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Private U.S. Contractors Part of the ‘Kill Chain’ in East Africa Anti-Terrorist Operations

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A Cold War military procurement program, preferred private contractors, and escalating drone strikes in Somalia.

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Private U.S. Contractors Part of the ‘Kill Chain’ in East Africa Anti-Terrorist Operations
An armed U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone. Credit: U.S. Air Force
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It was early on a Sunday morning when Al-Shabab militants attacked the small airstrip next to a military base on Kenya’s north coast. Plumes of black smoke billowed into the sky as the militants destroyed six aircraft and killed three Americans, including two civilian contractors and one U.S. soldier.

In the wake of the January 5 attack, Fahim Twaha, the governor of Lamu County where Camp Simba is located, described the incident as “a foreign force attacking a foreign force on our soil.”

The U.S. military had been using the base, nestled in the normally sleepy Manda Bay, for East African operations for over a decade. The American presence, as well as the base, has expanded over the years, including the recent addition of new aircraft hangars, likely to protect sensitive technology installed on surveillance aircraft. In 2019, the U.S. mission at Camp Simba officially changed from “tactical” to “enduring operations.”

Now an investigation by OCCRP reveals that the U.S. military has been using the Kenyan base as a launchpad for surveillance aircraft supporting airstrikes in neighboring Somalia, with civilian contractors playing a pivotal role by providing intelligence on targets.

Flight data indicates a contractor-owned plane that was seen regularly in Manda Bay scouted sites for several drone strikes against Islamist militant group Al-Shabab that may have killed civilians in Somalia. Data collected by an antenna installed by OCCRP confirmed multiple privately owned surveillance planes operated from the base, often hidden behind a chain of limited liability companies that do not list their true owners.

Camp Simba conducts inaugural flag ceremony, Aug. 26, 2019. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Lexie West

Camp Simba conducts inaugural flag ceremony, Aug. 26, 2019. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Lexie West

Sean McFate, a former private military contractor now working with the Washington-based think tank Atlantic Council, said that in the past companies were brought in to help analyze U.S. military data, but not collect it.

“The ethical standard of who can pull the trigger has been slowly eroding over the last 30 years,” he said, explaining that even if private contractors are not involved in combat, they become “part of the kill chain” by providing intelligence for airstrikes.

“If they’re doing lethal operations, then I think we’ve crossed a threshold,” McFate said.

The U.S. military has confirmed to OCCRP that civilian contractors are also operating armed drones in East Africa.

“Contractors may operate an armed drone but they cannot make the decision to deploy the weapon system,” a public affairs officer for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM)  said in an emailed statement, citing U.S. regulations and policy.

“At their core, decisions to fire on the enemy may only be made by lawful combatants under the law of armed conflict. Our uniform-wearing service members are lawful combatants; our contractor teammates are not. So, we do not allow our contractor teammates to assume a role that would be unlawful under international law. Decisions that require the exercise of substantial discretion or value judgments when applying DoD [Department of Defense] authority, such as the employment of kinetic effects or the decision to target a particular military objective, cannot be made by a contractor.

For example, Contractor personnel may make technical decisions related to collection and operation of an armed drone, such as routing the collection asset. However, decisions requiring an exercise of substantial discretion or value judgements when applying DoD authority, such as the employment of kinetic effects or the decision to target a particular military objective, must be taken by a military member.”

U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) said the use of contractor pilots for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions is legal under domestic and international law. The public affairs office declined to confirm details or comment on specific aircraft and companies identified by OCCRP, citing operational security.

The U.S. military ramped up airstrikes in Somalia following the attack at Manda Bay, carrying out 42 by mid-2020, compared to 63 recorded in all of 2019.

U.S. security services started to focus on Kenya following the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy by Al Qaeda in Nairobi that killed 213 people. It was around this time that early iterations of Al-Shabab were developing north of the border, in Somalia, where the group still aims to establish an independent Islamic state.

At the peak of its powers, from around 2007 to 2011, Al-Shabab controlled large parts of Somalia, including much of the capital, Mogadishu. It has targeted Kenya in major attacks since 2013, a self-proclaimed retaliation for the Kenyan military’s entrance into Somalia two years earlier to defeat the extremist group. Since then, hundreds of Kenyan civilians have been killed and injured in large-scale terrorist attacks attributed to Al-Shabab in Nairobi, Lamu, and Garissa counties.

Most U.S. operations against militant groups in Somalia are carried out from Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, the largest permanent U.S. military base in Africa. The tiny base in Kenya’s Manda Bay, where the January attack took place, didn’t even make the Pentagon’s official base lists. Government tenders seeking contractors sometimes mention the location as an offshoot of Camp Lemonnier. According to public statements, there were fewer than 150 U.S. military personnel before the January attack; between 50 and 100 U.S. troops were deployed to the base immediately after.

Kenya is not just a passive host to American military operations. It has received more money, training and equipment from Washington than any country in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s also one of the world’s top five recipients of U.S. counterterrorism aid.

‘Constant Fear’

Last year, Asha Hassan, a mother of seven, left her home in Lower Shabelle, the region in Somalia most targeted by U.S. airstrikes. She and her children are among 1,300 families that have settled in the makeshift Alla Futo camp on the outskirts of Mogadishu. Another 36,000 people fled the region in the first three months of 2020, nearly all because of the conflict, according to the UN’s refugee agency.

“We fled from the planes that were hovering over us every night. These planes can drop things any time,” Hassan said. “We could not live there. We fled due to those problems and the constant fear.”

The U.S. first launched airstrikes against Al-Shabab in Somalia in 2007 and increased them significantly in 2016, according to data collected and analyzed by U.K.-based non-profit Airwars. They have ramped up again substantially since U.S. President Donald Trump loosened the rules of engagement three years ago.

Thousands of people have been killed by U.S. airstrikes in Somalia since 2007, including as many as 145 civilians, according to Airwars. The U.S. military only acknowledges five accidental civilian deaths since 2017. It’s unclear if there was a review of alleged civilian deaths over the previous decade.

Alla Futo camp on the outskirts of Mogadishu. Credit: Mohamed Ibrahim Bulbul

OCCRP’s investigation indicates that at least some of those drone strikes were based on intelligence gathered by private U.S. contractors operating out of Manda Bay.

OCCRP used flight tracking data and matched it to geo-coded airstrike data from Airwars, which also collects information on civilian casualties from official military statements, as well as media reports, NGOs and social media. The group cross-references claims of civilian casualties to try to confirm them, but notes that “we are often unable to follow up or to further verify such claims.”

On February 1 and 5, 2019, a contractor-owned Gulfstream jet flew repeatedly over a small area in Lower Shabelle, about 30 kilometers west of Mogadishu. It returned to the area on March 9. The plane had a particular flight pattern — near-perfect circles — and was likely collecting data with its specialized sensors, according to experts on the subject.

On February 6 and 11, and again on March 11, U.S. airstrikes hit areas the plane apparently surveyed. AFRICOM said 11 militants were killed in the first strike near the ancient seaside town of Gandarshe, which was directly below the Gulfstream’s flightpath.

Two more strikes were launched on Feb. 11 near Janaale, about 20 kilometers from the first drone attacks, again right under the Gulfstream’s flightpath. The U.S. military claimed that 12 militants were killed and no civilians — although reports collected by Airwars claim 13 civilians had died.

On March 9, the Gulfstream flew over a spot just kilometers northwest of Tuwaareey, which was hit by an air strike two days later. AFRICOM said eight militants were killed and that Al-Shabab was using the area to “direct terror attacks, steal humanitarian aid, extort the local populace to fund its operations, and shelter radical terrorists.” Information collected by Airwars, however, concluded that between one and seven civilians may have died.

A report released by AFRICOM this spring confirmed two civilian deaths in a separate strike that took place on February 23, 2019.

Visual of 2019 surveillance flights and airstrikes described in the story. Credit: Edin Pasovi

Visual of 2019 surveillance flights and airstrikes described in the story. Credit: Edin Pasovi

The Gulfstream aircraft that appears to have collected surveillance for these attacks was spotted near Manda Bay on several occasions. It’s registered to a company called AC-1425 LLC, a nod to the plane’s serial number. According to U.S. Federal Aviation Administration filings, it also belongs to Priority 1 Holdings LLC.

Incorporated in Delaware in 2017, Priority 1 has intimate links to the U.S. security establishment. Its former CEO, Andrew Palowitch, held two official postings at the Central Intelligence Agency and was director of the Space Protection Program, sponsored jointly by the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office. He also held executive positions at Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), one of the most profitable contractors in the U.S. defense industry, and Tenax Aerospace Holdings, an intelligence and defense contractor that boasts a former CIA Director and a former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command as board members.

Priority 1’s website says the company’s aviation operations are conducted through its subsidiary, AIRtec Inc., an “airborne services company” that had over US$10 million in government contracts in the past year. AIRtec lists the same model Gulfstream aircraft that may have gathered intelligence for the U.S. airstrikes in its fleet.

It’s unclear which U.S. government agency contracted Priority 1 or AIRtec for work in East Africa, or whether the aircraft was leased to another contractor.

FAA registration documents indicate a Florida condo as the address for Priority 1. Credit: Screenshot from Realtor.com

FAA registration documents indicate a Florida condo as the address for Priority 1. Credit: Screenshot from Realtor.com

When registering the plane, the company listed its address at a renovated $640,000 Florida condo with coastal views and quartz waterfall counters, and a phone number in Ireland.

The company bought the Gulfstream aircraft in 2018, and AIRtec promptly modified it to perform specialized missions, equipping the plane with camera and communications equipment suitable for military surveillance. They included a radar system that “can peer through foliage, rain, darkness, dust storms or atmospheric haze to provide real time, high quality tactical ground imagery, anytime it is needed, day or night,” according to a brochure from the manufacturer, Lockheed Martin.

Priority 1’s Gulfstream jet at Florida’s Opa Locka Executive Airport. Credit: Lee Barton

Priority 1’s Gulfstream jet at Florida’s Opa Locka Executive Airport. Credit: Lee Barton

Palowitch and Priority 1 declined to respond to detailed questions for this article, including whether the aircraft has conducted target surveillance over Somalia. Greg Kahn, general counsel for Priority 1, said the “questions are not appropriate for our company to be discussing.”

“This subject matter, as I am sure you are aware, is highly confidential,” Kahn said in an email.

OCCRP obtained a photo from the cockpit of a surveillance plane operated by contractors based at Manda Bay, then used Google Earth satellite imagery to identify the aircraft's location on the Somali coast. Credit: Samir

The Big Safari

Some of the companies operating in Manda Bay are contracted under the auspices of the secretive U.S. Air Force program named Big Safari, which was started to fast-track Cold War surveillance technology in 1952.

Critics say Big Safari’s opaque contracting process, which has awarded almost $158 billion to private companies since 2008, is vulnerable to corruption as it bypasses normal procurement procedures. They say contracts have been awarded to companies run by well-connected executives, including former military and intelligence officials, rather than dispensed through a competitive bidding process.

“The Air Force remains satisfied that the acquisition practices utilized by Big Safari are in accordance with the Federal Acquisition Regulation, Department of Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement, applicable Department of Defense Instructions, and Air Force guidance governing acquisition programs,” a public affairs officer said in an email.

One company that has faced accusations is L3Harris Technologies, which employed the two contractors killed in January and operated a surveillance plane that was destroyed in the attack. It is the top vendor of the Big Safari program, and government data shows that L3Harris won $4 billion in federal government contracts during the last U.S. federal fiscal year, which ended on September 30, 2019.

In 2017, before L3 merged with Harris Corporation, two Republican congressmen published an open letter alleging there was a “revolving door” of people moving between the military and L3. The representatives from North Carolina, Ted Budd and Walter Jones, said the company used “improper influence” over the contracting process to sell aircraft for use by the government of Yemen in the country’s ongoing civil war, with no competitive bidding process. They argued more cost-effective planes were available (including some made by a company in Budd’s district) and the Big Safari official in charge of steering the deal later resigned and went to work for L3. The Washington-based Project On Government Oversight notes in its Pentagon Revolving Door Database that L3 has hired several senior defense officials.

The company also made headlines that year, when prominent Kenyan anti-corruption advocate John Githongo and Congressman Budd called for an investigation into its role in a deal to sell armed surveillance aircraft to Kenya. They accused Kenyan officials of corruption, though a U.S. government investigation found no wrongdoing on the part of the Air Force program.

L3Harris continues to be a favored U.S. contractor. In a May 5 call with investors, executives said the firm had been buoyed by its close relationship with Big Safari at a time when many companies have been struggling with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

“One highlight was over $800 million in award activity from our leading position on the Big Safari programs,” said COO Chris Kubasik.

No one on the call mentioned L3Harris contractor Bruce Triplett, 64, or pilot Duston Harrisson, 47, who were killed during the attack in Manda Bay, when militants fired a rocket-propelled grenade into the plane they were taxiing along the air strip. Another contractor was badly injured but crawled to safety, the New York Times reported, while Army Specialist Henry Mayfield Jr., 23, was also killed.

Stephen Townsend, head of AFRICOM, told the U.S. Senate that Triplett and Harrisson “died while protecting the American people from the very real threat of Al Qaeda and Al-Shabab terrorist groups.”

But McFate noted the difference in response to the attack and the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia, when the deaths of 19 American soldiers prompted the U.S. to withdraw from the country.

“Americans do not care about dead contractors,” McFate said. “They care about dead soldiers, like Black Hawk Down, but nobody cares at all about a dead contractor.”

Another Big Safari contractor that had a prominent presence at the base in Manda Bay is AEVEX Aerospace, a company that operates contractor-owned planes in Africa for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

Formed in 2018 from three smaller defense companies and led by a former U.S. Special Operations Command officer, the firm won federal contracts worth $44 million in 2019. It also recently landed a classified contract to provide civilian pilots for operations in West Africa, according to the Paris-based news site Africa Intelligence. The pilots will operate MQ-9 Reaper drones and other intelligence-gathering aircraft.

AEVEX has advertised positions that would “interface with intelligence and operations elements” in Africa and operate surveillance equipment. In one ad, the company said its analysts are expected to build “patterns of life” and target descriptions, as well as conduct battle damage assessment.

At least two aircraft owned by subsidiary limited liability companies, but ultimately traced to AEVEX, have been spotted in Manda Bay. One is a helicopter with specialised equipment; the other is a Pilatus plane that had medical beds installed and the flight data recorder removed in 2018. The Pilatus has made multiple trips over Somalia, flight data shows.

L3Harris and AEVEX did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

For the past decade, private equity firms have fed the U.S. military’s increasing appetite for private contractors to provide intelligence, surveillance, and combat support.

