engage in human rights violations, it is still too many. According to an online portal that tracks police violations by human rights groups, since 2007, Kenya Police have killed 689 people. These are figures that human rights groups have verified since the police do not keep the data. These figures could be higher because some cases go unreported.
Such statistics only provide a glimpse, and while helpful in understanding the depth of the crisis, miss the human element. Those who disproportionately bear the brunt of the police’s violations are young men living in slums in Kenya’s major urban areas.
The third defence is that whenever accused of violating human rights, the police ask, “Don’t the police also have human rights? Why don’t the human rights groups advocate for the police’s human rights as well?” This is a valid argument; however, the two issues are not mutually exclusive. One can advocate for police’s human rights while simultaneously asking for police’s accountability.
V. From Counterterrorism to Countering Violence Extremism
The police’s human rights violations are part of the reason behind the move away from counterterrorism to broader policies for countering violent extremism (CVE). CVE is anchored in a global shift in counterterrorism.
Policy trends in the West have a way of becoming mainstream and fashionable elsewhere because Western countries provide much of the funding to support research for policies that then end up being tested in a local setting like Kenya. Even when these policies are discredited in Western countries where they originate, they end up being adopted and accepted uncritically in the Global South.
Hence, Kenya and other countries pivot to CVE away from counterterrorism. This is in line with the global shift in the discourse regarding the utility of counterterrorism as a tool for fighting the rising tide of domestic terrorism, displacing the conventional focus on threats emanating from far-off countries. CVE is one such trend that has grown into a cottage industry that has generated new CVE “experts” overnight.
Policy trends in the West have a way of becoming mainstream and fashionable elsewhere because Western countries provide much of the funding to support research for policies that then end up being tested in a local setting like Kenya. Even when these policies are discredited in Western countries where they originate, they end up being adopted and accepted uncritically in the Global South.
While CVE initially emerged as a response to counterproductive consequences of counterterrorism, it has morphed into a banality hollowed out of its utility, meaning, and potency in time.
The remarkable aspect of CVE’s “trendiness” is that the diagnoses are hardly original, but rather, repackage a laundry list of solutions, some of which are borrowed from Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR). One of the overarching aspects of the CVE is the Danish or the Aarhus Model.
The Danish Model
Prevention of terrorism became a top item in Denmark’s political agenda in 2005 in the wake of the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004, the train bomb attacks in Madrid in 2004, and the bomb attacks in London in 2005. This, combined with the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten’s printing of twelve cartoons of Prophet Muhammad wearing a turban shaped like a bomb, lit a fuse.
Kwale, Lamu and Mombasa counties’ CVE plans were heavily borrowed from the Danish Aarhus Model, named after the Aarhus region. The model was developed when in 2009, the Danish Ministry of Refugee, Immigration and Integration Affairs was given European Union approval for a three-year pilot project on de-radicalisation. The project was launched in cooperation with the municipalities of Copenhagen and Aarhus, East Jutland Police District, and the Danish Security and Intelligence Service (PET).
The model also works at three levels: a) General – this level is principally about raising awareness through public information programmes; b) Specific – this level involves those who have been identified as individuals or groups who are planning to travel to join extremist groups; and c) Targeted – this intervention is designed for individuals and groups who are considered “imminent risk”. Activities at this level involve exit and mentoring programmes.
Further, the Danish CVE plan is a multi-agency affair involving the Danish Security and Intelligence Service Centre for Prevention, Ministry of Immigration, Integration, and Housing, and the Danish Agency for International Recruitment and Integration. The Danish approach draws on decades of experience with similar collaboration with other areas and benefits from existing structures and initiatives developed for other purposes than specifically preventing extremism and radicalisation.
However, adopting the model wholesale without considering the local peculiarities of Kenya misses the point that what works for Denmark does not necessarily work for Lamu, Kwale, and Mombasa. The biggest challenge in adopting the model in Kenya is that there is no national legal-policy framework regarding disengagement and reintegration of returnees, a third element of the Aarhus model.
VI. Amnesty for Al Shabaab
Following the Al-Shabaab attacks on Garissa University in which 147 people died, Kenya’s Interior Cabinet Secretary, Joseph Nkaissery, declared an amnesty for members of the group aiming to return to Kenya. According to Nkaissery, the amnesty was to “encourage those disillusioned with the group that wanted to come back“.
Under the amnesty, the returnees would receive protection, as well as rehabilitation and counseling. The programme claimed that it would support training and alternative livelihood methods through work with different governmental ministries.
