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Was There a Chemical Attack in Douma?

6 min read. As difficult, if familiar, questions emerge refuting the West’s allegations that the Assad regime used chemical warfare in eastern Ghouta, will Syria become the next Iraq – the next theatre for ‘Shock & Awe’? As Russia objects and talk of a new Cold War rocks Big Power relations, RASNA WARAH examines the logic of war by false pretences.

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Was There a Chemical Attack in Douma?
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Early this month, just hours before US President Donald Trump announced that he had sanctioned a strike against targeted chemical weapon factories in Syria, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, told the UN Security Council that Syria’s Bashar Assad had chemical weapons that he had been unleashing on the Syrian people – a claim that appeared to be based almost entirely on a video of children allegedly suffocating after a chemical attack.

It was a scene eerily similar to the one that took place in the chambers of the UN Security Council fifteen years ago, in February 2003. Then, to justify why the United States and its allies needed to invade Iraq, the then US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, described to UN Security Council members how Saddam Hussein was harbouring weapons of mass destruction in various sites across Iraq. Within days of this carefully orchestrated speech, US and British coalition forces had gathered their air and sea power around the Gulf, and the war on Iraq began, unleashing untold suffering and mayhem on the people of Iraq, whose effects are being felt to this day.

It was a scene eerily similar to the one that took place in the chambers of the UN Security Council fifteen years ago, in February 2003. Then, to justify why the United States and its allies needed to invade Iraq, the then US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, described to UN Security Council members how Saddam Hussein was harbouring weapons of mass destruction in various sites across Iraq.

Powell would later regret making this speech – he had also insinuated that Iraq had links with Al Qaeda – and even went on to describe President George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq as “a strategic error” that would create a leadership vacuum in the country. Indeed, with the centre no longer holding, things started to fall apart in this once secular country, with some of Saddam’s Baath party loyalists joining rebel groups or extremist Islamic factions, including the phenomenon known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has threatened to create a “caliphate” across the Muslim world.

The Russian and Syrian governments have claimed that the most recent images of a chemical attack in Douma in eastern Ghouta are fake or stage-managed by Syrian opposition or rebel groups supported by the West, such as the first responders known as White Helmets (who are partly funded by the British government). They have questioned the timing of their chemical attack allegations: precisely at the moment when the Syrian government, with Russian military support, appears to have defeated ISIS.

There could be some truth to what they are saying. Early this week, the award-winning British journalist Robert Fisk, reporting from the site of the so-called chemical attack in Douma for the UK’s Independent newspaper, quoted a Syrian doctor who said that the children seen in the video “were not overcome by gas but by oxygen starvation in the rubbish-filled tunnels and basements in which they lived, on a night of wind and heavy shelling that stirred up a dust storm”.

Fisk’s assessment of the attack is far more credible that that of the French president Emmanuel Macron who declared that he had “proof” that Assad was using chemical weapons in Douma. Few journalists asked how he had obtained this evidence, given that the area is under government control and no inspector from the UN or from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has yet gone there to corroborate this claim.

CNN, did, however, send a reporter to a refugee camp in Turkey where victims of the Douma attack were staying. After sniffing a seven-year-old Syrian girl’s backpack, the reporter concluded that there was definitely something in it “that stings”. If the poisonous chemicals released by Assad in Douma were so life-threatening and toxic, shouldn’t the girl and her family have been quarantined and not allowed to have contact with non-medical personnel, let alone a foreign journalist?

Both the 2003 Iraq war and the latest strikes by French, British and US forces (now pejoratively being referred to as F.U.K.U.S) on alleged chemical factories in Syria were aided by Western media. In the Syria case, the media has chosen to propagate the narrative that Assad, like Saddam, is an evil tyrant that must be taken out with the help of the morally upright West that cares about democracy and human rights. Few media organisations appear to have noted the tragic irony that the West’s military interventions in Iraq and Syria have, in fact, contributed to worsening human rights abuses in these countries.

To understand more clearly Western media’s role in these disinformation campaigns, the case of Pultizer Prize-winning investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, almost a solitary dissenting voice whose reporting has been repeatedly ignored or downplayed, is particularly instructive. In March 2003, when the US-led war on Iraq was underway, Hersh revealed how, during a crucial four-month period leading up to the attacks on Baghdad, US and British officials had falsely accused Saddam Hussein’s government of trying to buy huge quantities of uranium from Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries.

In his article, published in the New Yorker, Hersh had revealed that documents used to support the uranium link between Iraq and Niger were fake. In fact, one letter dated July 2000 even bore the Niger president’s signature, a clumsy, amateurish forgery. Analysts suggested that the forgers assumed that it would be much more credible to implicate a poor African country rather than the three other leading exporters of uranium oxide, namely, Canada, Australia and Russia, who would have convincingly been able to defend themselves against charges of helping Iraq build nuclear weapons. By the time the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed El Baradei, discredited these accusations, it was too late: Washington had already begun marching towards Baghdad.

At any other time, Hersch’s story would have taken on Watergate proportions, but it barely made headlines. Although it is generally acknowledged that the truth is the first casualty of war, the Iraq war showed that journalists actively colluded in suppressing the facts, thereby becoming part and parcel of the military campaign of US and British coalition forces.