Demand “has kind of gone off the charts,” Ryan Murphy, founder of advisory firm KAL Capital, told a drone industry publication in 2019. KAL Capital advised on the recent sale of AEVEX between two private equity firms, Trive Capital and Madison Dearborn Partners.

Madison’s investors include eight pension funds — one being the public Teachers Retirement System of Texas — and four foundations, including the University of Iowa’s endowment fund.

Priority 1 Holdings LLC is owned by Douglas Brennan, who also owns investment firm Stellwagen Group, which manages over $1.1 billion in aviation assets through private equity pools.

L3Harris has three controlling shareholders, including BlackRock, the largest asset management firm in the world, which services pensions, endowments, and foundations; the second biggest investment management company, Vanguard Group, which boasts $6.2 trillion in managed assets and over 30 million investors worldwide; and T. Rowe Price Group, a large asset management firm specializing in retirement plans and other investment vehicles.

Directly or indirectly, millions of people around the globe are invested in, and profiting from, private U.S. military contractors

‘Addicted to Contractors’

The situation at Camp Simba in Manda Bay is a microcosm of conflicts around the world in which the U.S. has come to increasingly rely on contracting military and intelligence operations to private companies.

Experts say a lack of publicly available information makes it hard to count the number of contractors involved in military operations, but their roles have dramatically increased since the 1990s when such duties fell almost exclusively to military personnel.

“The U.S. government has become addicted to contractors, whether they are Republicans or Democrats in the White House, because contractors give you some degree of plausible deniability,” said McFate.

The military says contractors allow for greater flexibility. “Resource constraints, unique requirements, and military manpower caps are just some of the reasons that make it necessary to augment military forces via contract or federal hiring action in order to accomplish the mission,” an AFRICOM public affairs officer said in an emailed statement.

Last year, the Pentagon spent $370 billion — more than half the U.S. defense budget — on contractors, according to a study by Brown and Boston universities. The researchers concluded “military contracting is at least as expensive, and often more expensive” for the government. McFate even suggests that because profit is an incentive for private companies, the practice may prolong wars.

Analysts question whether the money pumped into America’s war in Somalia has improved, or worsened, security in the country.

Following the Manda Bay attack, Air Force Col. Christopher Karns said that airstrikes “don’t provide a long-term solution to the terror problem,” but they “create organizational confusion in the ranks of Al-Shabab and an effective punch.”

An Al-Shabab propaganda statement following the attack in Manda Bay. Credit: Al-Shabab

An Al-Shabab propaganda statement following the attack in Manda Bay. Credit: Al-Shabab

Hussein Sheikh Ali, chairman of Mogadishu-based think tank Hiraal Institute and a former national security adviser to the current Somali president, warned the drone attacks could be backfiring.

Rather than weakening Al-Shabab, he said, the tactic strengthens the militant group, as drone strikes alienate civilians by destroying property, lives, and livelihoods. The drone war also allows Al-Shabab to frame the conflict as a struggle against an invading foreign power.

“After Manda Bay, it’s looking like a conflict between Al-Shabab and America — and that’s actually what Al-Shabab wants,” Ali said. “Al-Shabab wants to be seen that they are fighting a global superpower.”

AFRICOM acknowledges that the airstrikes may be used against U.S. interests, but dismisses the concern.

“Al-Shabab has repeatedly shown that they are willing to lie and use false propaganda to further their goals in Somalia, regardless of what the U.S. does,” a public affairs officer said in an emailed statement.

“When assessing Somalia, it is important to understand incremental progress has been made over the last decade as the result of a truly international effort inside the country,” they added.

Margot Williams, Carolyn Thompson, Katarina Sabados, Maria Gargiulo, Abdalle Mumin, Will Swanson, Mohamed Ibrahim Bulbul, Carlo Muñoz, Jared Ferrie, Juliet Atellah, and others who wish to remain anonymous contributed reporting. This story was produced with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and Freelance Investigative Reporters and Editors.

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Kira Zalan and Emmanuel Freudenthal are investigative journalists with OCCRP.

Long Reads

The Anatomy of Kenya Inc: How the Colonial State Sustains and Re-Creates Itself

The two tyrannies of ethnic expectation and institutionalised corruption feed off each other and are inextricably connected.

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The Anatomy of Kenya Inc: How the Colonial State Sustains and Re-Creates Itself
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The return to multipartyism in the early 1990s and the implementation of the 2010 constitution were seen by many as seminal moments in the democratisation of Kenya. However, in truth, they merely masked what essentially remains an unchanged bureaucratic-security state dating back to the colonial era that is today reproducing itself at the county level. The continuity and longevity of this state has chiefly been the product of an ideology of law and order created to protect the class and commercial interests of an African colonial elite.

For the colonial enterprise in Kenya to succeed, it needed local allies who would bring existing economic and political institutions into the newly created colonial order. However, this arrangement, which privileged the small white settler community, irrevocably corrupted and even usurped indigenous African authority and generated a collaborating class of African big men whose loyalty was no longer to kinship networks and ties but to the newly established colonial government.

Over time, the newfangled chiefly power and leadership of men like Koinange wa Mbiyu, Karuri wa Gakure, Njiiri wa Karanja, Mumia of Wanga, Ole Murumbi of the Maasai, Owuor Kere of Nyakach, Kinyanjui wa Gathirimu, Muhoho wa Gathecha, Michuki wa Kagwi and Ogola Ayieke resulted in a ready-made socioeconomic and political class to whom independence and state power could be entrusted in 1963.

It is therefore no coincidence that many of the politicians and senior government administrators who have dominated the top ranks of government and the civil service in post-colonial Kenya were scions of this class. These include the recently deceased Simeon Nyachae (son of Chief Musa Nyandusi), Joab Omino, the Mwendwa brothers (Eliud Ngala Mwendwa, who served as the Minister of Labour in Jomo Kenyatta’s cabinet, and Kitili Mwendwa, the first African Chief Justice of Kenya), John Njoroge Michuki, Kariuki wa Njiiri, Peter Mbiyu Koinange (son of Chief Koinange who also served as a powerful Kenyatta minister).

Although he was not himself the scion of a colonial-era chief, Jomo Kenyattta wisely married into chief Koinange wa Mbiyu’s family and, later, into that of Chief Muhoho wa Gathecha, thus founding one of Kenya’s foremost and lasting political dynasties. His immediate successor, Daniel arap Moi, established his own dynasty that is showing a similar political tenacity.

The return to multipartyism in the early 1990s and the implementation of the 2010 constitution were seen by many as seminal moments in the democratisation of Kenya. However, in truth, they merely masked what essentially remains an unchanged bureaucratic-security state dating back to the colonial era that is today reproducing itself at the county level

Jomo and the presidents who succeeded him have all sung the same refrain of law and order that was sang in colonial times. For this class of big men, political stability and the peaceful maintenance of the status quo has been the singular objective. Through a masterful stroke of political genius, Moi repackaged it into the populist appeal of his Nyayo philosophy of love, peace and unity. Mwai Kibaki, for his part, hinted at it when he reminded people that Kenya was a working nation and that there was nothing for free. At every stage of its evolution, the Kenyan state has had a steady hand at the helm ensuring the continuity of the ideology of order.

However, ensuring the survival of this vision amid the political reality of the Kenyan state with its veneer of democracy demands the suppression of all alternatives articulated and championed through political dissent. Beyond its preoccupation with the preservation of power, the ideology of order is thus also committed to protecting the Kenyan state and its brand of democracy from the people.

‘The danger to democracy is the people’

One of the colonial state’s greatest fears is the masses. Colonial authorities, and later, independent Kenya’s African ruling elite, were afraid the hordes of have-nots might rebel and challenge the politics of law and order as they had in 1952. Therefore, the imperative was to coopt, exclude or crush all dissenting voices in society. This is a task that the political heirs of the colonial state — led by Kenyatta and the scions of chiefly power such as his attorney general Charles Njonjo — fulfilled to the hilt.

Having already been recognised as the rallying political symbol through whom the hopes of the European community, London’s commercial interests and continued military presence, and the ideology of order could be secured, Kenyatta had his task already cut out for him on the eve of independence. He faced-off with the Kenya Land and Freedom Army — the Mau Mau — who sought to create an equitable society by any means, including violence. Unsurprisingly, early during Kenyatta’s tenure at the helm, much of the time was spent coaxing fighters to leave the forest and surrender their weapons.

One of the colonial state’s greatest fears is the masses. Colonial authorities, and later, independent Kenya’s African ruling elite, were afraid the hordes of have-nots might rebel and challenge the politics of law and order as they had in 1952

On the whole, Kenyatta attempted to temper the high expectations of ordinary Kenyans with his calls for Harambee (pooling together), pleas to forgive and forget the past and, consistent with the ideology of order which he understood only too well, entreating people to celebrate and embrace “uhuru na kazi” (“freedom and work”) — an appeal later echoed by Kibaki.

Toward the end of Kenyatta’s tenure, as his faculties were dulled by age, his ideological lieutenant, Njonjo, a chiefly big man in his own right, held guard against “dangerous agitators”. Njonjo openly threatened to jail the radical novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o who had just penned his incendiary novel, Petals of Blood which both London and Nairobi feared would inspire a revolution. The palpable and shared crowd-phobia by the custodians of the ideology of order shows they understood that “the danger to democracy is the people”, who had to be thwarted at every turn and by every means available to the state.

Moral anarchy and the culture of impunity

The colonial state was built not through consensus as a democracy, but by decree. Not only did the colonial system corrupt African traditional authority and contribute to the destruction of African morality — thus creating moral anarchy — but it also sowed the seeds of a political culture of impunity. Indeed, the colonial state was itself a result of impunity.

Two of Kenya’s largest corruption scandals, Goldenberg and Anglo Leasing, were enabled by this culture of impunity. The Goldenberg scandal, which occurred between 1990 and 1993 under Moi’s imperial presidency, entailed the government paying Goldenberg International special compensation for fictional exports of gold and diamonds. The total cost of the scandal is unknown, but some estimates indicate that up to 10 per cent of Kenya’s GDP was lost.

Anglo Leasing, which occurred between 1997 and 2003, involved payments to a British company under the guise of investing to improve Kenyan security services, such as $36 million for new high-technology “tamper-proof passports”. However, the scandal also involved payments to other fictitious corporate entities that were paid to supply naval ships and forensic laboratories. The fact that this scandal straddles both the Moi and Kibaki administrations is quite telling. It shows that high-level corruption in the country is deeply entrenched in the bureaucracy and is, therefore, systemic or institutionalised. Alluding to this repugnant systemic morass of corruption, John Githongo, the former anti-corruption tsar and whistleblower who served in the first half of Kibaki’s first administration as the Governance and Ethics Permanent Secretary, sadly observed in a public personal statement on May 2, 2019 that:

“The Anglo Leasing model of misappropriation of resources from the Kenyan people has continued unabated since 2001. . . . Over the past six years in particular the plunder of public resources has accelerated to levels unprecedented in Kenyan history since independence. Increasingly the economic, political, social and very personal cost of this plunder by officials in positions of authority has been borne by the Kenyan people directly.”

Illustration: Gado

Illustration: Gado

The Uhuru Kenyatta government too has been rocked by several corruption scandals including the Eurobond scandal which entailed the mysterious disappearance of over $1 billion after Kenya issued its first sovereign bond in 2014. The amounts of money said to have gone missing under Uhuru Kenyatta are staggering. It is not surprising that skyrocketing corruption under President Kenyatta, the country’s fourth, dwarfs all previous corruption scandals.

Flagrant and rampant corruption in the post-independence era has surprised even Kenya’s erstwhile rulers. Reacting to Anglo Leasing, the biggest scandal of the Kibaki era, Sir Edward Clay, the then British High Commissioner to Kenya, lamented that top figures of the hegemonic regime were eating “like gluttons” and vomiting “all over our shoes”.

This “eating” culture at various levels of the bureaucracy and in the high echelons of government is mirrored throughout society. Corruption permeates Kenyan society because it is the sort of society that the predatory state has created. In 2015, exasperated by rampant corruption, Dr Willy Mutunga, then Kenya’s Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Kenya, concluded that Kenya had become a “bandit economy”. The respected and high-ranking jurist complained that corruption stretched from the very bottom to the very top of society. As an apparatus transforming society, the Kenyan predatory state has created a sukuma wiki bandit economy characterised by survival by any means necessary.

Indeed, corruption so permeates society that it scarcely leaves anyone untouched or unaffected. The unwritten code is expressed in the African proverb, “the goat eats where it is tethered”. It is, therefore, not surprising to find corruption and the trading of favours, bakshish, among lawmakers, among revenue collection officials, among parents, teachers and students in schools and universities, among doctors, nurses and staff in hospitals, in the corridors of justice among judges and magistrates and even in the so-called disciplined forces including the police.

The colonial state was built not through consensus as a democracy, but by decree. Not only did the colonial system corrupt African traditional authority and contribute to the destruction of African morality — thus creating moral anarchy — but it also sowed the seeds of a political culture of impunity. Indeed, the colonial state was itself a result of impunity.

The poor remuneration of public servants, a poor incentive system for hard and honest work (due to nepotism and ethnic discrimination) and socioeconomic frustrations caused by unemployment or underemployment, force ordinary citizens to resort to corruption. Working people, much like a tethered goat, tend to eat where they are “tethered”, or, put differently, use the nature of their work to look after themselves. Professional people, therefore, do not only find it necessary but also morally easy to exploit their professions or their workplace because of such tacit African cultural sanction of bakshish – acceptance of relatively small gifts or money in return for services rendered. In the meld of African traditional values and modernity in a society imbued by corruption, the line between gratitude and corruption is blurred.

In this way, therefore, the strategies adopted for material survival by school principals, the military, lawmakers, judges, magistrates, the police and other civil servants, people in the private sector, and even criminals, are not dissimilar from those used by leaders to accumulate power and wealth. Thus, the tempting image of innocent, by-standing masses, or viewing the Kenyan public as victims of grand corruption, is shattered. There is, therefore, no prospect of a united demand for clean government. It could even be said that very few Kenyans qualify to make such a demand.

Illustration: Afrobarometer

Source: Afrobarometer

In Kenya, the bribes collected go by many words: bakshish, chai (tea) or kitu kidogo (something small). In this sukuma wiki bandit economy characterised by predatoriness, survival is at any cost. Hence, the civil servant and other officials who are poorly remunerated, or simply harbour an insatiable greed for riches, make their living or build their fortunes off the people they serve rather than from their meagre salaries.

