A decision last week by the plenary of the IEBC to send chief executive officer Ezra Chiloba on forced leave to pave way for a 90-day audit by the Kenya National Audit Office blasted open the simmering rivalries that have dogged this Commission’s tenure since it came to office in January 2017. As accusations and counter-accusations fly, it is now apparent that conflicts of interests over procurement tenders, rather than political factionalism or even the struggle to establish the truth of the August elections last year, will be the IEBC’s comeuppance.
Chiloba’s suspension triggered the resignations of commissioners Connie Nkatha Maina, who was the vice-chair, Margaret Mwachanya and Paul Kurgat. The trio’s departure, in addition to the dramatic resignation of commissioner Roselyn Akombe ahead of the October 26, 2017 presidential election re-run, denies the seven-member commission the necessary quorum of four to convene. Simply put, the Commission is paralysed.
Paralysis at the Commission will, among other things, throw a spanner in the works of the rumoured referendum on a constitutional amendment to replace the current presidential system with a parliamentary one – supposedly the end-game of the March 9 handshake between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga.
While Ruto may have been the puppet-master who engineered the commissioners’ resignations – the influence of Ruto’s faction of the Jubilee party on the Commission has long been whispered – ostensibly to protect both his current position and his 2022 presidential ambitions, two other important casualties could well go down with a moribund IEBC: the truth of the August 2017 elections, and serious attempts at long-term electoral reform. These things, as we shall see, are not unrelated.
But first, to the ongoing drama at the Commission. Chiloba first found himself in trouble with his commissioners last year, in the messy aftermath of the presidential elections annulment, as the Commission prepared for a fresh poll. It is well worth noting that his latest suspension arises from some of the questions Chebukati raised in his leaked September 1, 2017 memo. Investigating five procurement tenders, the IEBC’s five-member Audit and Risk Committee found that Chiloba as the Commission’s chief accounting officer, committed serious violations of the Public Procurement Act in at least two instances.
While Ruto may have been the puppet-master who engineered the commissioners’ resignations – the influence of Ruto’s faction of the Jubilee party on the Commission has long been whispered – ostensibly to protect both his current position and his 2022 presidential ambitions, two other important casualties could well go down with a moribund IEBC: the truth of the August 2017 elections, and serious attempts at long-term electoral reform.
The first involved a Ksh 275 million contract with Oracle Technology Systems (Kenya) Ltd to provide election database solutions. The Audit Committee noted that: “There was no contract for provision of Oracle Database and Security Solution…between IEBC and Oracle Technology Systems (Kenya) Ltd drawn by [the Commission’s Directorate of Legal and Public Affairs] and signed by IEBC and Oracle Representatives. Instead, signed ordering documents drawn by Oracle…were provided [as evidence of a contract].”
Observing earlier that there had been no tender award notification, the committee described this situation as ‘High Risk’. More seriously, noted the committee, full implementation of the Oracle database system was only finalised on February 14, 2018, six months after the elections.
The second, once again, is tech-related: a Ksh 913 million contract, with Airtel Kenya Ltd, for the delivery of 1,553 Thuraya satellite modems – to be used for results transmission in remote areas. Signed just three weeks before the August 8 elections, in its acceptance letter, Airtel Kenya indicated that it could only deliver 1,000 modems in time. “Nonetheless,” notes the committee in the report, “the Commission proceeded to execute an agreement for 1,553 devices. Inquire why the Commission purchased 553 devices – despite the correspondence.”
The remaining 553 devices arrived two-and-a-half weeks after the elections.
IEBC chairman Wafula Chebukati and Dr Akombe lost a plenary battle to force Chiloba out of the commission following the Supreme Court’s annulment of the August 8 presidential election. At the time, attempts to obtain some answers from Chiloba for the disastrous August elections were fought off by Deputy President William Ruto, who claimed in a television interview that all the answers to the questions being raised had been provided. When Chiloba’s suspension looked irreversible last week, we are reliably informed, the three resigning commissioners consulted Ruto before taking the leap.
With Chiloba’s suspension now underway and the National Audit Office stepping in, the corruption investigation will only complicate the mystery around the 2017 elections – and further delay any efforts to fix the IEBC. Disputed elections in Kenya have nurtured a culture of rewarding suspected wrongdoers instead of punishing them. The Samuel Kivuitu-led Electoral Commission of Kenya, which presided over the disputed 2007 elections, was booted out of office at a cost of Sh68 million. Its successor, the Isaack Hassan-led Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission received Sh315 million to leave office a year early.
Law scholar Muthomi Thiankolu observes that electoral malpractice does not occur by itself; that there are human beings behind it. “We have, since 1962, ignored them through legal sophistry. The courts’ refusal to personally sanction malpractice gives life to this perverse incentive.”