In 2015, the amnesty was announced initially for an initial ten-day period. It was later extended by two weeks. In May 2015, the government stated that 85 youths had so far surrendered under the amnesty programme and that “the government had put an elaborate comprehensive integration programme to absorb those who had surrendered. A year and a half later, in October 2016, the government made the amnesty indefinite.
Reports claim that anywhere from 700 to 1,000 fighters have returned from Somalia, but the amnesty has not had any impact in terms of rehabilitation, and that these alleged programmes were non-existent. Consequently, the counties have increased their involvement (an approrpiate development), as the state response has been inadequate, and left mainly to civil society, but without government support. The mistrust of returnees from within the communities is an equally significant problem, along with livelihood issues.
Because of the diversity of the stakeholders involved and consulted, the county CVE plans provide a sound analysis of what predisposes young men and women to radicalisation and eventually joining violent extremist groups. The fact that discussions regarding the development of CVE plans were spearheaded by local civil society organisations also enhanced taking on board nuanced local realities. This also engendered legitimacy and trust from the communities.
The two aspects that have not been fully fleshed out in most of the plans are, first, the source of money in implementing the policies (for instance, the Mombasa County Action Plan budgeted for KSh430,223,000 for January- December 2018). However, the available funds were Sh128,000,600, or only 29.77 per cent of the allocation. Second, the importance of women, while mentioned, has not been addressed in detail.
Fighting violent extremism is an extremely challenging undertaking, but uncritically exporting solutions without customising them for local realities does not help. Besides, in the UK and the US, CVE has been discredited because it was primarily used as a surveillance tool on communities on an industrial scale.
VII. Geopolitics of the Horn of Africa
Besides failing to keep Kenyans safe and rendering police reform stillborn, Kenya’s intervention in Somalia damaged the country’s regional diplomatic clout and leverage, especially with Ethiopia, a key ally in the Horn of Africa. The Kenyatta government’s management of relations with Somalia has been even more problematic.
Despite being in a region bedeviled with constant conflict due to Cold War proxy relationships, Kenya remained unscathed by the Cold War’s vagaries. This enduring legacy survived despite the fact that Kenya, effectively an ally of the US, is surrounded by Ethiopia and Somalia, who were clients of the United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) and Cuba at different times.
Kenya’s president, Daniel Arap Moi, aware of the challenges of being sucked into any conflict, firewalled Kenya from being mired in regional conflicts by remaining ideologically ambivalent, at least in public. Kenya remained neither a friend nor a foe of any of these countries. Moi was making a virtue out of necessity considering his tenuous hold on power domestically.
Moi instead made Kenya a site for peace negotiations amongst warring groups in the region. Kenya was the venue for peace negotiations between the warring parties in South Sudan and Somalia. The Nairobi Agreement, a peace deal between the Ugandan government of Tito Okello and the National Resistance Army (NRA), a rebel group led by Yoweri Museveni, was signed in Nairobi in December 1985. Kenya carried the culture of hosting peace talks even after the end of the Cold War. The Sudan and South Sudan Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in Kenya.
Moi also appointed competent foreign affairs ministers, such as Dr. Robert Ouko, Dr. Bonaya Godana, and Dr. Zachary Onyoka, just to mention a few. Post-Moi, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not distinguished itself in conducting Kenya’s diplomacy.
The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia was formed in 2004 in Nairobi after many months of negotiations. The TFG was the 14th attempt at creating a functioning government in Somalia since the collapse of Muhammad Siad Barre’s government in 1991. Formed late in 2004, the TFG governed from Kenya until June 2005. The late Ambassador Bethuel Kiplagat led the negotiations.
Despite the Kenyan government’s treatment of Kenyan Somalis as a second-class citizens, bilateral relations between Kenya and Somalia were warm and cordial. Currently, relations between Kenya and Somalia are arguably the lowest in decades.
At the heart of the Kenya-Ethiopia-Somalia dispute is the question of who will control the semi-autonomous region of Jubaland. The central player in that dispute is Mohamed Madobe, the President of Jubaland. His militia, the Ras Kamboni Brigade, fought alongside the Kenya Defence Forces when Kenya intervened in Somalia.
When Kenya first intervened in Somalia in 2011, Ethiopia withdrew from Somalia since intervening unilaterally in 2006 to stop the ascent of the Union of Islamic Courts. But Kenya’s intervention was in Jubaland, a region predominantly occupied by the Ogaden, who have been fighting the Ethiopian government for decades in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region. There was no way Ethiopia could countenance that happening without them having a say. Besides, being Somalia’s breadbasket, the port of Kismaayo is also in Jubaland.