Even heads of public schools are known to charge exorbitant tuition and illegally admit students, while in hospitals, necessities like mattresses and bed sheets, even prescription drugs, are known to be sold-off by poorly paid staff. At times, members of the police force, politicians and other public authorities, are forced to collude with the criminal underworld. Facing harsh laws or the lynch mob, young criminals have no choice but to kill or be killed, unleashing a veritable balance of urban terror. This can also be interpreted as an unlawful effort at a re-distribution of the resources hoarded by the rich in society. In major cities, rural areas and townships, local people engage in all sorts of vandalism of public service installations and petty theft. In other more remote localities, traditional raiding or cattle rustling, for example in the North Rift region and the North Eastern Province, this survival-by-all-means bandit economy translates into a form of political action.

Culturally and structurally, therefore, both the state and Kenyan society have mutually transformed each other, producing a national psyche characterised by moral anarchy and primal greed; the state and society mutually reinforce each other in entrenching unabated, runaway corruption, a culture of impunity, and politics of (dis)order.

Illustration: Gado

Illustration: Gado

The twin tyranny of political tribalism 

At the core of the bane of politics in post-independent Kenya is the twin tyranny of political tribalism. On the one hand is the tyranny of the masses, that is, the pressure that different ethnic groups — and seasonal and shifting ethnic-political alliances — place on their respective ethnic bigwigs. On the other is the tyranny of the ruling class that is responsible for the institutionalisation of grand malfeasance. These two tyrannies feed off each other and are, as such, inextricably connected.

With political consciousness and organisation restricted only within the bounds of discrete, administratively designated “ethnic regions” during the colonial era and well into the postcolonial period, wealthy politicians have acted as guardians or custodians of their respective ethnic groups to the exclusion of all others within the political context of perceived stiff competition for public goods or state power.

The masses, as ethnic political “patrons” — either pursuing their real or perceived pan-ethnic interests — neither have tribal innocence nor are they innocent of the endless accumulation and concentration of power in the hands of the political elite without accountability, and the perpetuation of corruption. After all, when they act, whether at the ballot box or when they defend their ethnic elite “clients” even when they are accused of grand corruption, they do so simply along ethnic lines.

Both in the colonial and postcolonial periods, therefore, ethnicity (political tribalism) acts as the main vehicle through which dominance and the preservation of power and resources are achieved. In turn, ethnic political elites are beholden to “their own”; they are expected by their respective ethnic groups to defend and expand real or perceived pan-ethnic interests and opportunities with regard to the modern economic, or civic public, sector.

This, then, is the first tyrannical twin of political tribalism. A classic case of the tail wagging the dog or, as E.S.A. Odhiambo puts it in The Political Economy of Kenya, the logic of patron-client relationships turned upside down. According to Odhiambo, political entrepreneurs:

“Came to the threshold of state power with a specific objective. The bottom line for all of them was that they had to ‘deliver the goods’. . . . To maintain and reproduce their bases of power, they had to recruit, sustain, and reward their followers from time to time. . . . The peasants have the latitude, at elections, to shift their patronage. The fascination with the fact that the Kenyan member of Parliament is vulnerable at election time should acknowledge the fact of peasant choice as well as the peasants’ success at insisting on accountability by the parliamentary representative to his constituents. Put more directly, the masses put the leaders on the run to the gates of Parliament. ‘They invaded the state with society at their heels rather than imposed it on the people. They were accountable to an elected democracy’.”

But at times, indeed, more often than not, and increasingly over the course of time, to do so – delivering public goods to sustain the support of their patrons, namely, their close individual supporters/enablers or cronies and tribes – politicians, as tribal clients, have no recourse but to seek to gain private capital out of the public domain. State coffers are, therefore, raided rather blatantly by the political elite in order to benefit their immediate and extended families (nepotism), ethnic communities (tribalism) and/or elite cronies and political allies.

This, then, is the second twin tyranny of political tribalism: rampant, massive and seemingly endemic institutionalised corruption unleashed on the nation by the political elite in their quest for the accumulation, concentration and perpetuation of power and (re)producing themselves. This is the conundrum of the twin tyranny of political tribalism. On the one hand, a collection of patron-tribes acting as rational actors exacting high expectations of public goods on their clients, their corresponding ethnic political elites. And on the other hand, insatiable politicians who exploit ethnicity and such tribal expectations and demands to profit by looting the public domain. There are, after all, no serious investigations into subsequent and ever increasing corruption scandals.

Tribal bigwigs are untouchable sacred cows even when implicated or involved in appalling corruption scandals. After all, they enjoy the unstinting support of their tribes who would rather be “eaten” by the hyena they think they know (a politician from their own ethnic group) than one they neither really know nor care to know (a politician from a different ethnic group).

It is not surprising, therefore, that when it comes to fighting corruption, Kenyans are rather resigned to their fate. Politics, for the most part, is viewed as an inherently flawed and dirty game; a rather cynical acceptance that ordinary citizens can do nothing about it except vote for political tribalism. This languid attitude ensures that, collectively, ordinary people are unsafe and are, more often than not, not at the table but, rather, on the menu. And so goes the vicious cycle, the Kenyan political circus window-dressed as a paragon of Western democracy in Africa although multiparty elections are largely nothing more than ethnic contests that take place every five years.

The Configuration of State Patronage / National Finance Grid (NFG)

Fig. 1. The distribution of state finance capital in the Kikuyu-centric Kenyatta state, 1963–1978.

Fig. 1. The distribution of state finance capital in the Kikuyu-centric Kenyatta state, 1963–1978.

Fig. 2. The distribution of state finance capital in the Kalenjin-centric Moi state, 1978–2002.

Fig. 2. The distribution of state finance capital in the Kalenjin-centric Moi state, 1978–2002.

The ideology of the propertied elite is thus shored up by the pervasive ideology of tribalism which defines the struggle and capture of state power. The corresponding democracy emanating from within such a political system is one in which the election-winning strategy is based purely on ethnic considerations. Political and economic competition in the context of tense inter-ethnic relations has a deleterious and blighting effect on a range of important institutions that generally give states their form, stability and longevity.

The highly ethnicised nature of Kenyan politics and the stultifying and stunting sway and monopoly of ethnic kingpins has historically created personality cults and hegemonic political dynasties that hark back to the very first collaborating class of African big men who were produced by the colonial order of the early 20th Century.

Culturally and structurally, therefore, both the state and Kenyan society have mutually transformed each other, producing a national psyche characterised by moral anarchy and primal greed

Having reproduced itself over the years, this political class has consolidated a hegemony that enables it to flaunt, subvert or circumvent institutions based on democratic values such as the constitution that guaranteesfreedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of meeting, freedom of association, the rule of law; a free and independent judiciary; an independent election commission; public integrity and control bodies; and the civil service, among others.

But it is the generic political partyfounded on principles or championing social issues of concern and pursuing clear ideological positions that has, arguably, borne the brunt of dynastic and tribal politics. In the face of political tribalism and dynastic politics, the democratic multiparty political system is weakened and stultified. Ethnicity, the fulcrum on which national politics revolves has, therefore, implied the inexorable death of the political party in Kenya.

This is the unspoken consequence of the double tragedy of the twin tyranny of political tribalism that exists beneath the thin veneer of the preponderant ideological insistence on “order”, a political “order” underpinned by moral anarchy and the assorted vagaries of political tribalism. One, moreover, that suppresses political dissent and one, therefore, that is, at once, anti-people and, thus, anti-democratic, chaotic and violent; and one that perpetuates the endless search for, and accumulation of, power accompanied by skyrocketing corruption. It is, alas, political disorder that is based on a false political stability enforced by the state security apparatus – regular and anti-riot police, intelligence services and the army.

In post-independent Kenya, therefore, the colonial ideology of order is sustained through the very means that were used at the state’s inception – force, authority, bureaucracy and power.

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Enhancing the Digital Transformation of African Universities: COVID-19 as Accelerator

African universities must transform higher education. At stake is the future of the African continent and humanity itself, as much of this humanity becomes increasingly African.

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Enhancing the Digital Transformation of African Universities: COVID-19 as Accelerator
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The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated global economies, healthcare systems, and institutions including universities. It has accelerated trends towards the digitalisation of economic and social life and the need for digital skills. Here we focus on how African higher education institutions can embrace these changes in order to survive and succeed in the emerging “new normal”. The pandemic has exposed the huge developmental challenges that African universities face, while at the same time it has opened immense new opportunities for transformation. The continent is indeed at the proverbial crossroads in which the multiple demographic, economic, ecological, political and social problems confronting it can be turned into possibilities if managed with strategic, systemic and smart interventions, and the seriousness they deserve.

One of the continent’s biggest assets is its rapid population growth. If properly harnessed, the youth bulge not only promises to become the continent’s largest population ever, but also potentially its most educated and skilled. It is this population upon whose weighty shoulders the continent has placed a historic opportunity to overcome its half millennia of global marginality, underdevelopment and dependency, and begin realising the long-deferred dreams of constructing integrated, inclusive, innovative democratic developmental states and societies. The ghastly alternative is a Malthusian nightmare of hundreds of millions of uneducated, unemployable, and ungovernable marauding masses of young people, a future of unimaginable dystopia.

Educational institutions including universities have a monumental responsibility to turn the youth explosion into a dividend rather than a disaster. This entails removing prevailing skills and jobs mismatches, upgrading the employability skills of the youth, and strengthening and reforming educational institutions to prepare them for the jobs of the 21st century, which increasingly require digitalised competencies. For this to happen, higher education institutions themselves must undergo and embrace digital transformation. COVID-19 suddenly shoved universities—which are renowned for their aversion to change and notoriously move at a snail’s pace—into the future as they moved teaching and learning, administrative and support services, research activities, and even their beloved seminars, symposia, and conferences online.

The ghastly alternative is a Malthusian nightmare of hundreds of millions of uneducated, unemployable, and ungovernable marauding masses of young people, a future of unimaginable dystopia.

Here we examine the digital transformation of higher education. First, we begin by placing the changes, challenges, and opportunities facing contemporary Africa in the context of the mega trends of the 21st century in which the digitalisation of the economy, society, politics, work, education, and even leisure and interpersonal relations increasingly loom large. Second, we examine global developments in the digitalisation of higher education. Third, we present a twelve-point digital transformation agenda for African universities. Finally, the question of building Africa’s technological capacities to ensure that the continent is a major technological player and not pawn, dynamic creator not just passive consumer of technology, is broached and analysed. We believe without it, the digital transformation of not only African universities, but the continent’s economies and societies will remain incomplete and keep them in perpetual underdevelopment.

The mega trends of the 21st century 

There is no shortage of diagnoses and prognoses of the trends and trajectories of the 21st century by international agencies, consultancy firms, governments, academics and pundits. The projections and predictions of the future are as varied as their progenitors and prognosticators, reflecting their divergent institutional, ideological, intellectual, and even individual investments and proclivities. At a more collective and policy level, they find articulation in national, regional, and global visions. Examples include Kenya’s Vision 2030, East Africa’s Vision 2050, the African Union’s Agenda 2063, and the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The futuristic soothsayers were particularly busy at the turn of the new century and millennium but they are by no means gone. A recent compelling and controversial forecast of the unfolding century can be seen in Yuval Noah Harari’s book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. He identifies five developments under which he outlines specific challenges. The first is what he calls “The Technological Challenge” (under which he discusses disillusionment, work, liberty, and equality); second, “The Political Challenge” (community, civilisation, nationalism, religion, and immigration); third, “Despair and Hope” (terrorism, war, humility, God, secularism); fourth, “Truth” (ignorance, justice, post-truth, science fiction); and fifth “Resilience” (education, meaning, meditation).

One of us (Zeleza) is writing a book, The Long Transition to the 21st Century: A Global History of the Present, which seeks to examine the major features of the contemporary world, how they came about, and their differentiated manifestations in different world regions. It is divided into five chapters. The first is entitled, “The Rise of the People” (on social movements and struggles for emancipation and empowerment); the second, “The Emergence of Planetary Consciousness” (on the development of global consciousness fostered by the processes of globalisation and growth of environmental awareness); the third, “The Digitalisation of Everything” (on transformations brought about by digital information and communications technologies on every aspect of social life); the fourth, “The Restructuring of the Geopolitical Order” (on shifting global hegemonies, hierarchies and struggles); and the fifth, “The Great Demographic Reshuffle” (on changing demographic regimes and migration processes and patterns).

Three of these phenomena are particularly pertinent here. The first centers around the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The term often refers to the emergence of quantum computing, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, machine learning, data analytics, big data, robotics, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and the convergence of the digital, biological, and physical domains of life, and the digitalisation of communication, connectivity, and surveillance. Africa has participated in the three revolutions lately as a pawn rather than a player.

During the First Industrial Revolution of the mid-18th century the continent paid a huge price through the Atlantic slave trade that laid the foundations of the industrial economies of EuroAmerica. Under the Second Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century Africa was colonised. The Third Industrial Revolution that emerged in the second half of the 20th century coincided with the tightening clutches of neo-colonialism for Africa. If the continent continues to be a minor player, content to import technologies invented and controlled elsewhere, its long-term fate might not be confined to marginalisation and exploitation as with the other three revolutions, but descent into irreversible global irrelevance.

The second major trend centers on hegemonic shifts in the world system. The global hegemony of the West that has survived over the last half millennium appears to be drawing to a close with the rise of Asia and other emerging economies of the global South. A harbinger of the hegemonic rivalries that are likely to dominate much of the 21st century is the trade war between a declining United States and a rising China. The consequences of previous hegemonic struggles for global power for Africa varied.

The imperial rivalries between Britain, the world’s first industrial power, and industrialising Germany, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries culminated in the “New Imperialism” that engendered both the colonisation of Asia and Africa and World War I. In contrast, the superpower rivalry between the former Soviet Union and the United States spawned the geopolitical spaces for Asian and African decolonisation. What will the current reconfiguration of global power bring for Africa? How can Africans ensure it creates opportunities for development?

If the continent continues to be a minor player, content to import technologies invented and controlled elsewhere, its long-term fate might be descent into irreversible global irrelevance.

Africa’s prospects in the 21st century will be inextricably linked to the third major transformation, namely, the profound changes in world demography. This is characterised by, on the one hand, an aging population in the global North and in China thanks to its one-child policy imposed from 1979 to 2015, and on the other, population explosion in some regions of the global South, principally Africa. Currently, 60 per cent of the African population is below the age of 25.

The continent is expected to have, on current trends, 1.7 billion people in 2030 (20 per cent  of the world’s population), rising to 2.53 billion (26 per cent) in 2050, and 4.5 billion (40 per cent) in 2100. It is estimated that in 2100 Africa will have a large proportion of the world’s labour force. Thus, educating and skilling Africa’s youths is critical to the future of Africa itself and the rest of the world. Doing so will yield a historic demographic dividend, whereas failure will doom Africa’s prospects for centuries to come.