While the Kriegler Commission recommended root-and-branch electoral reforms after the 2007 elections debacle, the fact that the IEBC’s report on the 2013 elections was rejected by Bunge – there is to this day no comprehensive accounting of what happened in 2013 – suggests that even the piecemeal reforms eventually instituted under Kriegler were sabotaged by Executive capture. Accountability for electoral malfeasance remains Kenya’s political bugbear. Ironically, neither a Jubilee-run parliament, nor a demand for a popular referendum (á la the opposition’s Okoa Kenya initiative) submitted to a captured IEBC is likely to succeed.
With the resignation of the commissioners at the IEBC, a referendum appears out of the question, given the history that the opposition Coalition for Reforms and Democracy had with the Okoa Kenya (Save Kenya) initiative. After a year of public mobilization, the IEBC ruled that the referendum bill was dead on arrival because the movement had not collected the requisite one million signatures to warrant its presentation to the county assemblies for a vote.
CORD resorted to mass action outside the IEBC offices that ended in a Sh315 million buyout of the commissioner’s contract remainders, achieving the replacement of new commissioners seven months to the election.
The Audit Committee noted that: “There was no contract for provision of Oracle Database and Security Solution…between IEBC and Oracle Technology Systems (Kenya) Ltd drawn by [the Commission’s Directorate of Legal and Public Affairs] and signed by IEBC and Oracle Representatives. Instead, signed ordering documents drawn by Oracle…were provided [as evidence of a contract].”
With both the parliamentary and referendum routes to electoral justice closing, a managerial housecleaning may seem an acceptable compromise, but there are few guarantees that, as happened during the bipartisan Windsor Reform exercise, that it will not be scuttled by an Executive desperate to cling to power. Senate minority leader James Orengo and National Assembly majority leader Aden Duale appear to agree that the whole IEBC team needs to go, but none has reckoned with how long their replacements will be in coming. More dangerously, it will be harking back to the tried and failed methods of piecemeal changes to the electoral management body attempted over time.
Demands for political dialogue have significantly featured on the agenda electoral justice questions, which would entail acknowledgment of wrongdoing, punishment for election crimes, restitution for harms suffered and guarantees of non-repetition following similar disputes in the 2007, 2013 and 2017 elections.
Parliament, which has been riven by disputes over the unresolved August 2017 presidential election, was clearly doing the bidding of State House when it passed amendments to the Elections Act in the run-up to the repeat presidential election in October 2017. The amendments, which were aimed at weakening Wafula Chebukati’s authority among the commissioners, were struck down by the High Court as unconstitutional early this month. A captured Commission had by that time already unanimously endorsed Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory.
With a majority of 268 seats to NASA’s 127, Jubilee’s dominance in Parliament is not only guaranteed, it is likely to be bolstered if the trend of abortive election petitions continues. Consequently, any possibility that Bunge could become the site of genuine electoral reform is closed for the foreseeable future.
By mid February 2018 when a summary of court decisions in 244 petitions challenging the results of various races in the August 8, 2017 polls was published, Parliament had been closed off as a site of reform, turning the dream of electoral justice into a political chimera.
Over half of the 388 petitions challenging various elections had floundered for a variety of reasons — none of which had anything to do with what had happened at the ballot: Fourteen petitions were withdrawn before trial; another 14 dismissed for being filed out of time, 10 thrown out because the case papers were not served on victors; nine failed to take off because security for costs was not paid; and two could not proceed because the petitioner or their lawyers were not in court. One election winner died.
A paltry 14 petitions against the election of Members of the National Assembly and one against a governor had succeeded. Not only were the numbers in the Senate going to hold, with the Jubilee Party enjoying a majority, but the 14 by-elections for National Assembly seats posed the risk of reducing the Opposition minority from its 127.
If an incumbent has a direct interest in capturing the electoral management body to manipulate the results, then the EMB is also under pressure from crony oligarchs interested in profiting from procurement deals. Furthermore, the absence of formally funded political parties has created a gap for these very oligarchs to take control of and shape political movements. Elections in Kenya thus become a democracy auction, in which the highest bidder bags the prize.
Despite the enactment of the Political Parties Act in 2012, which provides that 0.3 per cent of all revenue should go to the Political Parties Fund to resources parties, Treasury has only allocated 0.03 per cent of revenue each year. Last year, the High Court agreed that the Orange Democratic Movement should have been paid the Sh4.1 billion owed to it from the fund, but ruled that claiming it late put the party at fault.
Nothing illustrates the desperation around the award of specific tenders and contracts more graphically than the last-minute litigation by the IEBC against the cancellation of the Sh2.5 billion ballot-printing contract to Al Ghurair of the United Arab Emirates. After contesting every court decision over eight months, the IEBC prevailed because the Court of Appeal realized that the country had run out of time to appoint a new supplier for the ballot materials.