CNN, did, however, send a reporter to a refugee camp in Turkey where victims of the Douma attack were staying. After sniffing a seven-year-old Syrian girl’s backpack, the reporter concluded that there was definitely something in it “that stings”. If the poisonous chemicals released by Assad in Douma were so life-threatening and toxic, shouldn’t the girl and her family have been quarantined and not allowed to have contact with non-medical personnel, let alone a foreign journalist?

Hersh’s uncomfortable truths about the Iraq war could not, however, be ignored when his explosive exposé on the mistreatment and physical abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq was published in the New Yorker in May 2004. The published images of the tortured prisoners were extremely damaging to the US military’s reputation. Even then, Washington refused to take responsibility, attributing the abuse to “a few bad apples”. The war continued and left in its wake more than 600,000 dead, casualties of a war that should have never started.

The West’s shameless occupation and fragmentation of the Arab world goes back to the 1916 agreement negotiated by Mark Sykes of Britain and François Georges-Picot of France that enabled Britain and France to carve up and control Arab territories after the demise of the Ottoman Empire. Britain helped rebels to vanquish the Ottoman army in the Middle East and then assigned itself the territories now known as Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan and Palestine, while France took Syria, Lebanon and southern Turkey.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement ensured that no strong non-European military would rule the oil-rich Arab world after the Ottomans left. The strategy to achieve this was to install weak and pliant leaders (preferably monarchs) in these territories and to keep the region in a permanent state of turmoil by pitting ethnic or religious factions against each other (for example, by helping Sunni factions to take up arms against Shias, as the West has done in Syria and Iraq). All of this would be aided by a military-industrial complex that ensured the steady flow of weapons manufactured by the West into the region.

This is exactly what played out in Iraq and what is now playing out in Syria, nearly a century after Sykes-Picot. Unsettlingly for the West, the Russians have figured this out (as they did in 1917 when they made details of the agreement public), and are resisting attempts to bring about regime change in Syria. As one British security strategist remarked (before being abruptly cut off by a Sky TV anchor): Why attack Assad now when ISIS has been vanquished?

The Sykes-Picot Agreement ensured that no strong non-European military would rule the oil-rich Arab world after the Ottomans left. The strategy to achieve this was to install weak and pliant leaders in these territories and to keep the region in a permanent state of turmoil by pitting ethnic or religious factions against each other. All of this would be aided by a military-industrial complex that ensured the steady flow of weapons manufactured by the West into the region.

The logic of these wars advances on a base commercial instinct: the use of Western taxpayers’ resources for an expensive and destructive military campaign whose objective is the total destruction of enemy infrastructure. Having achieved this end (through the doctrine of Shock and Awe), a military regent is installed to oversee the extraction of enemy resources for the victor’s benefit. But just as important is the very lucrative business of reconstruction: tenders to rebuild destroyed roads, dams, bridges, pipelines, buildings, water and sewer systems, in other words, the country, are then given to crony Western private companies. Enter Blackwater, Kellog Brown and Root and other private subcontractors with close links to the political establishment in Washington, London and Paris. The whole campaign is prosecuted under cover of a media-driven narrative of Western concern and charity for the once-doomed peoples of the vanquished dictator, now living in a free and functioning democracy. We have seen it in Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, to name the most recent examples. Are we going to see this charade replayed in Syria?

Assad may very well be the monster he is portrayed to be, but the much older enemies of the Syrian people are those who once again seek to perpetuate mayhem in Syria and in the region for their own selfish commercial and geopolitical interests.

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Ms Warah, the author of War Crimes, a sweeping indictment of foreign meddling in Somalia, and A Triple Heritage, among several other books, is also a freelance journalist based in Malindi, Kenya.

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From the Handshake to the BBI Report, Hope to Disillusionment: My Side of the Story

9 min read. During the political standoff that followed the 2017 presidential election, the National Super Alliance (NASA) espoused a road map that would lead to a political settlement through the formation of a transitional government that would have spearheaded the process of building a national consensus on political reforms. But in place of a Jubilee-NASA institutional engagement came the Handshake, a commitment by Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga in their personal capacities, which has culminated in the recently released Building Bridges Initiative Report, an underwhelming document that underscores the failure of the two principals to deliver the new political dispensation they had promised.

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From the Handshake to the BBI Report, Hope to Disillusionment: My Side of the Story
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The much-anticipated release of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report two weeks ago was to be the crescendo of the detente—popularly known as the Handshake—between Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta after the failed 2017 presidential election. It underwhelmed.

Soon after its release, the rumor mill put its cost at the very unlikely figure of Sh10 billion, which the pundits calculated to be a whopping Sh64 million for each of the 156 pages of the badly drafted, poorly edited rehash of existing documents. In a satirical column, literary scholar Evan Mwangi calls it a reflection of the “low intellectual capacity of the clowns in charge of our country’s affairs,” while Wandia Njoya, another literary scholar, calls it a declaration of war by the political elite on the people. Both Mwangi’s and Njoya’s reading of the political psychology of the report leads them to a similar conclusion—it is a cynical political fraud.

Mwangi: “The report’s aim is to discourage us from seeking fundamental political or social change by pretending to offer avenues for transformation. It suggests that we should continue assuaging demagogues among our political class, so unlike in 2007 they don’t burn us alive in churches, stoke ethnic violence in political rallies in the run-up to the polls, or organise retaliatory attacks by youths who would then be all snuffed out to cover up crimes against humanity.”