The digitalisation of higher education

Higher education institutions have a fundamental role to play in enhancing the development and nurturing of demand-driven digital and technical skills because of their quadruple mission, namely, teaching and learning, research and scholarship, public service and engagement, and innovation and entrepreneurship. This mission is particularly pressing for African universities, the bulk of which were established after independence by the developmentalist state as locomotives to catapult the continent from the perils of colonial dependency and underdevelopment to the possibilities of sustainable development.

As with every other sector, higher education institutions are facing massive transformations that require continuous reform to make them better responsive to the unyielding and unpredictable demands of 21st century economies, societies, polities, and ecologies. The restructuring of universities is necessitated by pervasive and escalating digital disruptions, rising demands for public service and engagement, changes in the credentialing economy, and escalating imperatives for lifelong and lifewide learning. Given the changing nature and future of jobs, today’s youth will not only have multiple jobs but several careers, some of which have not even been invented.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic exposed widespread differences and inequalities in terms of national capacities to manage the crisis and its costs. It forced higher education institutions around the world to embrace distance teaching and learning using online platforms as never before. They had to learn to do more with less as their financial resources became strained as never before and their faculty and students faced the stresses of massive readjustment. Many institutions rose to the occasion as they leveraged existing and acquired new digital technologies, while faculty and students adapted to the new normal.

Empty class.

Empty class. Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

The unprecedented crisis revealed differentiated institutional resources, access to information technology, and capabilities to transition to online teaching and learning. The pandemic also underscored challenges of access by faculty and students to digital technologies and broadband based on the social dynamics of class, location, gender, and age. It simultaneously exposed and eroded prevalent distrust and discomfort with online compared to face-to-face teaching and learning, and widespread concerns about the quality of online instruction by students, parents and employers.

A few months before the world was engulfed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Association of Universities published an important report on Higher Education in the Digital Era. The report contained results of a global consultation encompassing 1,039 public and private higher education institutions in 127 countries (29 per cent from Europe, 27 per cent Asia and the Pacific, 21 per cent Africa, 17 per cent Middle East, 5 per cent Latin America and Caribbean). Globally, only 16 per cent of respondents found national regulatory policies supportive for higher education transformation in the digital era; 32 per cent mostly supportive with some exceptions; 36 per cent variably supportive and constraining; and 17 per cent mostly unsupportive. The responses from African institutions were 19 per cent, 26 per cent, 37 per cent, and 19 per cent, respectively. Overall, Asia had the most positive assessment, and Europe the most negative.

Today’s youth will not only have multiple jobs but several careers, some of which have not even been invented.

The report also investigated the national financial framework for higher education. Only 7 per cent globally deemed the frameworks highly supportive; 26 per cent mostly supportive with some exceptions; 43 per cent variably supportive and constraining; and 24 per cent mostly unsupportive. Overall, Asia led with 43 per cent, reporting highly and mostly supportive, followed by the Middle East at 40 per cent, Latin America and the Caribbean at 36 per cent, Africa at 30 per cent, and Europe at 27 per cent.

As for Internet infrastructure, the variations favoured the more developed regions. The proportion of individuals out of 100 using the Internet stood at 80.9 in the developed countries, 45.3 in developing countries, 19.5 less developed countries, and a world average of 51.2. Europe led with 79.6, followed by the Commonwealth of Independent States 71.3, Americas 69.6, Arab States 54.7, and Africa was at the bottom with 24.4. The quality of the Internet infrastructure in Africa is exceptionally poor: only 7 per cent find it satisfactory, compared to 39 per cent in Europe, and 21 per cent in Africa find it not good, compared to 2per cent in Europe.

There are also glaring inequalities in the spatial distribution of Internet facilities. At a global level, 34 per cent reported that Internet infrastructure was good in big cities, but poor in rural areas. The equivalent figures were 58 per cent for Latin America and the Caribbean, 47 per cent for Asia and the Pacific, 39 per cent for Africa, 26 per cent for Middle East, and 17 per cent for Europe.

Clearly, enhancing the technological transformation of higher education depends on the levels of national investments in IT infrastructure. The global digital divide remains real and daunting. High inequalities in the spatial distribution of Internet facilities deprives tens of millions of people around the world, especially Africa, access to information, knowledge and networks. Equally critical are institutional investments in IT and here too, Africa lags awfully behind. According to the IAU report, 39 per cent noted digital infrastructure was a significant obstacle at the institutional level compared to 7 per cent in Europe, representing the highest and lowest global levels, respectively.

Higher education and research institutions tend to use national research education networks (NRENs) as an alternative to the commercial Internet Service Providers. On the issue of national support for NRENs, Africa is also at the bottom with 67 per cent of respondents noting the level of support was very or somewhat high compared to the world average of 71 per cent, and 74 per cent for Asia and Pacific, 73 per cent for Middle East, 72 per cent for Europe, and 50 per cent for Latin America and Caribbean.  Africa led in the use of NRENs by higher education institutions at 70 per cent compared to a world average at 62 per cent, the same as Asia and Pacific, and 68 per cent for Latin America and the Caribbean, 64 per cent for Middle East, and 56 per cent for Europe.

Technology at University of Washington, Seattle, United States

Information Technology infrastructure at University of Washington, Seattle, United States Photo by Taylor Vick on Unsplash

Institutional commitment to digital transformation is obviously critical to making the necessary investments in IT infrastructures. The IAU’s report shows generally high levels of commitment from institutional leaders. Africa led with 77 per cent claiming strong leadership support, compared to 74 per cent for Middle East, 73 per cent for Asia and Pacific, 70 per cent for Europe and 61 per cent for Latin America and Caribbean. At a global level, advocacy for digital transformation was bottom-up (56 per cent) rather than top-down (41 per cent). For Africa it was 34 per cent and 63 per cent, respectively. Top-down strategies were most pronounced in Europe (49 per cent) and Latin America and Caribbean (49 per cent), while Middle East led with bottom up approaches (70 per cent).

Approaches to digital transformation varied. Only 18 per cent of respondents globally, and 18 per cent in Africa, and 14 per cent each in Europe and Latin America and Caribbean, 21 per cent in Asia and Pacific, and 33 per cent in Middle East expected to continue doing the same things in their teaching and governance with technology. A larger proportion 43 per cent at the global level expected to do things differently with technology; for Africa the proportion was 16 per cent, Latin America and Caribbean led with 63 per cent, followed by Europe 53 per cent, Asia and Pacific 45 per cent, and Middle East 26 per cent. In Africa, 63 per cent were planning to do things differently but were limited by funds, while globally the figure was 38 per cent, and for Middle East 41 per cent, Europe 33 per cent, Asia and Pacific 32 per cent, and Latin America and Caribbean 23 per cent.

Digital transformation was integrated in institutional strategic plans in all the regions. According to the respondents, globally it was 75 per cent, ranging from 77 per cent for Africa, Asia and Pacific, to 76 per cent for Latin America and Caribbean, 74 Europe and 73 Middle East. Budget allocation for digital transformation was 55 per cent, from a high of 60 per cent in Africa to a low of 50 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean, with Middle East (56 per cent), Asia and Pacific (55 per cent), and Europe (51 per cent) in between. Overall, the bulk of the institutional budget allocated was mostly between 0 and 9 per cent (35 per cent) and 10 and 19 per cent (29 per cent). In most cases, 73 per cent of institutions reported having a senior person in charge of digital transformation. Training opportunities for faculty and staff were generally in the same range.

The survey further revealed regional divergences in online governance of student data and learning processes. Globally, 63 per cent of institutions reported managing enrolment and student data fully online, with a high of 72 per cent in Europe and a low of 55 per cent in Africa, and 70 per cent for Middle East, 60 per cent for Asia and Pacific, and 58 per cent for Latin America and Caribbean. But the use of learning management systems was lower. The range as reported by institutional leaders was from 47 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean to 24 per cent in Africa, while it was 40 per cent in Asia and Pacific, 34 per cent in Europe, and 33 per cent in Middle East. Online data management creates both new possibilities and perils in tracking and managing student enrolments, learning, and outcomes. This raises the issue of data privacy and protection. Globally, 55 per cent of institutions reported fully having ethical guidelines or data privacy policies. Africa ranked lowest at 43 per cent, compared to 65 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean, 64 per cent in Europe, 49 per cent in Asia and Pacific, and 41 per cent in Middle East.

Similarly varied was the use of technology and new modalities in teaching and learning. The global average for full integration of technology in teaching was 31 per cent. Africa ranked second to Middle East at 38 per cent and 40 per cent, respectively. The lowest was Latin America and the Caribbean at 11 per cent, followed by Asia and Pacific at 33 per cent, and Europe at 23 per cent per cent. When it comes to the full use of the new teaching modalities of flipped classroom, blended and online learning, Africa ranked last at 14 per cent, and Latin America and Caribbean on top at 49 per cent, while Asia and Pacific scored 32 per cent, Europe 24 per cent, and Middle East 22 per cent. The global average was 27 per cent. Very few of the responding institutions provided fully online courses: 32 per cent had none, in 14 per cent of institutions they comprised 1 to4 per cent of all courses, and in 13 per cent between 5 and9 per cent.

In much of the world the majority of undergraduate courses were largely delivered through lectures. Africa led in the category “mostly lecture-based learning but combined with problem-based learning”, scoring 56 per cent against a world average of 49 per cent, and ranked lowest under “mostly problem-based learning but combined with lectures” at 11 per cent compared to a world average of 19 per cent. Only 35 per cent of institutions globally reported having fully reconsidered the skills and competencies required of students in the past three years. The regional rankings were Latin America and Caribbean (56 per cent), Asia and Pacific (36 per cent), Europe (35 per cent), Africa (31 per cent), and Middle East (22 per cent). As for reviews of learning outcome assessments, the global average was 42 per cent, and was lowest in Africa at 33 per cent and highest in Latin America and Caribbean at 49 per cent.

Digital literacy is increasingly becoming a critical skill. However, the survey revealed relatively low levels of national support for digital literacy and computational thinking. The global average reporting “Yes, very much” was 19 per cent; Africa registered at the bottom with 12 per cent, while Asia and Pacific and Middle East were on top with 19 per cent each. At the institutional level, digital literacy was viewed as a transversal learning outcome in 22 per cent of the responding institutions globally, the same figure as Africa.

Equally low were levels of national support for open educational resources (OER). In terms of national initiatives in favour of OER, the global average for “Yes, very much” was 16 per cent, similar to Africa’s. The global average for support for online bibliography or library for online content was 23 per cent and for Africa 16 per cent compared to a high of 32 per cent each for Europe and Latin America and Caribbean. At the institutional level only 19 per cent reported fully creating and using OER at the global level, while in Africa 9 per cent did so, which was below the other regions. Commitment to open science was much lower at the national level (17 per cent) compared to the institutional level (56 per cent).

The impact of digital transformations on the nature of jobs and future of work is increasingly appreciated. As a result, continuous reskilling and upskilling through lifelong learning is becoming more and more imperative. Only 18 per cent of respondents globally agreed “Yes, very much” that there were national initiatives in support of lifelong learning; for Africa it was 16 per cent, Europe 24 per cent, Asia and Pacific 18 per cent, Middle East 14 per cent, and Latin America and Caribbean 8 per cent. At the institutional level, 84 per cent reported having adult learners globally led by Europe with 90 per cent, then Africa 88 per cent,  Latin America and Caribbean 87 per cent, and Asia and Pacific and Middle East with 77 per cent each. African institutions reported a 65 per cent increase in adult learners over the past three years, compared to an average 55 per cent globally. African institutions also had higher expectations (68 per cent) that adult learners would increase than other regions (the global average was 61 per cent).

Overall, it is evident from the survey that digital transformation was being pushed by the leadership, followed by faculty, staff, students, governing board, and national authorities. The respondents identified the key achievements using new technologies as, in descending order, improved governance of information, new learning pedagogies to enhance the student experience, improved research, and improved accessibility to higher education. As for challenges, they selected financial costs, university culture’s slowness to adapt to change, lack of interest of faculty and staff to change, lack of capacity building, unreliable internet, and national policies, in that order. For Africa the order of challenges was listed as financial costs, unreliable internet, lack of capacity building, university culture, lack of faculty and staff interest, and national policies.

The report concluded by examining perceptions of current transformations. On institutional readiness towards change, the majority, 53 per cent, indicated they were “very ready”. Respondents from Africa were in the lead at 46 per cent, followed by Latin America and Caribbean 35 per cent, Asia and Pacific 33 per cent, Middle East 30 per cent, and Europe 21 per cent. African respondents (77 per cent) believed more strongly than others (global average 61 per cent) that digital transformation is necessary and inevitable in preparing students to actively participate in society. They also more strongly agreed that digital transformation exacerbates socioeconomic divides within and between countries by 35 per cent to 27 per cent.

Further, to 75 per cent globally, 89 per cent of African respondents strongly agreed compared that digital transformation and new technologies represent an opportunity to expand access to higher education. By a margin of 58 per cent to 39 per cent, they strongly believe these technologies will lower the costs of higher education; 97 per cent to 79 per cent strongly believe they are essential to improving higher education; 90 per cent to 77 per cent that they can enhance the quality of higher education; and 78 per cent to 58 per cent that higher education plays an important role in shaping digital transformation. Yet, only 27 per cent compared to 33 per cent globally believe their institutions were equipped for the future in terms of the emerging technologies and opportunities, compared to 40 per cent in Asia and Pacific, 35 per cent in Europe, 33 per cent in Latin America and Caribbean, and 30 per cent in Middle East.

Clearly, even before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic higher education institutions around the world including Africa were increasingly aware and committed to the challenges and opportunities of emerging technologies. They understood the need to undertake transformations at the national and institutional levels in terms of creating enabling policies, making the necessary financial investments in technological infrastructures and capacities, promoting institutional leadership, culture and commitment to change, providing opportunities for faculty and staff training and development. Further, it was appreciated that critical attention needed to be paid to the inequalities of access and the ethical dimensions of data protection and privacy in institutional data management.

COVID-19 acted as an accelerator in the digitalisation of higher education. It is evident from numerous reports in the higher education and popular media that following closures of campuses as part of the containment measures imposed by governments against the pandemic universities scrambled to transition to remote or distance teaching and learning using digital technologies. An informative comparative snapshot on how universities managed and continue to manage the massive disruptions engendered by COVID-19 is provided by the Association of Commonwealth Universities that conducted a survey in May 2020 of its 500 member universities across 50 countries around the world.

The transition to online education, research and administration revealed glaring digital divides among and within countries, as well as among and within universities in terms of digital capacities and access to data, devices, and broadband. More positively, it helped change perceptions about the quality of online teaching and learning. By the beginning of April 2020, higher education institutions had closed in 175 countries affecting over 220 million students. The survey showed 80 per cent of respondents reported teaching had moved online, 78 per cent agreed it had affected their ability to conduct research, while 69 per cent reported they had been able to take research activities online.