The 2010 referendum on the draft constitution, considered one of the cleanest electoral events in recent history, gave birth to the Chickengate scandal, in which British printer Smith & Ouzman padded the cost of ballot papers in order to raise bribes for Kenyan officials awarding the tender. The British Crown Court fined the company Sh52 million and jailed its director. For its part, Kenya received the Sh52 million fine and spent it on ambulances. Three people were charged in connection with receiving bribes last year, a month to the elections.
If an incumbent has a direct interest in capturing the electoral management body to manipulate the results, then the EMB is also under pressure from crony oligarchs interested in profiting from procurement deals. Furthermore, the absence of formally funded political parties has created a gap for these very oligarchs to take control of and shape political movements. Elections in Kenya thus become a democracy auction…
The sheer scale of electoral operations has created a micro economy out of elections in Kenya, attracting a gaggle of sleaze-balls into election management. Questions have been raised over the award of Sh2.4 billion technology contracts to OT Morpho, the firm at the centre of the crisis involving the presidential election results, as well as the multi-million shilling supply of satellite phones for results transmission redundancy. Additionally, IEBC has been forking out billions of shillings in legal fees despite having a fully staffed legal department.
Instructively, criminal cases against former IEBC chief executive officer James Oswago, his deputy Wilson Shollei and managers Edward Karisa and Willy Kamanga over the purchase of Sh1.3 billion of biometric voter identification kits are still in court, six years after the Supreme Court recommended investigation and prosecution.
From the 2017 elections, a handful of election officials have been charged with petty offences relating to altering results in 2017, but accountability for major electoral breaches still remain the stuff of the political circuit.
Lucre is the reward for election managers to look the other way as politicians steal the vote. Still, with all its election problems, Kenya is already so far ahead of the pack in the region that, not unlike its steeplechase runners, it can afford to slow down the pace to allow those behind to catch up.
As it is, elections cannot be challenged in Tanzania once results are announced; in Uganda, courts can find elections flawed and still uphold the results. In Rwanda and Burundi, it never gets that serious. Unfortunately, the failure to debate and tackle questions of electoral justice loads them with grievances about exclusion of ethnicities, constructs narratives of marginalization and makes for less stable societies.
Kenya has unsuccessfully experimented with a representative commission bringing together political parties and a professional outfit, to no avail. Like the male praying mantis approaches an act of mating with the knowledge of its inevitable fate, so too have electoral commissions in Kenya come to conduct polls knowing that their heads will be shortly bitten off.
Africa’s Pandemic Response Calls for Reclaiming Economic and Monetary Sovereignty
More than 600 economists and academics from around the world call for Africa to acquire monetary sovereignty in order to revive its development after Covid-19.
While Africa has, so far, been spared from the worst public health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the subsequent economic shutdown has brought Africa’s economic deficiencies and structural vulnerabilities into sharp focus.
As a resource-rich continent, Africa has the capacity to provide a decent quality of life for all of its inhabitants. Africa is capable of offering universal public services, such as healthcare and education, and guaranteeing employment for people who want to work, while ensuring a decent income support system for those who cannot work. However, decades of colonial and postcolonial socio-economic dislocation exacerbated by market liberalization have forced African countries into a vicious cycle involving several structural deficiencies, characterized by:
- A lack of food sovereignty;
- A lack of energy sovereignty;
- Low value-added manufacturing and extractive industries.
This unholy trinity produces a very painful downward pressure on African exchange rates, which means higher prices for imports of vital necessities such as food, fuel, and life-saving medical products. In order to protect people from this type of imported inflation, African governments borrow foreign currencies in order to artificially keep African currencies “strong” relative to the US dollar and the euro.
This artificial “band-aid” solution forces African economies into a frantic mode of economic activity focused exclusively on earning dollars or euros to service this external debt. As a result, Africa’s economies have been trapped into an austerity model, often enforced via conditions set by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as well as the constant pressure from other creditors to protect their political and economic interests, which further encroaches on the economic, monetary, and political sovereignty of African countries. Conditions imposed by the IMF and international creditors usually focus on five problematic and unfruitful policy strategies:
- Export-oriented growth;
- Liberalisation of foreign direct investment (FDI);
- Over-promotion of tourism;
- Privatisation of state-owned enterprises (SOEs);
- Liberalisation of financial markets.
Each one of these strategies is a trap disguised as an economic solution. Export-led growth increases imports of energy, high value-added capital equipment and industrial components, and encourages the grabbing of land and resources, but only increases the exports of low value-added products. And, of course, not all developing countries can simultaneously follow such a model. If some countries want to achieve a trade surplus, there must be others willing to run a trade deficit. FDI-led growth increases energy imports, and forces African countries into an endless race to the bottom in order to attract investors via tax breaks, subsidies, and weaker labor and environmental regulations. It also leads to financial volatility and significant net resource transfers to rich countries, with some taking the form of illicit financial flows. Tourism increases both energy and food imports, while adding substantial environmental costs in terms of its carbon footprint and water use.