Since the collapse of Siad Barre in 1991, Ethiopia and Kenya maintained a united policy. But Kenya’s intervention changed that. While both countries are in Somalia with the primary purpose of defeating Al Shabaab, they are both now pursuing a different route. Ahmed Abiy’s coming to power in April 2018 gave this a further ascent. Until that point, Ethiopia principally supported the semi-autonomous regions under the guise of decentralisation. To many Somalis, Ethiopia was not interested in the emergence of a central government in Somalia. Since Abiy became the Prime Minister, Addis and Mogadishu have grown closer, shifting decades-long Ethiopia policy, and leaving Kenya and Ethiopia at loggerheads.
These differences were on full display during the Jubaland presidential election when Kenya supported Madobe, and Mogadishu and Ethiopia supported the opposition candidate. The Kenya-Ethiopia’s dispute continues to stymie AMISOM operations. The only actor benefiting from such open hostility is Al Shabaab.
The maritime dispute
For decades, Somalia regarded Kenya as a neutral arbiter, unlike Ethiopia, where long-standing resentments against Somalia have endured. Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia and its meddling in the country’s internal affairs have ruined Kenya-Somalia relations.
The150,000 sq.km maritime dispute with Somalia exacerbated the conflict. The disagreement, which came to the surface in 2004, could have been resolved amicably had officials at the Kenya International Boundaries Office (KIBO) taken the negotiations seriously. During the negotiations, Kenyan officials regarded their Somalia counterparts with disrespect, assuming that as a “failed state”, Somalia cannot negotiate on an equal footing. Kenyan officials also failed to show up for a meeting with Somalia without explanation. The case eventually ended up at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Instead of correcting earlier mistakes, Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs officers dug in their heels. It started engaging in reactionary moves like denying Somali diplomats entry visas and reintroducing flight stopovers in Wajir, thus substituting petulance for diplomacy.
VIII. The political settlement with Al Shabaab
Since 2011, Al Shabaab has been dislodged from many of its territorial strongholds, thanks to the 22,000-strong AMISOM troops and the Somali National Army. Yet Al Shabaab continues to control parts of south-central Somalia. Under President Donald Trump, the United States has also significantly increased drone attacks.
More significant is the fact that, according to AMISOM’s Transition Plan, AMISOM will be winding down in Somalia in December 2021. The departure is despite a lack of demonstrable improvement in the Somalia National Army’s capacity to take over. If Al Shabaab continues to pose security threats inside and outside Somalia despite these investments, what will that mean after AMISOM leaves Somalia?
One of the significant and fatal gaps in addressing the Somalia crisis is the singular and disproportionate focus of using the terrorism lens. “We do not negotiate with terrorists” became the overarching slogan, becoming almost an article of faith, foreclosing any model of thinking, planning, and programming to address the crisis in Somalia.
Expanding the focus of analysis and therefore suggesting potential solutions to include other models would help to negotiate a post-AMISOM reality. That should be helpful even if AMISOM stays in Somalia because there cannot be a never-ending mission. It must have an end date.
More significant is the fact that, according to AMISOM’s Transition Plan, AMISOM will be winding down in Somalia in December 2021. The departure is despite a lack of demonstrable improvement in the Somalia National Army’s capacity to take over.
Conflicts end either through total defeat, a stalemate, or a negotiated political settlement. In Somalia’s case, the complete collapse of Al Shabaab is highly unlikely. The group has developed a sophisticated mechanism of continuing to generate revenue, including taxation and recruitment, and continues to operate as an urban/rural guerrilla outfit capable of launching violent attacks with lethal outcomes. As a result, Somalia and Al Shabaab are engaged in a “mutually destructive stalemate”.
Kenya negotiated the Somalia process that eventually led to the Transitional National Government’s formation, the first government formed since the collapse of the Somalia government in 1991. It took several attempts of delicate negotiations. Kenya also played a significant role in resolving decades of civil conflict in Sudan that led to the formation of South Sudan. While negotiating with Al Shabaab is entirely different from the Sudan and Somalia negotiations, quite frankly, the only reasonable way of ending the present crisis is by a political settlement leading to Al Shabaab being part of the future Somalia government.
Some senior Al Shabaab figures would consider negotiating with the TFG if offered positions, while others would want to have their names removed from the UN and US terror lists. Still others, eager to rejoin society, seek general amnesty, and many would like to be resettled in a third country. All these incentives are a price not too high for peace in a country shattered by a civil war since 1991.
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