The digital divide between countries was evident in the fact that 83 per cent of respondents in the high income countries had access to broadband, compared to 63 per cent for upper middle income countries, 38 per cent in lower middle income countries and 19 per cent from low income countries. Institutions that were unable to move online were confined to the lower middle income countries (19 per cent) and low income countries (24 per cent). Only 33 per cent with broadband access strongly agreed that the pandemic had affected their ability to conduct research, compared to 43 per cent of respondents without broadband access.

Within institutions, the distribution of access to broadband ranged from 74 per cent for senior leaders to 52 per cent to those in professional services, to 38 per cent for academics, and 30 per cent for students. Institutional support for remote working in terms of devices or data was also skewed in favour of senior leaders and professional services staff (both 82 per cent), compared to students (45 per cent) and academics (40 per cent). Prior to the pandemic students were less likely than other groups to report always having worked online, while after the pandemic senior leaders were more likely than their counterparts to say they would work online frequently.

Perceptions of the quality of online teaching and learning showed marked improvement. The vast majority of respondents, 81 per cent, agreed that quality had improved since the pandemic; 90 per cent agreed that a blended degree, combining online and face-to-face learning, was equivalent to a degree earned only through face-to-face learning, while 53 per cent felt a degree earned solely through online learning was equivalent to one earned through face-to-face learning. As for online working, 65 per cent foresaw working online frequently after the pandemic, while 19 per cent foresaw doing so “all of the time”, and only 16 per cent said rarely and 1 per cent said never.

Fifty-three  per cent of respondents envisaged all (26 per cent) or most (28 per cent) departments would continue to use online teaching and learning, and only 4 per cent said that no departments would do so. In terms of institutional commitments and capacity, 89 per cent agreed that their institution had the will to develop high-quality online teaching and learning, while 82 per cent of respondents agreed that their institution has the capacity to do so.

It was reported that universities were providing support for remote working, but with variations between countries and professional roles. Thirty-seven per cent noted their university made a contribution towards data costs, 31 per cent that they were provided device(s) and 7 per cent that their institutions contributed towards device costs. The levels of support ranged from 87 per cent in high income countries, to 70 per cent in upper middle income countries, 51 per cent in lower middle income countries, and 52 per cent in low income countries. Support was also provided in the form of faculty and staff training and development.

The most pressing challenges identified by respondents for remote working were internet speed (69 per cent), data costs (61 per cent), internet reliability (56 per cent), and time zones (38 per cent). Data costs were most pressing for those from low and lower middle income countries, while those from high income countries cited time zones. As for online teaching and learning, the leading challenges were accessibility for students (81 per cent), staff training and confidence (79 per cent), connectivity costs (76 per cent), and student engagement (71 per cent). Respondents from low and lower middle income countries emphasised connectivity costs, while those from high income countries stressed challenges relating to student perceptions of quality. In terms of impact on research, there were some disciplinary variations: in the natural, environmental and earth sciences 92 per cent of academics reported being affected, while in the arts, social sciences and humanities 61 per cent did so.

The twelve-point digital transformation agenda for Africa

Based on data collected from Africa, the ACU noted that African universities faced particular challenges in managing COVID-19. Many suffered from limited digital infrastructure, capacity and connectivity which made it difficult for them to transition online for education, research and administration. These challenges were compounded by enduring financial strains worsened by severe budget cuts as student enrolments dropped and government funding declined. Fundraising has largely been negligible in most African universities.

Also evident was the digital divide across and within African countries. Across the continent respondents identified many challenges including accessibility of students (83 per cent), staff training and confidence (82 per cent), and connectivity costs (89 per cent). In terms of devices and connectivity, respondents indicated 58 per cent had access to two devices, 82 per cent had access to mobile data and 35 per cent to broadband. In Kenya, 25 per cent of respondents reported having access to a desktop, while in Nigeria 15 per cent and in South Africa 13 per cent did. With regard to broadband, 63 per cent of South African respondents had access compared to 54 per cent for Kenya, and 27 per cent for Nigeria.

Among the leading challenges identified for remote working respondents across the continent were data costs (77 per cent), internet speed (71 per cent) and internet reliability (65 per cent). An encouraging development was the growing provision of institutional support. Forty per cent of respondents received contributions toward data costs from their university, 22 per cent were provided with a device and 8 per cent received a contribution toward device costs. Some institutions adopted innovative ameliorative measures, ranging from negotiating with technology companies zero-rated access or reduced subscription prices to educational content, to providing free dongles to students without remote connections.

There were of course national and intra-institutional variations. More likely to receive support were senior leaders and professional services than faculty and students. In terms of contributions to data costs, 62 per cent of senior leaders and 64 per cent of professional services received support. In the provision of devices 54 per cent of the former and 38 per cent of the latter received support.

As far as online teaching and learning is concerned, there was a marked shift. Prior to the pandemic only 16 per cent of respondents indicated online teaching had occurred in all or most departments; 74 per cent said that all or most teaching and learning was now online. Forty-seven  per cent expected that all or most departments would continue to use online teaching and learning. Again, there were national divergences. In Nigeria 44 per cent of respondents reported no teaching and learning had moved online, unlike South Africa and Kenya where no respondents reported this to be the case. In South Africa 94 per cent of respondents stated all or most teaching was now online, compared to 62 per cent for Kenya and 22 per cent for Nigeria. Attitudes on the quality of online teaching and learning witnessed a marked shift as 80 per cent of respondents believed quality had improved; 49 per cent said they thought a degree earned exclusively online was equivalent, while 91 per cent agreed a blended degree is equivalent to a degree earned face to face.

African educators and policy makers now widely accept that the digital transformation of higher education is here to stay. They also appreciate more keenly the need to make significant investments and interventions in technology-based platforms for the higher education enterprise. In the context of the new realities and pressures, it is increasingly evident that the traditional instructional methods, modes of knowledge production and consumption, and institutional conceits of exclusivity are no longer tenable if higher education institutions are to remain relevant for Africa’s regeneration.

A report on digital transformation for British universities recommends ten useful guiding principles that promote digital fluency among faculty and students: institutional digital innovation and progress; integrated working by creating inclusive and collaborative working environments; engaged learning by rethinking interactivity across physical and virtual spaces; personalised learning that motivates and facilitates individual student success; transformed learning spaces that are connected, coherent and compelling; inclusivity in design to accommodate diverse students and learning styles; building of learning communities for students that are safe, secure, and empowering; learning infrastructure in a propitious technology environment that allows for continuous upgrading; and innovative learning based on continuous experimentation, learning, and investment.

Higher education will emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic profoundly changed from the most catastrophic crisis it has ever faced and for which it was not prepared.  The EDUCAUSE 2021 Top IT Issues foresees the emergence of what it calls alternative and overlapping futures involving three scenarios, restore, evolve, and transform. “The Restore scenario is a story of institutional survival focused on reclaiming the institution’s pre-pandemic financial health”, while the Evolve scenario applies to “institutions that will choose to incorporate the impact and lessons of the pandemic into their culture and vision”. Institutions embracing the Transform scenario “plan to use the pandemic to launch or accelerate an institutional transformation agenda”.

African educators and policy makers now widely accept that the digital transformation of higher education is here to stay.

For example, on the issue of financial health, the Restore scenario focuses on cutting costs, while the Evolve scenario focuses on “increasing revenues and funding sources and on evolving the institution’s business model”. On online learning, the “Restore version takes a structural approach to online learning—emphasizing supports, processes, and policies—whereas the Evolve version focuses on advancing the quality of online learning”. On information security the “Restore version is a tactical one that covers returning to campus as well as cost-effectiveness and recovery. The Evolve version takes a strategic approach and also expands the scope of cybersecurity efforts to include off-campus locations, in recognition of the need to adapt to constituents whose technology environments will never fully return to campus”.

For its part, the “Transform version expands the role of technology (digital transformation) in order to not only reduce costs but also maximize value”. Transform institutions seek to prioritise changing institutional culture and promoting technology alignment. They also seek to develop “an enterprise architecture to enable business outcomes, manage data to enable decision-making and future opportunities, streamline business processes, and enable digital resources to keep pace with strategic change”. For enrollment and recruitment they endeavour to explore and implement “creative holistic solutions for recruitment, including analytics-based marketing around student career outcomes, technology-enabled transfer agreements and partnerships, and use of social media to build student communities”.

Each African university has to ask itself: What kind of institution does it wish to become in the post-COVID-19 era? Many of course will combine elements of all three—restoration, evolution, and transformation. Some may not survive, while others will thrive. Those that endure and excel will need to adopt the twelve-point agenda outlined below.

First, COVID-19-induced transition to remote delivery of education must turn to the development of a long-term digital strategic framework that ensures resilience, flexibility, experimentation, and continuous improvement. Digital transformation must be embedded in institutional culture from strategic planning processes, organisational structures, to administrative practices and daily operations while avoiding exacerbating existing inter- and intra-institutional inequalities for historically, socially, and spatially disadvantaged communities. Universities have to integrate digitalisation in their four core missions: teaching and learning, research and scholarship, public service and engagement, and innovation and entrepreneurship.

Second, universities have no choice but to make strategic and sustainable investments in digital infrastructures and platforms by rethinking capital expenditures and increasing spending on technological and digital infrastructure. Their budgets must not only support a more robust online learning ecosystem, but also build in flexibilities to reallocate resources in the face of unexpected crises. Critical in this regard is building resilient and secure digital business continuity plans, strategies and capabilities.

Third, African universities have to develop online design competencies both individually and through consortia with each other and overseas institutions that are committed to mutually beneficial partnerships in promoting e-learning. Such consortial arrangements should encompass sharing technical expertise for online instructional design, pedagogy and curation, content development, and training of faculty and university leaders. Inter-institutional collaboration is more imperative than ever following the global transition to online teaching and learning spawned by COVID-19 because competition for students between universities in the global North and the global South is likely to intensify. Africa already loses many of its richest and brightest students to universities in the global North and increasingly the major emerging economies of Asia. Now, they stand to lose some middle class students who can afford enrolling in online programmes offered by foreign universities that enjoy better brands than local universities.

Fourth, universities need to entrench technology-mediated modalities of teaching and learning. Higher education has to embrace face-to-face, blended and online teaching and learning, and raise the digital skills of faculty and students accordingly. Digital transformation promises to diversify students beyond the 18-24 age cohort, maximise learning opportunities for students, and open new markets and increasing tuition revenues for universities. Blended and online teaching and learning offers much needed flexibility for students, who increasingly find it appealing and convenient for its space and time shifting possibilities. It also offers faculty “opportunities to improve educational outcomes by adopting a wider range of learning activities, allowing greater flexibility of study times, space for reflection and a move to different forms of assessment”.

Fifth, digitalisation provides opportunities for beneficial pedagogical changes in terms of curricula design and delivery that involves students and incorporates how they learn. It helps faculty to rethink learning and teaching practices, to see themselves less as imperious sages on the stage and more as facilitating coaches. In this transformed pedagogical terrain and relationship, universities ought to “ensure their professional development strategies and plans include digital training, peer support mechanisms, and reward and recognition incentives to encourage upskilling”. An important part of this agenda is for universities to promote research that enables them to stay current with the changing digital preferences, expectations, and capabilities of students, faculty and professional staff.

Sixth, universities should develop curricula that impart skills for the jobs of the 21st century. Such curricula must be holistic and integrate the classroom, campus, and community as learning spaces; promote inclusive, innovative, intersectional, and interdisciplinary teaching and learning; embed experiential, active, work-based, personalised, and competence-based learning; instil among the GenZ youth the mind-sets of creativity, enterprise, innovation, problem solving, resilience, and patience rather than mindsets of passive learners and knowledge consumers who regurgitate information to pass exams. The extensive changes taking place require continuous reskilling, upskilling, and lifelong learning. The growing importance of careers in science, technology, engineering, healthcare, and the creative arts, all within an increasingly technologically-driven environment, necessitates the development of hybrid hard and soft skills.

Students learning.

Students learning. Photo by heylagostechie on Unsplash

Seventh, for student success, universities have a responsibility to embrace and use educational technologies that support the whole student. According to the EDUCAUSE 2020 Student Technology Report, student success goes beyond degree completion. Holistic support encompasses “access to advisors and to helpful advising technologies”, raising students’ awareness about “the tools available to students, where to find those tools, how to use them, and how they can help advance educational and career goals”. Surveys show students also appreciate course-related alerts, nudges and kudos that are positive and offered early. Regular, constructive, targeted and personalised feedback makes a big difference, so does “embedding a human assistant in the online virtual lectures and office hours [who] . . . through modeling, or observational learning, may persuade students to imitate the assistant . . .. The assistant could be a graduate teaching assistant, an undergraduate student, or a peer leader”.

On technology use and preferences, it is important for universities to “establish research-based instructional practices in all teaching modalities” and develop “an acceptable use policy (AUP) for classroom uses of student devices that is informed by evidence-based practice and students’ preferences for device use. Allow students to participate in the design of the AUP to create a digital learning environment in which they feel empowered to use their devices and to regulate their own behavior”. Also important is assessing “student access to Wi-Fi and digital devices and work to ensure that every student has access to these critical technologies”.

Eighth, universities need to develop effective policies and interventions to address the digital divide and issues of mental health disorders and learning disabilities. Resources and new investments are required to provide opportunities to those trapped by digital poverty. An inclusive agenda for digital transformation must also include using the universal design for learning framework (UDL) “when designing learning experiences and services to optimize learning for all people… If technology and IT policies are thoughtfully and inclusively incorporated into a course guided by UDL, then ideally learner variability, choice, and agency increase, while the need for individual accommodations is greatly reduced”.

Creating inclusive learning environments also entails investing in professional development for faculty to better prepare them to provide accessible instruction. Moreover, as universities seek to expand access to mental health services, they need to leverage technology-based interventions that do not just introduce new ways of offering services but also enable scaling of those services to multiple students online.

Ninth, as learning and student life move seamlessly across digital, physical, and social experiences, issues of data protection and privacy become more pressing than ever. Protecting personal data especially relating to students has to be a priority through the provision of safe storage options and the development of policies and practices that are transparent and ethical. Students are generally comfortable with the institutional use of their personal data as long as it helps them achieve their own academic goals, but not for other gratuitous purposes. Thus, they need to know and have confidence in how the institution collects, stores, protects and uses their personal data, and be able to view, update, and opt out.

The proliferation of online harassment especially against women and people from marginalised groups requires institutional protections including creating codes of conduct against clearly defined online harassment, fostering an anti-harassment culture, and developing a centralised system of reporting and tracking. Growing dependence on digital technologies increases cyber security risks that require robust mitigation capabilities including conducting information security awareness campaigns.