Most SOEs were privatised in the 1990s (e.g. telecoms, electric companies, airlines, airports, etc.). Further privatisation will devastate whatever little social safety nets remain under public control. Financial market liberalisation typically requires deregulating finance, lowering capital gains taxes, removing capital controls, and artificially raising interest rates and exchange rates – all of which guarantee an attractive environment for the largest financial speculators in the world. They will flock in with a rush of “hot money”, only to “buy low and sell high,” then flee, leaving behind a depressed economy.
Finally, all free trade and investment agreements aim at accelerating and deepening these five strategies, pushing African economies deeper into this quagmire. This flawed economic development model further exacerbates Africa’s “brain drain”, which tragically, in some cases, takes the form of death boats and death roads for economic, health, and climate migrants.
These five band-aid policy solutions tend to be attractive because they provide temporary relief in the form of job creation, and give the illusion of modernisation and industrialisation. However, in reality, these jobs are increasingly more precarious and susceptible to external shocks to the global supply chain, global demand, and global commodity prices. In other words, Africa’s economic destiny continues to be steered from abroad.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the roots of Africa’s economic problems. Therefore, the post-pandemic recovery will not be sustainable unless it addresses pre-existing structural deficiencies. To that end, given the impending climate crisis and the need for socio-ecological adaptation, economic policy must be based on alternative principles and proposals.
We call on all African states to develop a strategic plan focused on reclaiming their monetary and economic sovereignty, which must include food sovereignty, (renewable) energy sovereignty, and an industrial policy centered on higher value-added content of manufacturing. Africa must put an end to its race-to-the-bottom approach to economic development in the name of competition and efficiency. Regional trade partnerships within the continent must be based on coordinated investments aimed at forming horizontal industrial linkages in strategic areas such as public health, transportation, telecommunications, research and development, and education.
We also call on Africa’s trading partners to acknowledge the failure of the extractive economic model and to embrace a new cooperation model that includes the transfer of technology, real partnerships in research and development, and sovereign insolvency structures — including sovereign debt cancellation — that preserve output and employment.
African states must develop a clear and independent long-term vision to build resilience to external shocks. Economic and monetary sovereignty do not require isolation, but they do require a commitment to economic, social, and ecological priorities, which means mobilizing domestic and regional resources to improve the quality of life on the continent.
This means becoming more selective when it comes to FDI, and export-oriented, extractive industries. It also means prioritising eco-tourism, cultural heritage, and indigenous industries.
Mobilising Africa’s resources begins with a commitment to full-employment policies (a Job Guarantee program), public health infrastructure, public education, sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, sustainable stewardship of natural resources, and an uncompromising dedication to empowering youth and women via participatory democracy, transparency, and accountability. It’s time for Africa to forge ahead and aspire to a better future in which all of its people can thrive and realize their full potential. This future is within reach, and it starts with Africa reclaiming its economic and monetary sovereignty.
Fadhel Kaboub, Denison University, Ohio, USA
Ndongo Samba Sylla, Dakar, Senegal
Kai Koddenbrock, Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt
Ines Mahmoud, Tunis, Tunisia
Maha Ben Gadha, Tunis, Tunisia
The Fate of the Human Experiment Depends on the Outcome of This Struggle
Noam Chomsky’s keynote speech at the Progressive International’s inaugural summit.
Returning to the major crises we face at this historic moment, all are international, and two internationals are forming to confront them. One is opening today: the Progressive International. The other has been taking shape under the leadership of Trump’s White House, a Reactionary International comprising the world’s most reactionary states.
We are meeting at a remarkable moment, a moment that is, in fact, unique in human history, a moment both ominous in portent and bright with hopes for a better future. The Progressive International has a crucial role to play in determining which course history will follow.
We are meeting at a moment of confluence of crises of extraordinary severity, with the fate of the human experiment quite literally at stake. The issues are coming to a head in the next few weeks in the two great imperial powers of the modern era.
Fading Britain, having publicly declared that it rejects international law, is on the verge of a sharp break from Europe, on the path to becoming even more of a US satellite that it already is. But of course what is of the greatest significance for the future is what happens in the global hegemon, diminished by Trump’s wrecking ball, but still with overwhelming power and incomparable advantages. Its fate, and with it the fate of the world, may well be determined in November.
We are meeting at a remarkable moment, a moment that is, in fact, unique in human history, a moment both ominous in portent and bright with hopes for a better future.
Not surprisingly, the rest of the world is concerned, if not appalled. It would be difficult to find a more sober and respected commentator than Martin Wolf of the London Financial Times. He writes that the West is facing a serious crisis, and if Trump is re-elected, “this will be terminal.” Strong words, and he is not even referring to the major crises humanity faces.