Njoya: “Statements from the government and those pundits that slavishly support it often trace the source of any disaster to the public—especially the victims—and to democracy. Government insiders and supporters portray the state as blameless, and fault Kenyans for wanting to participate democratically in the making of decisions that affect them, because by doing so, Kenyans put delays on the good work of the government. If every social challenge we face is caused by us, the people, then the response to the challenge must be to fix the behaviour, the values and the soul of the people. This “fix the people” approach to social problems is the very essence of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) document released by the government this week.”

A Swahili tabloid summarised BBI thus: “Ni msitu mpya, nyani ni wale wale.” (same monkeys, different forest). From the ivory tower to street level, the verdict is the same.

How did we get here?

In January 2018, three months into the 2017 presidential election standoff, it was rumored that the formation of a government was being delayed by behind-the-scenes power-sharing negotiations. The National Super Alliance (NASA) issued a statement and held a press conference to refute the suggestion, during which this columnist stated that:

“NASA is not interested in boardroom deals which have not delivered for Kenyans like the 2007 power sharing agreement. We don’t recognise this illegitimate government and we will not give it legitimacy . . . Our nation is deeply divided between two irreconcilable political values namely authoritarian rule and democracy. They (Jubilee) have in fact stated that a benevolent dictatorship is better than a democracy. The way out for the country is to embark on an urgent, honest and far reaching conversation sooner rather than later.”

The key words here are “boardroom deals.” Indeed, I recall belabouring the pledge by analogy, stating that NASA would not go into a “come-we-stay” marriage with Jubilee. Internally, we were developing a more elaborate negotiating strategy. Our preferred road map to a political settlement was a transitional government with a limited mandate, to be established by a constitutional instrument along the lines of the National Accord that established the Government of National Unity (GNU) after the 2007/8 failed election.

The transitional government would have spearheaded the process of building a national consensus on political reforms that would have culminated in what we hoped would be an uncontested constitutional amendment referendum, if one were required, followed by a free and fair election. We had also suggested that Uhuru and Raila commit publicly to retiring, so as to strengthen their hand as honest brokers and the midwives of a new political dispensation, and by so doing, insulate the process from succession politics. This was a reasonable proposition since Uhuru would be retiring anyway, and Raila had signed a one-term deal with the NASA co-principals.

Our preferred road map to a political settlement was a transitional government with a limited mandate, to be established by a constitutional instrument

It therefore came as a bit of shock that Raila had gone ahead and cut a backroom deal with Uhuru, the very thing we had pledged not to do. But in the rough and tumble of politics, you learn to roll with the punches. We saw that the letter of the deal was in the spirit of the road map we envisaged, the main difference being that in place of the Jubilee-NASA institutional engagement we had prepared for, the handshake was a commitment by Raila and Uhuru in their personal capacities. In what was to be our last press release as the People’s Assembly Committee, we applauded this commitment but also pointed out the dangers:

“The memorandum is an initiative of the two leaders in their individual capacities. In the memorandum, they describe themselves not as presidents or leaders of political formations which they are, but as friends and compatriots. The two leaders have acknowledged the historical origins of our current crisis, and the many opportunities over the years that leaders have missed to right the ship. They recognise that they too have a historic opportunity to set the country on the right course, and they do not want to be remembered as another generation of leaders that did not rise to the occasion…We must commend and congratulate the two leaders for this meeting of minds. Acknowledging a problem is the first step towards solving it. The two leaders have asked us to give them an opportunity to spearhead this process. We have been assured that this initiative will be about the people, will involve the people, and will be validated and owned by the people. But we are alive to the painful history of political betrayal. We know that once [crises] subside, leaders can get comfortable and allow the issues of the people to fade into the background. That is how we have ended up where we are.”

This was the spirit as we set about implementing the handshake. But as days went by, it became evident that what was said was not what was intended. The discordance was brought into sharp relief by disagreements on whether or not to gazette the BBI Task Force. The handshake MOU was explicit that the initiative was a personal political undertaking. Gazetting the task force would make it a state project that would be bureaucratised and watered down. And as one colleague opined, it would amount to “kicking the ball into the long grass.” Those pushing for gazettement could not argue a cogent case, but in one conversation, one colleague, in a fit of exasperation, blurted out: “But there is money!”. The cat was out of the bag.

In the corridors, the conversation was dominated by talk of an impending cabinet reshuffle. Indeed, within no time at all, Raila Odinga’s Capitol Hill office had become a beehive of activity with, so I gathered, people bringing their CVs, others seeking help with tenders, pending bills and corruption cases. By end April, the frenzy had reached fever pitch. Week after week, confident predictions were made that the reshuffle would be announced on Thursday, then Monday, then Thursday again. My vehement protestations about these under-the-table dealings elicited a quiet word of advice that I should tone down as my name was on the appointments list.

We had also suggested that Uhuru and Raila commit publicly to retiring, so as to strengthen their hand as honest brokers and the midwives of a new political dispensation

There were two other issues that I found troublesome. The first was the anti-corruption crusade that was mounted immediately after the handshake. My concern was that corruption cartels were the last adversary that the BBI needed, especially as it appeared to be a one-sided assault on Deputy President Ruto’s patronage network. Secondly, I was persuaded that the country was headed into an economic crisis (that is now unfolding). By embracing Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila Odinga was in essence sanitising Jubilee’s economic delinquency, and jumping into a sinking ship. In fact, I postulated that by the time of his departure from office, Uhuru Kenyatta would be more unpopular than Moi was in 2002.