Tenth, in so far as the market for online programmes is transnational, it is essential for universities to pay special attention to international students who face unique barriers in an online learning environment that require special redress. Generally, African universities are not serious players in the international education market. Online education opens new opportunities. The key barriers international students face in the virtual classroom include time differences, hard deadlines, limited connectivity and access, lack of learning space, lack of scheduled support,  lack of language support for non-native or secondary speakers of the language of instruction, remote class culture, invisible support, social isolation and racial discrimination.

The solutions include adopting asynchronous learning, allowing flexible timelines, providing connectivity support, offering safe learning spaces, replicating the class structure, providing language support, setting digital expectations early, building cultural bridges, providing remote support services, and practicing micro-inclusions by encouraging “teachers, staff and students to use subtle, inclusive ways to show international students they are welcome and valued” and establishing safe “virtual” spaces for international and marginalised students and faculty to talk openly.

Eleventh, higher education institutions must develop meaningful partnerships with external constituencies and stakeholders including digital technology and telecommunication companies. As the demands for return on investment increase from students and their families, as well as the state and society, pressures are growing on universities to demonstrate their value proposition and social impact. This translates into the question of graduate employability, closing the much-bemoaned mismatches between educational qualifications and the economy. This entails strengthening experiential learning and work-based learning, which requires strengthening connections with employers. Virtual learning not only necessitates and opens new ways of engaging industry, the economy and society, it also creates huge demands for digital skills for the emerging jobs of the 21st century.

Higher education institutions must develop meaningful partnerships with external constituencies and stakeholders including digital technology and telecommunication companies.

Twelfth, the stakes for research have been raised for African higher education institutions. All along they have been expected to actively produce both basic and applied research and generate innovations that address the pressing problems of African communities, countries, continent, and Africa’s place in the world. However, levels of research productivity have remained generally low. Universities also have a responsibility to promote research and data driven policy and decision-making. Following the disruptions and digital opportunities engendered by COVID-19, universities will increasingly be expected to anchor their research and innovation in the technological infrastructure that supports and enhances the opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Africa.

Research, innovation and technological infrastructure

As noted earlier, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is disrupting and transforming every sector. A critical facet of the technological revolution is advancing research and turning hindsight into insight to make our world a better place whether its gene sequencing, predictive medicine, climate research, economic modelling, manufacturing with computer aided design or financial services trading and risk management.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has produced numerous reports showing how the data-driven technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are shaping the future of advanced manufacturing and production; consumer industries; energy, materials and infrastructure; financial and monetary systems; health and healthcare; investing; media, entertainment and sport; mobility through the creation of autonomous vehicles; and trade and global economic interdependence.

In its report, The Future Jobs Report 2020, the WEF forecasts massive changes in the jobs landscape by as soon as 2025. The report contends, “we estimate that by 2025, 85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labour between humans and machines, while 97 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labour between humans, machines and algorithms, across the 15 industries and 26 economies covered by the report”. It identifies the top ten emerging jobs as: Data Analysts and Scientists, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Specialists, Big Data Specialists, Digital Marketing and Strategy Specialists, Process Automation Specialists, Business Development Professionals, Digital Transformation Specialists, Information Security Analysts, Software and Applications Developers, and Internet of Things Specialists, in that order.

Digital upskilling.

Digital upskilling. Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

Conversely, the top ten declining jobs mentioned are: Data Entry Clerks, Administrative and Executive Secretaries, Accounting, Bookkeeping and Payroll Clerks, Accountants and Auditors, Assembly and Factory Workers, Business Services and Administration Managers, Client Information and Customer Service Workers, General and Operations Managers, Mechanics and Machinery Repairers, Material-Recording and Stock-Keeping Clerks.

“Data is the new oil” headlines abound and countries that can harness this data to extract value will have a significant competitive advantage. Data is even more valuable than oil, whose reserves on the planet are fixed. As Adam Schlosser notes, “Unlike oil, increasing amounts of data are being generated at a pace that’s hard to fathom: in the next two years, 40 zettabytes of data will be created – an amount so large that there is no useful framing exercise to demonstrate its size and scope. It’s roughly equivalent to 4 million years of HD video or five billion Libraries of Congress . . .. Unlike oil, the value of data doesn’t grow by merely accumulating more. It is the insights generated through analytics and combinations of different data sets that generate the real value.”

Thus, harnessing data, advancing research and drawing insights requires advances in computing and specifically High Performance Computing or HPC. There is an intersection between technologies that are driven by the pertinent needs of the 21st century workplaces such as Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, Big Data etc. and high performance computing. Huge technological strides in the development of hardware technology and computing architectures have played a big role towards making it possible for complex machine learning algorithms to be used to resolve real world problems and challenges from climate change to disease pandemics.

It is noteworthy that the future jobs mentioned above in areas such as Data Analytics, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics will require advanced computing technologies and performance in order to support the operational roles that employees will play in organisations.  Notwithstanding the financial pressures that the COVID-19 pandemic has visited on Africa, the continent has to make strategic and smart investments in the digitalisation of its economies, societies, and educational institutions. At most it has a decade to do so if it is not to be permanently left behind by the rest of the world.

During the First Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century Africa was reduced to providing labour for the Atlantic Slave Trade that developed EuroAmerica and underdeveloped the continent. Under the Second Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century, colonised Africa supplied raw materials that deepened its dependency. Africa participated in the Third Industrial Revolution of the late-20th century as a collection of neo-colonial peripheries. In exchange for its labour Africa received trinkets, its raw materials fetched a pittance on world markets, and later the backward post-colonies were sold “appropriate technologies”. Now, the continent is even paying dearly for the privilege of exporting its data!

The danger of remaining peripheral to the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Africa is not exploitation and marginalisation, but historical irrelevance as noted earlier, becoming a landmass of disposable people. Critics caution that Africa should not embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the risk of “premature de-industrialisation”. Others warn of the dangers of data manipulation and cyberattacks and that the continent is not ready, an argument that condemns Africa to eternal technological underdevelopment. On the contrary, as Ndung’u and Signé, argue, the transformative potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Africa is substantial. It promises to promote economic growth and structural transformation; fight poverty and inequality; reinvent labour skills and production; increase financial services and investment; modernise agriculture and agro-industries; and improve health care and human capital.

In order to play a pivotal role in the 4th Industrial revolution, African higher education institutions need a change of mind set and to recognise their role as centres for teaching and learning, research, knowledge and technology transfer to current and future generations. They need to collaborate among themselves and with industry, government and other key players to undertake research, innovation, and develop digital technologies that address the continent’s most enduring and difficult needs and opportunities, not simply consume technologies produced by others.

The danger of remaining peripheral to the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Africa is not exploitation and marginalisation, but historical irrelevance.

Africa’s leading research universities need to reinvent themselves by using advanced technologies such as HPC that support supply of human resources for the jobs of the future, as well as training faculty that have the requisite skills and competency to equip students with the skills required to take up those jobs. The digital transformation agenda has huge implications on universities’ institutional capacities, financial resources, human capital in relation to development and delivery of curricula and technological infrastructures. Currently, the continent’s HPC capacity is abysmally low as shown below.

Data presented at the HPC conference held at USIU-Africa and the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) in December 2017 underscored Africa’s insignificant capability for the high performance computing that is essential for the digital revolution as evident in Figure 2.

The need and rationale for HPC in Africa is self-evident. It is simply unacceptable for a continent of 1.2 billion people to have negligible HPC capacity that is so essential for research, innovation and development. The African continent faces several socio-economic and political challenges, scores low on research and innovation indices, and is plagued by the persistent challenges of “brain drain” with some of the best and brightest people often leaving the continent in search of “greener pastures” including access to research infrastructures, higher pay and an appreciation for innovation. Nevertheless, Africa is posting impressive economic growth rates and has one of the youngest populations in the world. Technology is making a dramatic impact in Africa and Africa’s rate of technology adoption is unprecedented as evident in Figure 5. The mobile phone and internet are increasingly widely available.

Figure 5: Kenya's rapid adoption of technology (source World Development Report 2016)

Figure 4: Kenya’s rapid adoption of technology (source World Development Report 2016)

For Africa to competitively contribute to research and innovation and to find home-grown solutions to its socio-economic challenges, it is important that measures are taken which will provide the continent with access to cutting-edge computing technologies from hardware to software that have become essential for research, innovation, growth and jobs. Africa must invest in High Performance Computing platforms because modern scientific discovery involves very high computing power and the capability to deal with massive volumes of data. Otherwise, the continent will miss out on major advances in research and innovation in the digital age.

It is estimated that a $1 HPC Investment on average yields $463 in revenue and $44 in added profit. HPC can help solve Africa’s challenges, such as:

  • Climate Change: climate research and weather prediction are critical if Africa is to weather the ravages of climate change. Predicting weather accurately can enable countries to make better long-term food security policies, environmental policies and interventions and even security policies.
  • Health and life sciences: gene sequencing, molecular research and bio-physical simulations can all support the development of effective medicine and vaccines for critical diseases like Malaria and HIV in Africa; and explore Africa’s abundance of natural remedies. Epidemic modelling can predict disease spread so that governments and healthcare providers can make appropriate interventions.
  • Oil, gas and mineral exploration: Africa has an abundance of natural resources and access to HPC platforms can speed up seismic analysis which can speed up exploration and exploitation.
  • Growth of industry and SMEs: Industry and SMEs are increasingly dependent on the power of supercomputers to discover innovative solutions, cut costs and reduce time to market for products and services (European Commission, 2017). Sectors such as retail, manufacturing and financial services could benefit from HPC for data analysis for insights and innovation.
  • Economic research: economic modelling using big and open data would lead to insights and contribute to evidence-based policy making.
  • Research Collaboration: Increase research collaboration between Africa and other parts of the world. Having local capacity for large data processing means African scientists can better contribute to the global research agenda, provide tools for wider collaboration with research colleagues, and stimulate increased awareness, utilisation and application of high performance computing in the sectors identified in Figure 1 above.

It is evident from Figure 1 and Figure 2 above that despite the potential that HPC for promoting collaborative research and innovation in various sectors of the world economy, hardly any effort has been made towards harnessing this huge potential on the African continent. There have been HPC initiatives in several countries in the past, including Ghana, Kenya, Congo, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Cameroon. Clearly, these efforts have not gone far.

There is need to develop HPC technical design and management skills etc., leverage initiatives and build synergy through discussions with potential partners including research programmes, networks and institutions, university communities, associations and institutions, donors, development partners, and philanthropists, governments, intergovernmental agencies, and the private sector.

It is simply unacceptable for a continent of 1.2 billion people to have negligible HPC capacity that is so essential for research, innovation and development.

To conclude, building digital capacities including information literacy for students at one end and HPC infrastructures at the other end is essential for dealing with the development and employment challenges of today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow. Digital capabilities and skills are not good to have, but are a must-have. They are essential to support effective development of solutions to address societal/scientific/industrial challenges in Africa, and the development of innovations, products and services.

This will lead to job creation; building computing capacity that will create new opportunities for both scientific applications and computing technologies; support for growth and competitiveness in industry and Africa’s economy through round-the-clock availability and utilisation of HPC systems and services; and enhance South-South and South-North collaboration in education, research and development.

We invite you to join African universities in this great calling and journey to transform higher education on this continent to educate, skill, and empower the youth to fully participate in their countries’ socioeconomic development. At stake is not only their future, but the future of the African continent and humanity itself, as much of this humanity becomes increasingly African.

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Uganda Elections 2021: Neoliberalism as Neocolonialism and the West’s Role in Propping up a Dictator

The last thirty years of Ugandan politics cannot be explained as something that emerges primarily and ultimately from Museveni as a politician and as a “case”. Internalist characterisations of the drivers of social, political and economic transformation have contributed to a concealing of the inter-linkages of the international matrix of power structures and capital accumulation.

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Uganda Elections 2021: Neoliberalism as Neocolonialism and the West’s Role in Propping up Dictators
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The 2021 presidential and parliamentary elections in Uganda were the subject of intense public debate and widely covered in the local and international media. The discussions and reports were dominated by a number of major themes: the imprisonment of opposition presidential candidates and members of their support teams; disappearances and killings; the use of tear gas and live bullets by state agencies to “contain” the politically engaged public; state attacks on journalists and NGOs, and control of social media spaces; the role of state agencies such as the police, the army and the electoral commission in helping the incumbent, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni—Uganda’s President of over 30 years—secure another contested victory at the ballot box; the electoral influence of ‘”foreigners” who cooperate with opposition politicians and NGOs to “destabilise” the country, support domestic terrorism, advance the homosexuality agenda, etc.; and, of course, the prospects of election rigging and subsequent protest, violence and uprising.

Days before the elections on January 14th, key partners of the Ugandan government such as the United Nations, the United States and the European Union (as well as various domestic and global organisations) expressed concerns regarding the heavy-handedness of the state and the human rights violations committed in the run-up to the election and appealed to the Ugandan authorities to respect human rights, ensure electoral fairness, and investigate the alleged cases of state brutality. The elections indeed exacerbated pre-existing trends in the country towards state authoritarianism, the militarisation of society and repression of political dissent. This of course raises a core question: what is the causal and political implication of these influential global actors, including the international financial institutions and many other development agencies, in this state of affairs, including the violence of the Ugandan state? And what can we conclude from the election dynamics about the state of the liberal project—including promoting democracy—in Uganda?

First, an observation about the prevailing debate. To date a significant part of the commentaries regarding the election and its characteristics focuses on Museveni and regards his ambitions for life presidency as a major if not the key reason for the election crisis and the mayhem to which the media has devoted numerous pages and hours of reporting, roundtable discussions and expert interviews. No matter how analytically useful this focus might be, disproportionate attention is, in our view, paid to the role of Museveni and his agency as the explanans of the key characteristics of the developments in the country since 1986 when Museveni took power after years of armed struggle against the government of the day.

It is against this background that we argue here (as we did in the introduction and conclusion to a collection about neoliberal Uganda we recently edited) that Museveni is not an explanans but rather an explanandum, and this calls for an analysis of national and transnational class alliances and global, national and local neoliberal forces. The last thirty years of Ugandan politics cannot be explained as something that emerges primarily and ultimately from Museveni as a politician and as a “case”. Internalist characterisations of the drivers of social, political and economic transformation have contributed to a concealing of the inter-linkages of the international matrix of power structures and capital accumulation. Instead, part of Museveni’s hegemony has been reinforced by “foreign” influences and interests that have fuelled the neoliberal project co-existing with endogenous social and power structures.

Here, we place the Ugandan elections in the context of a wider process of post-1986 social transformation: the locking in of neoliberal capitalism in the country and the social engineering of Uganda as a market society. This process implicates not just Museveni and his inner circle but a far wider and more illustrious range of actors with their respective agendas, including, actors like the UN, the EU and the US, long-term core partners of the Museveni government and the liberal project in the country.