Wolf is referring to the global order, a critical matter though not on the scale of the crises that threaten vastly more serious consequences, the crises that are driving the hands of the famous Doomsday Clock towards midnight – towards termination.
Wolf’s concept “terminal” is not a new entry into public discourse. We have been living under its shadow for 75 years, ever since we learned, on an unforgettable August day, that human intelligence had devised the means that would soon yield the capacity for terminal destruction. That was shattering enough, but there was more. It was not then understood that humanity was entering a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, in which human activities are despoiling the environment in a manner that is now also approaching terminal destruction.
The hands of the Doomsday Clock were first set shortly after atomic bombs were used in a paroxysm of needless slaughter. The hands have oscillated since, as global circumstances have evolved. Every year that Trump has been in office, the hands have been moved closer to midnight. Two years ago they reached the closest they had ever been. Last January, the analysts abandoned minutes, turning to seconds: 100 seconds to midnight. They cited the same crises as before: the growing threats of nuclear war and of environmental catastrophe, and the deterioration of democracy.
The last might at first seem out of place, but it is not. Declining democracy is a fitting member of the grim trio. The only hope of escaping the two threats of termination is vibrant democracy in which concerned and informed citizens are fully engaged in deliberation, policy formation, and direct action.
That was last January. Since then, President Trump has amplified all three threats, not a mean accomplishment. He has continued his demolition of the arms control regime that has offered some protection against the threat of nuclear war, while also pursuing development of new and even more dangerous weapons, much to the delight of military industry. In his dedicated commitment to destroy the environment that sustains life, Trump has opened up vast new areas for drilling, including the last great nature reserve. Meanwhile, his minions are systematically dismantling the regulatory system that somewhat mitigates the destructive impact of fossil fuel use, and that protects the population from toxic chemicals and from pollution, a curse that is now doubly murderous in the course of a severe respiratory epidemic.
Trump has also carried forward his campaign to undermine democracy. By law, presidential appointments are subject to Senate confirmation. Trump avoids this inconvenience by leaving the positions open and filling the offices with “temporary appointments” who answer to his will – and if they do not do so with sufficient fealty to the lord, are fired. He has purged the executive of any independent voice. Only sycophants remain. Congress had long ago established Inspectors General to monitor the performance of the executive branch. They began to look into the swamp of corruption that Trump has created in Washington. He took care of that quickly by firing them. There was scarcely a peep from the Republican Senate, firmly in Trump’s pocket, with hardly a flicker of integrity remaining, terrified by the popular base Trump has mobilized.
This onslaught against democracy is only the bare beginning. Trump’s latest step is to warn that he may not leave office if he is not satisfied with the outcome of the November election. The threat is taken very seriously in high places. To mention just a few examples, two highly respected retired senior military commanders released an open letter to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Milley, reviewing his constitutional responsibility to send the army to remove by force a “lawless president” who refuses to leave office after electoral defeat, summoning in his defense the kinds of paramilitary units he dispatched to Portland Oregon to terrorize the population over the strong objection of elected officials.
Many establishment figures regard the warning as realistic, among them the high-level Transition Integrity Project, which has just reported the results of the “war gaming” it has been conducting on possible outcomes of the November election. The project members are “some of the most accomplished Republicans, Democrats, civil servants, media experts, pollsters and strategists around,” the Project co-director explains, including prominent figures in both Parties. Under any plausible scenario apart from a clear Trump victory, the games led to something like civil war, with Trump choosing to end “the American experiment.”
Again, strong words, never before heard from sober mainstream voices. The very fact that such thoughts arise is ominous enough. They are not alone. And given incomparable US power, far more than the “American experiment” is at risk.
Nothing like this has happened in the often troubled history of parliamentary democracy. Keeping to recent years, Richard Nixon – not the most delightful person in presidential history – had good reason to believe that he had lost the 1960 election only because of criminal manipulation by Democratic operatives. He did not contest the results, putting the welfare of the country ahead of personal ambition. Albert Gore did the same in 2000. Not today.
Forging new paths in contempt for the welfare of the country does not suffice for the megalomaniac who dominates the world. Trump has also announced once again that he may disregard the Constitution and “negotiate” for a third term if he decides he is entitled to it.
Some choose to laugh all this off as the playfulness of a buffoon. To their peril, as history shows.
The survival of liberty is not guaranteed by “parchment barriers,” James Madison warned. Words on paper are not enough. It is founded on the expectation of good faith and common decency. That has been torn to shreds by Trump along with his co-conspirator Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has turned the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” as it calls itself, into a pathetic joke. McConnell’s Senate refuses even to consider legislative proposals. Its concern is largesse to the rich and stacking the judiciary, top to bottom with far right young lawyers who should be able to safeguard the reactionary Trump-McConnell agenda for a generation, whatever the public wants, whatever the world needs for survival.