Raila dismissed both concerns. I was particularly bemused by his prognosis that an economic crisis would not hurt because Zimbabwe’s Mugabe seemed to have survived a much more severe one (Mugabe was still in office then). It was not long before it became apparent that an economic storm was brewing and an urgent discussion was convened. At the end of my presentation, Raila came back with what to me was a bolt from the blue: he wanted to know how the president could be helped and went as far as to request that I write a paper that he would discuss with Kenyatta. That is the moment it dawned on me that, in his mind, Raila was already in government, or, as we say in Swahili, tumewachwa kwa mataa (we had been abandoned at the traffic lights). I did not respond and needless to say, no such paper was forthcoming. Looking back, Kenyatta had all along been banking on a personal deal with Raila. Two anecdotes will suffice to illustrate the point—they are by no means the only ones.

On the eve of the declaration of the official results of the August 8 presidential election, the NASA presidential campaign team was holding a quiet vigil of sorts when a muted drama, that went unnoticed by most of the people in the room, played out. A wheeler-dealer known to have business links with the Kenyatta family walked up to Raila and said that “mama is waiting.” Although spoken in low tones, colleagues within earshot became curious and sought to know who “mama” was. The awkward silence that ensued gave the game away. A statement unequivocally rejecting the election results was quickly drafted for Raila to issue; it had not been on the evening’s agenda. It is unlikely that we will ever know whether Raila was in on the plan to meet “mama” and what the rendezvous would have engendered. History oftentimes turns on chance.

The second one was in late November, shortly after we launched the protest movements that included a consumer boycott of Brookside Dairy products, among others. I received a call from a colleague alerting me that he had directed to me a “foreign journalist” who was frantically looking for Ida Odinga (she was out of the country at the time). The name of the “foreign journalist” was Christina Pratt (née Kenyatta). It would seem Ms. Pratt had presumed name recognition as she did not see fit to introduce herself or give her reason for calling and so, not recognising the name, my colleague had brushed her off for a couple of days; he responded once I told him who the caller was. Such was the urgency that Ms. Pratt even sought to know whether she could travel to where Ida Odinga then was, which proposal was declined. I gather that contact was eventually made and a home visit, of the kind we call itega in Gikuyu (gift giving), was arranged.

As observed, the point of these anecdotes is that Kenyatta had been banking on resolving the election impasse privately with Odinga, kinyumbani (domestically) as we say in Swahili; the handshake was the actualisation of Kenyatta’s desire. But by having chosen to personalise a political crisis, Uhuru and Raila would seem to have overestimated their personal power and underestimated their adversaries.

Uhuru and Raila seemed not to realise that refusing to categorically rule themselves out of the 2022 contest was guaranteed to frame the BBI initiative as succession politics. It did not help that the anti-graft war was increasingly being perceived as a political takedown of William Ruto. Economic hardship also began to bite, making the ground less than enthusiastic, particularly in Kenyatta’s central Kenya political base. Raila’s contention, as cocky as it was self-serving, that Kenyatta’s political clout would shrug off the economic distress has not aged well. Week after week, no sooner would the joint nationwide meet-the-people engagements they had promised be announced but they would fizzle out.

The BBI Report is the product of these missteps. What many Kenyans will not know is that the BBI task force was not constituted to produce a technical report. Rather, it was initially envisaged as a team of political advisors to the two principals, in line with the principals’ commitment that they would be personally leading the engagements with the people. It would seem that once the ground became hostile, the task force was repurposed to collect views and write a report—a task that it was clearly neither suited for nor prepared for. Suffice it to say that, given the depth and wealth of talent and experience in governance reform that we have gained in our two-decade constitutional reform struggle, the BBI task force is not in the country’s first or even second eleven.

Uhuru and Raila seemed not to realise that refusing to categorically rule themselves out of the 2022 contest was guaranteed to frame the BBI initiative as succession politics

In the midst of the debate about the flaws of the report, we risk losing sight of the fact that the handshake was a product of a failed presidential election. The real problem is one of incumbents who, sensing defeat, monkey-wrench the election to the point where it is impossible to get an outcome. Without a clear outcome, a power-sharing settlement is negotiated and the incumbent gets to stay in power. This model of retaining power was invented by the Mwai Kibaki administration in 2007 and has quickly gained currency, being copied in Zimbabwe, Madagascar and Togo to name a few countries.

How does the BBI report propose to end this? It makes no mention of the problem, let alone offering proposals; there is, in fact, no mention of free and fair elections in the entire report. There is perhaps no greater indictment of the handshake than the fact that we are now hurtling towards another toxic, high-octane, do-or-die election. Had Uhuru and Raila stuck to the path of honest brokers committed to midwifing the new political dispensation that they had promised instead of the political intrigues and self-aggrandisement that we are now witnessing, things on the ground could have been very different.

A while back, this columnist enumerated four critical historical junctures at which nation-building opportunities were squandered through a failure of leadership. Make that five.