This dimension of the election phenomenon is often underestimated in comments by academics and commentators. Such analyses also typically spare the donor community when they explore the drivers of the state violence and suppression of the past months. In other words, such accounts tend to not adequately analyse the implication of these foreign actors in the making of a violent election, state and presidency, and in the current state of Ugandan politics generally. Rather, a common position in this genre of writings is that donors are a constraining factor when it comes to state violence, that they help to ensure that the Museveni state does not go “too hard” on its opponents (and on the population more generally). Kristof Titeca and Anna Reuss, for example, write in a piece titled “How Museveni mastered violence to win elections in Uganda”:

“An essential part of the NRM’s . . .  strategies is that they are relentless but rarely too extreme. Museveni has learnt this after seeing the response to more overtly repressive measures. The regime’s relative restraint also avoids overly riling international donors. Given Uganda’s reputation as a beacon of stability and its contributions to regional peacekeeping missions, Western diplomats are typically reluctant to express more than mild criticism of Museveni’s government. They only do so in cases which are big enough to warrant attention from western audiences, such as the anti-gay bill. The arrests of Besigye and Bobi Wine in 2018 similarly surpassed that threshold. As a result of these experiences, the Museveni regime has become a master in using an arsenal of measures which are limited in time and intensity but whose message is clear enough. It exerts continued pressure in a way that makes opposition leaders’ lives difficult but without escalating into major events.”

We do not have space to unpack this position but would question what is said here regarding agency and causality in matters of state violence and repression. Also problematic are the exhortations from commentators such as Rita Abrahamsen and Gerald Bareebe for donors to now reconsider their relation with the NRM government and to let their concerns for human rights violations and for democracy be followed by more decisive actions. A problem with this kind of analysis is that it tends to regard violence as epiphenomenal rather than inscribed in the structural operation of the world capitalist system, and ignores the ways in which violence plays out in the everyday politics in different, often hidden, forms and at different levels (from local to transnational).

Symptomatically, such analyses do not sufficiently take into account that a core phenomenon at play here is imperialism, that these western states that are asked by analysts to learn from their past ‘mistakes’, reconsider their politics, and stand up for human rights, ordinary people, democracy, justice, fairness and peace are imperialist (and highly militaristic) states often in competition for resources, markets and spheres of influence. So, any such political demand made to the US or the EU for example is a demand made to empires, to the leading military and political-economic powers in the world.

All this requires an analytical acknowledgement of the politics (including violence) of empire, imperialism, imperialist states, and global capitalism, and of the deeper structures of economic and political interests (beyond the often referred to ‘security’ or ‘stability’) in the day-to-day operations of ‘the system’. The call to action made to western powers in this newly declared “test case” is thus politically disingenuous (and analytically questionable), especially in the light of the fact that international financial and development agencies, western governments and bilateral donors have been active players in forging transnational class alliances and shaping the contours of the emerging state-donors-capital political complex in Uganda in the last three decades.

Our position in this ongoing debate about donors in Uganda and Africa more generally is instead more in line with analysts such as Kalundi Serumaga, Yusuf Serunkuma, Mary Serumaga, Helen Epstein, A.K. Kaiza, Bernard Tabaire, Allan Tacca, Chris Dolan or Adam Branch who have analysed “donors” as enablers of state violence and/or the other “social ills” that often get mentioned in national and international commentaries on Museveni’s Uganda. Their respective pieces on the Ugandan government and state take into account the “larger picture” of (post-)colonialism, imperialism and the global political economy. Kalundi Serumaga’s latest big-picture pieces for example are titled as follows: “Murder as  Order”, “Democracy for Some Mere Management for Others” and “Uganda’s Democracy-free Election”; the latter echoing Thandika Mkandawire’s term “choiceless democracies”, coined more than 20 years ago.

We move on then in our own analysis that derives from our research in Uganda, and our work as editors of a recent collective analysis titled Uganda: The Dynamics of Neoliberal Transformation. To start with, contemporary Uganda is analytically one of the most telling cases of the complex entanglements between neoliberal capitalism, the democratisation agenda and imperialism in Africa. The country is one of the planet’s most globally propped up, most invested in and symbolically one of the most important cases of global liberalism and liberal interventionism and the respective social engineering. Globally praised as an African success story and heavily backed by international financial institutions, development agencies and bilateral donors, the country has become the exemplar of economic and political reform for those who espouse a neoliberal model of development.

The neoliberal policies and the resulting restructuring of the country have been accompanied by narratives of progress, prosperity, and modernisation and have been justified in the name of development. Uganda is a major exemplar of the dominant if dubious trope of “Africa Rising”, of liberation-movements-in-government, of liberal democracy in Africa, of Bill Clinton’s “new generation of African leaders” (also called the “new breed”), of aid and development, and of neoliberal capitalism in Africa, i.e. the comprehensive (yet contested) neoliberal transformation of the economic, political, social, ecological and cultural structures in a post-colonial, aid-dependent, under-developed, agrarian country in a geopolitically important region of the world.

Thus, when Kampala goes up in flames—as it did a few weeks in November 2019 when protests broke out on the streets after the imprisonment of by far the most popular opposition presidential candidate, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, aka Bobi Wine (his stage name)—a model, an exemplar, burns. In this incident, dozens of people lost their lives when state agencies quelled what the president later called plans by the opposition to organise a Libya-style “insurrection’”. “Pacification” (in this case of Kampala) is back (or rather remains) on the agenda, with Maj. Gen. Paul Okech—who has gained extensive experience in managing urban conflict in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu (thus nicknamed “the Lion of Mogadishu”)—newly appointed to the position of Deputy Inspector General of Police.

The country is one of the planet’s most globally propped up, most invested in and symbolically one of the most important cases of global liberalism and liberal interventionism

Uganda’s 2021 elections were hence another showdown in a country that is often displayed by the establishment, both global and local, as a showcase for the project of neoliberal social reordering. In this electoral campaign, state violence and repression of dissent, then, did not signal the failure but rather the very operations and realities on the ground of the model of authoritarian neoliberalism: using state power and coercion to establish functioning markets and advance the core political-economic interests and preferred social order of the ruling actors. The encounter of state coercion and authoritarian forms of rule with the ideas of free markets (and private enterprise) is not accidental in liberal economic theory. As one of the pioneers of (neo)liberalism, Friedrich von Hayek, once argued: “Personally I prefer a liberal dictator to democratic government lacking liberalism.” In this sense, human, civic and other political rights in today’s Uganda (as elsewhere in the world) are being sacrificed on the altar of neoliberalisation.

Neoliberalisation refers to the process of systematic and substantial transformation of the Ugandan state, economy, and culture into a “market society”, i.e. a society characterised by marketisation of social relations, a general empowerment and hegemony of capital (especially of large private corporations), and the corresponding restructuring of people’s subjectivities, relationships and everyday practices so as to make all realms of society operate market-like. Neoliberalism—as a project, discourse and ideology—is at its core about creating such a fully-fledged market society, which operates above all in the interest of capital by conflating it with the public interest.

To follow the dynamics in pre-election Uganda then means to observe and come to terms with the character and impact of this restructuring and with the actual operations of this market society, and relatedly, the operations of global capitalism/political economy, the dynamics of Western and Eastern imperialism, the interactions of local and national power structures and the dynamics with international political-economic structures and patterns, and the inherently conflictual and contradictory processes of capitalist societal transformation including class formation, consolidation and struggle.

It means to come to terms with the evolving capitalist social order in all its complexity, tension, and socially regressive, unsustainable and harmful character. And it means to witness the intense discourses, commentaries, spins and silences of the ruling classes and key members of the “international community” that include some of the most powerful international organisations and agencies in the development industry (World Bank, IMF, USAID, and so on).

The election is thus an exemplar (or “thriller”, “showdown”) par excellence of international politics, global political economy, and international development, all at the same time. Crucially, the election campaign narratives of government success and failure, of Museveni as a dictator vs. visionary, of a country that has progressed from 1986 and is on the road to prosperity for all vs a country that is in deep crisis and back to “square one” politically is not new at all and nor is the state violence. Instead, these bifurcated discourses and the state violence are long-standing key features of the making and operation of neoliberal Uganda.

The events of the run up to the 2021 elections have questioned and destabilised the decades-long ideational and discursive hegemony of powerful international and national reform designers, implementers and supporters about Uganda as a success story. This hegemony—or cognitive intervention and restriction of the powerful—has produced and defended a severe ideological and analytical containment and impoverishment concerning key societal themes. We thus critique and challenge what Ngugi Wa Thiong’o calls, with reference to European colonialism in Africa, the mental domination we witness surrounding Uganda-as-a-case; a domination that is so characteristic of the neoliberal social order across the contemporary “free world”: “Economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control.” 

The encounter of state coercion and authoritarian forms of rule with the ideas of free markets (and private enterprise) is not accidental in liberal economic theory

As thinkers from Luxemburg to Orwell noted, contesting the “truth” of the ruling classes, pronouncing what is going on and offering alternatives to establishment accounts of “reality” (and thereby “history”), is a crucial political act. In 2020 pre-election and COVID Uganda, donors/UN/aid agencies stood as close to government as one can imagine, running plenty of joint report-launching, forward-planning and partnership-announcing events. Contesting the existing dominant set of data, interpretations, languages, policy demands and actor alliances—especially when the establishment chatter, celebration and cheers is at its loudest—is thus most paramount. So, let us delve deeper…

As we explain in the introduction to our edited collection, the dynamics of transformation in neoliberal Uganda are interpreted through two diverging, hard–to-reconcile narratives which persist in global and national debates alike. The first narrative frames Uganda as a success story and a development/reform model for international development agencies such as the World Bank (which has a parallel in a major part of the country’s academic scholarship that for decades was characterised by a celebratory tone about the country’s overall development path). This is the narrative of a Uganda emerging from years-long civil war in the late 1980s, and within a few years becoming an international success story.

This “New Uganda” narrative praises the post-1986 policy reforms which have stimulated economic growth, with sustained GDP growth and foreign direct investment attraction matched by steady progress in poverty reduction and gender empowerment. Central to this narrative is the leadership of a president who is a progressive moderniser, acting with the interest of the nation at heart. In short, Uganda has never been better. Such accounts parade “impressive”, “successful”, and “admirable” achievements in social, political and economic spheres. Very powerful actors promote this narrative year in, year out: from the World Bank, the IMF and the country’s various international and bilateral donors, to influential international and domestic scholars and analysts, and the Ugandan government and establishment.

The same actors have produced a plethora of official statistics and econometric studies that supposedly provide evidence of this stated steady progress. A prime example of this celebratory narrative about the new Uganda as an astonishing exemplar of reform success is the Kampala speech of the IMF Managing Director, Christine Lagarde, in January 2017, “Becoming the Champion: Uganda’s Development Challenge”, which states:

“This gathering provides an opportunity to congratulate Uganda for its impressive economic achievements and to speak about the possibilities of the future. I do not normally begin my speeches with statistics, but today will be an exception. That is because the numbers tell us a great deal: Uganda has experienced a threefold increase in per capita GDP over the past generation. And you have reduced extreme poverty to one-third of the population. This made Uganda one of the countries that has more than achieved the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty by 2015. This is an African success story.” (Lagarde 2017, emphasis in original.)

Couched in orthodox neoliberal language, the “New Uganda” narrative pushed by the IMF is consistent with its “Africa rising” narrative of economic optimism, which mirrors the  enthusiastic rhetoric of the African Renaissance narrative led by former South African president Thabo Mbeki in the early 2000s. Accelerated economic development spurred a renewed optimism among economists who predicted a luminous 21st century for African economies. The argument is that China’s and India’s demands for African raw materials, following the extraction-centric export-oriented route that raised GDP levels in the 2000s represents the best option for Africa to grow wealthy.

Lagarde made her visit just months after the highly controversial 2016 political elections that were—just like the 2020/21 version—accompanied by repression against sections of the opposition and critics of the government (as well as accusations of substantial and outright vote rigging). The outcome of the 2016 elections further deepened the government’s legitimacy crisis (which has intensified ever since). Nevertheless, donors remained strong advocates of the project of ultra-capitalist Uganda and its principle implementing agency, the government. The 2018 Labour Day speech of the UN Resident Coordinator in Uganda, Rosa Malango, is another exemplar here. As the speech, titled “Revitalize local government system to build public spirit for service”, outlines: “Uganda is widely recognized for producing a wide range of excellent policies on social, economic and development issues”

And indeed, while there is data and analyses available that support some of the mainstream narratives of a successful (and socially beneficial) post-1986 transformation, there is also plenty of evidence of a prolonged and multifaceted situation of crisis generated by a particular version of severe capitalist restructuring, or neoliberal reforms, of a crisis that severely questions the success narrative. This leads us to discuss the second narrative, “Uganda in crisis”, which has been articulated by “people on the street”, sections of the political opposition, and some segments of the media and non-governmental organisations. This narrative captures the extent of multi-faceted political, social, cultural and economic crises due to the prevalence of a patrimonial mode of rule supported by the president’s ruling group. This formation uses state power to advance private economic interests and functions through a far-reaching business and political network, which includes the President’s extended family, political allies and foreign investors.

To denounce the self-seeking attitude prevalent in the ruling party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), Ugandan street politics have mockingly renamed it the “National Robbery Movement”. The state has come to be associated with increasing political repression, a decline in public services and generalised economic insecurity. Public debates refer to “mafias”, a “mafia state”, a “vampire state”, a country occupied, controlled and exploited by a tiny “clique” of powerful domestic actors and their foreign allies. Uganda has experienced recurring food shortages and chronic indebtedness, and an explosive social crisis characterised by increased inequality, widespread violence and increased criminality.

The idiosyncrasies between these two competing discourses—which are a reflection of different social constituencies, political complexes and economic interests—were already manifest before the beginning of the 2021 election campaign with a mix of economic depression, systemic corruption, widening inequalities and poverty going hand-in-hand with growing state repression of dissenting voices in the midst of mushrooming, diverse and localised social struggles.

Two events signify these emerging sets of contradictions. First, the detention and torture in August 2018 of the popular “ghetto” musician-turned-politician Bobi Wine, the NUP (National Unity Platform) presidential candidate and main opponent to the US-backed military rule of Museveni, embodying in the eye of a significant section of the public opinion the aspirations and imaginaries of the masses of youthful voters aiming to dethrone the dictator and, second, the imprisonment of Museveni’s vocal critic, feminist scholar and activist Stella Nyanzi, in the same year. Symbolically speaking, they represent respectively two cases of repression of political alternatives and intellectuals, pointing to the increasingly authoritarian character of Museveni’s regime which, finding itself under a serious crisis of legitimacy, responds with the major weapon it masters, the inherited violence of the colonial state.