The hands of the Doomsday Clock were first set shortly after atomic bombs were used in a paroxysm of needless slaughter. The hands have oscillated since, as global circumstances have evolved
The abject service to the rich of the Trump-McConnell Republican party is quite remarkable, even by the neoliberal standards of exaltation of greed. One illustration is provided by the leading specialists on tax policy, economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. They show that in 2018, following the tax scam that was the one legislative Trump-McConnell achievement, “for the first time in the last hundred years, billionaires have paid less [in taxes] than steel workers, school teachers, and retirees,” erasing “a century of fiscal history.” “In 2018, for the first time in the modern history of the United States, capital has been taxed less than labor” – a truly impressive victory of class war, called “liberty” in hegemonic doctrine.
The Doomsday Clock was set last January before the scale of the pandemic was understood. Humanity will sooner or later recover from the pandemic, at terrible cost. It is needless cost. We see that clearly from the experience of countries that took decisive action when China provided the world with the relevant information about the virus on January 10. Primary among them were East-Southeast Asia and Oceania, with others trailing along, and bringing up the rear a few utter disasters, notably the US, followed by Bolsonaro’s Brazil and Modi’s India.
Despite the malfeasance or indifference of some political leaders, there will ultimately be some kind of recovery from the pandemic. We will not, however, recover from the melting of the polar icecaps, or the exploding rate of arctic fires that are releasing enormous amounts of greenhouses gasses into the atmosphere, or other steps on our march to catastrophe.
When the most prominent climate scientists warn us to “Panic Now,” they are not being alarmist. There is no time to waste. Few are doing enough, and even worse, the world is cursed by leaders who are not only refusing to take sufficient action but are deliberately accelerating the race to disaster. The malignancy in the White House is far in the lead in this monstrous criminality.
It is not only governments. The same is true of fossil fuel industries, the big banks that finance them, and other industries that profit from actions that put the “survival of humanity” at serious risk, in the words of a leaked internal memo of America’s largest bank.
Humanity will not long survive this institutional malignancy. The means to manage the crisis are available. But not for long. One primary task of the Progressive International is to ensure that we all panic now – and act accordingly.
The crises we face in this unique moment of human history are of course international. Environmental catastrophe, nuclear war, and the pandemic have no borders. And in a less transparent way, the same is true of the third of the demons that stalk the earth and drive the second hand of the Doomsday clock towards midnight: the deterioration of democracy. The international character of this plague becomes evident when we examine its origins.
Circumstances vary, but there are some common roots. Much of the malignancy traces back to the neoliberal assault on the world’s population launched in force 40 years ago.
The basic character of the assault was captured in the opening pronouncements of its most prominent figures. Ronald Reagan declared in his inaugural address that government is the problem, not the solution – meaning that decisions should be removed from governments, which are at least partially under public control, to private power, which is completely unaccountable to the public, and whose sole responsibility is self-enrichment, as chief economist Milton Friedman proclaimed. The other was Margaret Thatcher, who instructed us that there is no society, only a market in which people are cast to survive as best they can, with no organizations that enable them to defend themselves against its ravages.
Unwittingly no doubt, Thatcher was paraphrasing Marx, who condemned the autocratic rulers of his day for turning the population into a “sack of potatoes,” defenseless against concentrated power.
With admirable consistency, the Reagan and Thatcher administrations moved at once to destroy the labour movement, the primary impediment to harsh class rule by the masters of the economy. In doing so, they were adopting the leading principles of neoliberalism from its early days in interwar Vienna, where the founder and patron saint of the movement, Ludwig von Mises, could scarcely control his joy when the proto-fascist government violently destroyed Austria’s vibrant social democracy and the despicable trade unions that were interfering with sound economics by defending the rights of working people. As von Mises explained in his 1927 neoliberal classic Liberalism, five years after Mussolini initiated his brutal rule, “It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aimed at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has for the moment saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history” – though it will be only temporary, he assured us. The Blackshirts will go home after having accomplished their good work.
The same principles inspired enthusiastic neoliberal support for the hideous Pinochet dictatorship. A few years later, they were put into operation in a different form in the global arena under the leadership of the US and UK.
The consequences were predictable. One was sharp concentration of wealth alongside of stagnation for much of the population, reflected in the political realm by undermining of democracy. The impact in the United States brings out very clearly what one would expect when business rule is virtually uncontested. After 40 years, 0.1% of the population have 20% of the wealth, twice what they had when Reagan was elected. CEO remuneration has skyrocketed, drawing general management wealth along with it. Real wages for non-supervisory male workers have declined. A majority of the population survives from paycheck to paycheck, with almost no reserves. Financial institutions, largely predatory, have exploded in scale. There have been repeated crashes, increasing in severity, the perpetrators bailed out by the friendly taxpayer, though that is the least of the implicit state subsidy they receive. “Free markets” led to monopolization, with reduced competition and innovation, as the strong swallowed the weak. Neoliberal globalization has deindustrialized the country within the framework of the investor rights agreements mislabeled as “free trade pacts. ”Adopting the neoliberal doctrine that “taxation is robbery,” Reagan opened the door to tax havens and shell companies – previously banned and barred by effective enforcement. That led at once to a huge tax evasion industry to expedite massive robbery of the general population by the very rich and the corporate sector. No small change. The scale is estimated in tens of trillions of dollars.