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No Place for Women: India’s Female-unfriendly Cities

8 min read. Rising rape cases in Indian cities have sparked women’s movements that are claiming public spaces for themselves and defying a culture that says that a woman’s place is in the home. RASNA WARAH examines how gender-sensitive urban planning and design can deter potential rapists.

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No Place for Women: India’s Female-unfriendly Cities
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The gruesome rape and murder of a 26-year-old vet in the Indian city of Hyderabad has once again highlighted the issues of women’s safety in urban areas and the rape culture that allows these kinds of heinous acts to take place. The woman was gang-raped by four men who approached her on the pretext of fixing a flat tyre on her scooter. When they had finished raping her, they doused her body with petrol and set it alight. Her charred body was found in a highway underpass.

Women’s rights activists have once again taken to the streets as they did in 2012 when another brutal gang rape led to the death of a female student in New Delhi. The rape of Jyoti Singh, the paramedic student who was repeatedly tortured and thrown out of a moving bus by her tormentors, galvanised India. Vigils and protest marches were held in her name. “Nirbhaya” (Fearless) – the name that was given to her as she struggled to stay alive in hospital – remains a symbol of women’s resistance in the face of misogyny.

But seven years after that horrific incident, rape statistics in India remain as high as ever; about one hundred women and girls are raped in India every single day. Most of the perpetrators never face justice.

In Jyoti Singh’s case, the trial of the perpetrators was fast-tracked because of the public outcry, and stricter laws were passed to deter rapists. The immense shame suffered by the families of the accused even caused one of the rapists to commit suicide while in prison. But that case has clearly had little impact on the Indian male psyche, which is apparently wired to view every woman as a potential target for rape and other forms of violence. This in a country where female Hindu goddesses like Durga, Kali, and Saraswati are worshipped.

However, like all organised religions, Hinduism has a contradictory view of women. The Madonna-Whore dichotomy, which worships “pure, virginal” women, on the one hand, and diminishes those considered “impure”, on the other, is very much prevalent. Hindu mythology is rife with stories of women being “punished” for disobeying their male family members or for straying out of the home.

In the epic Ramayana, Sita, the wife of Lord Ram who is revered for her self-sacrifice and purity, is abducted by the demon Ravan after she crosses an invisible line outside her dwelling, thus breaking a promise she made to her brother-in-law Lakshman to not venture outside her homestead. (The message is clear: women leave their homes at their peril, and like Eve who ate an apple in the Garden of Eden despite having been warned against it, there is a price women have to pay for disobeying an order.) Sita’s kidnapping and eventual return to her husband’s kingdom (where she undergoes a trial by fire – agni pariksha – to prove her chastity) is one of the central themes surrounding the Hindu festival of Diwali.

The rape and murder of Jyoti Singh led to a lot of soul-searching, particularly among India’s elite and middle classes, who have tended to view violence against women as a problem mainly afflicting the lower uneducated classes. Soutik Biswas, the BBC’s Delhi correspondent, was among those who viewed gender-based violence as being common among the less privileged sections of the population, particularly in northern India, a region which he said harbours “a stiflingly patriarchal social mindset”.

He also blamed Delhi’s “deracinated generation of migrants” and a “broken justice system” for the rising incidence of rapes in the capital city. Biswas was referring to the hordes of unskilled migrants moving to New Delhi from neighbouring – largely agricultural – states, such as Haryana, where “honour killings” are known to take place.

What Biswas failed to recognise is that domestic violence is prevalent even among the rich and that this form of violence remains hidden because women are made to believe that a family’s honour will be damaged if a woman speaks about the violence she endures at the hands of her husband or another family member. However, thankfully, more and more women in India are now speaking more openly about the physical abuse they suffer at home – but this has not deterred men from inflicting the violence.

Statistics show that nearly 40 per cent of Indian women have experienced some form of domestic violence. Many of these women are middle class professionals, such as journalist Nita Bhalla, who recounted her own abuse at the hands of her husband in an article published on BBC News. Bhalla said that Indians’ high tolerance for violence against women makes it difficult for victims to get justice. “When he pulled my hair and kicked me as I lay on the pavement, there was a deafening silence from my neighbours who heard my screams but were reluctant to intervene,” she wrote.

Bhalla says that modern educated women are particularly threatening to Indian males, who lash out at these women because of their own insecurities. Men’s loss of power and control over women has made professional women particularly vulnerable, especially in male-dominated work environments and in public spaces. Sexual harassment and rape are men’s responses to this loss of power and control.

I also see a direct correlation between Indian men’s consumption of pornography and the rising cases of rape in India. According to Pornhub’s own data, Indians are the largest consumers of online pornography after the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada (in that order). Pornography desensitises men and boys and makes them believe that violence against women, including rape, is normal and even a secret fantasy that women harbour.

A sense of entitlement

In highly patriarchal societies, men tend to view women as their personal property. This sense of entitlement fosters the commodification of women and girls. Girls are viewed as an economic burden whose only value lies in their labour and in their ability to produce sons. That is why the burning of brides for dowry was until recently fairly common in India, as was female infanticide.

Men’s loss of power and control over women has made professional women particularly vulnerable, especially in male-dominated work environments and in public spaces

Some say that Bollywood’s portrayal of women as sex objects has only made things worse for Indian women. It is hard to find strong female characters who are economically independent and not dependent on male approval. While some films have tackled the issue of rape, and female directors are making more women-centric films, the commercially successful movies tend to be those that revolve around a male protagonist, with the female protagonist relegated to the role of “love interest”.