Challenged by the explosion of a series of popular mobilisations and protests, and inundated by public controversies (such as those around the constitutional revision of the presidential mandate, the alleged involvement of the president and his foreign minister Sam Kutesa in a case of international corruption with Chinese businessman Chi Ping Patrick Ho, who reportedly gave them a US$1million bribe in an attempt to gain oil concessions on behalf of the giant Chinese company, CEFC Energy Company Limited) the Ugandan state has responded with a growing militarisation of its politics by framing existing political formations as a threat to national security and the country’s road to progress.

This “securitisation” of the debate about the political future of the country has allowed the state to shift the terrain of struggle from questions of social justice, emancipation, and the construction of political alternatives towards issues of patriotism, national security and sovereignty, and political stability.

Notably, the increasing cases of kidnappings, disappearances of civilians and extra-judicial killings, and the systematic repression of the mobilisation and organisation campaigns of other political forces, have mostly been condoned by Western governments, bilateral donors and international financial institutions, pointing to the selective use of the doctrine of democracy and human rights and its use as an imperial weapon against non-compliant countries in the Global South.

The use of political violence in 2020/21 is thus not epiphenomenal, nor is it solely linked to the political turbulence caused by the election campaign. It is rather that, without it, the very existence of the regime would be jeopardised. Its constant deployment, in a mix of coercion and consent, is meant to secure the maintenance and reproduction of the social block in power. It is the same violence the regime unleashed against recalcitrant rural populations resisting state-orchestrated land enclosures and other contentious state-led donor-funded development projects such as, for example, the agro-industrial sugar complex in Amuru district in the Acholi region. The project has for years been supported by the government but has been met with prolonged opposition from local dwellers who perceive it as a threat to their land-based livelihoods.

The state has come to be associated with increasing political repression, a decline in public services and generalised economic insecurity

Against this wider background, and in order to facilitate debate about the causes of the election violence and other key election characteristics, we offer some analytical points in the remainder of this text which help us to map and interpret the key symptoms of Uganda’s neoliberal authoritarianism. These short 10 points emerged from our collective analysis of the character of neoliberal Uganda and are the condensation of the data and findings of the 19 substantial chapters written by over 20 scholars from across disciplines. They outline key features of the neoliberalisation of Uganda over the last three decades. The analysis helps to understand and conceptualise the state violence and bias in the run-up to the election not as outlier, not as failure of government to do x, y, z, but as the-model-in-operation of how power is reproduced and political-economic agendas and interests defended and advanced by the ruling classes (and their foreign backers) in neoliberal-capitalist societies.

At its most fundamental, day-to-day politics—election mode or not—is about power, i.e. the use (not abuse!) of power. Politics in semi-liberal capitalist settings is no exception to that rule. The question then is what the election violence tells us about power structures, relations and dynamics and the prevailing political-economic interests and priorities. It is here where most human rights-based analyses fall short. With our 10-point characteristics, we want to intensify the debate about the elections along three lines in particular: capitalism; aid and development; foreign control and influence and the respective power alliances between foreign and domestic actors (i.e. the role of foreign, particularly western/western-dominated actors, and their domestic partners/establishment actors).

First, neoliberal restructuring emerges as an all-encompassing process. Neoliberalisation is a hetero-directed process, one that diffuses from multiple poles of power, discourse, interest and wealth. As such, it is not simply exogenous to, or imposed on Uganda. Rather it is articulated with—and metabolised within—society and politics, at many interconnected levels.

Second, neoliberalisation was a joint exercise of power by way of an alliance of resourceful foreign and domestic actors, and across various power dimensions. The power alliance—with members including, among others, donors, international organisations (IOs), large firms and government—rolled out its agenda of reform in various ways over vulnerable populations and cemented a particular architecture of structural (of capital for example) and behavioural power and institutionalised and bureaucratised forms of discipline in the state and the economy. Domestic elites often helped advance, rather than stand against the interests of foreign economic actors.

Third, economic growth has become the centre of gravity of political activity and the key indicator of political success at the expense of other societal considerations including social justice, emancipation, equality, political and civic freedoms and human rights. The maximisation of private profits imposed itself as the dominant principle that informed policy-making. Some time back, in a tweet following a meeting with EU diplomats, Museveni wrote: “It’s okay to talk of human and other rights but growth of the economy should be the first right to emphasize”.

Fourth, Uganda is a striking example of authoritarian neoliberalism, in which coercive state practices and administrative and judicial state apparatuses contain oppositional forces, limiting the challenge to neoliberal policies. Sector restructuring through privatisations and liberalisations was often executed in a rushed and uncompromising way, with ample use of authoritarianism and state violence. Often, there was little concern for environmental and economic sustainability in policy-making, and the magnitude of the harmful repercussions of restructuring for large sections of the population. In this context, the state capitalised on foreign donors and investors, allied with particular domestic societal groups and established its hegemony by promoting the image of a government led by a benevolent, well-meaning, trustworthy power, and generally moralised the neoliberal project. IFIs and other foreign actors of the international development sector directly and indirectly enabled the build-up of a powerful and oppressive security apparatus, and more generally, the state’s coercive and violent practices of power, over many years.

Challenged by the explosion of a series of popular mobilisations and protests, the Ugandan state has responded with a growing militarisation of its politics

There are various ways in which these actors are implicated, directly and indirectly, in the growth of corruption, authoritarianism and militarisation, and in a more explicit turn towards crony/rentier capitalism. The oppression of sections of the population by the state is thus in-fact an oppression of the historical state-donors-capital bloc, i.e. the particular “congruence of material interests, institutions and ideologies, or broadly, an alliance of different class forces politically organised around a set of hegemonic ideas that gave strategic direction and coherence to its constitutive elements” (Gill 2002: 58). In the case of Uganda, the formation of this power bloc developed through a series of national and transnational political networks and discourses which converged around a certain vision and form of organisation of society.

This bloc also put in place and advanced a particular neoliberal capitalist form of structural violence. Violence has been an intrinsic component of the neoliberal project, rather than its antithesis. Like in other neoliberal societies, the escalation of violence has taken multidimensional forms—military, disciplinary, economic, political, cultural, verbal. State policies (especially those that hit the poor) have unleashed systemic violence and corresponding widespread and cruel social harm. Territorial militarisation and securitisation is one of these forms of neoliberal violence. The militarisation of whole villages and districts to curb dissent and protest—for instance, against large-scale land acquisitions and related displacing dynamics—has been a constant feature of post-1986 Uganda. The emerging oil and mining sectors are also driving this agenda further.

Fifth, there exist notable similarities and continuities between the neoliberal and colonial development projects, especially with regard to access and control of key natural resources and the accelerating extractive logic of capitalism. Uganda is undergoing a deep structural transformation, not so much into the much coveted “middle income country” that populates the imaginary of many, but rather into an extractive and authoritarian enclave where foreign interests are tackling land, water, oil, forestry and conservation areas as sinks for resource extraction. A colonial matrix of dispossession and domination persists in the neoliberal period through structures of power that link state-corporate actors, comprador bourgeois classes and racialised social groups and classes within states reproducing neo-colonial structures of inequality and projects of subjugation through development projects, market violence, land theft, looting of natural resources, exploitation and cultural assault.

Neoliberalisation is a hetero-directed process, one that diffuses from multiple poles of power, discourse, interest and wealth

Sixth, neoliberalisation has advanced inequalities between classes and exacerbated social injustice. Many neoliberal interventions had a pro-powerful—rather than a pro-poor character. Systemic elite bias and elite capture of development projects turned these into tools to advance the process of class formation, consolidating the power of dominant classes. Neoliberalism increased the power of a range of domestic actors, especially but not only elite actors. Major foreign economic actors benefited in significant ways. The presence of foreign capital was backed by various ideological devices, including “foreigners as investors” and “business interest equals public interest” ideologies. Over the years, Museveni’s rhetoric has been consistent and insistent on the role of foreign investors in his vision for the country. Symptomatic of neoliberal Uganda is an acceleration of “jobless” economic growth, whereby much of the investment take place in the extractive and financial sectors, with little or no linkages to local economies, and with wealth captured by a plethora of actors with little societal redistribution. As such, the making of the new market society has gone hand in hand with increasing resource inequalities, as uneven access to natural resources paved the way for capital accumulation in the hands of a few. The escalation of inequality and class divisions is inherently linked to neoliberal restructuring.

Seventh, neoliberal policies have produced socially regressive effects for the most vulnerable parts of the population. The financial demands and pressures on the subaltern classes to just survive and recover from ill-health are extraordinary. Health and education reforms resulted in a social crisis for significant sections of the poor, threatening their life chances and advancing inequality and class divisions. Further, the multiple and interacting crises produced by neoliberal restructuring are often addressed by more neoliberal reform which brings rather little advancement. The version of neoliberalism observed in Uganda is in key aspects arguably more extreme, crass and unequal than elsewhere. Neoliberal reason has become embedded in society and it is by now a habit of thought, a cognitive frame that shapes the way people see themselves, others, and the social world, and consequently the ways in which they act in that context.

Eighth, neoliberal discourses—from good governance to empowerment—provided a positive, sanitising spin to the brutal exercise of power and restructuring that has locked-in a capitalist social order and its societal hierarchy based on increased inequality and a permanent social crisis. Neoliberal ideology provided a message of win-win, progressive change, hope and optimism, a “human” face, a technical, natural flavour to a process that produced substantial regressions and crises. This resulted in the depoliticisation and sterilisation of debates about development and change.

Donor-led development narratives and ideologies systematically concealed the class interests behind the neoliberal reforms. Narratives of liberalisation, free markets, empowerment and competition among free individuals thus tended to conceal the substantial concentration of wealth, monopolistic tendencies and resulting profit levels, and the coercive and conflictive character of the neoliberal economy. Reform programmes that promised a better governed, efficient, orderly, clean, accountable, humane, pro-people polity and economy, i.e. a harmonious social order, thereby engendered a society shaped (and scarred) by heightened violence, criminality, opaqueness, conflict, and social harm.

Neoliberal reason has become embedded in society and it is by now a habit of thought, a cognitive frame that shapes the way people see themselves

Ninth, the process of neoliberalising Uganda has occurred in continuity with key aspects of the colonial project, substantially contested on the ground by those who have most suffered its nefarious social, political and ecological implications. Protests have taken different forms and contributed to shaping important alliances with other social constituents which carved up a new political space by challenging the implementation of neoliberal development projects. A myriad of social struggles is taking place around key areas of societal transformation. Social media has become a protest platform which the state constantly strives to restrict in order to control dissent and criticism of state action. These dynamics have at times helped opposition parties to win seats, and forced the state to respond by alternating its iron hand – political violence – with its soft hand – consent seeking.

Tenth, the exclusion, inequality, violence, precarity and crises that large sections of the subaltern classes face are thus not caused by a “malfunctioning” market, or a “deviated” capitalist trajectory. Rather, the opposite is true: it is precisely the functioning of neoliberal restructuring and institutions that causes widespread social, political and economic crises. The Ugandan situation is part and parcel of institutionalised crass capitalism globaxlly. There is no way out of these crises unless the key pillars of neoliberal order are questioned, and inroads towards a significant de-neoliberalisation of the country are made. We do not see this happening in the near future, as the neoliberal restructuring is now well embedded, i.e. Ugandans face an “instituted neoliberalism” (McMichael 2017: 336). This institutionalised character of neoliberalism applies to the regional and the global levels too, where it produces a wide array of “material and epistemic demands” (ibid) that will push for further restructuring.

To conclude, the mainstream ideology claiming that more private sector development will produce a future that is, as Museveni put it in a tweet in 2017, “easy to handle”, is a fallacy (“If economy grows, costs go down, private investors are attracted and the future becomes easy to handle.”, 10.05.2017). Current in-crisis countries elsewhere, for instance Mexico, were once celebrated success stories of neoliberal restructuring; they are now telling case studies of the open-ended regressive possibilities of this model of society. Uganda, and neoliberal Africa, might well face a further “mexicisation” in some aspects of societal order. The key processes and practices underpinning social transformations in the country are not unique to Uganda. Several African countries have in many ways undertaken similar paths of political, social, economic, and cultural transformation. Yet the spectacular changes that have occurred in Uganda in the last thirty years reveal the potential trajectories of transformation upon which other African countries could embark in the near future (or that are already underway). The prevalence of extractive and enclave economies, the hegemony of the state-donors-capital block, and the expanding marketisation of society, represent the common denominator for many African countries. As all this unfolds, watch out for the crisis-related spin, explanations, narratives and discourses of the powerful, particularly how the problems and contradictions of capitalist social order and rule are theorised, discussed, and explained (away). This task of explaining the ‘unexplainable’ – to (re-)construct for example explanations concerning state violence, to express shock and concern about violence while at the same time advancing or hiding it – can be regarded as part of what Kalundi Serumaga termed the “common boss problem”. The conflicting and changing (and much debated) statements in the last days of the EU and other western actors about the quality of the elections (and EU statements about respective misreporting) give a glimpse into the ‘dilemmas’ and ‘difficulties’ of executing this task.

Social media has become a protest platform which the state constantly strives to restrict in order to control dissent and criticism of state action

Finally then, whatever the spins of the powerful, the neoliberal hegemonic development model in Uganda, which has produced widening inequalities, growing concentration of control of resources, rising levels of poverty and widespread marginalization, has not gone uncontested. Despite elections having taken place in the midst of state sponsored violence, they have been characterised by tremendously high levels of popular mobilisation and political participation. Indeed, the growing political ferment in the country, which precedes the electoral period, is the result of the growing political support gained by Bobi Wine, ‘ghetto’ musician-turned-politician, founder of People’s Power movement and leading figure of the political scenario in the country. Embodying the aspirations of millions of disenfranchised youth (the overwhelming majority of Ugandans are under 25 years), Wine has been able to mobilize masses across the country, reawakening the political imagination, forging alliance with other forces in the opposition, and becoming a major threat to the existence of the regime.

In this sense, the acute violence we have witnessed in coincidence with elections is a response to a broader set of social mobilisations which have mounted a series of political challenge to neoliberal authoritarianism. In this short piece: “The West helped cripple Ugandan democracy”, Wine points to the long-term involvement of external forces in Ugandan’s political affairs, and the role of donors and western governments in hindering the overthrow of the neoliberal order. He highlights the antagonism between authoritarian neoliberalism and the free political agency of millions of Ugandans. His political challenge is thus arguably not only against the oppression of the Museveni government but against key aspects of the very operation of imperialism and global capitalism (and the continuation of neoliberalism in the country). In these moments of political contestation and upheavals Amiclar Cabral’s revolutionary teaching, ‘tell no lies, claim no easy victories” becomes actual. Yesterday, as today, it is paramount to uncover the causes of people’s misery, in order to build a social order that can truly serve, advance and protect people’s lives and aspirations.

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