And so it continues as neoliberal doctrine took hold.
As the assault was just beginning to take shape, in 1978, the president of the United Auto Workers, Doug Fraser, resigned from a labor-management committee that was set up by the Carter Administration, expressing his shock that business leaders had “chosen to wage a one-sided class war in this country – a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society,” and had “broken and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a period of growth and progress” – during the period of class collaboration under regimented capitalism.
His recognition of how the world works was somewhat belated, in fact too late to fend off the bitter class war launched by business leaders who were soon granted free rein by compliant governments. The consequences over much of the world come as little surprise: widespread anger, resentment, contempt for political institutions while the primary economic ones are hidden from view by effective propaganda. All of this provides fertile territory for demagogues who can pretend to be your savior while stabbing you in the back, meanwhile deflecting the blame for your conditions to scapegoats: immigrants, blacks, China, whoever fits long-standing prejudices.
Returning to the major crises we face at this historic moment, all are international, and two internationals are forming to confront them. One is opening today: the Progressive International. The other has been taking shape under the leadership of Trump’s White House, a Reactionary International comprising the world’s most reactionary states.
In the Western Hemisphere, the International includes Bolsonaro’s Brazil and a few others. In the Middle East, prime members are the family dictatorships of the Gulf; al-Sisi’s Egyptian dictatorship, perhaps the harshest in Egypt’s bitter history; and Israel, which long ago discarded its social democratic origins and shifted far to the right, the predicted effect of the prolonged and brutal occupation. The current agreements between Israel and Arab dictatorships, formalising long-standing tacit relations, are a significant step towards solidifying the Middle East base of the Reactionary International. The Palestinians are kicked in the face, the proper fate of those who lack power and do not grovel properly at the feet of the natural masters.
To the East, a natural candidate is India, where Prime Minister Modi is destroying India’s secular democracy and turning the country into a racist Hindu nationalist state, while crushing Kashmir. The European contingent includes Orban’s “illiberal democracy” in Hungary and similar elements elsewhere. The International also has powerful backing in the dominant global economic institutions.
The two internationals comprise a good part of the world, one at the level of states, the other popular movements. Each is a prominent representative of much broader social forces, which have sharply contending images of the world that should emerge from the current pandemic. One force is working relentlessly to construct a harsher version of the neoliberal global system from which they have greatly benefited, with more intensive surveillance and control. The other looks forward to a world of justice and peace, with energies and resources directed to serving human needs rather than the demands of a tiny minority. It is a kind of class struggle on a global scale, with many complex facets and interactions.
It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of the human experiment depends on the outcome of this struggle.
The Violence in Ethiopia
The imminent and existential danger to Ethiopia is not Abiy Ahmed and an oppressive government. It is violent ethno-nationalism.
The deadly violence that rocked Ethiopia this summer following the death of artist Hachalu Hundessa has been a subject of much speculation and contention. The facts as we know them are that immediately following the assassination close to 250 people died and thousands were jailed, mostly in the regional state of Oromia and Addis Ababa.
What is contested, and less clear, is the nature of the violence, its perpetrators, and victims. Two prominent narratives have emerged following the crisis to explain what unfolded. One holds that the violence was a brutal government crackdown on Oromo protesters grieving Hundessa’s death. The other describes the events as targeted attacks by armed Oromo youth against ethnic and religious minorities. While both narratives contain elements of truth, ignoring one or the other is either ignorant or intentionally misleading.
A recent Africa Is a Country article highlighting the poor coverage by Western media of the situation in Ethiopia, for example, makes no mention of ethnic and religious violence, aside from denouncing media outlets that reported it. Rather, the author’s objective is to “set the record straight” by showing that the underlying cause of violence and instability in Ethiopia is the consequence of a political struggle between an oppressive government and Oromos who have been and continue to be marginalised.
Such a viewpoint is erroneous and polarising in the current political climate. To advance a narrow agenda, it glosses over human rights violations and the brutal killing of innocent bystanders by non-state actors.
To provide more context, the agenda I speak of is tied to the Oromo struggle for greater autonomy and recognition. That struggle, which paved the way for Abiy Ahmed to assume power as the first Oromo Prime Minister two years earlier, now seeks his departure. At the heart of this reversal is the Prime Minister’s consolidation (rather than actual dismantling) of the ruling ethnic-based EPRDF coalition into the Prosperity Party, which has, nonetheless, left intact Ethiopia’s unique system of federalism based on ethnic majoritarianism.