Narendra Modi’s India has not made Indian women safer either. On the contrary, it could be argued that the right-wing exclusionary politics espoused by Modi has made life for minorities, including women, more difficult. Modi has not vociferously condemned the killing of Muslims in India by Hindu fanatics so, despite having a large female following, it is unlikely that he will take a strong stand against violence against women. Right-wing groups tend to be hostile to women’s and minorities’ rights, and so we can expect little in terms of progressive, gender-friendly policies from his government.

The rape and murder of the vet in Hyderabad last month is not just a tragedy for the victim’s family but is also deeply embarrassing for the Indian government, which has superpower ambitions. Economic growth and liberalisation may have lifted millions out of poverty, but they have clearly not had a significant impact on the status of women in Indian society. This needs to change. A society may be economically successful, but its success will be meaningless if half of its population lives in fear.

Pornography desensitises men and boys and makes them believe that violence against women, including rape, is normal and even a secret fantasy that women harbour

Economic success has also not assured the safety of women in countries such as Kenya, South Africa and the United States – where incidences of rape are particularly high. In recent years, there have also been increasing cases of Kenyan men murdering women who have rebuffed their sexual advances. Young university students are particularly vulnerable. The alarming rise in the number of such cases has led a group of Kenyan women to document these cases, lest we forget. But documentation is not enough. The long and complicated legal process, and a woman-unfriendly police force, have made prosecution cumbersome. Poorly-lit streets and female-unfriendly public transport also make urban living for women particularly harrowing.

Claiming public spaces

Since Jyoti Singh’s death, women’s movements that are claiming public spaces have sprung up in India. In Mumbai a group of women have formed the “Why Loiter” movement, which encourages women to just “loiter” in public spaces after dark – in effect to claim spaces that have been denied them by a culture that says a woman’s place is in the home. The movement’s advocates argue that, in fact, the home is the most dangerous place for women who experience domestic violence at the hands of their own family members. They also say that by claiming public spaces, they are asserting their right to the city and defying those who want to see women’s mobility curtailed.

While it is difficult to completely stamp out misogyny in highly patriarchal societies such as India, many urban planners are coming to the realisation that gender-sensitive urban planning and design can deter potential rapists and sexual harassers. There is now increasing awareness of the fact that violence – or the threat of it – has severely hindered women’s movement in cities in most parts of the world. Impractical zoning laws, inflexible public transport routes, lack of childcare facilities and poorly-lit public spaces have made cities dangerous places for women.

According to studies done by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) and NGOs working towards women’s safety in public spaces, there are four main reasons why women experience cities as hostile environments. First, zoning laws are woman-unfriendly and do not recognise that women need to balance their income-earning and domestic activities. If zoning laws allowed women to work from or near their homes, women would not spend so much time commuting and would also be able to take care of their families while earning an income. Second, lack of services, such as childcare at work, further limits women’s economic and public life. Third, poor infrastructure, particularly insufficient lighting on streets and in public spaces like bus stops and train stations makes walking at night a challenging prospect for women. Lack of clean and safe public toilets also impedes women’s and girls’ mobility. Fourth, public transport itineraries that are not sensitive to women’s needs – not having enough stops on a route for instance – means women have to walk longer distances to get to their destination.

We may not be able to change the mindset of men who rape, but there are certain things cities can do to make them safer for women. One way is to keep men away from women through segregation. “Ladies’ compartments” – women-only carriages on long-distance trains and suburban commuter trains – are common across India. Women prefer to use these services because they significantly reduce the chances of sexual harassment – a phenomenon locally known as “eve teasing”, which is rampant across India. (Women and girls using buses in Indian cities regularly report being groped by male passengers.)

In response to the epidemic of sexual violence on city streets, a group of women developed an app that allows users to rate their streets for safety using criteria such as lighting, people density, security and transport. In short, Indian women are taking charge of their public spaces by sharing information that can keep them safe.

Impractical zoning laws, inflexible public transport routes, lack of childcare facilities and poorly-lit public spaces have made cities dangerous places for women

In one village in the state of Uttar Pradesh, women have formed a “gang” that punishes men who beat their wives or behave badly. The Green Gang – named after the green saris that gang members wear – represents a rising wave of women taking the law into their own hands in the face of poor policing and lack of law enforcement.

The challenge in cities is to encourage urban planners to design spaces that are women-friendly. As Anne Michaud, President of Femmes et Villes in Canada put it, a woman-friendly city not only has social benefits, but economic benefits as well. “If women feel safe, they will go out at night, they will patronize the theatre, the movie houses, the business establishments,” she stated. All this means that more money will circulate within the economy.

Smart urban planners would do well to ensure that women participate in the 24-hour urban economy without fear of being molested or raped. Who would want to live in a city where there is a constant fear of one’s wife or daughter being attacked?

I am a 100 per cent sure that if cities were woman-friendly, urban living would be a joyful and productive experience for every city resident, including men. Using public spaces without fear should not be a male privilege; it should be a woman’s right.

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An IMF Straightjacket Is a Fitting End to Jubilee’s Reign of Hubris, Blunder, Plunder, Squander and Abracadabra

8 min read. Six years of fiscal profligacy have finally caught up with the Jubilee administration. Money is short, it now admits, and the begging bowl is out. The IMF has been in town and will be back again. But the cure could be worse than the disease as Jubilee prepares to don an IMF straightjacket for the remainder of its term.

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An IMF Straightjacket Is a Fitting End to the Jubilee’s Reign of Hubris, Blunder, Plunder, Squander and Abracadabra
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The economic management space has become rather lively of late. A few weeks ago, the National Treasury published an updated national debt register that spooked quite a few people. A couple of days later, it circulated a draft debt policy for comments in whose wake followed a stern memo from State House to all state agencies. The subject of the memo was austerity measures and the following three directives were addressed to state corporations: “(a) to immediately remit the entirety of identified surplus funds to the National Treasury; (b) to assign (transfer ownership) of all the Treasury Bills/Bonds currently held in the name/or for the benefit of the State Corporations/SAGAs to The National Treasury, including any accruing interest by Friday, 15 November 2018; (c) to remit the entirety of Appropriations-in-Aid (AiA) revenues to The National Treasury”

SAGAs stands for Semi-Autonomous Government Agencies. Appropriations-in-Aid is the money that government agencies raise from the public, usually in fees; court fines, licences and payments for services. This money is usually factored into their budgets—for instance, if an agency’s approved budget is Sh1 billion and it expects to collect Sh200 million, the Exchequer will budget to fund the balance of Sh800 million.

It turns out that this memo was the agenda of the event at which Uhuru Kenyatta made his “why are Kenyans broke?” faux pas. Evidently, he had summoned the state corporation bosses to read them the riot act on the directive. Hot on the heels of the State House meeting, it was reported that Parliament had passed an amendment to the Public Financial Management Act requiring that all public agencies centralise their banking with the Central Bank of Kenya.

Why the sudden zeal?

The answer may be found in a press release issued by the IMF on 22 November disclosing that the Fund had concluded a visit to the country to review recent economic developments. It also disclosed that another visit was planned for early next year “to hold discussions on a new precautionary stand-by facility.” A precautionary standby facility is a credit line that IMF member countries can draw on in the event of a shock that affects a country’s ability to meet its external payment obligations, for example, a petroleum price shock, or a global financial crisis of such severity that a country’s foreign exchange resources would not be sufficient to cover both imports and debt servicing.

The previous standby facility, which was due to expire in March 2018, was suspended in the run-up to the 2017 general election because of non-compliance. In early 2018, the administration sought and secured a six-month grace period during which it would negotiate a new one (with no money available during the grace period as the government was not compliant). The grace period was to expire in September, but in August the talks collapsed. Some of the conditions that the IMF sought were the removal of both the interest rate cap and the controversial VAT on fuel. The exchange rate policy may have been another sticking point, as the IMF claimed that the government was artificially propping up the shilling, a contention that the Central Bank has vigorously contested.

It turns out then that the sudden flurry of activity may be all about impressing the IMF. Indeed, the centralisation of government banking—known as the Treasury Single Account (TSA)—is one of the IMF’s latest fads, And just as with IFMIS before it, TSA is supposed to be the silver bullet that will put an end to financial control woes.

There are at least two other developments that are consistent with the sort of demands that we can expect from the IMF.

First, the government has started to make wage bill noises again. The acting Treasury Cabinet Secretary was heard to lament at a conference convened to discuss the wage bill that it is consuming 48 per cent of revenue, way above the maximum of 35 per cent stipulated in the Public Finance Management Act. This appears to be a case of giving a dog a bad name. The total wage bill for the entire public sector including commercial enterprises was Sh600 billion, about 40 per cent of national revenue. But even this is misleading because commercial parastatals (Kenya Pipeline, Kenya Airports Authority, Central Bank, etc.) do not depend on government revenue. The consolidated public sector wage bill as a percentage of consolidated revenues is in the order of 34 per cent. This is not the first time that the government is cooking the wage bill figures.

It has also been reported that Kenya Power has applied for a 20 per cent tariff increase, in part to cover for the national government subsidy for low-income consumers. The IMF takes a dim view of subsidies of this kind and although this has not come into the public domain, I would expect the IMF to similarly take a dim view of the operational subsidy made to the SGR, which is even less defensible than the tariff subsidy.

Given that the same Jubilee administration that found IMF conditions unpalatable last year now appears to be bending over backwards to secure a deal, we are compelled to ask: what has changed?

Money is short. This year the government plans to borrow Sh700 billion. It plans to borrow Sh450 billion domestically, and Sh250 billion from foreign sources. Soft loans from development lenders are budgeted at Sh50 billion, leaving the balance of Sh200 billion to be sourced from commercial lenders, either by way of issuing sovereign bonds (Eurobonds) or by arranging syndicated bank loans. The Sh200 billion foreign borrowing is “net”, that is, over and above what the government will borrow to pay the principal installments on foreign bank loans (e.g. the Exim Bank of China SGR loans), and to refinance or roll-over maturing syndicated loans (thankfully, there are no Eurobonds maturing this year) amounting to Sh131 billion, bringing the total borrowing to Sh331 billion. As a rule, interest payments are paid out of revenue while the government aims to pay the principal by rolling-over or refinancing.