The night of Hachalu Hundessa’s murder, the Ethiopian government quickly shut down the internet, while a social media whirlwind erupted abroad as Oromo activists insinuated that Hundessa was killed because of his support for the Oromo cause.
Leaving that aside, the EPRDF had always been a highly centralized institution in practice, and the mere symbolism of this move, in addition to the Prime Minister’s rhetoric about unity, have left some Oromos feeling betrayed. Furthermore, fractionalisation among Oromo elites, including within the former Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) faction of the EPRDF (now Prosperity Party), which recently ousted key leader and Defense Minister, Lemma Megersa, has divided and weakened the movement.
Within this broad movement, one vocal part led by diaspora-based Oromo elites and recent returnees has galvanised the energy and anger of many Oromo youth behind a perspective of anti-Ethiopiawinet (anti-Ethiopian-ness). The “us versus them” mentality pits Oromo nationalists against an enemy that has been described manifestly and repeatedly by the terms Abyssinian and Neftegna (“rifle bearer”). Though prominent Oromo activists stand behind their use of these terms, those who are familiar with the context know that these labels are loaded with ethnic connotations.
The night of Hachalu Hundessa’s murder, the Ethiopian government quickly shut down the internet, while a social media whirlwind erupted abroad as Oromo activists insinuated that Hundessa was killed because of his support for the Oromo cause. Accusations that “they killed him” were recklessly thrown around and left open for interpretation. Within hours of the assassination, allegedly at the behest of Oromo leaders like Bekele Gerba, targeted attacks against non-Oromos unfolded.
In towns like Shashamene and Dera in the Oromia region, several accounts of killings and looting targeting Amharas and other minorities by Oromo youth have been independently verified, in addition to accounts of police and federal forces injuring and killing civilians. Witnesses describe how perpetrators relied on lists detailing the residences and properties of non-Oromos and circulated flyers warning bystanders to not help those being targeted (or risk reprisal), indicating a significant level of organization.
Minority Rights Group International, accordingly, sounded the alarm, warning that these actions bear the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing. Despite this and concerns from Ethiopians throughout the world, Oromo activists and other prominent human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, have remained largely silent about these attacks while condemning the government’s violent response to Oromo protestors.
Government figures provide an ethnic breakdown of the July causalities with the majority of those killed being Oromos within the Oromia region, followed by Amharas and other smaller ethnic groups. Yet, rather than disproving, as some claim, that targeted attacks by Oromo mobs occurred, this highlights what scholar Terje Ostebo describes as the complexity and inherent interconnectedness between ethnicity and religion within Ethiopia.
According to Ostebo, “the term Amhara, which is inherently elastic, has over the last few years gradually moved from being a designation for Ethiopianess to gaining a more explicit ethnic connotation. It has, however, always had a distinct religious dimension, representing a Christian.” Hence, in parts of Oromia some Orthodox Oromos were referred to and referred to themselves as Amhara. For example, one Oromo farmer interviewed by local journalists reportedly said, “we thought Hachalu was Oromo” after watching the singer’s televised funeral rites that followed the traditions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church.
The “us versus them” mentality pits Oromo nationalists against an enemy that has been described manifestly and repeatedly by the terms Abyssinian and Neftegna (“rifle bearer”).
According to investigations undertaken by the church, a large number of its parishioners (at least 67 confirmed cases) were among the July causalities—a troubling trend, which also includes a spate of church burnings and attacks on Christians that brought large numbers of Orthodox followers out into the streets in protests last year.
To be clear, the violence that occurred was not only ethnic and religious violence. Growing state violence in Oromia and SNNPR has been and continues to be of great concern. As Oromo activists have made clear, it is necessary to end the abuse of force and ensure accountability for these crimes. Yet, when concerns and demands for accountability for non-state violence are raised, these same advocates deny, ignore or dismiss them as part of a propaganda campaign to discredit the Oromo movement. In effect, this dishonesty, itself, has discredited the movement and lost it support by many Ethiopians—both non-Oromo and Oromo.
The recent political turmoil lays bare that the future of an Ethiopian state is hanging by a delicate thread. The polarization that exists today goes beyond disagreements on institutions and policies to the very question of whether we can continue to co-exist as a multi-ethnic nation. Regional elections in Tigray, slated for this week despite the disapproval of the national House of Federation (HoF), and its aftermath may bring these tensions to a boil, again.
As unrest, violence and grievances continue to mount, it is clear that Ethiopia is far from consolidating its transition to a stable democracy. The government continues to curb freedom of speech, jail political opponents and is responsible for violence against civilians. But, if history teaches us anything, it is this: the imminent and existential danger to Ethiopia is not Abiy Ahmed and an oppressive government. It is violent ethno-nationalism.
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