The government has access to three potential sources of this kind of money: budget support (also known as programme loans, issued by multilateral institutions, including the IMF itself), Eurobonds and syndicated loans. Of the three, the multilateral lenders are the cheapest, but they take long, come with conditions and usually require that an IMF programme be in place (although last year the World Bank did extend a programme loan without one).

Eurobonds are the next best option. The Government does not need an IMF deal to go to the sovereign bond market. Indeed, it did not have an IMF programme in place during its previous two bond issues: the debut issue in 2014 and the second one in February 2018. But circumstances do change. With as many as 20 African countries either already in or at high risk of debt distress, it may be that the market has signaled to the government that an IMF stand-by would be “an added advantage.” Indeed, the IMF itself has downgraded Kenya’s debt distress risk from low to medium.

Multilateral lenders are the cheapest, but they take long, come with conditions and usually require that an IMF programme be in place

For what it’s worth, the Jubilee administration is finally owning up to the fact that its finances are in a worse state than it has previously cared to admit. The new narrative heaps the blame on the now-suspended Treasury officials, Cabinet Secretary Rotich and Permanent Secretary Kamau Thugge. I was taken aback recently when a cabinet secretary who has a strong background in finance remarked that they were not aware how bad things were until Rotich and Thugge were booted out, while the central bank governor has been quoted blaming Rotich’s rosy revenue forecasts—which he has characterised as “abracadabra”—for encouraging the government to pile up debt. This is disingenuous because that is not how it is done. The borrowing is decided politically first, and then they cook the revenue numbers to show that we can afford it. The Governor has been part of the racket. It is also mean to mock one’s colleagues when they are in trouble, not to mention that the Central Bank has been deeply implicated in the Eurobond fraud cover-up under his watch. The Governor’s turn to be thrown under the bus may yet come, but I digress.

What is now inescapable is that six years of the most egregious fiscal profligacy has caught up with us. As this column argued a fortnight ago, the government is now hostage to fate—it can kick the can down the road and hope and pray that the crunch does not come this side of the election, in which case an IMF facility seems like a good cushion to have. But it comes with a health warning: the cure may be worse than the disease.

A couple of weeks ago, Lebanese people took to the streets and brought down the government in what has been dubbed the Whatsapp revolution. Those of us who are a bit long in the tooth remember Beirut as the byword for urban warfare. Lebanon’s sectarian warfare ended when its fractious and venal political elite worked out an inclusive eating arrangement of the kind that our equally venal eating chiefs are now crafting with handshakes, bridge building and whatnot. With no agencies of restraint, the chiefs finished the tax money and progressed to eating debt, chomping their way into a 150+ per cent of GDP debt (third highest in world after Japan and Greece) that is consuming half the government revenue in interest payments alone, and causing economic stagnation.

What is now inescapable is that six years of the most egregious fiscal profligacy has caught up with us

On its knees, the government passed an austerity budget in July. The austerity budget coincided with an IMF mission which recommended “a credible medium term fiscal plan aiming for a substantial and sustained primary fiscal surplus.” Primary fiscal balance is the difference between government revenue and recurrent expenditure excluding interest. It is achieved by raising more taxes and cutting wages and O&M (operations & maintenance) spending. These cuts usually fall most heavily on social spending.

As the government set about imposing more austerity and raising taxes, it unveiled a tax on voice-over-IP (VOIP) calls in October, the idea being to protect tax revenue from regular voice calls. It was the last straw. Evidently, the eating chiefs had not realised that this was the social lifeline for the youth. The people took to the streets. Two weeks later, the government fell. Lebanon is now in full financial meltdown. The IMF is nowhere to be seen.

Mozambique had an IMF programme in place when it ran into debt payment difficulties that forced the government to disclose more than a billion dollars of secret “Tuna bonds” debt. Now, the purpose of an IMF programme is to help a country in payment difficulties, but because the secret debt violated the terms of the IMF deal, instead of bailing Mozambique out, the IMF led the other donors in suspending aid to the country. Instead of helping put out the fire, the fire brigade decided that teaching the culprits a lesson was more important than saving the victims. Mozambique’s economy went into free fall, where it remains. This is the very same IMF that cooked our books to cover up the Eurobond theft.

The borrowing is decided politically first, and then they cook the revenue numbers to show that we can afford it

What alternative does Uhuru Kenyatta have? In economics, we talk of the orthodox and heterodox approaches to dealing with a sovereign financial crisis.

The orthodox approach is a formulaic one-size-fits-all approach which adheres to one economic school of thought known as neoclassical economics. Its prescriptions are fiscal austerity and doctrinaire free market ideology. It is, as is readily apparent, the IMF prescription. Heterodox is another name for unorthodox, and refers to a pragmatic strategy that draws from the entire spectrum of economic ideas from Austrian to Marxist political economy and everything in between.

The dilemma governments have to face is that the orthodox cure is sometimes worse than the disease, but it’s the one with the money behind it. Heterodox approaches work better, but they require a resolve and an imagination that many governments are unable to muster, especially when they have their backs against the wall.

Can the Jubilee administration muster the resolve for a heterodox response? Doubtful.

Four years ago I contemplated the Jubilee administration ending precisely where it is headed, to wit: “I cannot think of a more fitting epitaph for the Jubilee administration’s reign of hubris and blunder, plunder and squander, than the rest of the term spent savouring copious helpings of humble pie in an IMF straightjacket. Choices do have consequences. Sobering.

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